I am currently about one or two years away from being fluent in French.
Or maybe 6 months or 6 years.
Basically my French is growing at approximately the same rate as my hair : a speed best described by the word, seriously?
I foresee that the day I officially become a mermaid (the day my hair covers my breasts) and the day I award myself the title "fluent in French" will fall on approximately the same day. I also predict these two events will beget a very good, very strange party.
I have found a fantastic method for surviving both the slow trek towards fluency and the "Winter" in Belgium (meaning September - May, which is similar to Seattle, except about 10 degrees colder and 10 shades darker with a less glorious summer by far) - this method is hot yoga. I know, I know -- the proverbial "American eyes" are hereby commencing their wild rolling. I know what you are thinking: white-person, upper-class, control-freak snobbery disguised as enlightenment. I know. I'm from Seattle, after all, and am thereby quite proficient in judgmentalism (please note: I am losing my English). However I am currently stuffing my face with saucisson sec (salami), drinking my third beer (beer) and wearing the same jeans I have worn for approximately 87 consecutive days. I also found a very large rubber-band in my pho soup the other day and proceeded to eat the entire bowl, virtually undisturbed. I tell you these things in hopes that I change your perception of me enough to enable you to keep reading about hot yoga. And also so you continue to like me. Or not. (No but really, please like me).
The reasons I love hot yoga are all distinctly sexual, as are the reasons for my love of most things.
Imagine this scenario: a beautiful, dark room, heated to 102 degrees and slightly humid, causing you to sweat almost immediately upon entering. Super hot already, right?
You exist for the session on a mat exactly the size of your body - your own space - and yet you are surrounded by dozens of other sweating, panting individuals. They are with you but do not need you. They will be happy or not, regardless of what you do. They are not your concern and you are not theirs. You are nearly nude, and regret even the paltry clothes you have on because of the glorious, counterfeit, Texas heat. The class begins. You are told what to do and when, and you obey.
You hear, "Right leg up," and up goes your leg.
I had forgotten the efficient seduction of simplicity. I decide nothing and I risk nothing: I just am. It is a similar sensation in my body and mind to sitting under the stars and knowing viscerally that I am insignificant, tiny, nothing. These thoughts are a cool breeze on the swollen, pulsing wound of narcissism : of having spent spent my childhood and 60,000$ of education learning that I am everything : my insignificance is a tremendous relief. "Left leg up."
Moments when I am not required to design (or to believe the illusion that I can design) the trajectory of my life are a kindness. As my sweet man would say with his inimitable lips and lisp, "SO good... so good."
Living life as an expat/immigrant means having tremendous weights tied to your body. These weights both inhibit and exaggerate your movements, making you sometimes paralyzed, other times awkward. Any movement you carry out causes these weights to swing - the repercussion of their momentum causes a virtual heaving, like being thrown off balance after hurling but not releasing a bowling ball.
These weights launch you into a trajectory that would normally feel excessive, even ridiculous. From the outside perspective the behaviors and decisions and failures of someone living life as an expat must look very strange indeed. One failed social encounter can birth a gigantic, screaming baby of self-loathing that would normally take months of repeated failures to even conceive.
In addition to causing excessive, bizarre repercussions of movement, these weights make movement more difficult. I have found paralysis almost my default in living here - not that I am not running, working, etc - but in everything that I do I am less seen, less heard, and somehow the space I occupy in my world is less real. When I visit the USA I have the profound and immediate sense that though it is quite simply no longer my home, it is there that I take up space, similar to waking from a dream or changing from a gas to a solid state.
I know that much of my experience is language based, and comes from living here. I am not visiting. We bought a house; we live here. My partner is not American. I am not on a 3 or 5 year contract for work. His family does not live in the USA. If we have a baby the name Tristan will sound like I am naming my baby "sadness" because "triste" is "sad" in French. I am not saying that living in a different country is less or more difficult if you are with an American or if you are only here for a few years or for the experience of living abroad - I am saying it is different.
The people I know who live here, who have lives and jobs and babies and futures here, who can't understand their in-laws unless they learn a different language, those are the people in whom I have been able to see my reflection. Those are the people who have understood what kindness is in a very different way than the people who are adventuring.
