Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Language Limbo

Travel Lit Blog #1: Language Limbo

I had the wonderful opportunity to live in Paris with my parents for about three months this past summer. However, I only had a basic 101 level understanding of the French language. I figured that it wouldn't hurt me too much and that I would be able to pick it up no problem as soon as I got there. You know what they say about assumptions... Stepping into the busy pace of Paris and trying to live my normal life was a daily panic attack, not to mention exhausting! I felt like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. Going on guided tours and sightseeing was comfortable and fun, but fake; I wanted to experience the real Paris, not the back of a postcard. I felt judged by the locals. It was as if my family and I had USA tattooed on our foreheads. We were trying to be less conspicuous and spoke French as much as possible. We gained a little respect for our efforts but friends and friendly waiters (yes, they do exist) always responded in English to our French. My Mom has a really good command of the language and even she felt frustrated at the lack of cooperation. It was easy for me to hide behind her experience. Eventually I learned enough to get me through the cultural extravaganza of each meal and the polite small talk engaged in with shop keepers, but other than that I'm a deer in the headlights. I took the easy way out. I stopped trying. I didn't really make any connections or friendships. I just kept my head down. I was afraid I would become the "Ugly American" whenever i opened my mouth. So I didn't. Perhaps the "Naive American" would have been a better epitaph.

It is because of my experience that I can relate to the language barrier that Kublai Khan and Marco have to struggle with throughout the first half of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Eventually they were able to communicate with each other in a way that was even more meaningful than words. I found that connection through food. I started to frequent the little cafe on the first floor of my building and slowly it started to feel a little less foreign with each cafe creme I drank. The waiters started to recognize me and would smile and wave each time I walked by. I was too cowardly to really take advantage of their kindness, but it gave me the courage all the same. Polo used gestures and sea shells to express himself to Khan and to gain his trust. My waiter used smiles and coffee to gain mine.

As summer started winding down I realized something: I was lonely. I missed my language and my comfortable culture. Yes, I had my parent's to share my stories with at the dinner table but I wanted to experience something independent of them. My last month in the city was a very busy time for both my parents. Friends from home were busy with summer plans and getting ready for school so I was left to fend for myself. I took to going for long runs and people watching on my own. I don't think I have ever been so quiet. But it was in that quietness that I learned the most about me. This also speaks to the point that we discussed in class, Calvino emphasizes the importance of travel not only as a journey to new places around the world but also within yourself.

There is one passage in particular that resonated with me and the members of my class, "The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off" (38). I couldn't help but to see and relate my time in Paris in this way; I often became lost in the hustle and bustle of the city, eventually I became comfortable to let the rhythm of life sweep me up and run off with me in any adventure I could find, I would often stop and enjoy the view around me, breath it all in, and in those moments of pause I would become lost in thoughts of my travels and who I had become. This was the way that Marco Polo travelled, this was the way that we travelled through Calvino's book, and now it has become clear to me that this is how we travel through our lives; trying to find balance between where we are and who we are.

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