The six of them looked like three generations of one family — parents, one grandparent and three kids — and the parents looked perplexed. The group was spread out and blocking one of the sidewalks leading to the front of the State House, and as I walked toward them, I asked if they needed help.
“Can you tell us where Hubbard Park is?’’ the mom asked. “We heard there’s a tower there.”
They were pleased to learn that a trail leading into the park and up to the tower was just a few hundred feet away. One of the adults — not the grandmother — wanted details on what I meant by “up.” A few minutes later, relieved that they could drive to the top of Hubbard Park Drive and walk an easy, old park road over to the tower, they headed back to their car. I didn’t mention that getting to the top of the tower involved stairs, but they’d figure it out.
Here in the nation’s smallest capital, we welcome visitors, and I enjoy talking with them. Having traveled a lot in the U.S. and abroad, I have always appreciated the help locals have given me when I found myself standing on some foreign sidewalk, trying to figure out which way to turn. Or where to eat. Or how to catch a bus. Or what building I was in front of. Guidebooks and smartphones can lead us to our destination, but often we need people to take us that final step.
Another day, on the downtown end of State Street, I was struck by a 40-something couple who were a bit more snazzily dressed and coiffed than most Central Vermonters. They were standing near Capitol Grounds, alternately looking at a phone and up and down the street. As I neared, I heard them speaking French.
“Avez-vous besoin d’assistance?” I asked, using French to be friendly, although I was sure they would respond in English.
“Yes,” the man said, as both of them gave me generous Quebecois smiles. They were down from Montreal for the weekend and at the moment were trying to decide between two restaurants. Did I know anything about them? You bet. I was careful to give only as much detail as they wanted, although I did mention my favorite dish at one and my favorite dessert at the other. For one of the restaurants, I also gave them pros and cons about various sections to sit in, if they had a choice.
Until the end of our conversation, when the man said, “Au revoir,” and the woman said, “Merci,” and they again gave me big smiles, our conversation was in English. Whenever I’m in Quebec, I love how beautifully and comfortably bi-lingual so many people are. I’m not fluent in French, but I get by in conversation, and after a couple of days of immersion feel pretty comfortable.
A few years ago, I spent a week in Quebec City and I appreciated that only once did someone respond to me in English. Differences in culture and the challenges of language are two things I enjoy most about visiting another country; if I’m in Quebec or in France, I don’t want to speak English unless I have to. Ironically, despite the French origins of both “Vermont” and “Montpelier,” English reigns here in the Green Mountain State.
Not surprisingly, the most frequent type of question I have answered for visitors on the street is how to get to a specific place. In addition to recommendations for restaurants, I have been asked about where to get ice cream or creemies, where to find certain kinds of stores, or where the bike path goes. Sometimes, I’ve directed people to the Visitor Center on State Street. Several years ago, I had a funny conversation with a man who found it hard to believe there wasn’t a television station located in Montpelier. “But, you’re the state capital!” he kept saying. “Yes,” I confirmed, “and this is Vermont.”
Once, while I was working at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library and out for a lunchtime walk, a man serendipitously asked me where the library was. While I could have given him very precise answers about all sorts of things — like where the mystery or fiction sections were, how much support the library received from each of the six communities supporting it, how to find the highwater marker for the 1927 flood, or how the attic storage was organized — all he wanted to know was whether there were public computers. It’s always computers — or public bathrooms.