Off to Aix

*Disclaimer- first time posting with phone so excuse typos.*

Today I’m off to Aix for what I described on facebook as “birthdays,beaches, burritos, and much more!” Except for today the SNCF,or the french train system, got in the way.

After waking up early, taking two trams and still arriving with ample time, I figured I was set. I could cozy up with a book and wait for my voie to show up. But the French system never quite works that way.

Five minutes before departure with still no voie information, I realized something was wrong. Long story short- because the voie never appeared, I missed the train, had to pay a fee for new tickets, and take the only option left of catching a bus that arrived 4 hours later and took three times as long as the original train. Merde.

In situations like this, there is always a choice. I could bitch and moan and furrow my brow in anger or I could let go and embrace my predicament.

My first response- Fuck. THAT.  I’m pissed off. Screw waiting in this weirdly cold weather, screw these rude Frenchies all up in my space, and screw you stomach! As I looked at my tickets and the lack of time for lunch between trains, on cue, my stomach started growling as if to say “Oh whats that? I’m not gonna get lunch? Then I’m gonna be hungry now!! At 10 in the morning by the way. Sincerely, fuck you.”

After I sent venting texts and my body tightened in anger and my head filled with a slew of internal cussing, I stopped myself. I needed to take the path of least resistance and calm down. It was difficult to let go of the principle of the matter- what a waste of sleep, of time, of money! But I reasoned with myself and realized that being angry wasn’t going to replenish those things and it wasn’t going to transport me to Aix any faster.

I’ve learned this lesson before and I guess I’m gonna keep learning it- Perspective is essential.

So I don’t have my high speed train and I lost some time, but a bus to Aix is still a bus to the South of France and friends. And that’s totally worth it.

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“To Be Lost is to Live”

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The other day my father sent me an e-mail sharing his horoscope. At the time I found it intriguing but little did I know just how fitting it would be.

“Never to get lost is not to live,” writes Rebecca Solnit in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. In fact, she says that not knowing how to get lost is unhealthy. These are useful ideas to consider right now, Virgo. It will probably do you good to get at least semi-lost. As you wander around without a map or compass, I bet you will stumble upon important teachings. At the same time, I hope you will put some thought into how you’re going to get lost. Don’t just leave it to chance. Make sure there’s a method in your madness.”

If only he, and astrology.com, knew just how relevant that horoscope blurb was, because the other day I got lost.

I’ve always been a fairly independent person. And I’ve always relished the feeling of being out on my own, facing new adventures, having time to place my thoughts and space to meet the unknown. But getting lost really is a challenging and eye-opening experience.

As I wandered through the windy streets of Grenoble, on a quest to buy art supplies, I started to look around at the unfamiliar and soon realized I didn’t quite have my bearings. Actually I was lost.

Much like learning a language, I started off energized and approached it as a challenging game. “Yay! Adventure time! I’ll learn my way around Grenoble! I’m independent and this is fun!” Thirty minutes later I was singing a different tune. As each old, gray, building started to look the same and the cobblestone streets fused into a blob of intersecting paths, the irrational panic settled in. “I’ve been down this street before. No, wait I haven’t. Yes I have!…And I’ve been going in circles. I’m never getting out of this clever labyrinth! Adventure time my ass! This is so NOT fun!”

It wasn’t until I embraced the moment and gave in to my lack of bearings that the panic subsided and I began to see where I was. I was in FRANCE. In France with nowhere specific to be and nothing but time and a beautiful day on my side. I could wander down that unknown street and relish in the small savory moments of life- like colorful ukuleles hanging in the shop window with just the right lighting, or the little old lady intimately transfixed by a pair of shoes through the window- boy do the French love to window shop. With new-found clarity I followed my visual breadcrumbs (an important tool for the directionally challenged) back to my destination.

Along the way I stopped in the square surrounded by ancient buildings and an enthusiastic fountain, and felt overwhelmed with happiness. I’m in France. I’m living in France. Will anywhere else ever feel normal? Will I actually get used to the idea of living abroad?

Getting lost came at an appropriate time as it’s appropriate for where I am in my life right now. As I reach a quarter century, move to a new location, strip myself of all defaults of my identity (my language, my job, my friends, my security blankets), I realized it’s ok to get lost. It’s ok to be lost. It’s in these spaces and these places where we can find things we wouldn’t expect- the beautiful and bizarre- and whether we end up on the original path or a new one, we come out a little bit more savvy and self-aware.

