Category: driving


September 5: Paris

Our bus driver and tour guide in Paris was Antoine.  My mental picture of him is that he was bald and wore sunglasses, but I’m not too confident in my memory of faces.  He was experienced with the sometimes chaotic traffic of Paris, weaving the giant bus through gaps as easily as if it were one of the tiny cars zipping around.  Traffic jams could develop quickly, producing a cacaphony of horns and raised voices, but Antoine was usually able to anticipate and avoid them.

He shared a few facts about the city of Paris as we neared the hotel, including the fact that it was divided into districts, and the one where our hotel was located was known as a “red-light district.”  This produced nervous laughter from the students.  Our professors issued a friendly reminder not to be tempted by establishments selling sex.  “Once they have you inside, they will get you to give them as much of your money as they can.”  I don’t think we were tempted– in fact, we were a little nervous about possibly being in a rough part of town.  We made sure to only go out in groups.

The hotel was an old building with plenty of charm.  There continued to be lots of honking and shouting from the intersection outside, and as the hour got later, voices from the buildings joined in, presumably yelling for them to keep the noise down.  Believe it or not, I still got a good night’s sleep.  In the morning, we went downstairs for a breakfast of tea and croissants served by a delightful old lady.

I feel bad that this post so far has dwelt on the negatives of the part of town we were in.  I was impressed by the friendliness and warmth of the Parisians we interacted with.  Overall, our time in Paris was the most relaxing part of the trip– there was a laid-back attitude to the city that permeated everything.  Yes, people yelled in traffic jams, but that almost seemed more like a sport that people embraced with gusto rather than an outpouring of stress.

And, of course, the city is beautiful.  On Wednesday, Antoine took us on a bus tour to see many of its most famous sights.  We stopped at the Arc de Triomphe, which is in the middle of a huge roundabout– making your way to the center is an interesting challenge!  We went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, which gave us a great view of the city.  I noticed several football (soccer) fields.

Notre Dame Cathedral was awe-inspiring.  I thought about how it almost two centuries to build and wondered what it must have been like to spend a lifetime working on a project that wouldn’t be complete for generations.  It still stood as a monument to God, who is not constrained by time.

For some reason, the thing that sticks in my memory the most was seeing the “zero point” of Paris, which is about fifty yards away from the cathedral.  Apparently, whenever the distance from Paris is given, if one is to be precise, it is actually the distance from that point.  So until you have been there, you have always been at least some distance from Paris.

Paris holds a lofty place in the development of our system of measurements.  A meter used to be defined as one ten-millionth the distance of a line from the North Pole to the Equator that passed through Paris.  And the standard weight still used to define a kilogram is kept in the Paris suburb of Sévres.

In the late afternoon, we took a sightseeing tour of Paris by boat on the river Seine.  One of the interesting things we saw was the other Statue of Liberty, the miniature copy that the United States gave to France as a thank-you for building the big statue designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi that looks out on New York Harbor.  Hopefully, they did not think it was tacky to give them a smaller version of the same thing.

As afternoon turned to evening, buildings and street lamps lit up, and we saw why Paris is called the City of Light.

One last thought for the day:  I’m fairly sure I remember seeing a memorial for American soldiers who died in France during World Wars I and II.  I thought about my grandfather, who had spent time in France as a soldier during the second World War.  He had been so excited to hear that I was taking a trip to Europe– he sent me a note wishing me a good trip along with some coins from each country I would be visiting.

He shared with me that he had made instant friends in Europe by giving people a pack of gum and suggested that I could do the same.  Of course, today anybody in Europe can get chewing gum any time they want to just by going to the store.  Practically anything that’s available here in the U.S. is also available in Europe.  But my grandfather’s story drove home how much the world can change in a lifetime– and how people in places like France and America are free to enjoy good things only because of the sacrifices of people like my grandfather, and the soldiers remembered at that memorial, and countless others from other countries.

I was surrounded by history on this trip– not just Biblical history, but also recent history that had shaped the world.

I drive from Danville to Bloomsburg, along the same path the school bus took me for twelve years. The trees crowd in beside the road, and it feels so quiet– I’m amazed at how little traffic there seems to be. I guess I’ve gotten used to Cincinnati. But this definitely still feels like home.

