Monday, July 31, 2006

The trip home, in more ways than one

One week ago today I was picnicking and hiking in the Pyrenees, and today I am trying to convince myself that even though I have been back for five days it really is ok if I spend "one more day" in recovery mode ( i.e., reading a book) before I plunge full-speed and full-force back into my "normal" life again.

During the entire month that I was in France I thought, and told everyone, that I was coming back to the States on Wednesday the 26th of July. Because of the time change, I would leave in the morning of that day and arrive home in the evening of that same day. And since we get a half-day off from work right before we leave, I was planning on doing lots of things Tuesday afternoon - taking a MILLION pictures of friends, doing some shopping, collecting messages to bring home to a friend in the States who knows people where I was in France, etc. So Monday, which is a day off for us where I worked in France, after the morning of shopping for the picnic in the Pyrenees and before the afternoon picnic in the Pyrenees, I checked my flight plans...only to discover that I was leaving TUESDAY morning, not WEDNESDAY morning!

Mild panic ensued, but I DID go for the hike in the Pyrenees anyway, and also, with the help of my great friends, DID manage to get the major things done that I needed to so that I could make it to the train station in time for my 6am train on Tuesday.

But it was weird, you know? To think I had one more whole day, to think that I didn't have to say my good-byes yet, and then to discover that I didn't have that day and so had to say some good-byes earlier than I had thought and wouldn't even have the chance to say some of the good-byes that I wanted to say.

So I made it to Boston, but the flight from Paris had taken off so late that I missed my connecting flight. They put me on the NEXT flight out of Boston, but the computer wouldn't print the boarding pass, and even when the airline person FINALLY got a flight coupon printed out, and called the boarding gate to let them know that I DID have a valid ticket and WAS on my way, the security people wouldn't let me through without a boarding pass; the flight coupon wasn't enough. Even though they would have let me on the plane had I made it to the gate because the lady had called them to let them know I was coming, security said that I "couldn't" get on the plane without the ACTUAL boarding pass, so they sent me BACK to the desk to try AGAIN to get that printed, and while I was standing there they paged me for the flight because it was ready to take off...

erg erg

So I stayed at the Hilton. And slept in a big clean bed with a PILLOW. :) :) And took a shower WITHOUT having to wait in line, and WITHOUT my flipflops on, in a shower that was big enough to move in and in which I could control the water temperature. :) And ate salad and rolls and jumbo shrimp for dinner in the hotel restaurant and FROZE from the air conditioning. Two weeks of 100+ degree weather does weird things to your body. :) And realized that I would have rather been back in France, even with the summer heat, eating French bread and a homemade salad with my friends.

And when my body woke me up at 3 the next morning, even though I didn't have to get up until 4:30 to catch my flight, I realized that my jumbled half-awake thoughts were in French and I was glad of it, but also wondered, sadly, how long that would last, now that I was back in the States. I am glad to be back, but part of me misses the adventure, and the new friends, and the CONSTANT LEARNING that I was immersed in - of language, of culture, of geography, of politics, of human nature, of myself.

I realized with a shock, part way through my dinner in the hotel restaurant in Boston, that I had communicated effortlessly with the restaurant and hotel staff. I had forgotten how EASY it can be to speak, and listen. My French is good, don't get me wrong, but since I was TRYING so hard to improve my language skills during the month that I was in France, I listened really carefully when people spoke to me, and concentrated on the words they used and how they said what they said and how I should respond. Years ago I passed the point of having translate things in my head from English to French before I say them, but I am not to the point of being able to say, effortlessly, anything that I want to in French. There were times, during this last month in France, when I felt limited by my French, or lack thereof. A few times it was wanting to better serve the clients in the place where I worked, but mostly it was when I was wanting, so badly, to know my friends better, and to be able to share more with them of who I was, but feeling limited by my vocabulary and my inability to discuss the abstract things that make us who we are. So I had WORKED to learn and to express myself more and more clearly, and it was WORK.

And now, in this hotel in Boston, I had listened and spoken without giving it a second thought, or even a first thought, for that matter, without concentrating on catching meaning, without planning in advance how I might need to respond to a possible question. So NOW I see the difference, and NOW I want that ease - in French. That just means next summer I'll have to stay longer. :)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

So I'm not a kid anymore, they tell me.

So I'm 30, right? But I work and go to school at a university, so my peers are all college students, and younger than me, but we get along fine and have a good time and it's not a big deal. And I consider myself a "college student."

But I'm here in France, and I live in the dorms with the short-term youth volunteers, since I am a short-term volunteer myself, and all these kids that I live and work and eat and hang out with are younger than me (most are 18-23), and I'm used to that...but THEY are not. I have had a couple of the kids be REALLY surprised at my age (and then they tell me that they would have guessed that I was 21, or 25 :) ), and one of the men who lives here longterm asked me if I felt "isolated" by living up with all the kids. Uh, no, hadn't really thought of it like that. All my friends at home are the ages of the youth volunteers, so it's not a big deal to me.

