A grand place for new experiences.
I’m seated at a rustic table, waiting for what will turn out to be the very worst Italian meal of my life. Outside the restaurant it’s pouring with rain, which is why I’m here: this is the closest restaurant to the hotel where I’m staying.
Directly behind me I can hear a male American voice and I guess from the accent that he’s from Florida, probably somewhere in the vicinity of Jacksonville. He’s talking to a woman who speaks English with a pronounced French Belgian accent. He’s trying to explain something about American football and she asks a polite question from time to time to encourage him to continue.
Mostly I try to ignore their conversation, not out of an excess of politeness but because there’s a Russian-speaking couple across the aisle and I’m trying to improve my modest Russian language abilities so it’s more fun to listen to their conversation instead. They’re talking about her family who live, apparently, in Sankt-Piterburg. I recognize the name of the street where her parents live and I can visualize it instantly, even though several years have passed since I was last in Tzar Peter’s city.
The most astonishingly terrible bowl of so-called Minestrone is placed in front of me and I concentrate even harder on what the Russian couple are saying to each other, in a desperate attempt to distract myself from the awfulness of the soup.
Sadly, the ploy doesn’t work; but I persevere.
About ten minutes later, the waiter brings the American and his friend the bill. I hear the Jacksonville accent asking, “Do you take dollars here?”
I turn slightly so I can see the waiter. He has a look of well-practiced patience on his face. “No,” he says. “You can pay with Euros or you can use a credit card.”
Then I hear the young American ask, “Does everyone here speak English?”
The waiter smiles. “In Belgium we speak French and Dutch.”
“French is like another city, right?” the young man asks. “Where’s Dutch?”
It would be easy to mock this young man. US citizens are famous the world over for being totally clueless, ignorant of everything beyond their own fifty States.
As the young man stands up and fumbles for his wallet I look at him. He’s probably in his mid-twenties. He has the face of someone who knows he’s totally out of his depth: alert yet abashed, fearful of making a mistake yet aware that with every sentence he’s probably doing just that.
I feel great compassion for him. There he is, no doubt outside of the USA for the very first time, in an alien world he doesn’t understand that is full of sights and sounds incomprehensible to him.
It would have been so easy for him to have remained within the confines of the known.
Like many of his compatriots he could have contented himself with visiting Las Vegas in the belief that there he’d see the Eiffel Tower and Venice and “more Yurp stuff” as I once heard an obese man from upper New York State say as he waddled out of the Bellagio in a gaudy yellow-and-green XXL Hawaiian shirt.
But this young man behind me has been brave enough to expose himself to the unknown, to travel figuratively and literally outside his comfort zone. As a result he will grow. He will have experiences that, with luck, may stimulate him and give him a store of good memories to enjoy in years to come.
As the waiter inserts the young man’s credit card into the hand-held terminal I look up at him and say, “Everything’s new the first time round. That’s what makes it so intense. Hang in there. In a few days you’ll know where everything is and how it all works. New countries can be really confusing, but that’s what makes us grow bigger than we’d otherwise get to be.”
He stares at me. “Uh, OK, thanks, man.”
“No problem. Enjoy the ride.”
I watch as he and his companion leave the restaurant and step out into the rain. She says something to him and he smiles shyly as the rain splatters onto his face.
I watch them go and I hope he may be walking just a little more confidently into his new adventure.