Friday, July 13, 2012

Life's Tough, Get a Helmet: Bottom Ten

Près de la fin: close to the end

Okay. Okay. Okay, so. Okay.

So now that Governor's School is over, now that I've been back in the states for over a month, now that I've had some time to "reflect" and "recuperate," now that I've officially put this blog on the procrastination burner for about a week, I remind myself that it really is about time I wrapped this thing up.

As I draw my blog to a close, many moons later than you probably would have expected, I knew I wanted to round it out with some sort of overarching conclusion. Something I had learned that I could feed to you as an intellectual after-dinner mint to cleanse your palette after a rather bittersweet 9-months. Some knowledgeable tidbit from an enlightened individual to her huddled masses of internet followers.

But alas, I have yet to reach enlightenment. I'm still here. I'm still sort of the same as I was when I left. But I'd like to think I may have learned a thing or two along the way.

So I decided to formulate a kind of "goodbye" series. A way to provide a semblance of summation for this motley mish mash of my memory melting pot.

So here goes nothin'. I now present to you the first in a series of two, ladies and gentlemen:




(in no particular order . . . )

(Well, maybe we'll start with the lighter stuff. Ease our way into my inner turmoils and personal demons.)

(so . . . in a slightly particular order . . . )

#10. "Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?"

If you've ever traveled with me--in any shape, form, or fashion--I mean, seriously, if we've ever been in transit together at all ever, then you probably saw #10 coming. I am the worst at following directions, road or otherwise. I would blame it on the fact that I just get super spacey whenever I'm in a car, but that creates a faux-ami (a false friend), leading you to believe I might have a good sense of spacial reasoning, and I simply do not.

I know my parents were very concerned I would simply wander off into the sunset and lose my way straight through the Alps to a foreign land probably inhabited by some variation of the Dutch. And honestly I can't say I blame them. Knowing where I am in space stresses me out.

My parents had their reasons. Their wholly justified reasons.

But I'm proud to say that I didn't once get unfixably misplaced. Yes, I frequently found myself gayly strolling down an unfamiliar street or two or five, but I always managed to wander dutifully back to the herd. How did I do it? I . . . I have no idea. Maps helped, for sure. And those weird mappy signs in London were equal parts necessary and incredible. (They were increcessary.)

But, despite everything I've said, I found this strange lack of space-awareness to have created a very "happenstance-led" travel experience, as many of my more interesting adventures were caused by being just a little bit lost all of the time.

#9. "Alllll byyyyy myyyyseeeeeeelf"

I am by no means the most adventurous and gregarious little social butterfly who requires social interaction and FRIENDS FRIENDS FRIENDS to keep herself from going completely and totally bonkers, buuuuut I would be remiss not to mention this in my "Bottom Ten" list. One of the hardest things about living in France was my living situation itself: no roommates. Kessler, party of one. So I was very much alone about 80% of the time.

To quote one of the most poignant and poetic lyricists of our generation, Jason Derulo:

"I'm solo, I'm ridin' solo,
I'm ridin' solo, I'm ridin' solo, solo"

But unlike Mr. Derulo, this solo setup was not for me. After having spent a year constantly surrounded by some of my best friends pretty much all the time at UT, it was definitely a shock to have so much time alone. Like, if I didn't want to see people all day, all I had to do was nothing, and poof, social interaction terminated. This had a tendency to morph into a moderately depressing dorm situation.

My solution? Okay, so you know how Tom Hanks had that volleyball in the movie Castaway? (Bear with me.) So I developed an only slightly unhealthy habit of talking to myself. But, like, not just asking myself where I'd left my hairbrush or acknowledging that I was hungry. Liiiike, sometimes existential conversations, or going over potential social situations out loud for, I don't know, preparation maybe? But then also, uh, so I also had this full length mirror. (Bear with me.) And eventually I started . . . talking to myself. Like at my mirror self. Like my reflection.

Don't worry though. No one ever responded.