It feels strange to say, "I am living abroad." What the hell does that mean? It sounds like I am on a trip in the early 1900's -- like what I am doing is temporary -- like it is a phase or a time that will pass when I finally "come home" after learning to paint at Downton Abbey or writing a book about being an expat.
Is it fun living here? Absolutely. Is it more fun than when I lived in Seattle? Absolutely not. Is it less fun? No. Is it more lonely? Yes. Is the food better here? No. Are some things better here? Yes. And on and on and on.
It is different. And part of the difference is feeling those weights hanging from my body : they are less now than when I first moved here, but they add weight to every decision, every silence, every failure, every success, every joy -- they cause me to feel less like myself and more like a frenetic mess of insecurity, a vapor, entirely dependent on whatever way the wind blows.
Living here has also quieted many places I have known in myself to be perpetually humming with anxiety. Which place do I prefer to live? I don't. I live here.
My hair is getting longer and my French is getting better. I may understand the words of my interlocutor, but I remain unable to intuit the nuance/melody of her words. Where is the humor? What is the accent? What is she really saying?
Nuance has become my best friend and my worst enemy.
Body language takes you to a point, and then you find yourself standing on the edge of an abyss trying to jump over and over and over, waiting for the moment when gravity finally works for you.
Learning a language is agonizing.
Knowing a language fluently feels like nothing, like an absence of a pain or effort instantly taken for granted. W e don't feel gravity even as it holds everything in the universe together. You jump into the air and then you come back, thanks gravity.
We are advised constantly in our lives to notice the small things, to connect, to make eye contact, to lift our eyes from our phones as we go through normal life. "Look at the sky! Look at the person beside you!" But living here has meant trying to catch my breath because all I can do is notice the small things; if I am not concentrating with every muscle in my brain on every stimulus swirling and careening past, I might miss the ONE intended for me. If I am not straining desperately to understand the words of the person speaking, I will most likely miss their meaning entirely, despite how open I may be.
The nuance of so many things is lost entirely to me, and this is one of the most grievous losses of living here. In my own language I feel highly adept in the world of nuance. I might even say gifted, or maybe just addicted. But living abroad (ie: having tea with the girls from Little Women) I have the sensation daily that I must maintain hyper-vigilance in order to understand even the most basic of messages, messages that feel more like mathematics, 1+1=2. "I will change your address but I need you to come back next week," hooray, I understood and communicated, but I am still missing the nuance, the tone, the music. And the daily loss of hearing and enjoying this music is exhausting and devestating and boring. And lonely.
It's the edges of moments that really let us in to someone else's world - the cracks and texture around what we say.
The other night as I going home from class I watched an interaction between a bus driver and a woman he let into the bus at a spot where there was no bus stop. She knocked desperately, he let her in (he was being nice). She entered the bus, paid, and went to sit down. As she turned to walk back the bus driver said, "Merci n'existe pas?" (literally, "thanks, it doesn't exist?" / "You're not going to say thank you?") He said it in an innocuous tone, and I guarantee I never would have felt his nuance if I had not understood his words. She did not understand his invitation/confrontation, and shrugged her shoulders, smiled and sat down. He rolled his eyes and drove like a maniac for the next few minutes. I saw it all and understood it all, and I was on a high for the next few hours. I was on a high because I had not been trying to understand - I just did. I had an emotional reaction to the situation before even realizing I had done the "math." It was gravity.
Now imagine the hot room, a voice telling you what to do and when, and the pure joy of obeying and knowing the only nuance in the room is in your muscles. So hot. In so many ways.
*NOTE* -- I wrote the following in 2006. I now live in a different country and do life with a different partner, a man who reflects love, adventure and gentleness to me daily; I am no longer afraid for my marriage. My sister and I spoke this morning (she made me laugh) and my brother is sober and shining the light of his smile everywhere he goes, somehow selling something full of goodness after all the shit he's been sold.
Can the wolf fly? I am here to tell you, yes.
I think the fact that most people get married and have children proves that most people are undeniably and irreversibly mad. Push through the smiles and happy stories of any person’s childhood and you will find a mess. You will find out that their parents are insane, their siblings dysfunctional and their heritage stiff and strange at best, dark and psychotic at worst. And yet what do most people do? They get married, and they have kids. They perpetuate and encourage this madness called family... they just don’t learn. Isn’t the definition of insanity something like: “to do something exactly the same way a thousand times and to hope for different results on the 1001st time.” We are all mad.
