Lessons Learned from a Trip to France

I recently returned from a trip to Toulouse, France. Called La Ville Rose (or “Pink City”) for the pink stone used in many of the buildings, Toulouse is a wonderful, human-sized city.

The city of 950,000 is comprised of one-third students (Toulouse is second to Paris in the number of students who live there), one-third employees of Airbus (aeronautics), and one-third residents who just love being there. Toulouse is the 4th largest city in France, trailing Paris, Marseille and Lyon. My husband and I went to visit our grandson who is studying there for the summer. It took a while to make the arrangements, because life kept getting in the way, but I was determined to make this trip and we did!

John Steinbeck said: “People don’t take trips. . .trips take people.” Eye-opening, mind-expanding added to a bit of discomfort created an experience that was life-changing. Seeking how to make this an event that I will take with me as I move forward with my life, I am determined to mine it for the gold nuggets that will enhance my life.

As I sipped wine and dined on chocolate, observing the world al fresco, here is a sample of what I learned:

Pack light. It had been awhile since I traveled internationally, and you can imagine my surprise when I was socked with a $100.00 bag fee. I didn’t even wear half the clothes I packed (and paid for). Carrying too much baggage, though, is a lesson not just relevant to flying, but to life in general. As I examine this time in my life, I realize that I’ve often been overwhelmed by emotional baggage that I wear like a stone-laden backpack. Traffic jams cause me undue stress, fellow shoppers crowd my personal space, the dog tracks in too much mud. The list goes on. At the moment, it all feels pretty explosive and insurmountable. Yet, when the personal crisis passes, I realize that these reactions are choices I make and I would do better to make different choices. So, when I find myself in the midst of a heavy feeling, I will try to get out of my own way and look at the world with a sense of wonder rather than doom. Thanks, Delta, for the lesson.

Learn the language. Next time, I’ll be better prepared to communicate in another country. My feeble attempts at bonjour and merci were undoubtedly signals that I couldn’t carry on a conversation in French, and my halting greetings were usually returned in English. My life lesson is one that was obvious after the fact: people are more inclined to help you if you at least try to communicate in their language. And this doesn’t just mean in another country. Sometimes it feels like my husband and I are speaking different languages. If I slow down and try to hear him rather than be adamant about making my point known, we may have an easier time understanding each other.

Choose your seats. Eight hours sitting in the middle seat on a transatlantic flight taught me a lesson about intention. For some reason, I decided to let the airline randomly choose our seats. For some other reason, they gave us the worst seats on the plane. No one is going to care about my comfort more than me, so my lesson here was that I need to pay attention to what matters to me and make it my priority. I guess I was worn out from being proactive after I’d made flight arrangements, a place to stay, exchanging dollars for euros, packing (oh, did I mention that I overpacked?), but being squished between two large humans for 1/4 of a full day with a full bladder taught me a lifelong lesson, once again, about making good choices, thinking ahead and taking action.

Live and let live. Despite the hustle and bustle of Toulouse city life, it was a place where live and let live, which seems likes a mantra for everyday existence. This being my 65th year, I’ve decided that this is the time of my life that I will make my own. After retiring twice, I’d like my next chapter to involve learning how to become more human in the world. Fortunately for me, Toulouse presented itself at the right time. Pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes and cars share the narrow cobbled streets in a choreography that rivaled any Broadway play. A honk from a car horn (rare) or a ring of a bicycle bell (equally rare) warns pedestrians to move, which they do without rancor. The entire time we were there we witnessed no mishap, no raised middle finger, no attempt to shove someone else out of the way. It’s as if there’s a master plan for co-existence. The culture of the area is open to all and exclusive to none. Aside from making this a pleasant way to spend a day, week, month or lifetime, reserving judgment is so freeing.

Find your respite. Perhaps Toulousians know how to manage their stress better than we do here in the States. Maybe all that wine and chocolate, combined with being outside most of the time, makes for the ideal stressless combination. At home, we get reminders to relax, meditate, be mindful, eat right, exercise, all in the interest of taking care of ourselves and increasing the quality of life. When I stepped off the plane back in Washington, D.C., I felt the insanity all over again. Where once I found my solace in exercise and writing, perhaps I’ll take myself back to Toulouse in my mind and revisit the live and let live aura that enveloped me for more than a week. Wine? Chocolate? Maybe just a smile and a nod, and a continuing awareness that all of we humans are sharing this place called earth and my choices are best made in the spirit of joy and learning.

Au revoir, Toulouse! Thanks for the lessons that I’ll carry with me.



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