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Culture is more than a bit different in France

Published Sep. 3, 2005

Imagine my surprise when, sitting at an outdoor bar in Lyon, France, last week, reading the International Herald Tribune, these words in bold type jumped out at me: TAMPA AIRPORT IS THE PLACE TO BE.

It turned out the story was about boomerangs, and how sometimes you can't get them _ like so many other items _ past airport security. The praise for Tampa was that at TIA the Travelers Aid Society will mail passengers stuff security deems too risky to allow on the plane.

That's good to know, although nothing of mine was confiscated. However, at the Miami airport I was frisked and asked to remove my shoes _ slip-off sandals! (This was the same flight where the guy tried to light his shoe.) The sandals were sent through the X-ray scanner, and I was told to sit down and raise my legs straight out in front of me while the agent ran the magic frisking wand over the soles of my feet. Did she think I had implanted a subcutaneous bomb?

On the flight to Paris, voila!, there was Tampa in the news. In a lengthy New Yorker profile, George Steinbrenner comments to the visiting reporter, "One thing we have down here is a lot of blondes driving around in convertibles."

I skipped most of the stuff about the Yankees, but keyed in on passages about Tampa _ like the one in which George runs into Monsignor Laurence Higgins in Malio's and introduces him, saying, "He used to be a great soccer player."

Msgr. Higgins turns up again at the owner's box at Legends Field.

"This is Tammany Hall," the monsignor says, referring to the corrupt political machine that once ran New York City. "This is where things get done."

So I guess New Yorker readers now think the city is being run by the owner of a baseball team and a priest.

Well, whoever runs it, let's talk about fast trains _ now that we won't have the opportunity of being stopped on I-4 by state troopers and asked what we think of them. We took the 1-year-old TGV Mediterranee, which whizzes by at around 180 mph non-stop from Paris to Avignon. That collapses a 427-mile trip that would take seven or eight hours by car into a two-hour 40-minute train ride. The train itself is spectacular; the ride is so smooth and quiet you don't even know you're moving.

Getting on and off the train, it's a different story. The three train stations we experienced were a mess. In Paris, the Gare de Lyon was so crowded it looked like a scene from an old movie of hordes fleeing the Nazis. There was no one to help with baggage, no visible carts. You maneuver through the crowds (and in Lyon, up an escalator), heave your bags onto the train platform, and if you're on the second deck, drag them up several stairs. Then fight for a place on the luggage racks beside some amazing carry-ons, like a person-sized aluminum case that, we found out from its owner, carried a bicycle. I travel light, but even so, by the time I took my seat on the train I was exhausted.

Face it, this may be fine for business travel, but American vacationers would never put up with it. I can just see those Disney World families used to tossing their mega-stuff into the back of a rental SUV stepping lightly onto the train to Tampa with the kids.

There are, of course, many cultural differences between us and the French, and one of them is that in France cell phone conversations are expected to be private. On the train, seats away from the main passenger car next to baggage were designated for cell phone users. And at dinner in a tiny restaurant in Lyon, when a cell phone rang at a table of six young people, the whole group was alarmed and, with apologies, went into a frantic search for the offending phone and turned it off.

I thought of them my first day home at a post office in south Tampa, where a sign informed customers to please terminate their cell phone conversations before stepping up to the counter.

_ Sandra Thompson is a writer living in Tampa. She can be reached at City Life appears on Saturday.