Lesson 14: Ask for Directions

Question: Why does it take millions of sperm to fertilise one egg?
Answer: Because they won’t ask for directions.

Mount St. Victoire, painted by Paul Cezanne

Have you ever noticed how some people are scared to ask for directions? They don’t want to look like they don’t have everything under control so they just muddle through to get places rather than asking someone who might know. Sometimes people just want to appear confident to others, so they pretend to know what they are doing when they don’t have a clue. Although not asking for directions is something men commonly do, I used to be like this sometimes.

In fact, while I was in college, in 1977, I was lucky enough to be able to spend a semester abroad in Aix-En-Provence, France. It’s a beautiful city in southeastern France with tree-lined streets and many beautiful water fountains. My American roommate Martha and I lived on the outskirts of town and rode mopeds to get to school during the week. But the family we stayed with told us we should go exploring on the weekends and see that part of France. We took their advice and rode our mopeds to nearby Mount Saint Victoire. This is a nearby mountain that French Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne painted when he lived in Aix-en-Provence. Cezanne was born in Aix in 1938 and died there in 1906.

We decided to climb to the top of Mount St. Victoire one weekend and I remember that I was dragging along my crash helmet and wearing a backpack that had a hardbound copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in it. I guess I thought I was going to do some serious reading during our little adventure! I remember we bought a baguette, some ham, cheese, a bottle of red wine and a bar of chocolate and stopped for a picnic part way up the mountain. It was a happy memory and we didn’t get lost.

Me on top of Mount St. Victoire

But another time the French family suggested we take a train to Briancon to go skiing. We finally took their advice and tried to go there during the winter. However, when we got to the train station in Aix, a train pulled up that was going to another town that was spelled similarly to Briancon. Rather than ask someone, I told Martha we should get on because we didn’t have time to ask for directions. Never mind that the train was going south instead of north!

Of course, we didn’t know this at the time. We just settled ourselves in for the long ride to the town. Weren’t we surprised when the train stopped at a town and everyone got off. Then the lights went out. Finally, a janitor came in to clean the car and looked surprised to see us there.

He told us this was the end of the line and took us into the station. A middle-aged man there offered to give us a ride to another train station where we could get a train to Grenoble. This was a big city northwest of our intended destination of Briancon. But we were assured that there were plenty of places to ski there since Grenoble was by the French Alps.

When the good Samaritan was about to drive us to the other station, he suddenly got out of this car on a hill and forget to put his emergency break on. The car started to roll backward down the hill with us in it. I realized then that we were in for some adventure! He ran towards his car and was able to catch up to it before we crashed backwards into another car in the parking lot.

Once we arrived at the large train station in the coastal city of Marseille, (south of Aix), we had to wait until midnight to take an overnight train to Grenoble. While there, we saw a drunk man trying to eat a plate. This upset Martha, who was a more sensitive soul, while I saw some humor in the situation. We moved elsewhere.

While at the Marseille station, we managed to buy tickets for the proper train, one actually going to Grenoble. However, we didn’t realize that with an overnight train like this we would need to reserve a specific place to sleep. Once on board, people in most every car said no, we can’t sit with them. Luckily, a group of young girls on their way to complete in a basketball tournament took pity on us and let us share their cabin.

Once we got to Grenoble, we found a cheap place to stay at a ski resort called Alpe D’Huez, just east of the city and right in the stunning French Alps. We planned to go skiing the next day. But that night we had pizza for dinner and there was olive oil on the table to go with the pizza. For some reason, I put oil on the pizza, as if it didn’t have enough on it already. I didn’t taste any difference, so I kept putting on more oil. I thought having extra oil on pizza must be some sort of French culinary tradition that I was not aware of. And I was trying to go native.

Alpe D’Huez in the French Alps

The oil-soaked pizza didn’t agree with me, so I woke up sick as a dog. Martha went skiing without me. After we had come so far, I was bound and determined to go skiing too, so later in the day, I bought an afternoon lift ticket and went down the hill once or twice but was too sick to continue. Dumb! Plus buying the lift ticket used up my money.

The next morning, after we left our spartan accommodations, we had to find our way back to Aix. However, we were out of money. So, we walked as far as we could and then decided to hitchhike. I don’t recommend this but when you are young, you do stupid things. While we were hitchhiking, one van full of young men tried to run us off the road. We both dived into a ditch to avoid getting hit.

Even after this happened, we decided to keep walking down the mountain and kept trying to hitchhike because we were broke and out of options. Most of the time, we did get rides without incidents. However, on our last ride, the man offered to drive us all the way home. This sounded fine to me. It was late in the day and we wanted to get home since school started up again the next day. I climbed in the front passenger seat since my French was better than Martha’s and she got in behind me. I talked to him as we drove through the French countryside and he seemed friendly enough. He even wore a French beret.

When we were a few kilometers away from our French family’s house, however, Martha grabbed my left shoulder and pulled it back and forth really hard and yelled, “He’s exposing himself!” Oh no. Now I had to prepare myself to look and see if this was really the case. It was. The man was hitting his pink upright member while saying, “C’est jolis, n’est pas?” No wonder he wanted to drive us all the way home!

What this pervert was saying in French means, “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” Oh my. I begged to differ. I told him we would be getting out right there, not a few kilometers later at our intended destination. Thankfully, he let us out without incident. After that, if either Martha or I wanted to make each other laugh, we would say, “C’est jolis, n’est pas?” Quite the memory. Although I could have done without the whole sorry experience, it did teach me the importance of getting on the right train.

Life Lesson: While traveling in an unfamiliar place, ask for help if you aren’t sure how to get where you are going. For example, don’t assume when a train pulls up at the station, that you are on the correct side of the track before boarding. Ask someone. This will save you lots of aggravation.


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