A day in Colmar [October 2005]

Colmar, France is one of the most amazing and charming little cities I've ever been to. I was a freshly-minted eighteen-year-old, and it was my first stint outside the United States. It was a liberating day for me, when we visited this French town on the German border, because I broke away from the group after more indecision mired any plans from forming, annoyed that we were all indecisive and trying to impress one another--the French teenagers who were our hosts and the American teenagers that composed my group.

We were passing this amazing shoe store, with boots in the window in colors I'd never seen in the U.S., and everyone bowled right past it--so I ducked in, hid, and tried on some ridiculous shoes I would never have bought but loved: orange and brown leather, hitting mid-calf, laced all the way up. These make me smile now, the price tag asking for hundreds of Euro and my youthful excitement at their outrageous appearance. I would have been brave enough to wear them back home, though they would be added to the list of strange and unusual things Jessie Edens wore in high school. I was the one who had made a skirt out of my dad's old army camouflage pants. (I still own this skirt, cannot give it up.) Maybe these orange and brown boots would have looked crazy and cool with the skirt. Probably not. The point was, I was sitting in a shoe store, in a foreign country where I could barely communicate with the saleslady, and I was beyond smitten with my position on the earth right then.

Alone, exploring, free, smiling, in a shoe store, with a few hours to kill.

The first thing I did once I headed out of the shop was follow a map back to the meeting place we had established for later that afternoon. It would be no good to lose track of myself and then be late getting back to everyone--when doing little excursions on my own, it would be foolhardy indeed to lose the right to my time exploring alone. I wanted, needed, to show everyone, especially the adults guiding us, that I was capable of handling myself and that they could trust me to go it alone. Adults had a habit of not believing I could do this.

A year earlier, on a trip with my church youth choir, I had left the hotel in Philadelphia early on our last morning there, because I was bound and determined to visit the steps that Rocky runs up--the iconic steps of the fists in the air and grey pantsuit moment of Rocky. The way events had played out, some of our group had been able to visit them while I had to be doing something with another group. I was royally annoyed and ready to be defiant. When I returned to the bus (in time for departure, mind you) the adults were mad, and I relished it. I was not a bad kid, and especially disliked being treated like an incapable human, so I really enjoyed making everyone huffy with concern. "What would your parents do if we told them?" was their main argument to me. My dad would have done exactly the same thing, I responded. You know what? My mom absolutely would have done the same, too. We're not a family to have much concern for "the plan" that everyone has established.

Anyway, if people are all being group-minded and deciding things en masse, I tend to want to just wander without them. I don't have to do anything grand. It's the small things that are grand.

I wandered. I bought a postcard whose words still inspire me today, near my desk. I bought ice cream. I asked a man on the street what time it was, in French. I kept hearing water running, flowing, and finally found that it was running alongside a main rue, right between the buildings and homes and the road itself. It came out of nowhere and truly surprised and delighted me. I stepped in dog poop right along that tiny urban river. It is a testament to how happy I was that this didn't even phase me. (At least I hadn't been wearing brand new lace-up brown-and-orange leather boots.)

I found a small little restaurant, boldly went inside and ordered an "American cheeseburger" and a beer. At 18, I triumphantly drank my first beer, freezing cold in a tall glass, because it was legal and I could. The men running the place inquired whether I was allemande-- German. Je suis American, I stumbled around the language, even if the statement was simple. They understood. I wonder if my foolish, giddy grin was obvious?

That afternoon, I returned early to the park area where we were to meet, and discovered that our bus driver was an artiste during his down time driving tourists around--he loved Dali. He let me on the bus so I could grab my notebook and wax poetic about my day alone in Colmar.

Colmar has stayed with me. It charmed me more than Paris, probably because I wasn't too scared to wander it alone and discover a bit more about it in a half-day's time. It was just the right amount of pure, utter joy. Little things.

 

Instead of reading for class...

... I've been reading a good old travelogue, like those which sustained my interest for a few years, when I first discovered the Travel Essays section of the bookstore, until I realized that mostly, that shelf does not have new releases very often, and I had read all the best ones already. The rest, I would pick through, but to this day, I have that shelf mostly memorized by its titles and the colors of the spines. (I'm not kidding.) But I hadn't looked at it in a while, and so recently I checked back on it, and found a new publication. Susan Jane Gilman's memoir and travelogue of her travels in China, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven was there, in which she divulges the post-college culture and travel shock that she and her college buddy received when they headed off to China in 1986--then basically still a closed state, for all intents and purposes, and relatively untraveled by the modern American. I immediately loved her candid, honest descriptions of the way travel on your own, for the first time, really feels. ("Not at all triumphant.")

I read two chapters while sitting in the bookstore, ignoring the books I should have been using to do research for summer classes. Of course, as soon as I need to read about Cuba, I want to read about China. But Gilman's narrative has been absolutely engaging, and very funny.

I wanted to share one bit, that rings so true, on the hubris, the adventure-seeking, and the irony behind The Backpacker. That timeless first-world traveler who seeks the true thrills in life. She muses on this very thought (an irony I think about often) while describing the bar scene she has found in Beijing. After three weeks of travel through southern China, Gilman and her friend arrive in Beijing and head out on their first night to toast the kind strangers who have helped them during the day, when their bicycles broke down a number of times while traversing the city. To celebrate, they wind up at the same bar as many of the other backpackers in the city, all of whom begin a story-telling competition to determine, without actually saying so, who is the most hardcore, who has traveled in the worst conditions, so as to win some sort of invented (but totally real, to them) honor among the crowd.

Soon we were all vying to establish our backpacker' street cred, to prove how intrepidly we'd been traveling, how much discomfort we'd incurred at how little expense. The irony of this was wholly lost on us. We were too young and myopic to recognize the perversity of a logic that equates voluntary deprivation with authentic experience. We thought that by wearing burlap pajamas, contracting intestinal parasites, and opting to ride in third class with "the people," we were somehow being less Western and more Asian. It never seemed to occur to us that only privileged Westerners travel to developing countries in the first place, then use them as playgrounds and laboratories for their own enrichment. Only privileged Westerners consider it a badge of honor to forsake modern amenities for a two-dollar-a-night roach-infested guesthouse. Only privileged Westerners sit around drinking beers at prices the natives can't afford while sentimentalizing the nation's lower standard of living and adopting it as a lifestyle.

The Asians we were seeing, of course, didn't live famished agrarian lives due to some sort of Eastern spirituality or enlightenment. Give most of the world's population our money and opportunity, and they weren't going slumming at all. They were booking a Club Med vacation in Cancun and drinking a mai tai.

Granted, it was good, even admirable, that we young backpackers at least attempted to break through the barriers of culture and class to experience firsthand how people in Southeast Asia really lived. But we were kidding ourselves in thinking that we were somehow transcending our Western privileges by doing this.

She gets exactly at some of the complicated feelings I have about being a Westerner traveling in developing countries. All the same, I find them far more interesting than places like France or Greece. (Not dissing those places, by any means.) I just find so much irony in the whole thing, escaping lives we are so lucky to have, to feel something real. But then, I am so fortunate to have been given a life, a nationality, that allows me to explore far beyond my borders. So, I need to use this blessing, right? Being careful not to Orientalize anyone I encounter, along the way.