look before you leap


In travel as in writing, it pays to be observant. I have always said that was my greatest weakness as a writer. A new book, The Invisible Gorilla, discusses a study in which people watching a video failed to notice a gorilla walking across the screen among the people. It is quite possible I would be the one person who would not see it if a gorilla actually crossed a room I occupied, not just a video. Of course, it is also possible I would be the one investigating an interesting bug on the opposite wall, so maybe my observance just flows in other directions.

Here in Europe, observance is a survival skill. There are the small things, like the Barcelona train station where I failed to observe that the toilet paper was distributed on a roll outside of the stall by the entrance. That would have been good information to have had.

Then the more important ones. Three times in the last two days, we have boarded the wrong train. Twice it was on the right track, just a few minutes earlier than the one we expected. Once it would have been a missed attraction if we had stayed on the wrong train. Once, four of us did end up stuck on it when the doors closed and my husband was stranded on the other side. He took the correct train, and as ours was going the same way, we met part way.

The final time, it would have been much more serious. The four of us (without said husband) jumped on the train we assumed he was already upon, rushed up the stairs, and looked for seats. I paused just to ascertain from the bartender that we were on the correct train. “A Marsailles?” “Marsailles? O non. A Paris!” “Non Non Non!!!” We all wailed as we ran to get off the train before the doors closed. Once train doors close in France, there is no getting off or on. Believe me. Even if the train is on the right track at approximately the right time, check the window, the arrival board, and anything else to make sure. Difficult to do when you’re afraid of missing yet another one and your husband is alone without his Eurail Pass.

Then there was observance in the metro station. Our last night in Barcelona, I noticed a young man rushing through the station. Something about him looked wrong. I could not have said precisely what, just something. He was dressed like a bad American tourist, but he did not otherwise fit the profile. He was too young and too Spanish looking. He jerked awkwardly through the crowd, looking at people yet rushing through them in an odd sort of dance. He was also checking out my daughters’ derrieres, which happens not infrequently at home and very frequently in Spain. So I was watching him. As it happens, he was checking them out not for the usual reasons but for wallets, as a few yards ahead of us I saw him pickpocket another woman’s purse and veer off quickly. It was so fast I was not even sure of what I saw. But noticing that there was something not quite right made me more vigilant around him, which kept us safer (though we had been well versed in the ways of avoiding being pickpocketed).

So, I am hoping that travel this summer will improve my writing by improving my observance. At least, I am hoping for no more wrong trains.

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