I’ve found it’s a small world

Published 7:02 pm Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The night is black. There are no lights in the distance and few stars in the sky. They are no sounds of the city, just the swooshing sounds of the sea in the night.

I may never write a column in a more isolated place than in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. I have written from a car, a train, a plane, and now a ship. All of them were connected to the Internet proving that we are never really that alone anymore.

Mary Lou and I spent three wonderful days in Paris with my brother, Ernest, and his wife, Karen, along with their three children, Bailey, Addison and Davis. ML and I have been going to Paris for a long time, but some things inspire you no matter how many times you have seen them. And there is nothing more exciting than traveling with kids who get to see in person things we all know about for the first time.

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Our hotel in Paris was one block from the Arc de Triomphe, and one block from the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. We visited the top of the Eiffel Tower at night, the lights of the city flickering as far as the eye could see.

We visited the world famous Louvre Museum and enjoyed watching our nieces and nephews as they took in the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Venus de Milo and Ramses II. History comes alive when you can actually see what you have only studied in a book.

Napoleon’s tomb, with its extraordinary splendor in honoring their fallen hero, came next. It was followed by a visit to Versailles, with its Hall of Mirrors and gold fence and gates. You don’t really have to say anything when the expression on your face shows the expansive wonder of this place.

Our last visit was to the Musée Rodin, the home of “The Thinker.” Many fun pictures were made imitating this and other famous statues in the garden.

Along the way we learned to easily navigate the Metro, Paris’ extensive subway system. We learned how to pay for things quickly in Euros. We caught taxies with drivers that could not speak English and never once got lost.

We traveled to Austerlitz, Paris’ southernmost train station, which we had never visited. Our overnight train through France and Spain was a treat to everyone. We had sleeper cabins, a bar car and a dining car. I am not sure we slept that soundly, but it was just like the movies and we arrived in Barcelona exactly on time.

One thing Europeans do infinitely better than Americans is provide reliable, efficient and comfortable train travel. Every train station I have visited in the United States has pretty much been a renovated hotel or museum, while in Europe those same buildings function just as they were designed; as working train stations.

We arrived in Barcelona, Spain, early in the morning, after a wonderful breakfast in the dining car. We stored our luggage at the ship before spending the day in a city new to all of us. Four million people live in this city that was the host of the 1992 Olympics. Other than the monument to Christopher Columbus, who left this city in search of the New World, we really didn’t know much of what to expect.

What we did find surprised us all. La Ramblas, the main street, stretches for dozens of blocks with booths, restaurants and street entertainers. We got off the main street only to discover the part of the city that took us back hundreds of years in time.

The streets weren’t much more than 10 feet wide. Five or six stories up the buildings went, with laundry or flowers in most of the windows, indicating that despite its age this was a living community.

We visited the Picasso Museum, which houses the largest collection of the Modernist artist who invented Cubism. Everyone agreed this was somewhere to visit once, but you wouldn’t have to go back there again. The former palaces housing the museum were built before Columbus discovered America.

All of which leads us to our first day at sea on the ship Norwegian Gem. How do you describe a ship that holds more than 4,000 people, including the crew? Extraordinarily big is certainly one description, but the efficiency and friendliness of the crew makes it feel like you are the only ones on board.

This brings me to the final thoughts about this first week of vacation. Everywhere we have been the people have been extraordinarily friendly and helpful. Even Parisians, which have a reputation of not being friendly to Americans, went out of their way to make our visit special. That has not always been the case in our past visits to the City of Lights.

But it was Barcelona that made me realize that we are really all the same regardless of our language or background. I left my computer bag in the second taxi we took in Barcelona. I put it in the trunk, something that I never do. It wasn’t until many hours later that I remembered that I had left the bag, along with our tickets for the ship, the planes later, and other valuables in the cab.

The driver didn’t speak English and had no idea who we were, where we were from, or where we were going. He only knew where he had picked us up and where he put us out.

Nevertheless, the driver went back to the cruise ship terminal. Thinking we might have been on the ship when it came in, they were unable to locate our names. They called area hotels asking for the name on my tag, but of course had no luck in finding me.

However, he left my card he found in the briefcase with his number. When we returned to the terminal I asked, without hope, if anyone had returned my bag. Amazingly, there was my card with a number to call. Some 30 minutes later, he showed up with my bag, and hugged me as he walked up knowing how important this must have been for us. Inside, completely intact, were our tickets, my computer, my iPod and my cell phone.

A stranger in another country, which knew nothing about us and spoke no English, went to tremendous effort to return something lost to its owner. In doing so, he reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of man yet again, and along the way forever formed the way I will think about the Spanish. Gracias.