A couple years ago my (then) wife and I were visiting my brother and his family in England. One day we decided to make the drive down to the north shores of France and come back the same day. It was on the drive down that I learned one of the greatest, yet simplest lessons I’ve ever learned in life.
After crossing the English Channel, we began driving down the roads of France with nowhere in particular to go. Being so close to England, I had assumed that all of the signs would be in English and French, but they weren’t, and none of us spoke the language of love. At all.
Shortly into our journey, we saw a freeway sign which made us believe that Paris was only a few hours away. Where we had originally thought it was 12-13 hours, we got overly-excited at the thought that we could go see some of the world’s most famous sites in one of the world’s most famous cities, and so we pulled over at a petrol station to find out if our uneducated translations of the sign were indeed correct.
We grabbed a map and carried it to the counter. For the next five minutes, we tried to communicate with the cashier who wasn’t happy with our complete inability to speak in her country’s language. She couldn’t tell what we were saying and we couldn’t tell what she was saying. We both just kept pointing to the map and shouting things at each other, probably “I can’t understand you!” in our own languages. We were getting ready to leave when another good Samaritan who spoke very broken English came over and offered to help where he could. Working together, we learned that we were indeed only a few hours from Paris.
He showed us where we were on the map, showed us the route to get there, and we were on our way.
As we neared the outskirts of the city, everything started getting extremely confusing. Things weren’t lining up on the map, roads and expressways kept showing up that weren’t on our map, and we found ourselves more or less lost. We didn’t know if we were going the right way or not, we didn’t know how much further it was to Paris, and we didn’t know if we could make our way back to the Chunnel when this was all over.
Once again we pulled over at a petrol station and I followed my wife inside to try and figure out where we were and where we needed to go. She approached the man at the counter and immediately we found ourselves facing the same problem as before. Nobody understood anybody.
My wife started getting flustered and frustrated, and she was showing it. She began talking louder as if it would somehow help him understand what she was saying. She was nearly to the point of crying.
Then, the lesson.
The French guy raised his eyebrows and put his hand up in front of her face to stop her from talking. She immediately did. He then lifted both index fingers, put them to the corners of his own mouth, and made a sweeping motion upwards as he smiled. His message was clear.
Just smile. This isn’t a crisis and we can figure things out.
She started to talk again, and again he silenced her and made the same gesture he had before.
She forced a smile back and then her smile turned genuine. He smiled even bigger back, and she started laughing. He then nodded at her as if to say, “see, life’s not so bad.” Shortly thereafter another worker entered the store. She came over to the counter and spoke reasonable English. As it turned out, we weren’t far from Paris at all. A little turned around maybe, but not far.
I loved it, and I loved the French guy for doing it. He never lost his cool, he never got frustrated or annoyed, he never became stubborn or resistant. Instead, he helped everybody to communicate in a truly universal language… smiling and laughing. The rest took care of itself.
Oh, and Paris was amazing.
Dan Pearce, Single Dad Laughings