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Sam Cook column: Americans abroad: Dad, press "English"

On a bright April morning, the two of us peer into the kiosk touchscreen outside a train station in Morges, Switzerland. We're trying to buy tickets to a nearby town.

For most of this two-week fling in France, Switzerland and Italy, we've simply followed in the wake of our grown kids, who know varying amounts of French and are seasoned travelers. One lives in Switzerland. One lives in Rwanda with her husband. Our role, the 60-something parents from the homeland, is simply to stay close and try not to embarrass the younger folks by asking stupid questions.

But today, at the train station, we're on our own — elders at large. We can do this. Airports and train stations around the world are designed for people just like us. And our son, the night before, had given me a mini-tutorial about buying our tickets.

"For language, press 'English,' " he said.

I might have figured that one out.

Phyllis and I punch through the subsequent touchscreens with only minor bewilderment and back-pedaling, and eventually the kiosk spits out a couple tickets. How about that?

It's good to be out of it once in a while, or even for extended periods. Good to be on the loose in unfamiliar places, just mooching along as citizens of the planet, trying to figure things out.

It isn't comfortable, no. But it disavows you of the notion that the way you live at home is the only way. When you put yourself out there in the maelstrom of humanity, especially in a place where you can't understand a single conversation on a crowded bus, you're forced to grapple with the idea that a whole bunch of folks are getting along just fine in ways completely different from yours.

Oh, that's how that toilet flushes. Hmmm, that's how they recycle here. Hey — roundabouts. Brilliant concept.

I broke off a chunk of baguette at a dinner in France with our daughter's former host parents when she studied abroad. I put the piece of bread on my plate, but I noticed others put theirs on the table. "OK, then," I thought. "That's how we do it here." I moved my bread to the table.

Does it really matter where you put your bread at dinner? Not that I can see. It's just different from here to there. The French seem to live completely fulfilling lives without putting bread on their plates.

A subway train in Paris pulls into the station. It's jammed with bodies. There appears to be no room for another soul on board when the doors open. But we follow our offspring onto the car, where people of all colors and ages and religions scooch and squeeze until we all fit. We jostle into one another as the car moves out. Our hands sometimes touch on the railings where we hold on.

That was a recurring impression from our European experience — on busy sidewalks, in train terminals, on highways, even in restaurants. People simply accommodate one another. They move over. They share space.

They seem to understand: We are all just pilgrims trying to find our way in the world. We might as well work it out along the way.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Follow him on Facebook at or find his blog at