Road 2 Elsewhere, Excerpt #37*: Fortunate, Not Lucky
How my dad helped me parse my privilege, long before I understood what that even meant.
IN LATE OCTOBER, I had a drowsy morning in the Paris Metro. It was interesting to watch people on the way to work — an alien culture for me. We were rolling toward La Gare de Lyon, where my travel companion David Copperfield and I caught the train to Switzerland.
I went along for many miles watching the landscape as the Alps rose up around me, but eventually my cabin-mates — an older, affluent couple — demonstrated their knowledge of English, and we had a charming interchange. We decided that a person will be treated exactly as s/he expects to be treated, and our friendship was ensured. We parted like grandson/grandparents, after which I eagerly followed their advice and hopped onto the wrong train.
This turned out to be a blessing, because the people on my (wrong) train were also friendly, and I held up my part in a half-hour conversation in French. (So what if I missed class at the Alliance Française that day?)
After changing trains in Glacieux and Romont, I finally found the correct train line and proceeded to my destination — Fribourg, Switzerland — without further incident. My first sniff of that country was the oft-remembered “pipe;” I was instantly transported back eight years, on the magic carpet of fragrance.
When I was thirteen we had taken our “final” family vacation — two parents, four sons, two rented Volkswagen Beetles, Switzerland, France, and northern Italy — which began at a rental chalet on the side of a mountain in the sheep-infested Swiss town of Sarnen. With the alps rising above us and all of Europe to discover, my brothers and I spent substantial amounts of time attempting to drop stones from the first-floor porch into a bucket hanging from a chain, fifteen feet below.
This required hours of practice.
In Switzerland, home to 1.6 million cows, fertilizing with manure is a sacrament. Only with modern farming techniques, it had been refined into a form of shit-slurry that was cannon-blasted at farm fields through fire hoses. Hence “the pipe,” which lives on in Moore-family olfactory lore.
Welcome to Fribourg, shit-stink capital of Switzerland!
I jumped off my train full of expectation and wandered wandered with great purpose, dissipating my energy until a pretty girl stopped me on the street and said “Can I help you find something?” in USA English.
Uh, true love?
Her advice led me to a note for “Pierre,” left by my college friend Gaffey. When we met up, he informed me that Tess, my crucifying ex who was also studying in Fribourg, had left for the weekend.
So much for that over-anticipated reunion.
Gaffey’s room at 56 Tour Henri was pervaded by the character of its aging artist/landlord, a legit Pierre. His French was as muddled as my understanding of it, so our conversations were friendly but not informative. He offered us tea, but Gaffey and I had to attend his “end-of-orientation dinner,” so we left immediately to meet a tour bus packed with fifty American college students. (Well, forty-nine college students and me.) Suddenly I was back in freshman orientation — such was the character of the loud, laughing crowd there assembled.
“Honestly now, Peter, did you not feel distanced from their brand of noisy sociality?” I condescended to them all, in my journal entry that night. “Much noise, little substance?” This, from the guy who bought the International Herald Tribune every day, so he could solve the Jumble: That Scrambled Word Game!
I was like the empty pot calling the kettle empty.
ESHRA SOPT HTIW A IRFEDN?
Near the end of the orientation dinner, I launched into an intense conversation with “Sue from LaSalle U.” She did not impress me at first. Her voice was the Philadelphia monotone drawl — a kind of strained, almost wheezing voice, as if words were propelled from her throat, escaping across tightly drawn lips and stiffened cheeks. I tried to peer through the aural fog as we talked about our parents (hers divorced when she was 15). She was trying to talk me out of the inevitable rejection phase. She said, “That’s what society wants from you, ya know? But these…these are your parents. Ya gotta realize, and…appreciate that.”
I had in fact considered my parents, in the journal record. They got off easy, and deservedly so. I was fortunate, not lucky.
That foundational phrase came from my father.
One day I accompanied him to the headquarters of General Electric, where he worked as an accountant. HQ had moved (conveniently for all of us) from Lexington Avenue in NYC to a short drive from my parents’ condo in Connecticut.
As we rolled up to the gate of his impressive office building, this exchange took place.
Son: It’s pretty cool that you work in this building, dad. How did you manage that promotion to headquarters, anyway?
Father (looks at his son as if he has asked about coital incidence, rather than a career shift. Four seconds of silence elapse.): I can’t remember.
Son (shocked at Non-Answer to Big Question): Well, you were really lucky to make the leap from the Bridgeport office to here.
Father (considering that for another four seconds): I was fortunate, not lucky.
A fine hair — one that not every accountant can split.
His lesson for me, that day: Luck is random, sonny-boy, but fortune is earned.
*On alternating weekends I run excerpts from The Road to Elsewhere, my coming-of-age-travel-memoir-with-funny-drawings. (The first entry is here. Most recent one is here. Or dive in here, here, or even here.) It details the story of my road through Paris, London, and god help me, Zagreb, in search of the ultimate destination: a life worth living. The story so far: Young Peter has arrived in Paris, occupied a dorm room at the Alliance Française language school, tiptoed out onto the Boulevard Raspail and the Paris Metro, and made the first steps on the road to elsewhere. If it’s too much to read, just look at the illustrations. They’re my favorite part, too.