When I graduated from high school my parents awarded me with an incredible present. It was a three week trip – one of which was spent in Italy, one in France and one in Spain. I was going to meet my dad who was returning from a buying trip to the Orient, the last segment of which he spent in India.
It was a wonderful trip but far too short, like trying to eat at each of the great restaurants in New York City in a seven day period. But it certainly whetted my taste for experiencing other people and cultures in their home environments.
I met dad at the airport in Rome. We spent two days there doing the usual touristy sightseeing things (and recovering from jet lag), spent another three days in Florence where I spent most of my time at the Uffizi Gallery and then went on to Milan where dad was going to look at some hand-painted pottery which he was considering adding to his line.
From there it was off to gay Paree and what a wonderful city. At that time the French and particularly the Parisians had a reputation of unfriendliness toward foreigners. This was apparently true to a certain extent as the French government gave American tourists “Smile Checks” which could be handed out to polite and helpful Parisians which they could redeem for merchandise.
I found the rap about Parisian hostility to be as unfounded as the insinuation that New Yorkers, a group to which dad and I belonged, were cold and unfriendly. The citizens of Paris whom I met and asked for directions seemed to appreciate the fact that I tried to communicate with them in their language (as poor as my command of it was).
I will never forget the majesty of Notre Dame. I could see Charles Laughton in the bell tower as he gave the world his Quasimodo. The stained glass was overwhelming in its brilliance and I was thrilled that when we went in the cathedral’s organist was giving a recital. I can still feel the reverberations of the music through this magnificent Gothic church.
The final movement, the Toccata from the 5th organ symphony by Charles Marie Widor was the final piece on his program. I fell in love with this piece and learned it. It was always my recessional during the Solemn High Mass of the Resurrection. Please take a few moments to enjoy it.
From Paris dad and I headed to Barcelona. There we met his new business associate, his Spanish agent. Miguel Vadiz was a native Barcelonan but our business was actually in Valencia where there were a number of craftsmen who threw and hand-painted their pottery. So after several days of seeing this ancient city, getting acclimated to the Spanish siesta period and eating supper at least three hours after my stomach began growling, we drove to Valencia.
Miguel had spoken with these artists by telephone but wasn’t really familiar with the layout of the city. We drove around looking for our first stop but constantly found ourselves in our little car at dead ends. We went back to the main square and tried again. We were still lost.
Apparently Spanish men share the same trait with American men and will only ask for directions as an absolute last resort. But finally we had reached that place. Miguel saw a man walking toward him leading his burro. He got out of the car and went up to this man to ask directions.
We could see from inside the car that this man apparently knew where we wanted to go. Rather than try to describe the route, he volunteered to take us there. Of course Miguel accepted his kindness – thinking that we were within a few minutes of our destination.
The man led his burro around – back in the direction from which he had come. He began walking and we crept along in Miguel’s little Renault. (I had been in the back seat for so long that I had begun to lose the circulation in my legs in the cramped space). And we drove, twisting down this street, turning down that one always following our guide and his burro. Finally we arrived, about two miles from where our guide had encountered us.
My father and Miguel tried to give the man some money to compensate him for his time and the extra four miles he had added to his own trip. He absolutely refused any compensation, he turned and he and his burro resumed their journey.
Miguel said that this man refused to accept anything from us because he said, “Not to help a stranger in need would be a great discourtesy and an even worse sin.”
What a concept. What a gentle way to look at life. What a pity that we don’t encounter more men and their burros on our travels.