As I sat in the waiting room for my glorious back-cracking this morning I could not help but notice a small boy who was also waiting. He was probably about seven years old, and was very beautiful. It soon became apparent that he was different than most seven year old boys. Maybe autism, maybe something else... it was hard to pin down, but some rhythm in his little self made his every word and movement somehow stand out in the room – he was different.
He sat across the room from his Mom and yelled out,
“Can I take off my coat Mom?”
“Yes, you can take off your coat.”
“Mom, can I put it on the floor Mom?”
“No sweetie, put it on the chair next to you."
“Mom, where do I live on this map, Mom? Where does Darcy live on this map, Mom?”
Every thought in his head was instantly transformed into a question, and his mother’s answers stayed the course; her words were neither self conscious nor impatient - the pace between them familiar.
As their endless cycle continued across the waiting room a woman entered the building with a baby on her hip and a dog on a leash – the boy was ecstatic.
“MOM, Mom look... can I hold the baby Mom? Is that a baby Mom?”
“Ask permission first honey – you can look but don’t touch.”
Hesitation was impossible; he quickly addressed the new mother.
“Is that a baby?”
She responded in a twinkly voice with light and fluffy pride as if she had just magically arrived by bubble, “Haha, why yes it is.”
“Can I kiss it?”
Her light and fluffy shrank a bit.
“Oh...well, he’s a little sick so let’s just look at him.”
With that the boy stood up out of his chair and began to flail his arms around and with nearly violent animation he yelled on the top of his lungs,
“HELLO??!!! HI THERE! HI BABY!!! HI!!!!!!!!”
The baby looked stunned and confused, and the boy was delighted by this response.
The baby could only hold his attention for so long - he soon ceased his dramatic baby greeting and shifted his attention to the dog.
“Is that a dog?”
“Is he a wolf?”
“He is a really pretty wolf... can he jump? JUMP BOY!” and with that he whisked his arms to the sky in invitation to the small wolf. The dog owner maturely intervened, “Well he can jump, but let’s not get him to jump while we’re inside...”
The boy complied.
As the adults began to converse and laugh at a level higher than his intellect and his body, I watched as he continued to look at the tiny wolf - and then suddenly his face changed; it looked like he had just seen Santa Claus. His eyes snapped wide and wonder filled his face... he again looked up to the owner of the tiny, jumping wolf and asked with blatant and urgent interruption,
“Can he fly? Can he FLY??”
The question hung in the air for a moment.
Other adults looked at each other knowingly... their looks said “Poor crazy boy... how embarrassing.” The owner nervously laughed and said loudly so that all would know she was handling the situation appropriately, “No, he can’t fly; dogs can’t fly.”
His face fell, but only for a moment. His wonder was not so easily deflated. “Hell, she was wrong about the wolf thing, she's probably wrong about the flying thing... I bet she’s never even asked the wolf if he can fly” he seemed to be thinking. And if the wolf couldn’t fly, maybe the baby could.
I was stunned by his question and by his lack of self-consciousness; he was stunning. I felt impatience and anger for the people who thought he was crazy – for the piece of me that thought he was crazy. His hope was so clear in that moment that I almost couldn’t look at him – I almost had to just write him off as crazy. Dogs OR wolves flying... ludicrous... scandelous.
I miss my sister. We haven’t talked for almost nine months. I miss her most when something hilarious happens to me – I can laugh with my sister like no one else.
I am angry for my brother. I want to make the world a better place for him – a place that doesn’t try with all it’s might to make hope and goodness seem like shams sold by a cheap salesman. I hate not being a better salesman than the world.
I am afraid for my marriage. I am tired of feeling the definition of insanity every day as I look at my reflection in the mirror of my husband's eyes – why do I always think tomorrow will be different? Why can I feel so much in my dreams and so little in my waking life? Maybe it will be different tomorrow. Maybe it won’t be.
I am growing more and more cynical towards our country and its leaders. Why is it that no matter what goodness and strength humanity intrinsically has been given, it is inevitably the greed and corruption and violence that take the trophy? Government and leadership seem more like a mockery each time a ‘good’ man falls, and they just keep falling.
