Travel enthusiasts are often asked which place on Earth they like best. For years, my answer was always the same: "Hawaii and France." No one understood my response — not even me. How could I hold in such high esteem two destinations that are so completely different?
One place is tropical, while the other place has a climate that ranges from Mediterranean to Humid Oceanic. One is a mid-sized, crowded nation and gateway to a continent, while the other is a sparsely-populated archipelago and the fiftieth state of a country 2,400 miles away. The citizens of the two places look nothing like one another, and they speak different languages. Their histories are different, their food is different, their cultures are different — even their immigrants are different. Both places, though, attract surfers (see photos). But that is not why they are alike, or why I like them so much.
No, the reason the two destinations are similar, and so enchanting, hit me during my recent trip to Hawaii. I hadn't been to the islands in three years, but when I arrived at Honolulu International Airport, I was struck by the sheer number of holidaymakers streaming towards baggage claim. Tourism is down across the globe, but there I was, surrounded by American honeymooners, Japanese families, Brazilian surfers, and German students — just as I had been surrounded by Australian honeymooners, Saudi families, Canadian backpackers, and Italian students when I departed from Charles de Gaulle.
Hawaii and France are two places that are besieged by tourists, even in off season, and even during times of economic bust. So far this year, the Hawaiian islands have received nearly four million vacationers — about four times their total population. In France, the local-tourist ratio is even more pronounced. Paris alone has had 15.9 million visitors this year; this for a city of just two million people.
But mass tourism is not the thing I like about these two places; it's the local reaction to mass tourism that I admire. Not the reaction of the politicians and developers and tour operators, who court as many visitors as they can, no matter the cost to the local ecology or quality of life. I'm talking about the way ordinary Hawaiian and French citizens react to the tourist hordes: they ignore them, and I like that.
In Hawaii and in France, the locals are proud; their friendship is not for sale. Visitors who want to be catered to, who want "sincere" attention in exchange for money spent, are generally disappointed by both destinations. And tourists who make no effort, who won't learn ten words of French or who refuse to use chopsticks "in America" (yes, I've heard it), often leave with nothing good to say about the incredible places they have just had the fortune to visit.
Of course, French citizens and Hawaiian kama'aina (long-time residents, as there are few true Hawaiians left) sometimes say disparaging things about their guests (Parisians can make the word touriste sound like a put-down, just by the way they say it). I don't condone tourist-bashing (hey, I'm a tourist too), but I do understand the frustrations of those who have to deal directly with the ugliest of the ugly vacationers. I understand their annoyance every time I see an American college student at Charles de Gaulle Airport wearing pajamas, and I certainly understood the anger of a French waiter the night a German tourist accused him of marking up the price of a bottle of wine, a price that was clearly listed on the menu and on the chalkboard. In Hawaii, I have seen such disrespect for local culture and wildlife that it has turned my stomach. There are too many instances to recount, but one of the worst was an English snorkeler who yanked on the flipper of an endangered green sea turtle, just a few feet from a large sign that said it was prohibited to approach, touch, or harass the reptiles.
Such bad tourist behavior deserves disdain and it is, unfortunately, so pervasive in Hawaii and in France that it means good travelers have to work that much harder to gain the respect of the locals. But this is what I like about French and Hawaiian citizens: they are no pushovers. When they are nice to you, they mean it. And that means you have merited their respect.
Six days in Hawaii and I have lost the ability to think beyond the immediate future. I blame it on what I call "Hawaii head," a wonderful state of bliss in which one can focus only on what one is going to do in the next sixty minutes. The choices are delightfully simple: Surf or snorkel? Kayak or swim? Sushi or udon? Take a nap or drink some iced coffee? Rinse the saltwater off your hair or dive back in?
Il fait chaud in Paris right now, but it's no longer summer.
L'été ended (unofficially) last week with la rentrée, the start of the fall term in France and the end of the summer vacances. Les Parisiens came back to their city, as they always do, in two great waves: the first group flooded in the weekend of l'Assomption (August 15, the day that Mary, Jesus's mother, is said to have ascended into heaven. In France, Assumption Day is a public holiday — curious for a country that prides itself on its secularism). The second group returned last week, just in time to stock le frigo and to buy school supplies for la rentrée scolaire, back-to-school for French kids, which began last Thursday.
For those of us who like to stay in town in August, la rentrée can come as quite as shock. During the last weekend of the month, you can still walk down the middle of Rue de Rivoli at midnight, marveling that le Marais looks like an abandoned movie set, but by the first week of September you will be flattened by platoons of Renaults, Citroëns, and unlicensed scooters if you try to put even a toe off the sidewalk.
The quiet days of August are gone, but there is plenty to love about la rentrée: the return of your favorite butcher, the sudden delivery of long-awaited mail, two bank tellers instead of just one. There is a palpable buzz in the air as friends catch up at the corner brasserie, neighbors exchange pleasantries, and newscasters egg everyone on by breathlessly reporting la rentrée as a major event.
On Wednesday morning before the first day of class, the department store BHV is pure chaos. I'm riding the escalator up past aisles of back-to-school clothes, backpacks, lined notebooks, ballpoint pens, and erasers. The woman in front of me gestures to the school supplies and exclaims to her young daughter, "Just look at all of these pretty things!" Her daughter looks unimpressed — her mind is probably on the alarm clock that will wake her tomorrow before dawn — but her maman's enthusiasm works on me. I ride back downstairs and buy myself a new Moleskine notebook, just in time for my favorite aspect of la rentrée — my vacances.
With everybody else back to school or back to the office, airfares have come down. And that's my cue to leave. So welcome back, Parisians, and au revoir.