On Stumbling

Pushing oneself towards the edge of their comfort zone when learning a new language in a foreign country


Lyon

During one of my many aimless strolls the other day, it dawned on me that I have been in France for 6 weeks, which is the midway point of my sojourn here. Encountering this realization left me with a lot of mixed feelings: shouldn’t I have drawn or written or eaten or met more people or spoken better French or done more of this or that? I was catching myself comparing my expectations of how I thought things would be like when I planned this trip months ago, to how things were panning out.

It reminds me of myself when I was in college. I’d have this urge to express the fact of the moment out loud. Even while in the midst of it — holed up in Olin Library at 11pm with another 30 pages to read, walking across snow-blanketed Foss Hill in the heart of winter after a blizzard, having the first heart-to-heart with an acquaintance that’d turn out to be a true life friend — I tried to actively acknowledge the unique, time-boxed ephermality of the quintessential American college experience. How? I would blurt out to whomever I was with:

“you guys, we’re in college!”

And I keep having a similar feeling while I’m here in France (except I don’t exclaim anything out loud because these moments occur most often when I’m alone). Such quiet moments feel like any other I’d have in the states, but they feel different simply because I’m living amidst the backdrop of a foreign country.

Knowing that my stay in France has a clear end date makes me feel guilty for not doing “more.” Right now, I’m sitting in my apartment and writing this blog entry, instead of being out and taking in the lively European nightlife. And perhaps I feel guilty about not having eaten at enough fine dineries here in the reputed food capital of France (though my wallet certainly doesn’t feel guilty about that!).

The way these minor pangs of guilt coalesce with other hiccups throughout my stay — trying to find housing last-minute, getting lost in translation with complete strangers — feel like stumbling. To think you’re moving forward, until something grips you in your tracks and trips you up. Like when you begin to have more comfortable interactions with strangers in French, yet suddenly, when a young woman at the gym accidentally bumps into you and apologizes with a French “pardon”, you find yourself startled, voiceless, inarticulate. The moment passes and you didn’t respond to her apology.

Stumbling is moving along confidently, only to slip off from an unforeseen crack on the sideback. To advance towards your destination, only to miscalculate how you’ll get there or how long it’ll take. Stumbling can feel like a lot like stillness.

But here is the thing about stumbling too: it opens new possibilities. When you misstep, you’re poised to observe an ordinary situation from a different angle. There have been many instances in which someone has bumped into me and apologized, to which I’ve subsequently responded: “no worries”, “no problem”, “don’t worry about it”, “it’s okay”.

How easy is it for me to automatically conjure these idiomatic English phrases. Perhaps it’s because I had already stumbled through this exact scenario before: I can’t recount when, exactly, but perhaps maybe when I was 3 or 4 and was learning how to express manners in English. When I reflect on not having responded to the French woman at the gym apologizing to me what I fear most is having come off as rude or impolite.

This distinct moment of a minor stumble reminded of me of own values and principles. It’s inevitable that I’ll uncover more of the worldview I’ve already constructed and probably take for granted as I continue to stumble, particularly during the second part of my stay in France.

I’m not sure what I will unfold in next few weeks, nor do I want to imagine that they’ll materialize as something conspicuously grand or dramatic or thrilling. I want to be open to anything in my path - big and small, loud and muted. I hope that as I stumble, I can rise again and continue on the path that I am on and, in fact, have always been on.

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