But the fact that it is surprising to others that being with people so much younger than me is normal for me has caused me to reflect a LOT on who I am, and what has made me and is currently making me who I am, and why I do the things I do, and what makes us "adult." I'm with Lauren on the whole "sure that someday I'll turn into this insta-boring adult" thing, and yet the other day, because of some things that happened here, and the comments of a couple of good friends here, I thought, "have I already passed that point??" and I felt a bit panicked. And I just now remembered a comment that Josh made the week I turned 30 - I made some comment about 30 being old and boring, and he said that I wasn't but if I got that way before Friday night (the night of my big ol' party), he'd let me know. Uh, actually, please don't. I don't think I want to know.

I want to hold onto the things that make me young and that make people here think that I'm 21 or 25 :) but at the same time, it's OK if I don't want to stay up all night partying with the other kids.

Or is it? I have been thinking about WHY I do things and don't do other things - the "culture" that I am in here is SOOOOOOOoooooOOOoOo different from what I am used to!! Last night I was out with some friends, and I made a comment about not being totally comfortable where we were, and one friend said that it's just that it's different from what I'm used to. Um, yes, that is true, but is that the only reason I wasn't comfortable? And do I WANT to be comfortable in circumstances that are SO different from what I would CHOOSE for my life? I know that often FEAR keeps us from doing new things (back to that whole "getting out of the comfort zone" thing), but when is it "fear of things that I am not used to" and when is it "a good decision that I have chosen to make in my life"?

It's a pretty interesting train of thought for me, and I hope that I am different when I get back and that it's a good "I understand myself better and am more comfortable in my own skin than I was before I came here" type of different. And I hope that I remember (and record!) all these trains of thought so that I can continue to reflect on this and grow rather than just reverting back to the comfort zone that I left three weeks ago.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Weekend, blessed weekend. And also, dirt.

So I am tired. And I am sick to my stomach and have been all day long. Yuck. And I have not touched my thesis in 4 or 5 days, and I am supposed to be working on it regularly. erg

BUT!! I have clean clothes drying on the line, and we are done with work for the day, and for the week, and tomorrow is Sunday and I get to go to church, and the next day is Monday and we don't work. :) :) :) :)

It's really interesting to me the things that we can force our bodies and minds to do. For example: As I mentioned, I am sick. I feel like I have spent about half the day running back and forth to the bathroom. (Don't worry, that's all the detail you are going to get. :) ) But I also worked la caisse, the cash register, from 10am to 6pm (with a break from 12 to 1:45), which means that I was on my feet that whole time, moving, interacting with customers, carrying things, taking money and trying REALLY hard to understand if people said anything to me besides "here's my money" - almost non-stop. But I did it. :) I didn't die. :) But any time there was a pause in the stream of customers and I slowly and stiffly sat down for a second, I thought, "OH. MY. GOSH. I can't believe I feel this gross" and I would decide if I should run to the bathroom right then or if I could wait. But then the next customer would approach, and I would be on my feet again, ready to go.

And yet, even after doing that all day long, and finding that I had the strength to go on (that sounds SO dramatic!! good grief - it was just the cash register at a thrift store!), I have pretty much NO desire to do anything remotely active tonight. All I want to do is read my book and sleep. And not be sick. But all day I was able to manage. Huh.

Plus, let's talk about dirt for a second. I, uh, am a little bit of a fanatic when it comes being clean, and especially about washing my hands, especially after, say, using the bathroom. (Yes, I have a sister who is a doctor, and that might have something to do with it, but I prefer to think that if what it takes to get into heaven is clean hands and a pure heart I just like to be half-way there pretty much all the time.) Here, tho, they don't have the sink, or the soap (when there is any), in the same room as the toilet itself, and in the case of where I work, the sink with the soap is totally across the parking lot from the toilet. And you walk past the window to the boss' office to get from one to the other. So with all those times that I went back and forth today, I was really afraid that the boss was going to come out and ask me to explain to him, in French, of course!, exactly WHY I had to wash my hands 9 million times today. And really, I don't think he would want the details any more than you do.

Ok, but it's not just that! I am dirty - pretty much all the time. I lift boxes of books, handle money, carry piles of used clothing all day. And those are the CLEAN days, when I am not destroying furniture! And it's humid here, so I pretty much feel moist and dirty and smelly all the time. It's, uh, great. And you who know me even a little in real life know that I am the girl who always folds her towel the same way so she won't get dust on the side where she dries her face. (Go ahead and laugh. I'll still be here when you get back.) So, uh, it's an adjustment.

BUT - interestingly enough, not as much of an adjustment as I had thought. (See also: the things we can force ourselves to do.) So I am dirty. And there have been days when I have not washed my face at all, where I have slept in my clothes and then woken up the next morning, put on more deoderant, and gone on with my day, in those same clothes. I will NOT, however, CHOOSE to do that when I get home. I just don't allow myself to think about it, and somehow, it is okay, filthy-hand-towels-in-the-office and no-more-hand-soap-in-the-dorm-bathrooms notwithstanding.

