It’s been a little over a month since my wife and I returned from a trip to France and I’ve come to realize the experience has altered me. I suppose that’s the point of travel, an attempt to see something new, but more so, to be changed. The hope that in visiting a new place, it will transform us, and we will experience a new self as well. Because in the end, don’t we travel to affect how we feel? Don’t we hope to be impacted, to feel something different?
Our trip reminded me of something that happened when we first moved to our neighborhood. There was a subtle change taking place beneath the surface that I couldn’t really put my finger on. There was the obvious effect of being in a more walkable neighborhood and absence of school bussing. We walked more, we met more people, we experienced the fun parts of life more, but something else was occurring. Without being aware of it, I was being taught by my neighborhood how to be a better member of it. I found the shape of my neighborhood was shaping me.
There are concepts that just can’t be conveyed, they must be experienced. Living in this neighborhood was a lesson as delivered hundreds of times a day through a series of small interactions. I recall on my daughter’s first day of middle school, I was 8 hours away in a meeting and she called me saying she was lost. I told her there was no reason to worry, just go ask someone ‘Which way to the ice cream shop?’. She would know her way from there.
I didn’t expect this reaction from myself, panic seemed more reasonable, but the neighborhood had already taught me that the kids are ok. They can manage on their own and the neighborhood is there to help out. We had only been in town for three weeks, but during that time I already learned that children can handle some autonomy, and in addition, parents are everywhere to help. It wasn’t a lesson someone could have sat me down and explained, it was something I had to feel then internalize. The streets themselves were teaching all of us how they were meant to be used.
We have adjusted. Living in a walkable neighborhood with a close sense of community has changed who we are. It has made us more aware of our actions and made us pay more attention to the needs of others. It has taught us that taking care of your surroundings is everyone’s job. It is a constant reminder that every single person in the neighborhood has a part to play and if we all pitch in, we all benefit. It has also made us more open-minded and accepting of others. You think you are moving to change addresses, but in the end, you change yourself. I am a better person on the whole for having changed my address.
I could tell during our short stay in France how personal changes were already taking place. From the moment we got off the train from the airport, the streets were teaching us lessons, the community was showing us how to fit in. The city was telling us how to experience it, though I don’t understand how. The shape of the city immediately started shaping us.
The lesson France taught us again and again, and the one that has stuck with me the most, is that there is dignity in being a pedestrian. Non-car humans are still humans. This concept continues to eat away at me because now I am forced to see how poorly we treat pedestrians in America and all the excuses we make up to justify it.
There are so many examples of the elevated pedestrian to go on about about- but l’m going to start low, at the vital beginnings of human needs. Bathrooms. Yeah, I know, not the eloquent prose you’ve come to expect from me, but so be it. Amber and I were out and about all day every day- walking, biking, exploring, eating and drinking. Those activities lend themselves well to bathroom use. We would regularly find ourselves in need of a toilet. We are people after all and we have to do such things.
Let me jump back a bit, and tell you about a moment from home. Last December, Amber and I were Christmas shopping in downtown Pittsburgh. We were still in the midst of a partial covid lockdown, restaurants were closed to indoor dining, stores were at limited capacity, and we wanted to do our part by patronizing any small business that was open. After hitting a half dozen stores near Market Square, it became more than apparent-I had an upset stomach. Probably had a little too much nog at the holiday office party. I popped into a fast food joint (open for takeout only) and was told their restroom was off-limits. I tried a couple of other places that were closed. I was growing uncomfortable and couldn’t find anywhere to go. I saw a sign for a restroom at a parking garage. I hurried in and asked to the attendant if I could use the restroom. He said only if I had a car parked in the garage. I explained that I did not, but it was an emergency and I was happy to pay for a space. He reiterated that the bathrooms were only for customers. I reiterated that I would like be a customer. He explained that if I did not have a car, I could not use their disgusting dirty parking garage bathroom, which I desperately needed to use. I then loudly explained that I was going to go find the nearest empty parking space and take a shit in it and call it a car and then we could both go about our days. He then said something about calling the police and I found my way out. Fortunately, the friendly elf at the toy store (seriously, she was dressed like an elf) across the street saw my desperation and directed me to the ‘employees only’ bathroom on the third floor that I could use ‘just this once’. I have been singing her praises since.
How humiliating and simultaneously insulting. I traveled downtown on the train, which is what the city wants people to do to reduce congestion and pollution. I walked from the t-station to shop local and support local businesses. Yet there were no public restrooms- not at the t-station, not in the square, not a port-a-potty in all of the Golden Triangle- and the message was apparent- unless I keep a car with me, I am not dignified enough to use a restroom.
In France, we found that public restrooms are just a part of the urban fabric, as are public water fountains. Small towns, large towns, and in-between, if the city invites you out to enjoy its wares, it also provides you with places to get some water and have a wee. This is how you treat people you invite over, think about what they might like, and provide them with what they need. This is one of those issues that really irritates me about our cities. Please come and shop in our district, but when it comes to using the bathroom, go shit yourself.
In Orleans, Amber asked the owner of a cute little gift shop where we could find the nearest public restroom, since we knew by now that they were plentiful and one was probably just around the corner. But the shop owner said ‘No, no, use my restroom- it’s right here. No need to leave’, and led Amber right into the back of the shop. We were so surprised by the gesture, which is also, sadly, so surprising. This was a person doing something easy and decent for a fellow person. He was just letting us use the restroom, but because in America, we don’t dignify the needs of the pedestrian, this felt special. Not to take anything away from this kind man, but how sad is it, that we were so amazed by a store owner letting us use the restroom without question.
Everyone was so helpful and accommodating. We were constantly assisted along our way by the kindness of strangers in every manner. Being a pedestrian was a beautiful experience. There were delightful places to eat on every block. There was always a spot to stop for a coffee or glass of wine. Cafe seats face the street so you could always watch the most entertaining show on Earth- life. The streets and plazas were mesmerizing and you were compelled further down the street by what you might see next. Intersections were friendly for pedestrians and cars never felt life threatening. The mix of public transit, foot, bike and scooter traffic brought a sense of chaos and calm that made everyone feel safe. Add in water fountains and public restrooms and it felt dignified to be a pedestrian. It felt beautiful.
Walking the streets in France changed me. I was not looked down upon for using my feet, not made to feel like a second class citizen for walking. Just being there for a few days started the change, those subtle ones that happen when you aren’t really paying attention. When you learn something in your subconscious and don’t find out until later. These are the lessons a city teaches. In learning how to use it, you learn something about how it’s meant to be used. You start to see people for their humanity and treat them with some in return. You can’t pick up a guide book and ingest these ideas. You have to be out on the streets, crossing intersections, popping in shops, getting lost and asking directions, having the pressure of four Aperol spritzers pressing up against the outer limits of your bladder, demanding to be released and not feeling the anxiety of an impending fight with an asshole parking lot attendant threatening you with the police.
France changed me by showing me how people are supposed to be treated by their cities. France gave me the experience of feeling like the cities weren’t just built around me, but they were built for me. Cities that were built to delight everyone lucky enough to stroll their streets. The streets were designed to be polite, so it’s polite, it was designed to be civil, so it feels civil, it was designed for walking, so its infinitely walkable, it was designed to be fun, so it’s a true pleasure. I learned that a city designed with people in mind has the ability to change people. It changed me.
Those changes are already fleeting. Those things I held so dear about that experience are fading and I am forgetting what it felt like already. I want to hold onto those changes so damn bad because I could tell they were making me into someone better.