This was where I did make some of my biggest self-discoveries. It only became a nuisance when I unconsciously mistook a public setting for the privacy of my bedroom and conversed with myself in the grocery store. On a scale from 1 to crazy, this did not help me make friends.

#8. "Terminator 4: Molly's MacBook Pro Goes 'Progue'"

So in keeping with the whole "feeling scared and alone" theme I seem to have started, I should mention the communication crutch that the Internet becomes when you go overseas. Sort of like a reverse tumor. You become so dependent on your computer and the Internet as a very almost literal window to the outside world, you thrive on being able to keep up with friends and family back home.

That being said, when the Internet is less than adequate, as it is in much of Europe (particularly dorm room 136 of bâtiment B of my residence hall), wifi signal is as precious and rare as a person who is at the same time French and obese.

I think my computer started fearing my codependency, causing him to jump off my bed in attempted suicide in the fall (please overlook the obvious pun). Though we were able to revive him, the Internet connection never proved totally dependable. And it was maybe the most frustrating thing ever.

#7. "I am zee French. I am zee 'orreeble stereotype."

Stop me if you've heard this one:

How do you kill a Frenchman?
Shoot 15 centimeters above his head, right in his superiority complex.

Or what about this one:

After God created France, he thought it was the most beautiful country in the world. People were going to get jealous, so, to make things fair, he decided to create the French.

4 out of 5 dentists recommend maintaining a very wide margin between yourself and any Frenchman. But why? What has people thinking these individuals are such high-minded chain-smokers cursed with unfailing pride and stinky cheese?

Well, like most stereotypes, it comes down to the minority, the ungrateful few who ruin it for the rest of us. (Except the smoking part. Literally everybody does that.) Because from my experience, French people are actually quite pleasant. Sure they're proud of their language and won't hesitate to correct you if you end a sentence with a preposition or say "We're going to war" instead of "We're going to the train station," but rarely is it in malice. So they're not as warm to new people and ideas as their Italian neighbors to the east, does that make them bad people? No. It doesn't.

They're proud of their language, they're proud of their culture, and they're really proud of that cheese.

Okay, so, yes, maybe I did have some rotten French experiences. Like the time the director of my residence hall snapped at me condescendingly for asking a second time (for clarification) if they had sheets for "rent" at the dorm. Or the time my Sociolinguistics teacher (who was completely and totally insane) pulled me to the front of the class to pronounce something in English only to laugh mockingly back at the class saying "Well, that's not Queen's English." (No, it's not Queen's English, moron. It's American English. And this case study is from New York anyway! What is wrong with you?!) So much. So much was wrong with her.

But I wouldn't call her the rule. Nor would I lie and say my dorm director was nasty to me for the whole year. These things happen. And they make life mind-numbingly difficult. C'est la vie, même en France.

#6. "Bla bla bluu bla bleubleubleu."

Remaining for a moment in that vein of miscommunication and constant confusion, let me segue quite fluidly into the #6 difficulty: speaking French. Up until the moment the plane left the Niçois airport early the morning of May 26th, I struggled time and time again to achieve a seemingly unachievable level of fluency and competence in a language I foolishly thought I mastered back in high school.

The funny thing about language and fluency is that the more you learn, the more you realize you don't actually know. (There's a chance this principle applies to life in general, but this is a travel blog, and those existential conversations will have to be researched elsewhere, or discussed in the privacy of your dorm room with your reflection. I reserve judgement.)

But the fluency question is actually very important. And it caused me lots of grief. While, yes, I can express an idea using standard verbs and phrases, and if I can't think of a specific word I need I can usually find a way to "circumlocute" it. But when you're speaking French for extended periods of time, circumlocution becomes tedious, and you realize just how little you actually know.

True story.

For example, you know how to express movement. Different styles of movement, even. You can say "I go" and "I walk" and "I run" and "I jump," but you learn that there are actually different words in French to express "happily strolling without a place to be," "wandering around having ignorantly forgotten where you're supposed to be," "moseying along because you don't particularly care where you're supposed to be," and so on and so forth. But now you can only remember "je flâne" because it was the happy one, and your brain just gives up and explodes because there are simply too many verbs to describe too many individually precise things.

