“Attention, all passengers for the 11:20 train for _____. Due to–”
A herd of elephants trumpets by.
“…we regret to inform you that there will be a significant delay. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Bouncing into the information office, I see the usual old dogs at their post, along with one grizzled unfamiliar face.
“Hello! I’m meant to take the train at 11:20, but I didn’t catch the reason for the delay…?”
I try to speak as naturally as possible, but my accent gives me away. My French is like a dog wearing a hat: innocuously unnatural.
Tired, deliberate, his response lacks all pretense of social niceties:
It does not concern you.
Excuse me, but I have the impression that it was just announced.
It. Does not. Con-cern. You.
His tone adds, “Fucking foreigner.”
His stern face dully chastises me, through deep frown lines and a graying smoker’s pallor. Maybe he always talks to women like this. Maybe he’s sick and miserable, and needs to vomit his misery onto others. Maybe his dog just died, and his boss made him roll into work today anyway. Maybe his partner is terminally ill, and he’s angry at the world. Maybe he’s just a Grade-A asshole.
10,000 maybes, and it’s likely that not one is correct. Whatever the reason, it is irrelevant. I know I will meet him again, in countless other forms.
My friendly demeanor melts away, and with a bite in my voice, I thank him for the information and bid him good day. I resist the burning urge to flip him off as I turn on my heel and escape.
My logical mind is outraged: I’m not to be cowed by one passive-aggressive backhanded comment. What nerve he’s got, shirking social conventions of politeness! How dare he! A brute like that shan’t speak to me in such a ghastly manner! I’ve a mind to dress him down!
Someone tell that big talk to the pressure in my chest that’s feeding the fire in my throat. Angry tears boil over. I wish for thicker skin, for French that could cut, for some witty Bette Davis-style comebacks: grace with a touch of disdain. Yes, if only I had a sharper tongue! Then these people wouldn’t mistreat me; they’d respect my invisible anti-bullshit forcefield. I feel infantilized, maladjusted, incapable of survival in this world filled with Grade-A assholes.
I speedwalk away, hiccuping pathetic tears, hating myself. The more I walk, though, the more the burning subsides. What am I doing? Is my core this easily swayed by an external force? Why do I need to wait until I’ve become the Perfect Me to be acceptable? No, I’m deserving of respect now, first and foremost from myself, because I can’t count on anyone to fork it over automatically.
One more experience under my belt, one more internal growth spurt. Ready for the next meeting with another manifestation of that unbearable condescension that I despise. Next time, every time, I don’t want to be so quick to minimize myself. There will always be another grating external force. I’m learning that it will sway me only if I allow it to.
Tense aggression in the heat of frustration. What to do? My body can’t take this explosion of anger, I’ve got to have a physical outlet. Stupid Barbie, why don’t you do what I want? I hate you. Bite, clench hard. Quickly take a look. It’s all bent. Why did I do that? Now she’s ruined.
She still lives in a large plastic bin of forgotten toys in a basement, frozen smile, frizzy hair, and deformed hand.
School bus. Meekness puts me on the radar, makes me a target.
Get out of my space, get away from me…
Through my geeky spectacles, I’m seeing red. I wish I wasn’t alone on this bus, I wish I had a forcefield of friends to protect me. Body recoils, hotly tense. I hate you. I want your ugly, mocking smile to go away. My fist jumps out like a snake from the bushes, and connects with a hollow thunk. The bully facade crumbles to give a glimpse of his true face: a confused pre-teen boy who desperately needs to be cool.
I escape from the school bus, and soon after I notice small rocks dancing at my feet. Turn around, and he and his friend are throwing their parents’ decorative landscaping pebbles at me. Very tough indeed. I speed-walk home, tail between my legs.
I’ve learned that “no” is a question of interpretation. “Leave me alone” communicates an invitation for more undesired attention. My pathetic defenses have been exhausted. There’s a key to surviving here that I just don’t have. Why don’t I have it; how do I get out of this?
In class. Day after day, explicit sinister whispers chip away at me. I wish I could take my skin off and disappear. One after another, ugly comments meant to do what? Wear me down, violate my comfort; I’m tired of it. What did I do to deserve it? Tension, heart is boiling again. Stop fucking with me. I didn’t ask for this.
Teacher leaves room, and I can liberate the Me that lives inside, vibrant and angry and electric. The current extends out from my hand, slices around to meet his face. Jaw wobble, sharp intake of air, now I’m tingling. I plaster on a smile, eyes forward, like a good little scholarly robot-mannequin.
A student is going on the offensive; they’ve taken constructive criticism personally, which has led to aggression; at least, that’s what it feels like.
Needles in my skin, chest is hot. Voice and hands want to tremble.
I’ve given my professional opinion, and this poor sap feels the need to retaliate, and turn to the typical cheap ploy of ping-ponging their insecurity back onto me. I’m not having it. This time, I’ve got a full arsenal of words at my disposal. With firm professional efficacy, I defend my position and steer this person out of my space.
Same internal response.
Different course of action.
“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.
I land in Japan. I’m 20 years old and it’s my first time outside the United States. I’m nervous, lonely, and feeling out of place. Realizing that I’m not sure who I am.
In due time, I am to learn that this uncomfortable feeling is what leads to growth. Unfamiliarity is exciting. I meet new sensory experiences, and a glimpse of my true self. I learn to welcome them.
Japan is where I discover the joy of solitude. I can experience inner calm, the joy of independence, and the freedom to follow my own rules. It has become one of the core values of my life.
