Patience is quite a virtue.Arles, Summer 2012

I love the Atlanta airport’s “Plane Train.”

Why? It’s complicated.

This “train” is for switching between terminals and is very easy to use, which is fortunate because I had layovers in Atlanta going both directions.

It was the last thing I saw in America in June. It was also the first thing I saw when I touched down six weeks later. Both times it was exhilarating but for different reasons.

During the first trip, I remember being more excited than I had ever been in my life. I remember that I was in the first car and was mesmerized by the headlights creeping over the cavernous passages. I remember letting go of the pole to rehearse my “subway legs” because, I told myself, I would be using them a lot on the train. I remember marveling at how easy traveling was turning out to be. I remember telling myself, “My life feels like a movie right now.”

I don’t remember a thing about the other people on the train.

You could say my ride back was exactly the same. I had mostly the same stuff with me. I was exhausted but chipper. I was rehearsing my subway legs.

What was different were the people around me.

An old man was watching a little boy swing around the pole. The little boy seemed to be composing his tune with no regard for his volume level. When the man looked up to adult eye-level, I expected him to zero in on the boy’s parents and glare at them. Instead, he looked to a nearby soldier who was clutching his camo duffle bag.

Both smiled.

The same thing could have happened on my first trip, for all I know. If it did, I didn’t notice.

About halfway through my home-stay, one of my host sisters asked me, “What’s the biggest difference between Americans and French people?”

At the time I didn’t need much reflection except to decide how to phrase it nicely.

“French people are more…patient.”

What I meant was: They’re patient with strangers. Anything goes. Nothing seems to annoy anyone.

Dogs can use the bathroom wherever they want.

If a new register opens up at the supermarket, the line dissolves into a blob of people trying to choose which cashier to use.

Going out to lunch is an hour and a half affair at best, a three hour nightmare at worst.

Cats are welcome in any room of the house. Even if you have no idea who the cat belongs to.

The unwritten rule that kids shouldn’t scream in public applies just about nowhere.

I was once late to class because I got stuck behind a bicyclist.

The funny thing was, I enjoyed most of these things (the dog feces being the only exception). Prior to my trip, all of it would have been a major nuisance. In France, where it was the norm, I found it a nice break from our line-making, rule-following, quick-moving, quiet-childrened, one-family-per-cat society.

It also made me pay attention to strangers.

It’s quite possible that the other people in the supermarket are in a bigger hurry than me. My waitress might have had a horrible day and be utterly dreading telling me my food won’t be ready for another half hour. I really could just ask the bicyclist if I can go around him. Chances are it won’t bother him one bit.

I’m a little ashamed that it took me a trip to France to learn to be patient with adorable scream-singing children.

Nearly six weeks later, if asked again about the biggest difference between the French and Americans, I’d have the same answer.

Just  like with the plane train,  though, my perspective would have done a 180.

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