In French there is always a right way to say something. The standard French abides by a nationally accepted set of standards and rules prescribed by oldish texts. Everyone follows these rules. This is why foreign French speakers are so easy to spot. This is why there's very little geographical deviation in the language. And this is why French is like skiing. It's easy to learn, but terribly difficult to master.

#5. "Latent peer pressure"

This one is pretty self-explanatory. I would argue that 85% of my friends were smokers (the other 15% consisting almost exclusively of my Canadians and Elizabeth). And by smokers I mean chain smokers. Now I'm not a judgmental person, so I harbor no resentment toward these chimney-people, but I will say that I became uncomfortable with how comfortable I became around cigarette smoke.

A picture of me and my friends at that cool café down the street.

#4. "[Insert sleazy indiscernible pick-up line here]"

So I won't go into too much detail, as I'm not entirely sure who my audience includes, but let me just say that Nice (verrry specifically) has a big big problem. And, no, it doesn't have anything to do with more cowbell, though I don't doubt that would help. The problem is verbal harassment.

If I can be serious just for a moment, I promise we'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming soon. But I feel like I can't sit here and talk about the hard times in Nice and ignore the city's rampant creeper problem. I honestly can't think of an instance when I left my dorm/campus area and didn't experience some sort of abuse because of my gender--whether it was an uncomfortable stare, a snide comment, a kissing noise, a blatant approach, casual pointing, a failed attempt at English shouting, or the less frequent but immensely more inappropriate physical contact.

(One time we even had a guy honk his car horn then lick the window. That was weird.)

But personal anecdotes aside, I don't see how this is an unaddressed issue. These men are in their 40s (more or less) preying on teenagers and a 20-something with no self-defense training who arms herself with a room key and a witty comeback delivered in English 30 minutes later.

They pack in herds on the streets. Just sitting there. Doing literally nothing. I'm pretty sure most of them either don't have jobs or frequently choose not to do them. With their athletic pants, matching track jackets, and greased up hair spikes. It's a recipe for disaster.

I can't offer a solution right now, and I don't know what that would be for the future. But I think the simple task of acknowledging that these men are crossing a very very clearly marked big ole red line is the first step to getting them to stop being so icky.

I generally don't like feeling like I need boys around to protect me, but by the end of my stay in France, after having finally made a large handful of guy-friends, I will say I definitely felt safer.

Thanks, guys.

#3. "One of these things is not like the other."

So if you haven't already guessed, I thrive on being weird. (See above, re: "mirror.") It's actually the most fun pastime ever. In fact, I would argue vehemently that looking stupid and laughing about it is the most important thing a person can ever do. Even more than remembering to rewind the VHS before you put it back in the case.

Much to my chagrin, however, this outlook on life was not shared in the Niçois community. Simply from an observational standpoint, I found the people of Nice to be very concerned with normalcy, excluding the select few that I would identify as public displays of actual crazy. The individuals I met and observed (particularly the girls) strove valiantly to be the same as everyone else--wore the same outfits, carried the same purses, donned the same haircuts, ate the same nothing, and just generally acted the same way. Sure, they were stylish. They were all stylish. Similarly.

So I automatically felt tragically out of place with my bohemian skirts, clumsy demeanor, and involuntary Target Lady impressions. Something told me they would not be well received. Something was right.

Those French girls kind of look like Gene Simmons.
French KISS!

The university and residence hall felt like a high school I didn't go to but have seen portrayed countless times in the moving pictures. I felt judged every time I left my room for what I was wearing and my general "I-just-woke-up-and-then-someone-took-my-backpack-and-beat-me-with-it" appearance. I learned quickly that backpacks were for Americans and homeless people. In France they carry satchels. And by satchels I mean purses. Purses for everyone.