I’m going to the park for my 13-year class reunion. Why 13 years? Because we’d never had a reunion before, and we wanted to have one. I worry a little that I won’t recognize some of my classmates. That could be embarrassing.

But as they arrive one by one, I know them instantly without a doubt! This so rarely happens to me anymore even with people I know well. It really feels nice.

Eight of us were able to make it out of a class of 26. I’d say that’s pretty good, considering how many of us have spread out all over the country and how many are busy with family and job obligations.

I get to meet their spouses and children, and I do my best to remember their names, but it will take me a while. I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to learn some of them from Facebook.

We talk while the children play on the playground– there are so many stories to tell. I stand in between two conversations, listening to both and smiling. My friends are so very much the same people I knew from school. They’ve been to some amazing places and lived through some tough times, but God has preserved what is good in each of them.

I don’t think I have a lot to add myself. My experience is still mostly as a student. I’m still trying to find a career, still hoping to start a relationship with someone.

I probably seem a lot like I did when we were all in high school. I lagged behind socially then– at a middle school or elementary level– and as a result, I didn’t interact much with my peers. Now, I’m probably up to a college or high school level socially, but I don’t always feel fully a part of the adult world.

When someone asks me what I’m doing currently, I stammer and pause for a bit as I try to answer. A nasty part of me is telling me “You don’t belong here. You don’t have anything to talk about,” but I know that’s not true. We go out for drinks, but I haven’t developed a taste for beer or wine, so I order soda. I hope they don’t think I’m looking down on them by not sharing a drink– it’s such a symbol of friendship.

Before I came to the reunion, I was worried a little about negative thoughts like these, but they are no match for the joy I feel. I sit and listen to all the stories as my friends share– about meeting their husbands and wives, about funny or sad things at work, about pregnancy and childbirth and picking names for children and the unpredictability of two-year-olds. I imagine that my parents had conversations like this about me when I was little. I hear how God has blessed each family and prepared them for the things He brings into their lives. Everyone’s story is different, but also the same.

I realize that I have grown in thirteen years. When I was a senior in high school, I was afraid to drive a car. Today I made two trips by myself, and I enjoyed them. Even though social interaction is tiring, I am seeking it rather than avoiding it– planning my weekend around it and learning how to get enough rest in between so that I can be fully present and part of the conversation.

I wonder if my classmates know what a blessing they have been to my life– both those who are there and those who could not come.

At times, others find it hard to believe that I have Asperger’s just from observing me. I think some of this may be due to personality– my strong desire to avoid confrontation has likely kept me from clashing with others.

But there was another big difference in my life, the people around me. In so many of the stories I read online about people with Asperger’s, their years in school are not remembered fondly. Stories of bullying seem almost universal, and in a lot of cases, the best advice people can offer is “Wait until you graduate; it will get better.” I read about people who still deal with the effects of bullying decades later.

I wonder if my classmates know that they are proof that it doesn’t have to be that way– that kindness can have just as much of a positive impact on a life. None of us knew about Asperger’s, but anyone could see that I was different in some ways, lagging behind in others. But I wasn’t given grief for it. I was just given friendliness, time, and a safe place to grow.

I hope they know.

A few days ago, I got to see some of my classmates from Cedarville again for the first time in quite a while.  One of my friends was getting married, and it was a lovely wedding in which God was honored.

After the wedding, we went to the reception, which was held in the church’s gymnasium, and I found where my Cedarville friends were sitting and sat with them.

Have you ever been annoyed with yourself because you were in a time that should have been joyful and fun, but you were in a gloomy mood for no good reason?  I think that sort of happened to me.

As I think back on it now, there were a few things that were working against me.  To begin with, a wedding is the type of occasion that tests a lot of areas that I am weak in.  Making sure I am ready to go to the wedding requires using a lot of those executive functioning skills that are often tricky for Aspies.  I needed to make sure I had planned out what I was going to wear, what I needed to bring, and especially when I needed to leave in order to get there on time.  Driving increases my stress level a little more, and being in a social situation by myself bumps it up another level.

(What a whiny person I’m being!  I’m making it sound as if it’s such a hardship to do things that are a matter of simple courtesy.  This is part of the reason I’m annoyed with myself.  The fact is that it wasn’t that hard– I was glad that my friend invited me to her wedding, and I wanted to be there to share my best wishes for her and her husband.  I have a love/hate relationship with social situations in that part of me tries to avoid them, but I think deep down I really want to spend time with other people, and I almost always feel better after I have, even if it’s tiring sometimes.)

