Conventional wisdom has it that  travel expands one’s horizons. I’ve been testing that hypothesis this summer and have discovered that the horizon is not the only thing that can be broadened by travel.

Over the past six or eight years I’ve met lots of people who live, or regularly visit the little village of Las Galeras on the Samana Peninsula on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic. Of course, most of the people I’ve met there are Dominican. Those who are not Dominican are French or Italian; they’re Belgian, or Swiss, or German. Very few of them are American. The majority of the expats in Las Galeras are French.

The Italians, and the French in particular have been after me for years to visit them in Europe and this summer I have done so, making for some interesting stories on both sides of the Atlantic.

France

Christian is French. He is my friend and neighbor in Las Galeras. In a previous life Christian owned and operated a Michelin-rated restaurant on the Continent. He’s been in Las Galeras for fifteen years, more-or-less, and he has a pretty high profile in the community of French expats living there.

Over the last several years he and I made a plan to travel through France together, visiting his old friends and our more recent and mutual friends all over the country. We figured to do this until we got on each other’s nerves, or until we’d run out of friends. My secret hope was that our French friends–who mostly all know one another–would compete with each other in an effort show us what makes their part of France special. My fantasy was particularly vivid when imagining the regional culinary specialties, as Christian described them. Once you think about it, this is a pretty compelling fantasy. As it turned out, something like this actually happened. We were five weeks in France without running out of friends OR making each other crazy. This speaks well of our friends, who were consistently generous, welcoming, and patient, even if they are all French and accordingly a little different.

In fact, everything about France is more than a little different from the United States, or the Dominican Republic for that matter. For example, everyone there SPEAKS FRENCH! And they behave as if this is quite normal. When conversing together they will often speak French rapidly. I find this confusing. At that point the conversation becomes for me something like a soft wave of sibilant sound that rises gently over my head and then recedes, leaving me charmed, but none the wiser for whatever the speaker intended to mean. I can listen to a beautiful French woman speak in her native tongue or in French-accented English until the cows come home. I did this literally on more than one occasion, and that also was everything I had imagined and hoped for.

For me, one of the real joys of traveling anywhere is discovering that my own preconceived idea of something is just wrong. This realization is like a bonus–I discover an interesting and true fact about the world and at the same time, if I’m paying attention I can also discern a surprising and true fact about myself. Since it’s all about me, this is very important and really, really interesting . You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?

That’s one more cool thing about my more honest friends–they often and inadvertently provide little windows into my soul, and generally from a novel perspective. On a particularly good day I reciprocate. Whooeee! Anyway, take it from me: if the opportunity presents itself, the way to visit France is in the company of a good friend. Even better if you can make the trip with an accomplished chef and stay in the homes of French friends who know and love their regional culture and cuisine and are enthusiastic about sharing.

Of course, I must have gained three kilos in five weeks. For those of you who are accustomed to think in terms of “pounds” or “ounces” rather than in “kilos” and “grams,” think “many.”

France may not be all or only about the food–and in fact it is not. But they certainly do have a food culture there. This culture begins with the production of food, and continues with its’ display, purchase, and preparation and in the enjoyment of meals in the home. Further, the French seem to also enjoy talking about the production, purchase, preparation and consumption of their meals and–truth be told, it makes for pretty interesting conversation. And memorable eating.

Driving in France

At least the French don’t make the same profound motoring mistake as the British and Japanese; they know upon which side of the road to drive. And it appears as though they have driving rules, and mostly everyone seems to follow them.

And they have traffic roundabouts. Oh, the French have roundabouts. They seem to prefer these traffic circles over “X-type” intersections. Once you get used to them, the roundabouts make a great deal of sense. I suppose somewhere there is a traffic economist who could tell us exactly how such a system saves petrol by eliminating a lot of stopping and starting. As for me, I just like the feeling of being a player in a seamless ballet of more or less constantly flowing traffic. Of course it is sometimes necessary to come to a stop before entering the circle, but more often you can easily take your place in the organic swirl that is the French roundabout and generally you can exit when desired. Failing a timely exit, one can always whirl around one more time. Life in France seems to be like that.

I don’t know where the French get their reputation for rudeness. Maybe from visiting New Yorkers? I certainly didn’t experience inordinate rudeness in France, even in the traffic circles.

We didn’t spend more than a few days in Paris, where I do seem to recall one driver glaring at me as I wandered distractedly against the light and into an intersection. Now that I think of it, drivers did honk at me on two occasions before I figured out what the wavy lines on the road mean, relative to who has the right-of-way at an “X-type” intersection. But I think those were self-defensive honks. They weren’t like the emotional bleats of gridlocked drivers on the beltway in Washington, nor did they resemble the jubilant blaring of traffic in Santo Domingo. In my experience, the French are polite, on the road and off.