Things feel stagnant. Unmoving. Static. Gray. My life feels like short bursts of excitement that punctuate my cycle of reality: home, work, home, work…
I scan the coming months in the calendar, biting my thumbnail. What do I have to look forward to? I live from crescendo to crescendo; I ride the upward crests, and feel exhilarated when I get a peek at what’s to come. I feel aimless when I don’t have that joyful anticipation.
I crave something different.
Oh, I recognize this feeling. Wanderlust. I don’t need to do anything drastic; I just need to shake off the dust and move.
Walking is moving meditation.
Time spent alone is truly free.
It’s okay to get lost, I know I’ll always find my way in the end.
Time to find a new notebook and book a train ticket. I’m already feeling more alive at the thought.
The story begins on the main boulevard of Angers. I’m walking to the train station after a long day of work, and a couple of salty-looking French men are walking my way. They stop, they ooh and ahh, and deliver some uncouth pickup lines. Standard catcalling fare, the kind that women are very familiar with.
T’es bonne! (You’re sexy!)
Oh, là là là, salut ma chérie! (Hey, sweetheart!)
C’est quoi tes origines, là? (Where’re you from?)
Their use of tu is what struck me. In French, the informal tu and the polite vous are clear ways to express distance or familiarity to the person with whom you speak.
I understand; scratching your nuts and grunting at a woman isn’t exactly the time for politeness. But the way these men referred to me as tu indicates a familiarity with which I didn’t ask for, and certainly didn’t need or deserve. Women know this feeling all too well. The way men like this invite themselves into your space, then feel you owe them something while they’re there… How egregious!
Of course, not responding to these terribly suave pickup lines can then invite an alternate ending: some men just have to have the last word, and my ears sting as they throw me one last insult to injury, for the road: Bitch. Conne. Salope.
Now, imagine the presumptuousness of someone stomping onto your front porch and demanding a cup of tea, then insulting you when you don’t comply. The trouble is, we never know if that guy will slither away and retreat, or if he’ll try to break the door down to get some tea. The majority fall into the first category; the rare times you meet someone from the second are those that burn into your memory.
This kind of discussion often comes back to female culpability. The question isn’t “What the fuck is wrong with that creepy guy?” No, the question is “What were you wearing?” In other words, what did you do to invite this onto yourself?
It brings me back to being in middle and high school, right back to those good ol’ days where my bullies understood my silence as tacit consent. Interfering in my space was considered a right, and I had no say about it.
At home, the response I got was “Well, don’t let them do it!” But as a girl, I didn’t understand how not to let them do it; it felt like I was doing something wrong, that maybe it was my fault. I allowed it to happen, so therefore I was the guilty party. The bullying later evolved into sexual harassment, and I learned that my words were ineffective. Others had words that could hurt, but mine were worthless.
I learned that boys were bad. That male attention could hurt. That, given the chance, they’d stomp into your house, drag mud all over the carpet, then blame you for leaving the front door unlocked.
As women, we learn from these lessons and start locking the door. For me, I tried locking the door, barricading it, and pretending to be invisible behind. I couldn’t answer the door to anyone, and I eyed the potential burglar with the same suspicion as the puppy salesman.
With this charming backstory in my pocket, I grew into a woman and started getting the standard societal messages: male attention is GOOD! Male attention is affirmation of your worth as a woman! I was supposed to yearn for male approval while inwardly understanding that they are cunning and untrustworthy. We’re screwed with them or without them when we view things like this in black-and-white.
Fortunately, life brings about the good to balance the bad, and by fostering relationships with the good guys, things become less black-and-white. It’s here in France where I have more hetero male friends than I’d ever had before. It’s through these respectful, trusting friendships that I learned it wasn’t always necessary to blockade the door.
So when some jerkoff on the street invites himself into my space, the 30-year-old Me is simultaneously insulted and annoyed, but also feels a twinge of sadness for those 12, 14, 16, 19, 22, 24, 25-year-old Mes who were silent.
The difference is, I’ve got words now.
French class is over. Goodbye Charlie. So long. That’s all she wrote. After 3 intensive semesters of studying the complexities of the French language, I said my final “adieu” to the university this past Friday. My last exam was with the same teacher I started my studies with, so it was a fitting end.
Now all that’s left is to wait for my grades, and more importantly, my new visa to come through.
After being out of school for so long, it was bizarre to go back to class, surrounded by people who were mostly my baby sister’s age. Talking with my classmates brought me back to memories from Japan, where I studied abroad 8 years ago. The hope, the uncertainty, the naive perfectionism, the desire to find their path and figure things out, the desire to grow up; I saw a lot of my younger self in my classmates. While it brought back memories of a much more sheltered, carefree (or careless?), naive Lari, my experience also smacked me with a bit of perspective to take away.
It was weird to turn in homework, get corrected and lectured during the day in class, then switch roles and teach and correct my own students at night at work.
It was invigorating to be motivated not by grades, but by pure will and ambition to become self-sufficient, to be able to advocate for myself in a foreign language and country.
It was uplifting to observe my progress in French, and reconnect with my love of studying foreign languages.
It was instrumental in showing me my limits, and I learned the real meaning of being kind and understanding with oneself.
It showed me a glimpse of my potential.
It helped me rediscover my cojones.
It inspired an intellectual curiosity that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
It also opened my eyes to the fact that there’s no way for me to learn all that I would like to learn in this lifetime.
Now, on to the next. Training wheels are off, let’s see what I get myself up to.