Ok, now I'm shuddering with grossiosity. Enuf. I'm gonna go drag my sorry sick dirty self to dinner, and then, as soon as possible, bed.

Blog out.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The "things" that define us

So here's the thing I realized yesterday, and today - I miss being around people that I TRUST, people who really KNOW me and who I trust. It is fun to get to know all these people, and it is an interesting study in human nature :) , but I miss the security of people that I trust.

But I also think that it is not bad to get out of my comfort zone. And let me tell you, lots of stuff here IS. The work is not that big of a deal anymore, and the French is getting better and better, but it is the whole "friends" thing that is throwing me for a loop a bit. It is interesting to try to figure out how to trust people and who to trust. I am a fairly trusting person, and I want to believe the best of everyone, but it is a bit weird when people do things that are EXACTLY against the rules of the community that is feeding them and putting a roof over their heads. I don't get it!

So there are things that are helping me get to know myself better, but also things where I think, "This is NOT me! How did I get into this, and how can I get out of it?!" It's kinda weird.

I feel very disconnected from everything that is familiar to me, and that is kind of scary. I guess I need to figure out who I am when the "things" I am used to - good friends, family, clean clothes ;) - are NOT around. I guess I never thought I would say that - we don't typically think of friends and family as "things," and I would like to think that I am secure enough in my self-image and all that to be okay, but I DO always say that relationships with people are very important to me. Too important, perhaps? I mean, REALLY, how much do we define ourselves by what we are around?

And here's the other thing. This is a very transcient society. We get new youth volunteers almost every day, and some go home every now and then. I have only been here for ONE WEEK, and already the group is REALLY different. And so we adapt. We move our clothes of the spare bed, and make room. And some of us become friends, and some of us don't. And life goes on, and you're only "the new one" for a day at most, and often only a few minutes.

I'm not sure what my conclusion is to all of this. I need to be MORE secure in who I am, that I think I have learned. And I have a CHOICE as to who I become. And THAT is AWESOME.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

I sort the soda cans.

And let me tell you, it can get pretty gross. There was a rotten, fuzz-covered cigarette butt on one of them. Or maybe it was a cocoon or web of some insect. But really, either way - YUCK! :)

So I am in France! Woohoo!! :) I am working and living at a place where people can donate their old stuff, and we sort it and get it ready to sell. And if it is not sellable (is that a word? I don't speak English OR French very well right now, apparently), then we get rid of it. And that is where I come in. :)

We get to choose which part of the company we work in, and for the last three days, I have been working in the metal shop. It's fun - we destroy stuff! No, really. They bring us stuff that can't be sold, for whatever reason, and we dismantle it, putting the wood parts in the (HUGE) fire pit, where a fire is burning all day long, separating out different kinds of metals for recycling, and throwing out the rest. So today I tore apart a futon-couch thing, a knick-knack shelf thing from the 70's, and a baby stroller, among other things. And the other day, I sorted soda cans. See, you probably didn't know this, but some are made of different metals from others. So I went through two bags of cans, testing them with a magnet so I would know which ones to throw into which recycling pile. Good times. :)

And there are people here from all over the world. Yesterday we had a bunch of new volunteers arrive - a guy from North Ireland (HP fans? it's Oliver Wood's accent - oh my gosh, I LOVE it! and I have to be careful to pay attention to WHAT he says, not just HOW he says it ;) ), 4 girls from Poland, and 5 girls from Korea. And in the metal shop I work with a Frenchman, a Romanian, and a Swede.

And a 19-year-old Frenchman is in love with me. :) He's a little cutie, and his flirting really makes me laugh. He kept coming back to the metal shop, just to say hi and tease me about being a beautiful American, and the Romanian said to me, in front of the French guy, "He only comes here because you are here. Before you were here, he never came here." And the French guy totally took it and agreed that I was why he was coming there, and he made a funny little comment about how he and I should be together, because, he said, "American women are beautiful, and French men are handsome." And I laughed and teased him right back, and after he left I translated the conversation for my Swedish friend who was there working, since his French isn't good enough for him to follow conversations. And he said, "It's not true that ALL American women are beautiful," and I said, "Not ALL Frenchmen are good-looking, either," and he said, "No, you have to go to Sweden for that."

And I about fell over laughing. It was A.W.S.O.M.E. And he said it with such a straight face! Way to go, Fredrick!

Anyway, so things are good. And fun. And good for my beautiful American ego. ;) And I am making lots of friends, and having some deep conversations, and some conversations about French grammar and some about English grammar, and I am also doing some deep thinking, some of which I just may share with you, after I get it all settled in my head and heart.

But now, I am going to go take pictures of some real, live French people watching their team play in the World Cup. Allez les bleus!