In fact, my French friends are generous, and their generosity extends to the meta-level of sharing their own friends. And so we had a marvelous meal of cassoulet at the home of Marie François and Marie Francis, good friends of our hosts in Toulouse. This was followed a few days later by a somewhat larger party featuring an additional number of vibrant and attractive women, including our host, the wife of a chap named Jean Jacques. I had been forewarned that this party was perhaps not a place to try out my best French phrase (“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”) unless I was prepared to be taken seriously.

And so I was uncharacteristically reserved at this dinner. In fact I was tired. And it was late. And ten or twelve bottles of wine had been consumed (none by me). And ten or twelve people were speaking at once and I seemed to be the only one pretending to listen. And after a while, it was exactly as if a tumultuous ocean of French was repeatedly breaking over my head. I’m sure my eyes must have glazed over as my thoughts drifted away from the party and the table…the next thing I knew, our hostess was standing beside me and holding my hand. “Come with me upstairs,” she said enthusiastically, “we will play Babyfoot together!” With that, she pulled me to my feet and began to run through the living room towards the staircase leading to the upper floors. As I passed, I glanced at her husband, who shrugged and smiled and at the other guests who were only mildly interested and so I whooped and joined in the chase, if somewhat apprehensively as she lead me upstairs to an unknown destination and an uncertain fate.

We continued past the second floor and on to the attic where, prominently displayed, there was a professional model Foosball table. The table soccer game called Foosball, you may recall, was popular in homes and bars in the United States in the 1970’s and ‘80s. In France, Foosball is called “Babyfoot” and it seems to be enduringly popular. And so she and I warmed up our babyfootmen and then challenged all comers for the remainder of the evening. Although I was a distinct liability to our side, she played brilliantly and a good time was had by all.

A few weeks later found us visiting with Jacques and Eunice in their cabin high in the mountains near to Spain. Jacques and Eunice have a five year old son, Yahn. Yahn speaks French and understands but does not speak Spanish. He has no English.

Initially, Yahn did not like me, perhaps because I appeared to understand French selectively and speak it very badly. In any event, Yahn surprised me by taking a jab at me when his parents weren’t looking. I tried to joke and tease him into more civilized behavior, employing all three languages,but only succeeded in frustrating him more. Finally, he spit in my direction, which prompted me to take his little arm and firmly remonstrate with him in my own language, which seemed to translate pretty well on the occasion.

This made Yahn cry but, to his credit, he didn’t race off to rat me out to his parents. That’s when I decided that I like Yahn, and that I wanted him to like me. After that exchange he and I had a couple of awkward hours together until I discovered the Foosball table in the basement. It turns out that the kid is mad for Babyfoot, and so we played together.

Yahn cheats. I let him get away with it three out of five times (that I noticed) and then I also began to cheat. The first time that he caught me at it he smiled, and our relationship blossomed. We became a sort of brotherhood of Babyfoot ladrónes, with larceny as our common bond and Babyfoot points the common currency.

Over our next few days with the family it was not unusual for Yahn to quietly and unexpectedly appear in front of me, a beautiful curly-headed Franco-Dominican child with soft brown eyes, a slightly protruding lower lip, and in his quavering childish voice utter the single word we share in common, a word that contains both question and answer and all meaning in between, a word that I share with you now: “Babyfoot?”

Switzerland

Switzerland is a different story–also wonderful, but entirely different.

I could tell immediately when the high-speed train crossed over from France to Switzerland. France is tidy, but the Swiss vineyards look as though they’re pruned with a laser and the fences repainted early each morning. The mostly masonry homes are built of dressed stones that are uniformly laid, neatly pointed and surrounded by beds of colorful yet somehow disciplined flowers. Only later would I realize that these things are quite likely to be a matter of law and have probably been put to a vote of the people.

Switzerland is small. The nation is composed of quite distinct Cantons. There are four official languages in the country. It is politically, if not entirely culturally unified. It is fierce in any number of ways and it is unyieldingly democratic. It seems that the Swiss will vote on anything and legislate everything. Those traditions which are not legislated are enforced by very strong cultural norms. God help the driver who illegally moves a truck on a national holiday or the Swiss homeowner who fires up the power mower on Sunday, for example.

Perhaps that’s why the Swiss take such delight in Ass-bombs.

Some of you, I know, remember the liberating feeling of running head-long across the grass, building up a load of momentum before leaping with abandon into a pool of cold water while clutching your tucked-up knees in a vain attempt to empty the pool of water with a single gigantic splash.

Ass-bombs!! So much more fun than a cannonball.

Enjoy the rest of your summer and be sure to enjoy your ass-bombs and Babyfoots where- and whenever you may find them.

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