Conventional wisdom says you can learn a lot about your country by traveling the world.
But after spending a day with a French family visiting Madison for the first time, I've realized you can find out a great deal by staying home.
First, some introductions to the family, a husband and wife and their teenage son and daughter, who live in southeastern France. The family is well educated but not well traveled. Because Sylvie, the mother's sister, has been a visiting fellow at UW-Madison this year, they came to our town before setting off on a three-week tour including Niagara Falls, Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.
Flying in from Chicago, Sylvie's nephew quickly noted one major difference - the landscape was green and scattered with lakes, whereas back home it was parched.
When we began our sightseeing together at Monona Terrace and then the Capitol, another dissimilarity struck them immediately - access. They were amazed that people could walk across the lawn, something that is usually prohibited in most French parks.
Inside the Capitol, they noticed not only how beautiful the building was but also how people were able to come and go as they pleased. We climbed to the observation deck for a panoramic view of the city, which I'd never done since arriving here more than 40 years ago. It was my turn to be impressed.
After a walk down State Street, we had lunch at the Memorial Union Terrace. Sylvie's brother-in-law didn't eat his cantaloupe. "It looks good, but it has no taste," he stated without apology. This was the first of several exchanges we were to have about the quality of food in both of our countries, including the perhaps too-generous portions in the United States.
Sylvie's niece reminded me about priorities when I asked, before she had finished eating, what the family wanted to do next. "First we complete one thing, then we go on to the other," she said, adding that she was still enjoying her meal. Another good lesson, I thought, for people always in a rush.
That evening, at what I had planned as an American-style dinner of cheese curds, peanut butter on celery sticks, hamburgers, ears of sweet corn and ice cream, the corn was the biggest hit. As in most countries, corn in France is grown mostly for animal feed. The ice cream was French vanilla, which gave my friends a good laugh.
"What's the difference between this kind and regular vanilla?" I was asked. My guess was a few flecks of vanilla.
That morning, Sylvie's brother-in-law, out of curiosity, had tried a "French" soda - seltzer, syrup and a splash of cream - at a local café. "But there's nothing French about it," he said, looking a bit bemused.
I wondered if our idea of "French" was luxury, some extra creaminess.
Over dinner, we discussed other, more weighty subjects that intrigued us, particularly transparency in government, health care delivery, and the next day's enforced "furloughs" for state employees.
My friends were sure that in France people would have taken to the streets protesting unpaid days off.
What was it, I wondered, that made our workers, by contrast, agree to go along with the plan. Was it a sense of economic well-being, of pulling together in the face of crisis or, rather, the perceived best way of trying to protect jobs in hard times?
As my friends set off for the bright lights of bigger American cities, I was already looking forward to their return several weeks later, to inquire about their impressions of America and reconsider mine.
Hess lives in Madison.
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