In tourist trousers

You can see it coming a mile away. The telltale befuddled looks, sighs of exasperation and frustrated body language. There is an awkward silence and hurried whisper as you pass, which is inevitably followed by the hesitant distress call, “Excuse me, do you live here?”

That’s right, it’s high tourist season here in Durango when, in the course of a six-block bike commute, you are stopped and asked for directions – twice.

Which is fine. In fact, when I’m not trying to run and hide from them, I actually love people. Lord knows, I’ve needed a little help more than once in my life. And almost everywhere I’ve gone in my very non-extensive travels, I’ve been appreciative of the locals who go out of their way to help. Perhaps it’s because there’s nothing more painful than watching someone walk aimlessly up and down “College Avenue,” hot, bothered and thirsty, looking for the “Steamhouse Brew Works” because someone, who probably just got here herself, doesn’t know the difference between the “streets” and “avenues.”

Anyway, this whole tourist thing took a little getting used to. See, where I come from, the biggest claim to fame is the world’s largest indoor mall, complete with roller coaster. Close runner ups include a giant, talking lumberjack and his blue ox, and a palace made entirely from corn cobs. So, as one can surmise, it wasn’t exactly a huge international draw, unless you happened to be a roller coaster freak with a strong affinity for agriculture.

In fact, it wasn’t until moving to Colorado that I truly experienced tourist town living for the first time. It was also here that I heard my first, real life Southern drawl, learned what sweet tea was and discovered that fanny packs, black knee-highs and two-piece, matching sweatsuits are alive and well. It was also here that I learned I probably had no future in the service industry and that sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut when someone asks if the river circles all the way around town.

Anyway, it wasn’t until a trip to France that I got to see life from the other side of those rose-colored sunglasses. OK, I know it sounds hoity toity. But rest assured, it was only by default that I got to go. See, a family member was spending time studying over there, so I had free digs. And seeing as how up until then, my view of Europe was seen mostly through the eyes of the Griswold family (the part about driving in London still busts me up) I was deemed the most desperately in need of a cultural infusion. Before leaving, I was forewarned of the ugly American syndrome and tried my best to tone down any unsightly trademark swooshes, hanging cameras, gigantic backpacks or sensible footwear that might otherwise give me away. Still, there was one small problem. I did not know a lick of French, my formative years spent learning how to massacre Spanish. Seeing as how the two countries are neighbors, I figured I could just fake it. This theory lasted precisely until

the moment I deplaned, with a heady Tylenol PM buzz, only to find all the signs were in French. At least I’m guessing it was French. And worst of all – no subtitles. Full-blown panic set in as I desperately tried to follow the others from my flight, hoping they would herd me to the baggage terminal. Anyway, for the next several days, I lived in a state of mute shell shock. As hard as it may seem to believe, I spoke nary a word, instead miming my way through Paris.

Anyway, I must have been feeling pretty cocky by the fourth or fifth day, because I finally broke the mime act. One afternoon at a café, as my companion ordered a drink in passable French, I blurted out the words “café au lait.”

Why I hadn’t started out with something a little easier, like a simple “oui” or even “bon jour” I’ll never know. But as soon as those four syllables left my mouth, it was too late. A smarmy, little man peered over from the adjoining booth, his beedy eyes boring into me. “My, you have impeccable French,” he sneered in disgust.

Stunned, I sized him up, thinking for a brief second that I could take him. But not wanting to start an international incident, I just sank into my seat, lowered my head and reinstated my vow of silence (again, hard to believe.) Satisfied, the taunter let out an indignant harrumph of victory and slithered back into his vinyl lair, awaiting the next American foolish enough to attempt to speak in his presence.

OK, I was forewarned that Parisians aren’t exactly known for their winning hospitality. But it’s not like I was expecting to find a pen pal over there or anything. For gods’ sake, I was just trying to order coffee – I could see if I had asked for ketchup with my “frites” or ice with my Coke or how to get to the “Loover.” But to me, my request seemed pretty reasonable, and my Euros were just as good as anyone’s.

Anyway, I tried hard to put myself in the taunter’s espadrilles. Sure, it was probably a little trying having to deal with people day in and day out, asking the same stupid questions, butchering your language, wearing bad clothes and clogging up the sidewalks. But, lurking in a café booth and heckling foreigners was no way to handle it.

Unbeknownst to him, my French saboteur actually taught me an important lesson that day. See, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on an all-expense paid week in Paris or a pilgrimage to the Corn Palace. Or whether you speak French, English, Texan or Pig Latin. Because, we all come from somewhere. And sooner or later, we’re all going to be tourists on that crazy, indoor roller coaster of life.

– Missy Votel