Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Summer bliss

It’s that time of the year again, when those of us fortunate enough to live in France get to go on vacation. Now, depending on your definition of “vacation,” this may or may not be a good thing, for there are some who insist that vacation with children is no vacation at all. And for the record, those people are correct. That has never stopped us, though—nor did it this year when it came time to choose where to go. “Croatia!” we decided. “By car!” we decided. Who’s crazy enough to travel from France to Croatia (≈1,000 miles) by car? 



But first, we stopped in Italy—Padua, to be exact. Its Arena Chapel is home to some of Giotto’s most important frescoes, which I had been hankering to visit ever since my blithely innocent days as an art history undergrad back in whenever that was. In any case, the frescoes were awesome. The kids’ behavior, on the other hand, was grotesque. Do you think that stopped us? NOOOO. After over a decade of parenting, potential embarrassment is no longer a deterrent to engaging in full-blown public displays of dysfunction. Did I chase my son around a Renaissance-era marble fountain, threatening to grab the city map that he had turned into a giant paper airplane out of his hands and rip it into 1,000 shreds while fellow tourists looked on, silently thanking God that they had sent their children to stay with grandma and grandpa for the summer? Maybe.

Happy traveller.

Padua on the whole was cool. And by cool I mean hot (mid-90s). But no matter! I stuffed my backpack with water, sunglasses, sun hats, sunscreen, and a USB-rechargeable mini fan, and off we went. We stayed at a really cute boutique hotel, which I heartily recommend to anyone planning to visit Padua anytime soon. Their breakfast in a flowery outdoor courtyard was lovely, plus I have noticed on multiple occasions over the years that Italians are truly tolerant of child antics, which is a BIG BONUS in my book. Actually, can I just say how much I love Italy, full stop? I love it. I love its food (obviously—everyone loves its food). But that’s not all. I love its art and architecture. I love its aesthetics. I love its Aperol spritzes. I love its reasonable prices. I love its language, even if my Italian vocabulary is pretty much limited to menu items and, thanks to a few weeks of Duolingo, observations concerning people’s age groups and genders (as un-woke as such observations may be these days). I love its HISTORY, especially its Roman and early Christian history. That’s my intellectual sweet spot. Oh, and its vegetation. Olive trees, vineyards, umbrella pines! Is there anything better? No—no there is not. I even love that you get to eat cookies for breakfast in Italy. Cookies! For breakfast! France remains my true love, but Italy is a close second. Had I participated in SMU-in-Rome instead of SMU-in-Paris back in 1999, who knows what could have happened?

I mean come on.

After several days of taking photos of bricks, stones, and umbrella pines, we piled back into the car and drove many, many hours through the Fréjus tunnel (50 euros, folks) and on into Slovenia. Do many Americans go to Slovenia? No. Do many Americans know where Slovenia is? No. And I would count myself among them, so no offense. We stopped for lunch in Piran. It was really nice! It had a big beautiful church on a big beautiful hill. Did we march the kids up there? You bet we did.

Youll thank me one day, kids.

Then, on to our first destination in Croatia—Rovinj. Gorgeous! We swam in the Adriatic; we visited more old churches; we climbed more stone stairs; we drank more spritzes; we continued to engage in the merciless cat-herding that is parenting while on vacation. I found a dress and belt ensemble that makes me look like I just stepped out of a Greek myth—THAT’S A WIN. Also, our digs were awesome. There was an amazing central garden space with turtles just wandering around amid the grass. Yes, turtles.

Gardens: the one thing we can all agree on.

After a week or so, off we went to our second destination in Croatia—Trogir. Again, gorgeous! Swimming in turquoise waters (what’s a sea urchin or two?); visiting ancient Roman cities; drinking more spritzes. Also, dragging our children multiple times out of this insane rubber duck store, which for some reason I cannot fathom is not a local quirk at all but a full-on CHAIN. A chain! Devoted to rubber ducks in costume! And people say we aren’t in the End Times (I’m pretty sure the Book of Revelation includes something about rubber ducks).

Just, why?

Our rental in Trogir was a little stone apartment tucked away amid ambling pathways, a pleasant 10-minute stroll from a pristine beach. Very cute. There was just one problem though…

I’d like to congratulate the local city planners for building an international airport three miles outside of town. I mean how hard did they think about this? Regular bombing runs notwithstanding, we had a wonderful stay. And an all-too-short week later, it was time to head home. Naively assuming we could simply drive back into Italy, we tried to do it in one shot. Little did we know that the rest of civilization had chosen that very same day to do that very same thing. Thus, what should have taken us 7 hours in fact took us 11, so by the time we reached our next stop—fair Verona—we were fried. And here I would like to add a slight caveat to my Italian ode above: roads. Roads in Italy need work. More specifically, they seem to have been designed for only the narrowest modes of transportation, e.g. horses. Thin horses. Why are there so many Vespas in Italy? This probably has something to do with it. Getting our car through a mini-tunnel and into its allotted parking space without sacrificing both side mirrors was not really a challenge we were thrilled to face upon pulling up to our rental at 10:00 p.m., but such is life. What’s a battle scar or two (or way more than two)?