As my dad said, “Lo, tho it may be Virgo, it is relevant to you. I liked the title “To never get lost is to Never live” or maybe, “To be lost is to live”.

Learning a Language is Hard

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I might be stating the obvious here, but I haven’t really talked about the cold, hard, truth that learning a new language (especially as you get older) is quite frankly hard. Once you have a general understanding of the language it gets increasingly more complicated. Direct translation no longer works. Slang and regional speak rearrange everything you learn (Ex: Je ne sais pas = Chai pa). Studying and learning in the classroom environment always worked fairly well for me. But as I have repeatedly discovered during my time here, comprehension and speaking (ESPECIALLY speaking) are a whole different ball game.

At first it was exciting- like a game or puzzle. “Oh! I understand that! That word plus that word equals that sentence! I know this fits here! Yay me! I understand!” My entrance into France was a quick swim or drown scenario as I was plunged into paperwork, adult tasks and navigating a new area, and as a result my French rapidly increased.

But then it plateaued. True, I was speaking less French on a daily basis as I teach English classes, have friends who all speak English and don’t have many (or really any) opportunities in Montbeliard to meet French people my age. But I also reached a level where learning was becoming increasingly more difficult. I no longer had the excuse of speaking like a two year old, I had upgraded to elementary school…possibly even middle school and it felt difficult. I had to push myself to advance, which I rebelled against by becoming slightly lazy. I entered a plateau funk where I felt lazy and disheartened- frustrated at my lack of improvement but stubbornly resistant to making difficult efforts to change…until New Years rolled around. I used resolutions as a springboard to kick my language learning into gear. I bought a French magazine, listened to the top French songs (which actually wasn’t too helpful as the vast majority of them are American), reviewed French lessons online, revised my vocabulary notebook, watched movies in French with the other assistants and forced Diego (he’s a French professor in Mexico) to give me lessons. And it helped. I was amazed at my ability to watch a movie in French with French subtitles and understand.

But unfortunately life’s not quite like the movies- there are no subtitles, no previous plot to provide context and accents aren’t always articulated. I was confronted with this as I visited Antoine for February vacation where I was fully immersed in listening and speaking to French. And while ultimately it was amazing for learning and the best thing for my improvement, I’ll be honest- it freaked my shit out. I realized that my time in Montbeliard has been cushioned. I speak French with my professors and the other assistants, but I can always fall back on English. And unfortunately, most of the time, I do.

Similar to the start of my time in France, I treated the opportunities for conversation with Antoine’s friends like a game. But this time the game had changed. I was with people my age, people speaking fast and in slang. As I stood outside of a bar with Antoine and his friends, I got lost in a sea of French. The surrounding French seeped into my ears and I actively had to try hard to regain focus on the conversation at hand. “Ok. What are they talkin- Singapore! I know that word. Easy. Yay! I understand! But wait. Why are they talking about Singapore? What they hell are they saying about Singapore? They’re not even talking about Singapore anymore, are they?!” Luckily I had Antoine there to help with translations and his friends were nice enough to slow down or say a few words in English. But needless to say, it was difficult.

When I met Antoine’s family, it was all French all the time. I was pleased to comprehend the lengthy family discussions but apparently I spent too much time on self congratulation to speak. As they shared stories on childhood memories, I not only ignited with internal excitement on my comprehension, but also in the formulation of my own story! At last! I could partake in my own conversation! I crafted the beginning of my memory, adding details and humorous remarks to this story that I would engage them in. But as I prepared to regale them with my tale, the French filtered back in and I realized that the time for that tale had long since passed. And here I was, lost in translation again. Dommage.

I can only imagine how immigrants to a new country felt or feel. Immersing yourself in a new language is challenging and alienating at times. To not have your voice, to feel lost and tongue tied and unable to express things that were once so simple can be disheartening. I at least have had cushions, a translating boyfriend and a prior basis of the language. 

I have realized that I am not the most patient of people. I don’t like not getting things. I don’t like being unable to communicate. And I don’t like feeling lost or stupid. But who does? These are the things that test us, that help us evolve. Learning something completely new and foreign is not easy. But growing is so rewarding.

So here’s a little learning language advice:

1. Start with the essential basics. Learn what can get you by- hello, goodbye, excuse me, I don’t understand, and food.

2. Immerse yourself as much as possible- listen to music, read, watch movies, write

3. SPEAK. To yourself if you have to, but practice speaking. Practice is the only was this will happen

4. Have patience. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate the growth and accomplishments rather than the roadblocks. As the French keep telling me “Ca viendra”. It will come.