Thursday

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my buddy, the carrier pigeon

 

Walking through the vineyards on my way to the train station, my carrier pigeon buddy arrives to escort me to the station.  He coo-coos alongside me until we reach the threshold between nature and civilization.  There, his red beady eyes wink me a “Good luck.”  Thanks, pal.

 

Arriving in town, it’s one of those days where I want to say “Fuck my job.”  What am I, some kind of language workhorse?  I resent the fact that the corporate masters own my time, even if it’s just 5 hours today.  That’s 5 hours off my dreaming time.

All the same, I’m in town, and at least for now, I am indebted to my corporate masters.  Unseasonably cold winds tug at my coattails, and my head is pounding for an unknown reason.

I tiptoe erratically around the sidewalk, studded with trampled bits of dog shit.  No way am I getting my red leather boots dirty.  The cold air invades my nostrils and freezes my brain, aggravating my headache.  The fragrance of the first spring cherry blossoms irritates me even more.

The area around the train station is a lot better-kept than in other cities; no seedy sex shops or vaguely-disguised titty bars to be seen, no cannabis fumes in the air; just nondescript bistros that are a bit too antiseptic for my liking.  I peek into one, and a middle-aged cook eerily stares back at me, while he scrubs an already-spotless zinc countertop with a clean white towel.  Even their ashtrays are immaculate.  Freaky.

I approach the monolithic structure, the medieval castle, squatting in the middle of town.  Just across the street from its fat, monstrous towers sits another bakery, more modern with dark hardwood floors, and an alluring glow to its sandwiches and pastries that sit on deep blue-gray ardoise slate slabs.  I pick up a kouign amann, a Breton specialty:  it’s a crispy, flaky, buttery sticky bun.  The hammering in my head starts to subside when I take a bite of the luscious pastry.

As I chew and walk on, I’m peeking into chic restaurants, neighborhood barbershops, deserted bookshops and quiet upscale boutiques.  A stylish woman walks past, and the sickly sweet cloud of her perfume chokes me as she walks past, her heels confidently stabbing the ground with each step.  I catch myself feeling inadequate in her presence, and I think back to a former student of mine, who was a picture of perfection:  successful, affluent, immaculately dressed and coiffed.  Yet her eyes had glistened with desperation when she confided how deeply she regretted the direction in which her life had gone.  I wonder what happened to her.

I drop into another favorite spot, a red-bannered bakery run by a genial bald-headed baker, who always seemed to be dusting flour off his hands and apron in a cloud of magic.  His breads and pastries are some of the best in town, and I order a sandwich for lunch.  He grabs one off the top of the stack with his large hands, knobby and solid from a lifetime of kneading dough.

Finally, I slide into my favorite café, a neighborhood dig that’s clean, with a good atmosphere, and proprietors that leave you alone to think.  I’d like to think I’m becoming a regular, alongside the old salty Italian man who critiques the French and their politics between sips of red wine, rolling his Rs and calling everyone cons (dumbasses)…

I ease into the seat next to the door and order an espresso with water.  I catch a cool draft every time the door opens, along with a few wisps of cigarette smoke that sneak in.  I don’t mind.  I’m surrounded by rough caw-caw guffaws.  The server who’s about my age, the older couple that runs the joint, and the old-dog regulars; they laugh and gibe between bites of food, sips of wine, drags of cigarettes.  Like a goddamn family sitcom.  They’ve got nowhere else to be, except there, giggling and shooting the shit.  Hell, neither do I.

I realize my headache has ceased.

I’m satisfied with life in this moment, and smile into my hot cup of black coffee.

Just another Thursday.

Mock

“I’m afraid of being made fun of.”

 

How many times have my students confided this fear in me?  Ashamed to struggle, flustered at their mistakes, looking like they want to disappear.

I wonder, What’s the big deal?

Since when do strangers’ opinions matter?  Why are we so ready to give away our confidence to imaginary people who fictionally criticize us?

This mentality seems to speak to the greater idea that unless you’re going to be great at something, it’s not worth trying.  Anything less than excellence is insufficient.  You run the risk of entering the annals of history as a Failure.

 

Is our sense of self-importance that inflated, that our failures, never mind our very existences, will be remembered for more than 5 nanoseconds?

 

Push the logic a bit further, and it falls to pieces.

I screw up, forget things, commit acts of thoughtlessness.
I have a funny accent when I speak foreign languages.
I’m sure my lipstick is never smooth and flawless.
I trip over my feet, my skirts ride up, I get parsley in my teeth.
At times, I have no idea what to say.  I get testy on occasion.
I ruin recipes and often write what I think is garbage.

