I suppose I should make this a long one, on account of the fact that I haven’t posted in a while. I’ve been here for 4 weeks and one day so far. I’d like to cover as much as possible, so I’ll actually put some forethought into structure. What’s there to cover? How harshly have I been assailed? What triumphs have I garnered? I suppose I should cover: speaking the language, socialising, and that persistent grapple with expectations at the least.
1. “I’ve Gone Feral, And I Don’t Speak The Language Anymore.”
Despite that ominous subheading, there have been improvements in this department. I last spoke of being “almost phobically afraid of speaking the Italian language to natives”. Documenting one’s thoughts in blog posts is excellent because before re-reading that in the previous post just now, I would not have realised that I’ve moved along quite well in the space of four weeks. Now, “quite well” is incredibly relative, but all I mean to say is “phobically afraid” is not the term I would use anymore. It depends on my interlocutor, but I’m growing more okay with attempting to get my point across with the rudiments of language that I have. My main point of contact in terms of Italian practice have been my flatmates and service people, and to a lesser extent I’ve spoken Italian to fellow Erasmus students. My flatmates, a trio of people somewhat-but-not-uncomfortably older than me, are all incredibly patient and in terms of learning, I should probably utilise them as a resource much more than I do. (Is it strange to say of human beings, “utilise as a resource”? Probably.) I think patience is the greatest gift you can regale upon a language learner: patience and kindness. But then I suppose treating anybody who needs patience and kindness with patience and kindness is the baseline decent thing to do. If you’re ever met with impatience as a language learner, I suggest you swear at that person with rabid vitriol in your own language, then storm out with intense sass. Fortunately, so far, I haven’t been met with much impatience. I mean, I’ll forgive the dead glares of one or two service workers because, well, they’re service workers – they’re dealing with shit all day. In general, people will wait to hear you out. This is hard to internalise when you’re a scared and uncertain foreigner, but I suppose I should try. There is still the temptation to avoid society because it’s such a battle to build up the confidence to interact in a foreign language. This is understandable; I will try not to beat myself up so much for feeling this way on occasion, but I must remember not to let it go too far. It would be a terrible waste of a year and an awful blow on my degree if I did do that. However, more on expectations and “terrible wastes” later.
2. “People Are Just People; They Shouldn’t Make You Nervous”
The thread of language runs through the theme of socialising, so I’ve already touched upon this partially in the previous section. The trouble is when you combine language issues with previously existing neuroses regarding socialising. I’m incredibly bad at reading whether people enjoy my presence or not, and usually assume the latter to err on the side of caution. Not actively, I don’t sit and conclude it through any rational process. My mind without thinking just assumes that people have lives to lead and their own friends and that I am naturally an outsider to that, unless it’s glaringly and loudly pointed out to me that my presence is welcomed. I realise I should get over this; I realise that friendship is a collaborative dance, that it requires initiative on both sides. Yet still, some dark and gloomy beast within me whispers words of rejection and suggests fear is safer than courage. “What good will courage bring you?” It questions me. “You know where it leads. Pain, misery.”
Good god, shut up, you dark and gloomy beast. Unfortunately, it is persuasive. It speaks past reason and directly to the passions, and everyone knows reason is slave to the passions. I think the only real combative action one can take against this beast is to prove it wrong, to be courageous and enjoy the company of others. For example, the few times I have been out so far, I have enjoyed meeting people and have met interesting souls. However, there’s more to fighting the beast than that. Because what happens when it appears right? What happens when I go somewhere and feel crap and uninteresting and like a poor contributor, or when (and this is a true story) I go out with the intention of meeting people but end up, through all sorts of imbroglios, drinking alone for a couple of hours before heading home in defeat? Surely then the beast is right, the beast has won, just stay home and watch Breaking Bad? Wonderful as Breaking Bad is, there’s another answer here. I’m reading an autobiography at the moment in which the following words appear, words that I think hold seeds to the answer: “The guiding star of my anguished adulthood has been the knowledge, absent in my adolescence, that shame, embarrassment, and failure are funny.” That might sound odd, but I think there’s an important truth in it. If not funny, the tales of shame, embarrassment, and failure are the tales that connect people’s humanity. It’s worth having them so you can recount them openly and then by some means make somebody else feel less alone in their own failure, more human in their embarrassment. They make good stories, and what is life but the attempt to make a good story in a limited amount of time.
3. Making The Most Of The Erasmus Year
Which I suppose brings me to the final thing I wanted to cover. We get one image of what your ~*~*~Year Abroad~*~* ~ is supposed to look like. The seeds of expectation are planted in you before you leave, and they grow into huge and gnarly monsters once you arrive and water them with too much social media checking. Social media has many virtues, but one of its greatest vices is that it often results in a collectivisation of the human experience that presents it homogeneously, without the interesting grooves and bumps and differences. Connected to points brought up in the previous section, I know that I’ve felt, already in these 4 weeks, like I’ve been doing Erasmus wrong and that I’ve got off to an awful start and I’ll only bump along poorly and pathetically from here on out. Asides from this probably not being true and that just being the Beast speaking, it wouldn’t matter anyway. I’m allowed to have my own specific story that I can tell in my own specific way. Its creation is dictated from the inside, not directed by a homogeneous image projected from the outside. This is not to say I’m not going to do typical-as-shit Erasmus things (I’m writing a YAB for Christ’s sake); it just means I will allow myself the liberty to do it as I please. On reflection, it seems not to have hit me properly that I’m here for an entire academic year. This isn’t an extended holiday; this is my home for a while. If I let my year be dictated by an external image of what this year is supposed to be like, I will be hosed. It would be absurd to do that with my life in general, so why do it with this not insignificant slice?
So what have I learnt in the first four weeks? 1. People will hear you out; 2. Failure is the stuff of stories; and 3. Stories are diverse, and I should remind myself that I’m in control of and am allowed to create my own.
So, it’s been a ride. I haven’t even started classes yet. That happens next week. Hoo boy.