Map of Blue Book Balloon

22 May 2015

A stranger in a foreign country

Yes, I literally was that.

This week I had to go to Paris for work - the third or fourth time since last summer. And I found it pretty stressy.  And I have been thinking about why.

Yes, I know.  A tough job but someone has to do it.  #Firstworldproblems.

How can that be stressy?

Well, it wasn't the work. The work was sitting at the back of a conference room, taking notes, waiting for them to get to my stuff then occasionally feeding in a point or checking something. No, what was stressy was the being there, the getting there.

I am not a natural traveller. As a student, I never went Interrailing (does that still happen). Never did a gap year. Given the choice, I'll always stay at home. I am boring, boring boring. I know that. But I enjoy travelling - getting on the Eurostar, the faff with passports and security, waiting at St Pancras, going through the Tunnel, watching the fields go by.

What challenges me is simply being there, in a foreign country, a foreign civilisation (France is a civilisation, not a country, isn't it?) Part of it is being absolutely crap at French.  Yes, I got an O level many years ago.  I learned to give memorized answers to memorised questions, in an appalling Cheshire French accent. I learned to little essay including as many as possible of the clever constructions that scored extra points. I read a Maigret book, in French, over the summer holidays and summarised it, in French. None of that equipped me, though, to sit in a restaurant and order a simple meal, or go into the hotel and ask for my room. Instead I cope with such things by pointing at the menu, walking up to reception and offering my work-booked room reservation and saying "Merci" a lot.

It is OK, just about, but really it's OK because the French are (in my experience) wonderful people and put up with bumbling English clots like me who don't speak their beautiful language and insult them by bringing English into their capital. In other words they make allowances and adapt, and therefore enable me to survive when otherwise I wouldn't (well, that's a bit over dramatic, but you get the point).

Nevertheless, in some situations I'm adrift. When the Metro train I was on stopped between stations and the driver explained what was wrong I hadn't a clue.  Was he saying we were being held at a red signal to regulate the service and would be moving shortly, or had a rail broken up ahead and we would be stuck for hours?  When, on my last trip, there was a security alert at Gare Du Nord and we were kept outside, just how serious was it, really?  I didn't know and had no easy way to find out.  To a degree I read these situations because I am familiar with urban travel and they are common ones.  If I'd been from a bit further afield I'd have been even more baffled, and without someone to make allowances, it would have simply been bewildering. No way to communicate, no idea what's going on, basically no way to function.

Which was why I was struck, this time and for the first time, by a comparison with my daughter.

My daughter is an adult.  She has autism,with learning disabilities. She is nonverbal (does not speak*). We don't know how much speech she understands, but it is quite a bit. Like any human being, she is a complex person with preferences, needs and opinions. Like me in Paris, she isn't able to articulate these well and so is, much of the time dependent on the forebearance, the grace, the common sense of those around her to understand her needs and let her in, as it were, to make a space and enable her.

Except, of course, it's not really the same at all.  It is a thousand, a million times harder for her. And she can't just hop back on the Eurostar to a country where all those issues go away.

We are so glad that Daughter has a supportive place to live and that her life is, generally, good. She moved away from home a year or so ago and we miss her dreadfully (we see her most weekends) but that separation does bring perspective.  I can't say - it would be so arrogant and wrong to say it - that I understand what the world is like for her (not sure I'd even dare say that for another neurotypical) but by analogies like this I sometimes think I can imagine, at least, the faintest outlines of how it might sometimes be for her.

And that includes (though to an almost homoeopathically diminished degree) the this-is-all-too-much/ what-now/ too-much-sensation/ make-it-stop-now panic and meltdown which I saw so many times when daughter lived at home but which (and it's galling, but true) doesn't seem to happen to her these days.

All of which is very humbling.

Anyway, hopefully we'll be taking Daughter to see Pitch Perfect 2 this weekend.  It's going to be good.  I hope you have a great weekend too!

*She did use a few words: "Guck" for any bird, "gog" for a dog, "an'dat!" as a general exclamation. And she could name the Teletubbies, in order. (If we were in a shop with toy Teletubbies and they were out of order, she'd rearrange them).  But that all went.

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