Stranger in a Strange Land: The Power of a Smile

Given our many glories, Ventura County is no stranger to tourists. We see them frequently, especially now in summer, driving erratically and slow as molasses, huddled close on street corners taking photos of everyday items like surf shops and movie posters, blocking restaurant doorways while staring at the menu as if it were comprised of runes.

Once I encountered a forty-something gentleman in downtown Ventura. Approaching on the sidewalk I could see from a distance he was a tourist, for he was scowling down at a guide book. He was also wearing a Mickey Mouse hat, something you do not see on every forty-something man. I did not think less of him for this. The ears made him look quite jaunty.

He was still scowling when he looked up at me and he looked a bit hesitant, frightened even -- it can be frightening to be stranger in a strange place -- but when he saw me the scowl dissolved into a valiant smile. That he addressed me with a spouting of English I couldn't come close to deciphering didn't matter. He kept smiling as we both jabbed at his guidebook as if it had buttons, until finally we both concluded he wanted to go to Ojai.

I bring this up because at this very moment the tables are turned. We are in Paris, my lovely wife and I, and as anyone who has ever looked at an Atlas knows, Paris is not in Ventura County. And so we take pictures of the doors of people's homes -- the doorknob quaintly smack dab in the center -- and I drive like molasses while the gears of our matchbox size car clatter and scream as I try to reacquaint myself with zee stick shift and we (inadvertently) block the crossing at street corners, the two of us bent to a crumpled map (How can you lose sight of something as grand as the Eiffel Tower? I am telling you, you can).

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Sadly too, Parisians have the reputation for a rudeness of the highest elegance, as if it is an art perfected over so very many years, and Paris has so many more years on us. But after four days in the city that never sleeps (this is true) we can tell you this is unequivocally untrue.

For when we are lost or looking at a menu as if we are just learning to read (poisson ou poulet?), I attempt my faltering French and there is much confusion and then we give Paris our best smile (in the case of my wife, a knee-jellying thing) and, almost always, Paris smiles back. After four days here on the Left Bank (La Rive Gauche) we have become friends with Charlotte the bartender at Café Six, and Lydia and Stephen behind the hotel desk, and Nicola who works the counter at Coffee Parisien on rue Gustave Courbet and Alan who has lived in this Lilliputian and impossibly quaint (we have dozens of doorway photos to prove this) neighborhood for twenty years and Natalie and Sophie who came to the bar to watch a World Cup soccer match and now will likely come to visit us en Californie. We have even (mildly) cracked the most inscrutable and purportedly most aloof of all Parisians, the waiter, for, between bouts of standing and staring regally out in the direction of rue St. Germain, Michel at Café Mabillon gives us a nod and a glimmer of a smile.

It is true a smile will not win you a cab at midnight in front of the Eiffel Tower, where tourists are trading in their newborns for a ride back to their hotel. Nor will a smile win you a ride from an empty cab after you have already trudged halfway back to your hotel from the Eiffel Tower, for as one Parisian told us, "If they don't feel like it, the drivers won't pick you up." It is also true that if you are walking the crowded city sidewalks and happen to be in the path of a resident briskly making their way, they will regard you as if you are a cockroach, but it is also true that New Yorkers will regard you in the same way and then step on you after that.

But overall the day has been won. Now when we pass in the street outside Café Six, Charlotte shouts out and waves to us from behind the counter of the bar, and Lydia at the hotel will also likely visit us (it does not hurt to live en Californie). And when, after politely asking (for the Parisians appreciate civility along with a smile), we seat ourselves at the counter at Coffee Parisienne, Nicola beams the kind of smile you cannot manufacture and we engage in conversation that involves much trading of questions, for as in any foreign place, once you have become friends (and so are no longer foreigners), those who in live in the foreign place want to know as much of your country as you wish to know of theirs.

This morning as we ate breakfast at Nicola's counter he inquired, "Do you like root beer? When I first tasted it, I thought it tasted like medicine. We serve it here, but in most of France you will not find it. When the French come in here I always warn them `You will not like it'." He smiled. "And they never like it."

And when we told Nicola how the Parisians had (almost) all been so friendly, he explained things best.

"It is not always that way," he said, "but you are kind and smiling and it is hard not to respond in kind."

It is not about Ventura County. It is not about Paris. It is about the world at large and, as a simple smile will likely prove, the world is largely a very good place.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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