But the thing that seemed to mess up the meeting with my Cedarville classmates the most was unexpected– it was because I had a lot of trouble hearing what they were saying.  I mentioned that the reception was held in a gymnasium.  With so many people in a room with a basketball court for a floor, the echoing sounds of people’s voices in the background made it really hard for me to understand what my friends were saying.

It made me wonder if I’m losing my hearing.  I do like to listen to music a lot– is it possible the music is too loud?  Or is this more likely due to my brain processing sound input differently?  I have a difficult time tuning out background noise.

Whatever the case, I tried to have a conversation with each of my friends from Cedarville, but I wasn’t able to follow the larger conversation they were having as a group.  It got me thinking about how back when I was still going to Cedarville, I often felt the same way– not that I couldn’t hear what people were saying, but that I just didn’t know how to participate in the conversation on the same level as my friends.  It was sort of like being behind an invisible wall.  I wonder if it seemed to them like I was pushing other people away.

When I was talking to each of my classmates, I asked about how they were doing and what they were up to since graduating from Cedarville.  They are a bunch of really neat, talented people!  But it made me think about how little I knew about each of them even when I was still at Cedarville.

Anyway, sorry for making such a gloomy post.  I suppose that the positive side of this story is that it means I am getting a little better at interacting with others than I was ten years ago.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been such a shock to think back to how I was then.

A while ago, I was eating at a restaurant and a friend noticed that I was working on a cryptic crossword puzzle book I got for Christmas. If you’ve never heard of cryptic crosswords, they are popular in Britain and work by disguising each clue in “cryptic” language that seems to be talking about something else but is actually a very literal reference to the answer, provided you think about it in the right way. For example, the clue “Large mixed drink” has the answer “LAGER,” which is both “large mixed” (mix up the letters in “LARGE”) and a “drink.”

Anyway, my friend asked if the puzzle book was a way me to keep from getting overwhelmed by the sensory input around me in the restaurant. I hadn’t thought about it before then, but I told her I thought she was right. It really does help me to have something specific and familiar to focus on when I’m in a busy or unpredictable environment.

Really, it’s the times when I am just waiting with nothing to do that can be more tiring for me to deal with. It’s hard to keep my mind from getting impatient and running away thinking about what I’m going to do next if I’m waiting for others to make up their minds where they want to go, or if people are just “hanging out” and I don’t know how to contribute to the conversation. The crossword puzzle gives me a way to focus that mental energy.

My other “survival method” is listening to music. If I really feel overwhelmed by the input around me, it really helps to have my MP3 player with me (provided it isn’t out of power, like it is about half the time). I might listen to my music if other people are stressed and I feel stressed just listening to them, or if I’m just not interested in whatever others are talking about. (Or if I just want to listen to music! I don’t want people to think that every time I use my MP3 player, I’m trying to shut them out!)

Listening to music can help me to focus on the task at hand, if it’s something like math, editing, or programming. Music is usually too distracting for me to listen to while I’m reading or writing, unless the music has no words.

Music also seems to help in one other very stressful situation for me– driving. I don’t like to drive and find it a very draining experience, because I potentially need to be alert and aware of everything on the road. (At the same time, I need to make sure I am paying attention to the right things and ignoring mere distractions, or else I will become overcautious and annoy the people behind me by doing things like waiting too long at traffic lights.)

It doesn’t seem to make sense that listening to music and singing along with it would help me to drive, but I think it actually does. Perhaps my focus on the music provides a baseline, a point of reference for me to keep an equally steady focus on the road as I drive, or perhaps it preoccupies an overactive part of my brain, leaving me with the right level of attention to drive cautiously without worrying? I really don’t know. I do know that singing along with music in the car is the main thing I enjoy about driving. (And if I approach a situation that looks especially unpredictable, like a busy, complicated highway interchange, I stop singing, turn the music down, or even turn it off so I can devote more attention to it.)

As usual, I don’t know for sure that these mental processes are typical for people with Asperger’s. It seems likely that most people’s minds work this way, but perhaps they are a little better at narrowing their focus voluntarily without needing to use something like music to do it?