Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

The Tourist Guide

on April 20, 2014

If you happen to be stationed in a popular tourist destination, such as Paris, then what happens is that all your friends, relatives, relatives of friends and friends of relatives consider you fair game to host their next Paris holiday. That is, if you are Chinese. In case you did not know, the Chinese are the Jews of the East. We do not spend a single penny that we do not have to spend.

And so, Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung hosted a variety of visitors and that sofa bed in the sitting room got heavily used. The one I remember most is Chang JieJie (Elder Sister Chang, spelled today Zhang), because she stayed the longest, a few months. She was Aunt Lily’s neighbor’s daughter back in Taiwan. She also happened to major in French, so this was her dream come true. She had to rely less on our tourist guide services than most other visitors because she was younger, and therefore more self-reliant, and also because she tried her best to practice her French.

When I teach foreign languages today, I always include culture in the syllabus. How can you learn about a language when you know nothing of the culture that produced it? So Chang JieJie learned this principle the hard way. One day she came back from her sightseeing very early and quite puzzled. She asked me point blank, “Is it true that they have demolished the Bastille fortress?”  I was taken aback. “Of course, they have!” Which caused her even more dismay. “When? How come?” I almost laughed out loud. “Way back on July 14, 1789. That is why it is now celebrated as the French National Day! That is what started the Revolution!” She could not believe it.  She thought the revolutionaries only took it, and did not realize they had actually destroyed it as well. She told me how she had taken the metro the Place de la Bastille, and looked for the fortress. Finally, she asked a passer-by who told her it was right there. Where? She could not find it. She again grabbed another passer-by and asked for the fortress itself. To which he replied that it has been destroyed! She had to give up and come home. We all had a good laugh over this episode.

Monet's Les Nympheas, at the Musee de l'Orangerie

Monet’s Les Nympheas, at the Musee de l’Orangerie

Another time, she decided to go see Monet’s paintings. She took me along just in case. We got off at the Concorde station and again she got lost. She asked a passer-by in her heavily accented French where “Monet” was. To which he replied, “Monnaie? (cash?) Are you looking for a bank?” She had the address written on a piece of paper, so he was finally able to point us in the direction of the musee de l’Orangerie. I am very thankful to have acted as her guide and translator for I am now able to tell my art students about the Nympheas (the Water Lilies), Monet’s most famous set of paintings.  These are exhibited on the walls of a round room, so one can admire the entirety of each painting without having to walk up and down it. I was astounded to find that the brown tree trunks were, upon close inspection, made up of a multitude of other colors, including pink, purple, yellow, blue and so on. The same was true of every part of the painting. Yet, when you stepped back, it looked like water lilies on blue water, with trees on the edge.

Chang JieJie would take us, Saadia, Therese and me, sometimes with her, for example to visit Notre-Dame de Paris, the famous cathedral, site of the novel and the modern musical of the same name. Once, she offered to take us with her to see the Tour Eiffel. We all jumped happily up and down with excitement the night before. Well, big mouth me woke up the next morning and babbled at breakfast about my dream. I still had often various dreams that remained vividly in my memory the next morning. “Guess what,” I said, my mouth full, “I dreamt that Therese climbed a very tall and big tree, fell down and broke her leg!” Aunt Lily and Uncle Lung exchanged worried glances. Therese stayed home that day.

Therese (left), me (center) and Saadia (right) on top of a tower at Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

Therese (left), me (center) and Saadia (right) on top of a tower at Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

I also remember a middle aged couple whom I guided to Versailles, Notre-Dame, the Tour Eiffel, and so on. That is because they offered me an ice-cream, and also lunch. They also took pictures and gave me some to keep. At the Trocadero esplanade, photographers prowled, “Sayonara! Sayonara!” And I would mutter to myself, “Do I look Japanese or something? Really!” In those days, the only Far Eastern tourists to be found in Europe were Japanese ones. China was still a huge prison, and South Korea and Taiwan were still in the throes of building their economic miracle. No one had the money to go gallivanting abroad.

Behind Notre Dame de Paris, 1969

Behind Notre Dame de Paris, 1969

And then, there were tourists that were like ships passing in the night. They would say hello and maybe have lunch or dinner, but do their own touring. Such a one was a Chinese lady in her early forties, who hailed from Singapore and was doing her European tour with her elderly mother.  They were Muslims, had just completed their pilgrimage to Makkah  and had stayed with Mama and Papa while in Jeddah. Interestingly, I actually do not remember their passage in Paris at all, but learned about it from her own mouth many years later, when she became my mother-in-law.


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