I wish I was a crazy seven year old again.
I want to look at my sister and my brother and my husband and my country like I just saw Santa Claus. I want to gaze into the vast canyon of silence and anger and hopelessness and lift up my eyes and ask, with the answer already written in wonder on my face, “Can it fly? Can it FLY?”
Maybe madness and hope are very close cousins. Maybe they are even lovers.
Maybe they are both.
Sometimes, after struggling to articulate the reasons I am railing and whining against the grain of my life, I have to smile:
I miss a lot of people, and the new people I meet are not the people I miss.
One of my greatest pleasures of life is going out to eat with my friend Meghan. Not only are we both lovers of trying new restaurants and unafraid of exchanging several pretty pennies for excellent cuisine, we also adore each other.
There is nothing more fun than having good food and drink in the company of someone you deeply enjoy, and who deeply enjoys you back (HALLELUJAH).
I look forward to my next dinner-adventure with Meghan like I look forward to my next trip, or to Christmas: time with her is that good. I should start calling her "Christmas."
Last time I was in Seattle we chose a restaurant featuring the Moscow Mule as their "aperitif." It was my first time trying this concoction, and I was decidedly smitten. We kept them coming the entire meal, deciding to pretend we did not speak French at all and that "aperitif" meant, "To drink before, during and after your meal, 4 drinks being traditional." All four of them were delicious, and the drink itself felt wonderfully representative of the perfect, long-awaited magic happening between Meghan and me.
The Moscow Mule is a little bit magic. What is so special about vodka, fresh lime juice, ginger beer and mint? Nothing really. The combination is delicious, duh, but no reason to get breathless or patriotic. However when these same ingredients are placed inside a chilled copper mug, the taste transforms into something new - I'm talking make-up sex, national-anthem good.
What is so hard, really, about making friends? There are people all over the world, and if we break down the list, Making Friends 101 should be an easy A.
Be kind, be open, be yourself... right? It's so SIMPLE. And yet no matter how many times I add the kindness, the vulnerability and the ME to a cup, it is rarely a Moscow Mule.
Friendship requires chemistry. I am not talking about love-at-first-sight, although this sometimes happens (I met one of my best friends at a bar -- she literally met me, kissed me on the mouth, and announced to the bar that she had found her soulmate. She was drunk, but she was right. I have loved her like a sister since that moment). More often the delicate chemistry of friendship occurs over time, influenced by changes in the ingredients or temperature or environment.
The reverse is also possible. Relationships can fizzle out - a friend can forget or stop caring - a drink that was once delicious can turn sour, even toxic.
Meghan sent me a present for my birthday. The package arrived about an hour ago, barely procured from the hands of the speedy, Italian delivery man (they are definitely not paid per delivery in Brussels).
After racing down 10 flights of stairs (the elevator is too slow for times like these) and bursting out the front door I successfully detained him by yelling and waving at his departing car. The driver saw me, got out and began yelling back, angry at me for some reason, that my door buzzer was 'kaput.' He then ensured that I was Charis Brice by pointing to my name on the package and giving me a thumbs-up.
I rode the elevator back up to my apartment with a huge smile on my face. I had no idea what was inside the box, but saw that it was from Meghan, so the box was already guaranteed "PURE HAPPINESS."
Inside the box there were two copper mugs and hand-written instructions on how to make a Moscow Mule. There was also a note telling me that I am missed, I am missed, I am missed.
I have been openly whiny about making new friends in Europe. It is hard to make friends when your primary emotion is "WHINY, and your nickname, "BITCHFACE" but friends have found me nonetheless (generous souls).
This weekend I had a birthday party where I invited the people I have met over the past year living in Belgium. I felt waves of panic during the day before the party and wondered if I had designed the party specifically to make myself feel lonely - but the waves of panic changed to waves of gratitude throughout the night as I received kindness after kindness from so many of the people present.
I have friends in Seattle and friends in Belgium who love me, and I am so grateful.
Whiny Bitchface is slowly changing to something more palatable; thank god for copper mugs.
Sometimes, after struggling to articulate the reasons I am railing and whining against the grain of my life, I have to smile:
I miss a lot of people, and the new people I meet are not the people I miss.
... but they could be someday.
