La vie est belle
My shoes took me to France last week, to St Sulpice in the Mid-Pyrenees region, for the wedding of one of my younger cousins. It was a flying visit really, a long weekend, but it was lovely to watch him marry his beautiful bride, to be surrounded by the warmth of my family for three whole days, and to meet the latest additions to the ever-growing Rigg family clan. My husband was working, so I travelled alone for the first time in years, and although I missed him, I did feel a quiet surge of exhilaration, thousands of feet up in the air, in having the freedom and the confidence to transport myself like this, alone, to a new and unfamiliar place. Because it's a bit surreal really, isn't it? To be in one country in the morning, and then in another by the afternoon, sat outside in the great expanse of the French countryside, eating les carottes rapées piled high onto fresh baguette. It's really surreal. But in the best possible way. It's only France, you might be thinking. Calm yourself, Judith Chalmers. But it isn't 'France' specifically that gets me so excited. It's simply the newness and the discovery of being somewhere else. It's the surge of heat as you step off the plane, enveloping you like a tight hug; the kind of heat you don't get in England, dry and all-encompassing and permanent. Not the kind of heat that visits for a day or two, swallowing up a city and spitting out red, hot bodies at the end. It's a heat that comes gradually, and with warning, that stays for long, hot summers until the beginning of October, leaving the grass scorched and skin bronzed as it fades into Autumn. You can feel it absorbed in the pavements, in the hot metal of the cars, behind the closed shutters of the hotel rooms and houses, in the air. It's the novelty of the things you see - the license plate numbers, all squashed and narrow on the back of boxy-looking cars; the large, detached houses, with their orange brickwork and whitewashed walls and shuttered windows, so quintessentially French, like something from a film. It's the sight of people sitting out on a terrasse late into the night, drinking coffee and playing Pétanque serenely by the side of the road under the dim glow of the street lamps. It's the majesty of foreign foods in the supermarkets, so exotic in their appearance - unfamiliar brands and garish packaging and unknown combinations of letters spelling out the names of mystery products. Even the money, with which you pay for these alien brands of salted crisps, seems strange in your hand, like monopoly notes. It's the pavements over which you walk, lined by ancient buildings, telling stories that you know nothing about, thousands of years of history, different to the history that you know. It's the words spoken in the street, and over the counter of the patisseries and the boulangerie, simple and ordinary in content, but so unfathomable and incomprehensible to ears like yours. It's the thrill of using these words for yourself, rolling them around your tongue, quietly rehearsing them under your breath - "Je voudrais une baguette s'il vous plait" - and even though they come out all clumsy and wrong, nothing like the words in your head, miraculously they've actually carried meaning and you're handed a bread stick as long as your arm. And the longer you're in these strange places, the more wonderful words you discover - les tournesols, pois chiche, le croquembouche - each one sounding more and more brilliant on your tongue than the next.
There is so much beauty, so much wonder, in the new and the unknown. Why am I writing this now? After all the places I've been before? Because it dawned on me while I was there that although the world is getting bigger, people's minds are getting smaller. People are becoming scared of everyone and everything. Last night, I landed in America, where their president wants to build a wall to keep people out, which as a result, will also keep people in. He's forming enemies, and building barriers, and creating divisions, and enforcing checks and screens and bans and deportation. He might as well put up a big STOP sign and say, "We are DONE with new people here." And if he does that, you can't help but wonder which countries will be next? And this is just the worst possible thing that could happen to us all. If I could make a public service announcement to the world, it would be this: Go. Go and travel. Go anywhere, go everywhere, see everything, meet everyone. Because when you travel, you see what else there is. You see that there is another way, that things can be done differently, and it doesn't necessarily make them better or worse than the way you're used to, but you learn that what you know is not all there is. The clothes you wear, the way you eat, the jokes you tell, the words you know, the things you believe, the way you queue, the way you live and the way you love - there's not one single way to do it. The more you travel, the more you learn, and then suddenly, the world doesn't seem like such a scary place after all. In fact, you realise just how wonderful it really is.