As I wait to for the little green person to light up as a sign that I can cross the street, I scan the sea of faces for anyone I recognize. I was on my way to one of APA’s intimate group tours of the various neighborhoods in Paris and was searching for our group. Upon seeing another of the APA students, I instinctively put up my hand and waived energetically toward them. At this point in the story, I felt something almost imperceptible, something most likely intangible amongst these words. French people don’t waive to each other. Something so common place as body language, we think nothing of, until it is no longer reflected back at us.
There are countless moments throughout the day when I become distinctly aware of the discord between my culture and the one I am immersed in and twice as many moments my foreign culture betrays me in my efforts to adopt new mannerisms, new vocabulary, or new habits. You go in to kiss your friend on the cheeks and as you turn, you find yourself kissing their lips instead…in the middle of a metro car…who knew my cheek-kissing game would require such presition. Luckily, I get a lot of practice.
You spend a painful amount of time trying to express your academic interests to a bunch of cute french college guys only to realise that every time you mentioned the word « college », they were under the impression that you were talking about your days back in middle school*…as if those awkward days of braces and freshly flowing hormones provide could pick-up line material.
Speaking to the locked bathroom door, you try to worn your host brother that the hand lotion you are lending him for his tattoo smells strongly of coconuts but only after you leave the house in confusion do you realise that he had thought you had been telling him that he smelled strongly. You have to shrug it off, finding humor in all that is lost in translation.
Though it isn’t always apparent, these differences in behavior that back in the states would serve to distinguish me, are often isolating here. At this point, as a foreigner, you have a choice. You stick to waiving from a distance, or you submit to a new kind of language.
The author Milan Kundera, of the book I’m currently reading, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, defines the feeling of vertigo as the « intoxication of the weak ». She goes on to explain that « aware of his own weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it…wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down » (74). I relate to this interpretation of the term in how it reflects the way I view my own weaknesses.
Here in Paris, especially during these past two weeks as we APA students have been navigating college campuses for the first time, it has become clear that my main weakness here is the desire to feel comfortable. It takes such emotional and intellectual focus to go from one place to the next, to successfully make it through conversations with people, and to pay attention in classes only to end each day reflecting on all the challenging, embarassing, and confusing moments.
This is where our APA group is both so important to have and difficult to balance. It is so easy to stick to each others’ sides, to slip into speaking english when we’re together, and to use our connection as an excuse not to reach out for help or friendship to local peers, all in the name of creating some semblence of the comfort we are accustomed to.
You want to build relationships with the other APA students (because they are all awesome, obviously!) in order to have a good safety network. But that magnetic pull to speak english and spend time together becomes a weakness and being around everyone else gives me such vertigo that in order not to succumb to the fall, I’ve had to separate myself. So far, it has meant saying yes to any invitation and being open to meeting all kinds of people. This means forcing myself to seperate from the other students at a party we attended together; tricking myself to feel more curageous than my rapid heartbeat was implying; or submitting to the humbling role of asking for help from a stranger. Ultimately, at some point you have to reach out beyond APA in order to make your own comfort zone.
So, cheers to being willing to go to the movies with french friends despite only understanding 50% of the dialogue; to laughing at yourself when you stumble through pronouncing your own name in front of the class because Richter has too many r’s for the french accent; and to masterfully playing the role of a chill, savee college student even though you are sharply aware that you would be kicked out of in a french elementary school debate team.
A la prochain !
*the french word, collège, means middle school in english… which turns out to be a good distinction to be aware of.
P.S. Shout out to all the other APA students. Despite said vertigo, we’ve got a good support network that is both pretty rad and really important to all of our mental/ emotional health 🙂
P.P.S. Pardon any misspelled words- spell check is programmed for the french language and I’m in this weird linguistic limbo stage where in order to make room for learning french, I’ve, apparently, had to give up some English…unfortunately, said french hasn’t yet decided to settle into my brain so, yea, I’m a mess.