So what?  We all do.

Criticism from one person is fleeting.  As is the embarrassment of screwing up.

More than fictional criticism that hasn’t happened yet, we should be afraid of leaving this world with regret in our hearts, at not having tried.

Let’s get over ourselves, and just do it.

Aprende!

“I don’t get it.”

Hands up in the air, head shaking, breath hissing in exasperation, body leaning back as far as humanly possible from the table.  Downturned haddock mouth, brow furrowed, head slouching into a temple massage, fingers tense and aggravated.

It never ceases to amaze me, that this behavior comes from grown-ass adults: parents, doctors, lawyers, accountants, managers, generally functioning members of society.

Sometimes, I stare blankly back in response.  No follow-up question, no attempt at clarification.  I see expectancy and hope looking back at me; these are eyes that just want the answer, dammit!

When I see my adult students react poorly to frustration, I think back to my childhood.  When my father spoke to me in Spanish and I didn’t understand, or when I had a difficult homework assignment, he’d nod his head in exasperation and exclaim:  “Aprende!”  Learn!

If only those were the magic words.  “I don’t get it,” and instantly, you’re exonerated from the responsibility of mental exertion.

In a perfect world, I just give the damn answer, and we can all move on!

In the world of language learning, that just doesn’t cut it.

The moments of frustration, mental blanks, forgetting what we’ve seen dozens of times before… Years of experience have taught me that that is where true language acquisition happens.  Learning to navigate through those difficult moments, to roll with them, not allowing them to completely block us:  these skills differentiate between those who will succeed, and those who will not.

Alleviating a short moment of frustration by giving the easy way out does a disservice to the student.  They are freed from the obligation to try, and thereby cheated out of an opportunity to learn.  I want to echo my dad’s simple, yet timeless nugget of truth:  Aprende!

 

Sing

I wake up to the sound of the wind screaming outside.  I’m breathing heavily from the nightmare I’ve just been freed from.  The window shade is rattling, and my windows are creaking.

The wind moans over the sound of the grains in my bread crackling in the toaster.  It haunts me as I get dressed and zip up my boots.  As strong as the wind is now, it’s nothing compared to what I’ll meet on the walk to the station.

I carefully tie my hair and scarf to keep them under control, and my resolve is firm when I turn the key to lock my door.  No turning back now.

 

I ascend the hill near my sheep buddies, and their matted wool and stoic gazes are unmoving in this tempest.  Spindly branches whip above my head, and I skirt quickly away from the groaning trees.

My usually peaceful country path is now unfamiliar in its aggression.  The wind is so powerful, I can’t walk straight, and I fear it’ll rip my contact lenses straight out of my eyes.  Wincing into each step, I hear nothing but howling in my ears.

Nothing but howling?

I can fix that.

I start singing.  Each gust threatens to cut off my breath, but I can’t miss this perfect opportunity to belt out some great disco hits.  This is a walk from hell, but I can either bitch and moan into the breeze, or smile and sing into it.  The latter is way more fun.

I imagine a winegrower sipping his morning coffee, further down in the valley, catching the tune as it’s carried over on a strong gust.  He taps his foot and hums along, in harmony with my vocals.  The wind screams for an encore.  I take a bow, board my train, and leave it wanting more.

Hibernate

Early March.  Snowdrops and crocuses are blooming, as are the daffodils.

Snowdrops, beautiful delicate white flowers, coyly looking down at their feet.  I remember wrapping their trimmed stems in wet paper towel, then plastic wrap.  The downturned eyebrows and “aw” of my favorite teacher when I proudly presented them to her.

Crocuses, narrow vase-shaped purple and yellow blooms.  They tell me Spring is almost here.

Daffodils, already in bloom.  Back home, they arrive in April; my favorites have white petals and yellow trumpets.  The hills of our park are covered in an army of daffodils, thousands standing proud.

This beautiful trio of color is what brushes away the lethargy of winter.  Endless gray skies, bitter wind and rain, minimal daylight truncated by late sunrises and early sunsets.  The gray is cast over everything, making food taste as bland as the tree branches that loom overhead, naked and spindly.

Meanwhile, the flesh on my hips grows thicker with raclette, inactivity and torpor.  My head is stuffed with cotton, and I feel myself disappearing, daily, soundlessly into the fog-laden hills of my morning walk.

My gray existence receives a jolt every year, upon sight of these flowers.

