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Ionarts on the Road

We have a friend from France staying with us for a couple months. She is a cousin of my exchange brother, with whom I stayed on my first ever trip to Europe, when I was the tender age of 16. It has been a lot of fun to give her many of the same experiences I had in France, but in reverse. This includes teaching her American slang, making her say words or tongue twisters to make fun of her accent, trying to explain obscure or vulgar jokes, and of course introducing her to foreign foods. Since my summer as an exchange student involving sampling horse, snails, duck (as the guest, I was given the honor of selecting the unlucky animal who would be at the center of the Sunday dinner table), rabbit, pâté foie gras, 400 different kinds of stinky cheeses, and frog’s legs, I didn’t think we would be able to shock her in the latter category. However, a friend had the brilliant idea to prepare soft shell crabs, which he did for us one evening. Although we explained many times, in English and French, that the way to eat a soft shell is whole, which is precisely the point, she could not bring herself to eat it any other way than by trying to extract the meat as if from a regular crab. She probably has the constant suspicion, as I did in France, that her hosts are trying to pull some trick on her.

Niagara Falls, July 2005Well, for the past couple weeks, we brought her along on that typical form of American vacationing, the car trip. As we feared, she was not prepared for just how long you have to sit in a car hurtling at great speeds to cross even a fraction of the United States. This began, as I mentioned last week, with a week at a Midwestern lake cottage, in this case one or two steps above basic camping. Because my family is from Indiana, our friend had to learn to play euchre (it’s quite similar to a game her family taught me in France, called belote, so she got the hang of it quickly). We then went up to visit some dear friends in Rochester, New York, where she experienced a hometown Fourth of July celebration, complete with a parade, barbecue, and fireworks. (I know, I know, we should have been in Washington for the fireworks to end all fireworks, but it didn’t work out with the rest of the trip.) We then took her to see Something Outdoors on an Incredibly Grand Scale, which is the American equivalent of seeing an old historical building in Europe. Of course, what worked out with this trip was Niagara Falls, which in one of those ironic turns was a place I had never seen myself. (I can’t tell you how few French people of my acquaintance have been to see Mont Saint-Michel, for example, so this phenomenon is not limited to Americans.)

What has grown up around Niagara Falls is mostly an eyesore, but I could not have imagined just how wild the falls themselves remain. Water rushing over the precipice, and over such a precipice, is an incredible thing to see, no matter how the surroundings have changed in the last centuries. We took our friend on the Maid of the Mist boat trip, which takes you up to the edge of the crashing water, and that location is about the least affected by human intervention, at least to the uninformed eye, as any on the planet. The Native Americans of the region regarded the falls as a sacred site (see the post on my recent visit to the Cahokia holy city near St. Louis), where a god of thunder, Heno, lived behind the roaring rush of water, with the huge ascending plume of mist as his nimbus. If we had had any sense as a nation, we should not have allowed any development around this place, which is the sort of utterly unrealistic thing you would probably expect me to say. Most of the American side of the falls is technically a protected state park, but the spirit of commerce pervades everything but the center of the cataract itself. Our friend and her family live near Grenoble, at the foot of the Vercors mountain range, which juts out from the Alps, so imposing natural sites are nothing new to her. Even so, she was awestruck by Niagara, just as we were.

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