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Lafayette I Have Come

I’ve returned to Paris after 12 years. One of the formative trips of my travel style and of my life for that matter. So coming back here gives me the chance to revisit myself in a way, too. Like the military man of World War I, paying tribute to the Marquis de La Fayette who, during the American Revolution shaped our country, I have come to Paris.

There’s definitely some of the old snooty Paris I remember. Like when I sat down at a place, asked for a menu and was told it was not a restaurant indignantly in French and nearly shooed away. Maybe a cafe only I thought as I stood up to leave. Then noticed the “Restaurant Boulangerie” sign above the awning. It was this attitude to which my friend muttered “frog” under his breath last time I was here.

But that’s the exception and definitely not the rule. Most people here are very friendly to foreigners, once you engage them. Like the waitress where I ended up eating that night. She apologized for her poor English (in fairly good English) and helped me navigate the menu. When she wanted to describe her favorite dish – the daily special not on the menu – she dragged the sandwich board over and walked through what it was. Madagascar cuisine. Not particularly French (she also apologized for being a bad French and not having a French food as her favorite), but very hip nonetheless. And very tasty too.

Some things which must have been here but I didn’t notice. Like the North African market by my hotel. And all the other foreigners who are not here for vacation. The diversity of this city and this neighborhood is astounding with dozens of different cultures coming face to face. Lots of evidence of France’s colonial past and their hold over their former territories. Unlike the Spanish who tried to assimilate the cultures and genes. And unlike the English who tried to displace the native populations. France had a very laissez-faire attitude, preferring more of a partnership than a more heavy-handed rule.

Has it changed? Sure. There’s wifi, electric cars for rent by the hour, you pay in Euro instead of French Francs. But I don’t think I can get a good feeling for any changes that are deeper than that. My memory is too hazy and my observations too superficial with the time I have here. So sadly you’ll have to get that information from someone else.

And there are changes in myself. I’m less apt to visit a tourist site than just meander around. To practice cultural tourism at the street level – as it is now being defined, not how it was shaped in the past. I used to force myself to do the normal tourist route and try to see the famous sites and scenes, no matter how much they didn’t interest me. But I don’t any longer, for instance I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees this past trip.

And I don’t try as hard to act like a respectful tourist. Instead I’m just myself with deference to the unknown, like the language and mannerisms. Respecting the culture but not trying to eat it all at once like the proverbial elephant. And not as ready to assess an entire culture based on experiences from a limited exposure (despite my treatment in this post to try to categorize everything).

And I’ve learned to break myself of the habit of being too prepared. I used to pile everything I thought I might possibly use into my bag. But I quickly learned that made it impossibly large and heavy. For more on that, see my series on travel skills and packing tips.

But I do still love discovery and travel for its own sake. Meandering is something I used to space between doing what I thought I ought to do. My game was to get lost and then find myself when I got nervous. Now I don’t worry about nerves and just trust that I can either find my way or ask someone. Some of that has to do with the technology I travel with, but some of it is just confidence that everything will work itself out even if it takes a bit longer than I’m expecting. That attitude has served me well and gotten me to some great spots that most people never see or know about.

But there are changes that I don’t like. I’ve never thought twice about a several hour detour just to see something I wanted to. For me getting there really is the fun part. But those trips are much fewer and farther between now. That’s a shame because it’s almost as promising a prospect as it used to be. I just don’t make the opportunities like I used to. True, I travel a lot more now, but I’m not sure I’m not missing something here and there. Long road trips with good music and audiobooks used to be a favorite activity of mine. I miss those days, and maybe I can recapture the feeling of meaning and purpose some other way.

But what about the places I remember so fondly from my first time here? I’m sure you’re asking that question, as I was. I guess I was avoiding those places. I didn’t want to find that they were gone or that they weren’t the same. But even worse I didn’t want to find that they were the same but horrible, with my mind polishing them to a shine and setting them on the windowsill of my memory. For my last night in the city I went back to my old haunts.

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Meandering Mind

In today’s continuing series of Meandering Mind (in other words, something that doesn’t fit my other blog but I still want to publish), I’ll address a survey by The Edge (no, I’m not talking about Bono‘s sidekick – aka. the most underrated part of U2, named for another U2). This survey contains the responses from 165 noteworthy people regarding their changing opinions. This is a pretty heady topic and I wanted to give my take on it.

What did you change your mind about last year? Nothing? You can’t think of anything? Don’t worry – it’s a natural part of being human. Seriously. There seem to be a couple of principles at work: cognitive dissonance and change blindness. These two things combine to hide our past opinions and make us believe we’ve always held our current point of view. The theory goes that it makes us uncomfortable to believe something that we don’t always do. So we stop believing that we ever held a certain belief. Weird to think that we don’t know ourselves.

What does this say about how we reflect back on our past opinions? What does this say about the sources we should trust? Should you trust a testimonial statement from someone made during an event or after it? Should you trust exposition or statistics? Do peoples’ recollections hold merit or should we consider them all tainted?