Totally worth it.

As for the city of Verona, ahhhhh—positively enchanting. Italy in all its glory (and by that I mean ancient ruins, umbrella pines, and spritzes, in that order). Plus, after over two weeks on the road, our kids were finally starting to behave. Alas, it was soon time to leave. But nary you fret, Italy. 

Torneremo presto!

A Roman road! Even my feet are smiling.

Friday, June 9, 2023

The bullet-proof vest

Any of y’all ever read Abba’s Child? I did, in 2020, and it was nothing less than transformative. However, there was one bit that I couldn’t really resonate with, which just so happened to be the book’s most celebrated chapter: The Impostor. I remember reading it and thinking, What impostor? I don’t have an impostor.

Except that yes, actually, I absolutely do have an impostor, i.e. a false self … one that is so near to me that I’ve stopped even noticing it: it’s the role I step into every day in order to exist in France; it’s who I become when I’m interacting with the world using French. I wear my French self like a piece of clothing. When I speak in French, I’m no longer me; I’m effectively somebody else. 

For those who learn a second language relatively late in life, their mother tongue will always be their love language, and by love language I mean the language that speaks from and to the heart. It’s the one you think with. For me, that’s English. My French skills after over 20 years of life in France, built upon an earlier decade of learning French in school, are excellent—but that doesn’t change the fact that French will forever be my second tongue.

What this means is that when I speak French, I don a new persona. I can’t help it; language as I see it isn’t a ball cap that you can put on and take off; language is a full-body costume that dresses you up as someone else. Moreover, that someone evolves over time. In the beginning, when I could barely string two French sentences together, “French me” appeared to be foolish and naive, as opposed to the real me, who is neither of those things. As time went by, and my language skills improved, French me ceased being an embarrassment and took on a life of her own, branching off in new directions that the real me barely knew. French me took risks, got an office job, went on dates—while the real me avoided risks, loathed office work, and was petrified by the very thought of dating. 

More time went by, and the chasm between the two “me’s” widened. I realized that the French language allowed me to say things I would never dare say in English. Why? Because as a native English speaker, there is no filter for me between a word in that language and its true meaning. In English, I understand every word I use and hear; I feel its significance and my heart acknowledges its emotional weight. But in French, words have a kind of protective coating on them. They’re not so much vehicles of sentiment as they are exotic playthings to be collected, tried out, and shown off—with little care for their full meaning. Thus, I can say things in French (hear things, too) and grant those words only a fraction of the emotional power of their equivalent in English. “I hate you” or “I love you” in English does not have the same meaning as “Je te haïs” or “Je t’aime” in French, despite being direct translations. The words may technically mean the same thing, but they don’t actually mean the same thing. French to me is like code language, and all code language is by definition artificial.

That might sound somewhat liberating—and for a highly sensitive introvert like me, it often is. But over time, after navigating through high emotional seas and seasons of heavy conflict, quarrels with bosses, bureaucrats, friends, and later, a husband and children, that “costume” gradually hardened into something more akin to a bullet-proof vest. It’s one I still put on every day. It allows me to shrug off snide remarks, rationalize criticism, swear colorfully, and not lose a wink of sleep over any of it. But let’s be honest—it’s not me; it’s an impostor. And over the long run, the weight of that false self has grown heavy. 

Perhaps more worryingly, I wonder whether those who know me only in French sense that they don’t *actually* know me. That may partially explain my craving for solitude. Left to myself, there’s no need for any artifice, no self-imposed burden to bear. But then, this dichotomy doesn’t make me particularly exceptional; on the contrary, if Brennan Manning’s chapter The Impostor is so well-known, it is precisely because it resonates far and wide. We all put on false selves that allow us to survive, false selves that shield our tender hearts. The roles we play, the masks we wear, they’re all coping mechanisms—and all of us have them. Mine is French; yours may be the disguise of the Business Leader or the Super Parent or the Social Butterfly. But in the end, have not all of these false selves overstayed their welcome? Have they not proven to be more burdensome than beneficial? 

What do you suppose would happen if we were to lay down the impostor at last? Would the world recoil in horror? Would we be mocked and rejected? Or would our souls breathe a sigh of relief and wonder what took us so long to realize that we never truly needed any disguise to begin with?