I wouldn't say my personality was crushed. And I wouldn't say I changed much about myself to "fit in." But I dealt with the high school crap by sort of keeping quiet. It was dumb, I know.

Oh god I was the emo kid.


Thankfully, I eventually found the exchange students. This brings me to #2 . . .

#2. "I can be your friend, la la la."

One purpose of studying abroad is to present you with challenges and obstacles that you probably wouldn't normally face back home. Right? Right. "So, like, maybe I'll have to eat an octopus. Orrr maybe I'll get on the wrong bus and end up halfway across Belarus. Oh! Maybe a peculiar race of aliens that only speak in American idioms will attack, and I'll have to translate to save the planet!"

It never once crossed my mind that the act of making friends would be so utterly debilitating that when the alien race did show up, I was simply too exhausted to offer my assistance.

Finding and making friends has never been a big stress in my life. Not that it's always come easily to me, but, yeah, it's always sort of come pretty easily to me. I'm a likable person, what can I say? So the fact that I was struggling so much to find people with interests even remotely similar to my own was really really scary. And exponentially sadder.

But I did eventually meet people. And by the witching hour the night before my final departure, I realized I was leaving some of my closest friends, many of whom I hadn't even met until March.

So why did it take so freaking long for me to meet people? Lord knows I tried. I remember stepping forward to help that guy carry his suitcases up the hill back in August. I remember shoving my terror away and introducing myself to him. I remember blogging about it. And I remember that he never spoke to me again. Because he sucks.

I'll admit the language was a barrier at first. But I wonder why people couldn't just love me because I was constantly adorably confused. I think a lot of people just thought I was stupid. Which, I suppose when you ask, "Hey, Chimène, what does stuff mean? I hear people saying that word a lot," there's very few directions you can go with that.

But I regret nothing. Well, maybe that I wasn't better friends with Chimène. She was the one who loved me because I was always confused. Nevertheless, the time I spent traipsing about without any help or camaraderie really helped me grow up. But not in a bad way. In an "I-can-do-this-by-myself-but-still-acknowledge-that-that-street-cleaner-looks-like-that-weird-sucky-thing-from-the-Teletubbies" kind of way.

#1. "I'll never let go, Jack."

A big part of growing up is learning to let go. To let go of sadness and anger, grudges and stereotypes. Now I will argue that sometimes letting go is very much the opposite of what you should do, especially when you swear up and down that you won't (*cough* Rose Dawson *cough*), but for me, in my journey toward enlightenment, I had to learn to let a few things fly away to oblivion.

When I started studying abroad, I had simultaneously a very specific and a very nonspecific plan of how I thought the year would progress. I had seen pictures and heard stories of other students long before me who had traveled across Europe, explored new heights, frequented hostels and train stations alike. And I was completely convinced that this was how it was supposed to be done.

Had I any clue how to do any of those things? No. Not a one.

Had I any companions willing to do this for me? Nope. For most of my European stay, not a one.

This realization became very clear very fast. Panic soon followed.

Maybe if I sit here motionless the universe will get confused
and spit me into nothingness. That'd be fun, right?

I worried a lot about doing everything I could all the time, about whether or not I was traveling enough, about making sure I finished the year with NO REGRETS. That type of thinking can lend itself to a very unhappy existence. I was constantly a ball of stress, worried that I wasn't taking advantage of the time I had. I was in pre-regret mode, which is almost as bad as regret-mode, but without the sense of forced acceptance. And it was slowly eating me alive.

If my life were a movie, I would give you a detailed description of the moment I realized that there is no shame in spending time alone. In fact it's something I would recommend to anyone who asked. The moment you become reliant on others to keep you from floating away into nothingness, you've relinquished your happiness to the whims and wills of other people. You've essentially given the house keys to your own happiness to everyone that isn't you, and then you ask yourself why you aren't happy.

It's easy to be happy.

But, alas, my life is not a movie (no matter what Calvin says), so I'll just tell you it was a process.

Every study abroad experience is.

Amitiés :)

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