But I’ll get back to the topic at hand. What did I change my mind about last year? Offhand, I can think of several things:

  • It is not hard to get around in a foreign place without knowing the language. A few words in common, some hand gestures, props, and a little patience is all it takes.
  • Americans are not the ones who think the whole world speaks English. I was always taught that it was polite to ask a person if he or she speaks English before speaking to them, but people with more experience have learned that this part of the game is more harmful than helpful. Brits seem to be the worst of the lot, rushing up to people and just talking, assuming that they’ll be understood.
  • English really is the international language. Europeans speaking to Chinese, a Frenchman speaking to German, a Korean speaking to Russians (among the more exotic combinations), all speaking English to each other. It’s both normal and surreal at the same time.
  • Motivation is the most critical asset to a person’s success in a capitalistic society. I know plenty of people with intelligence to spare. Idiots with motivation run multi-billion dollar empires. Geniuses without motivation do all the work for them.
  • China is horribly polluted and it’s under appreciated. I thought it was maybe local or regional issues. I thought it was probably not as bad as I’d heard. I was wrong. Anyone putting significant resources toward curbing US pollution should visit China and rethink their allocation strategy. I’m no environmental scientist but I’d guess that China puts out several orders of magnitude more garbage into the air, land, and sea as the US. That’s not to say we couldn’t do more, especially when it comes to reducing, reusing, and recycling, but let’s focus our efforts where they’ll return the greatest benefits.
  • Social engineering is as easy as it seems. Organizations go out of their way to try to make their staff accommodating to outside individuals. That trust can be exploited way too easily. It’s an underestimated vulnerability. But when a successful exploit takes place and is reported, they’re frequently spectacular.
  • The world’s overall climate may be increasing in temperature and mankind may be significantly contributing to climate change. That statement is very carefully written. It’s beyond the scope of this post to get into my views on this subject. But I would love to see lies and exaggerations come to an end. On both sides. Bringing up the subject is like putting a match to a flame (yes, I said that as I meant it – think about it) and very few people think rationally and critically on the subject.
  • Mankind’s impact on the world goes beyond what I’d thought it could. Daniel Quinn ‘s books are very persuasive. (I have only read a few so I left the last word unlinked.)

Most of these came from a big, life changing event – my trip through China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Russia. These were typically accompanied by flashes of realization. But that is not how most changes of opinion come. They come slowly, gradually, and without fanfare. Changes in attitude come from the gradual erosion of one belief and the casual sculpting of another in its place.

The effect is similar to looking at old pictures of yourself. You wonder how you could have dressed so hideously; you marvel at how young you look. But styles did not change overnight and your face did not instantly matriculate to what it is now. These processes may not be as slow as glaciers or rock weathering, but they surely effect change as unnoticeably.

I’ve been writing now for about two hours, and I invite you to take a bit of time to sit quietly and think about how you’ve changed. Over the last year. You have changed so much! Over the last five years. You have remade yourself. Over the last ten years. You are unrecognizable but to outward appearance perhaps. How much will you change over the next year? Five years? Ten years? Should it be less? More? Will you dictate the change or will you let other factors do most of the work? Perhaps you should set these thoughts in writing so you will remember what you really believed come the end of the year.

Chinese Culturecide

I just saw this video over on Dan Miessler‘s blog. It’s worth a watch if you’ve got five minutes. Even if you don’t, put it on and listen to the audio. This report originally aired on Sky News, probably sometime around April 2006 judging from the posting date. It shows how the Chinese government is seizing private property (they are capitalists, not socialists, so people can own property) and giving it over to developers.

Yes, this happens in other countries, but you get the sense from the video and from visiting the country that it’s a fairly frequent occurrence. All over the country, you see signs of development, construction, buildings going up, etc. Many of the old areas of Beijing have been torn down and replaced with new construction. In many places, old looking buildings are being put up and advertised as authentically ancient.

I loved my trip through China and would also love to go back some day. But not to see an artificially managed reality of what the government wants the world to see. I want to see the China that is the people and their living culture. That is where the attraction is for me. And if I ever get to go back (Would they ban me for what I’ve written in the blog? If they know it’s out here and can connect it to me they would.), I’ll be seeking out the places where I can find it. Mostly it will be in the smaller cities (only 4-5 million or so) and villages.

I might not go there for shaolin training, but I’ll certainly try to walk the Earth a little bit there. Maybe I’ll find some of the real China lurking. I heard an interesting interview yesterday with a woman who had grown up there but said she had to come to the US to become more Chinese. She’d been indoctrinated with Mao’s rhetoric and even played his wife in propagandist movies. I know that the cultural revolution is over, but the culturecide (that’s probably not a real word) continues. Instead of being in the name of communism or Mao, it’s in the name of capitalism and money.

And I’ve changed my mind about this photo. I now think it is more accurate, as Brian described it, as a small cat seeing his reflection as a tiger. China is not the gracefully powerful nation it imagines itself to be, but it is dangerous in its aspirations. That tiger still has claws.