Things I loved this week:
1. Roasting tomatoes
I know, so random. I bought a bunch of little tomatoes on the vine at one of the outdoor markets in town and when I got home discovered they were absolutely tasteless - truly terrible.
Rather than toss them I decided to try roasting them, which I had never done with tomatoes before. The result was divine. I smeared a tiny bit of olive oil on a cookie sheet, and then cut the tomatoes in half and put them on the sheet cut-side-down. I then sliced (not pressed) about 5 cloves of garlic and sprinkled around the tomatoes, and added a little fresh basil (again, scattering around the pan). A little sea-salt, pepper, cayenne (I am addicted to cayenne) and thyme (I didn't have rosemary) and I stuck it in the oven. I roasted them for about an hour and a half, until they were super wrinkled and tender. I dumped it all into a bowl and then smeared it on bread with some cendre chèvre on top... DELICIOUS CITY. They were also good for days cold, straight out of the refrigerator. I am about to go eat some now.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street
Are you kidding me? This movie left me speechless. It was shocking, entertaining, brilliantly executed and quite nearly perfect; there were several scenes where I thought to myself, "I think this is one of the best scenes of ____ that I have ever seen." Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect throughout. But so are the other actors, the editing, the writing, etc. I wanted to watch it again immediately after seeing it, and I never want to do that. Go see it. I hope it wins everything.
Side note: how boring was Gravity? Kill me now. Sorry, wrong list.
I feel like I have been waiting for 10 years for this season. As usual, it was worth the wait. I mutter, "Benedict Cumberbatch," frequently throughout the day, not because I love him more than Martin Freeman (I adore them both), but because saying his name actually releases endorphines.
4. Watching my man's face as I explained the Chris Christie scandal to him.
5. My friend Meghan buying a ticket to come to Belgium in September
Words fail me. So many people have the intention of visiting, but so few people actually do. Meghan is one of the reasons I consider myself to be the luckiest woman alive, and I will enjoy every moment with her as I show her my home and explore Europe with her. ECSTATIC.
6. Café Georgette and my birthday party
I don't know if anyone will show up (expat reality), but the venue is so fun that I will just dance with Arnaud and order drinks from my personal bar-tender for the entire night regardless. Complete with one of the best burgers I have had in my life (I know, extreme but true), a smoking room and a view of the city, this private bar (within walking distance from our house) above Café Georgette makes me very happy. It also makes me wish that I could fly all my Seattle and Chicago and Texas and Arizona and Louisiana and Tennessee and California and North Carolina friends up to attend... again, wrong list.
7. Zella "live-in" Leggings, from Nordstrom
When I say that I never want to wear anything else, I am dead serious. I have arranged every outfit around these bad boys since receiving them for Christmas. My sister Kensey and friend Nikki have told me for years that they are fabulous - I am now a believer. I can now frequently be seen stroking my legs distractedly, amazed by the support and comfort they feel and the softness of the material. I am getting excited just talking about them... they are in the wash right now so I feel panicky.
8. Watching my man get dressed in the morning
I said it. Every morning I pretend to be asleep but am actually watching as he busts into the bedroom from the shower, always rushing. It's such a good show every time, like an intimate, erotica vitamin.
9. My red watch
I received a beautiful red watch from my man for my birthday. He once gave me a battery charger for Christmas, so let's just say that this gift took my breath away. I feel about the watch like I feel about saying Benedict Cumberbatch. Win.
10. Feeling like a food snob
Not that being disappointed is fun, but realizing that we eat (cook) very well as our norm was a fun moment this week. We ate at a "nice" Italian restaurant and could not believe how mediocre the food was. We still had a great time and loved the atmosphere, but spoke later about how our "home cooking" put their "upscale cuisine" to absolute shame. Then we high-fived and slapped each other on the ass.
11. Dreaming about dinosaur fish
I had the most vivid, apocalyptic dream that the world transformed into a thick jungle where dinosaurs again roamed. The main point of the dream was that the FISH were about a thousand times bigger than normal - dinosaur fish - it was a fly-fishing wet dream. YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN the fish I was catching on my 5 weight fly rod...
12. Ishmael Beah
How am I just hearing about this man and his books? Thank you Colbert Report. I felt more hope watching a 10 minute interview with Ishmael, a phoenix, than I have felt in quite a while. I am starting his books tonight.