I wipe the sleep from my eyes, and go outside to pick one.  The first sight of vibrant color in months turns my world back into technicolor.

It’s nearly time to come out of hibernation.

Mortify

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Onstage, seated cross-legged in front of a full audience.  I paint on my most charming smile, and begin speaking into the mic.  In the midst of the first wave of applause, I realize:  my script is missing.  The auditorium hushes, and I’m nervously fluttering through my binders.  I hear spectators growing restless, shifting from one buttcheek to the other in their seats, and I’m feeling panicked.  I look over my shoulder, and am sickened to see that offstage, she’s got my script.  Smiling, her face says, “How you like me now?”
I wake up with the same tight stomach.
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Mortification is a word that’s followed me closely in my journey through life, like a pathetically faithful three-legged dog with fleas.
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I think back to my first teaching job, and the little black nob protruding from the ceiling in every classroom:  CCTV.
I knew that classes were recorded, for evaluation purposes…  it wasn’t until a couple years in, that I realized everything was being recorded.  Whether there was a class or not, the cameras were rolling.  I instinctively cringe recalling the things I did while on camera.

I broke down crying at my desk before class.

I shook my booty to reggaeton music.

I bit my nails.

I had private telephone conversations.

I did unladylike things.

Those shining moments were captured, in addition to my horrific first forays into teaching:  kids scribbling on the walls, scooting around the classroom, slinging various objects, and stupefied Me in the eye of the pandemonium, pulling my hair out.

I can imagine the wide-eyed bewildered look of whatthef*ck on my supervisors’ faces when they sat down to replay and evaluate my classes.  I imagine they learned much more about me than they bargained for.
Now, looking back on that time, I wonder if there wasn’t a shred of pity in their eyes when they spoke to me.
I shudder, and come zooming back to the Present.  I could chastise myself for ever being that foolish.  But, knowing that Mortification will eventually come back to me, I prefer to laugh at myself.  It may not be pleasant, but it’s there to teach me a lesson.

Center

I’m not a spotlight reveler.  I’m the one reveling in anonymity and dancing in the negative space around the spotlight.  Like an escaped prison convict, I tend to go wide-eyed and freeze up in the blinding light of attention.
But when you get married, it’s kinda the point to be the center of attention.
Dress shopping and decision-making are turning things a bit sideways, as I learned yesterday.
Wedding dress shopping, first stop.  The bridal shop saleswoman is a mousy woman with wire-rimmed glasses and short dark hair.  She listens expectantly as I describe what I’d like, hoping to end the choreographed dance around the Price Question as soon as urbanely possible.  Finally, I name my budget, and the woman curtly responds, “No, madam, that just isn’t possible.  For what you want, you’re looking at X.”
X is several hundred euros more than I had imagined.
There are three people watching me fidget, and make a snap decision.  The potency of my French turns from espresso to dishwater.  I feel hot, and my throat starts to tighten.  I’m looking blankly into the seller’s eyes, and noticing that despite her calm mask, her skin is flushing.  My skin flushes in tandem, and my tongue swells.  The silence is oppressive, and I suddenly feel like a foolish girl.  I step outside my skin and envision how I must look, slack-jawed and cloddish, with my simple thumbs curled through the belt loops in my careworn jeans, surrounded by pristine white gowns.  I feel so inadequate.
“Well, then, I suppose it’ll have to be that much, but no more.”
“It’s you who decides, madam, not me!”
I can feel the eyes of my mother- and sister-in-law on my back, silently sharing this clumsy moment with me.  I want to evaporate.
My heart sinks as I try on several gorgeous wedding dresses.  I let my hair loose, and I admit to myself that I do look very nice.  My throat is still tight, and I manage to squeak out that, indeed, they flatter my figure.  I purse my lips, and as six eyes expectantly wait for a definitive “yes,” and that signature bride-to-be’s squeal of glee at finding The Dress, I feel myself crumbling inside.  I feel like a hollow doll, slathered in pretense and lace.
What’s the tactful way to say that this doesn’t feel right?  That I’m not cut out for this ostentatious charade?  How would Emily Post orchestrate my exit strategy?
“Well, this is a big decision that I’m not ready to make right now.  I think I’d like to sleep on it.”
I take the woman’s business card, slide it into my bag, and smile as I show myself the door.  Damn, that was rough.  But I’m happy that I listened to my gut instinct and did what was right, albeit uncomfortable:  I said no.
Even if I stumbled and scraped a knee back there, I think Emily would be happy with my (somewhat) diplomatic retreat.