The best things I saw on vacation, I never had the opportunity to catch with my camera. There was the Italian grocer in Marseilles who congratulated my husband and me when we figured out how to purchase our food. After struggling through a few interactions, he scanned our last item and counted our euro coins.
He shouted “Bravo!” and handed us our change. The next time we came in, he was cleaning the watermelon juice from his machete and smiling at us.
In Basel, a 14-year-old boy picked up a pizza around the corner from where we were staying. While my husband and I tried to figure out the bus system, I saw some older guy who looked like Ronaldo (circa 1992) push him and hold the boy’s pizza above his head before giving it to him. After the kid finally retrieved his order and walked away with the pizza, we approached him and we asked him in French if he spoke English. He did, and he told us where to buy our tickets. We were embarrassed about having a kid tell us where to go and explained that we were small-town Americans who didn’t grow up with great public transit systems.
“You’re from America?”
His eyes brightened.
“I love America!”
I can’t say we got that same response everywhere. He walked away, alone, with his pizza, seeming sad. The poor Swiss kid had been bullied by some punk and helped foreigners in the matter of a few minutes.
There were too many more people like him to catch: the boy traveling alone on the train who crossed himself before he ate his mother-packed sandwich, the speech pathologist from Columbia who emigrated to Marseilles and fell in love, and that Portuguese saxophonist who scaled a wall to let us into our apartment. There were so many.
In Dublin, I met a young woman from Romania. She worked in a cafe a block away from the Dublin Writers Museum and gave me free coffee. I wanted to think it was because it was closing time and the risk of her getting in trouble would be low enough to gamble generosity like that, but I think it was primarily because she was happy that I was willing to talk. Our conversation began when I ventured to ask exactly what constituted Irish “puddings.” Neither she nor her boss knew exactly, and from puddings we proceeded to talk about language acquisition and how she dreams of one day visiting New York City at Christmas because she’s seen more than one romance movie about it.
When I asked for her name, she gave it to me and told me to think of it like the name of an apostle, only feminized. With that, she gave me a name for a potential daughter.
Five minutes from Paris, in a neighborhood known for its abundance of flowers, I dined in a brasserie where teenagers and twenty-somethings ordered many liters of wine and ate cigarettes for dinner. Afraid of standing out for being exactly what I was —a tourist—I sat at a small table with my husband, halfway on the patio, halfway in the restaurant.
I could tell that our modesty and sheepishness endeared the host to us; he thought we were cute, and I hated it. Our server differed. We spoke some French and some English, and when she still thought that we’d relocated to France, she told us that she was far from home, too. Her family was from the southwest corner in a small town no one ever went to. Paris was new to her.
When we had to explain that our debit card would have to be swiped, we told her that we didn’t have a “fancy” card like many of the Europeans.
She replied, “Oh no! You are the one with the fancy card.”
I hate to admit that I went to Europe thinking I’d gain some altogether other perspective or method for making art. It’s a common misconception about taking international holidays. I met people the same quotidian way that I do here.