Fish out of Water

December 21, 2010

Hometown, FR

 

My summer job is over and here I am in an artistic enclave in the Pyrenees, a dream really, but my energy level has plummeted. Maybe I’m coming down from the high of touring and guiding, or maybe it’s my body adjusting to another altitude, another place on the planet.

After several months of no coffee, then a couple months of coffee only on Sundays, I’m now all the way back on coffee. I’ve decided to keep drinking my daily dose until I feel less obtuse, more grounded and when my new surroundings take on a tone of familiarity. When I can walk down my street like I belong on it, I’ll go back to caffeine-free status. Until then, I’m allowing myself this little vice to ease the shock of a disturbed environment, like a transplanted sapling that requires extra water to re-root.

I always underestimate the effects of culture shock, thinking myself a student of adventure. But this recent submission to coffee has made me face the reality that like most people, I don’t do well with change. I wish I could pinpoint the reason I feel so heavy here. It’s true everything is harder in France when you haven’t fully mastered French. But it’s not just my lack of words that weigh me down. Even when I understand what’s being said I still feel wholly out of place.

I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel last night and related well to a scene where a young boy swims in the ocean with a diving goggle for the first time. Describing the world he finds below the water, the passage reads, “Societies of fish, a public, suspended in its watery world, poking pointed noses into coral. They pecked at the pair of hairy tree trunks, his legs, these edifices that were nothing to them but more landscape.”

Reading that I knew I wasn’t feeling like a fish out of water, more like a person in it. The fish out of water is bashing its body against pavement desperately fighting immanent death. I don’t feel that kind of panic. It’s more like the passage reads, like I’m a big cumbersome object dropped into another world where everyone uses gills but me. The boy continues, “It’s noisy as anything down there. Strange, but not quiet. Like one of the mysterious worlds in Jules Verne’s books, filled with its own kinds of things, paying no attention to ours.” Is this kid in France?

He then asks the man who gave him the goggle how to tell if all the noise underwater is fish talk or just noise. To which the older character replies, “It depends on intention. Whether he wants another fish to understand his meaning. If the fish only wants to show he is there, it’s a noise. But maybe the fish clicks are saying ‘Go away,’ or ‘My food, not yours.’”

The boy chewed on the idea and then noted that to him it was just noise, because he’s not a fish. And I noted to myself that everything here will always be noise too, because I’m not French…or a fish. I’ll always be left standing alone under the shadow of a shark with a confused look on my face when all the other fish have mysteriously shuffled off to safety long before the shark showed itself. That kind of knowledge makes leaving the apartment a daily battle. I get up each morning with this vague hope that one day soon I’ll wake without dread. In the mean time, coffee seems to be enough to pull me out of my stupor, long enough to take the plunge onto French streets at least.

I keep going back in my mind to a singing man and this bright (yet chilly) day last week. That’s another thing I don’t do well with, cold or gray, pretty much anything resembling winter. These personal observations are making me see that I’m not at all the adaptable person I once thought myself, but really a rather rigid and spoiled American who needs what she likes. But back to that chilly day. I woke with my usual angst, drank my negotiated cup of coffee in our dim ground floor apartment and then forced myself to put on some cycling clothes. I fumbled around with my saddle bag and banged my new-used bike in through the back door and irritatedly maneuvered it through the tiny hallway out onto…Wow, big blue skies. You can never tell what kind of day it is in our dark apartment because the courtyard is blocked by buildings, as is the window in our room that looks onto the street. It always feels like a gray cold day when you’re inside.

Our ground floor apartment on a sunny day. All the house lights are on in the photo, otherwise it would be dungeon dark. Even the courtyard is shaded ALL day.

But on stepping out the door that day I could almost hear little cheers from representatives of all the systems in my body. The blue sky and caffeine created a pretty effective tonic rather instantly. So I made an agreement with myself to go outside every morning, no matter how challenging it may seem. This was, of course, an easy commitment to make while already dressed and out there. I’d so easily forgotten the monumental effort it took just to figure out what clothes to put on for my grand entrance to the land of the French. There’s no buffer zone at our temporary abode, you open the door and voila, suddenly you’re swimming with French fish. No matter how smart you thought you looked in front of the 30 euro full-length mirror you splurged on, suddenly you feel ridiculous (adding vanity to the list of unbecoming traits you’ve begun noticing in yourself).

So there I was in my cycling get up including the bike helmet so many French riders refuse to wear, and I felt my skin sting like dork foreigner had just be tattooed on it. The only thing to do was ride out of there fast. Just as my feet hit the peddles a car turned the corner onto our narrow stone street with the windows down and an old, traditional French song blaring on the radio with a man behind the wheel singing along very loudly. Not just a favorite line, but the whole song. He was smiling wide and swaying his head like he was starring in a musical. A few people walked up the street chattering, among them Nick, our English landlord and neighbor who yelled something out to me. Someone who recognized me! Like a scene in a New York movie where the native gets greeted by vendors on the street like a regular. I couldn’t understand what he said as I coasted and maneuvered down the busy street, but I took it as encouragement, that seeming to be the direction of everything for me in the moment.

Total dork.

The french man in his old car with his loud radio escorted me through the bustling village center singing full on with his arm hanging out his window, the sun pouring down on him, on us. When I reached the quiet lane on the other side of the river that goes to the neighboring town I’d lost him. The sun warmed my face and fingers as I cycled past orchards and pastures on a quiet country lane with snow-capped mountains in the distance. The road eventually began to climb and I switched gears, but never used the lowest gear, even at the top where the long winding climb got especially steep. At the very top of the ridge I pulled over, sat on a rock in the sun, took out my map and felt like I could navigate anywhere I wanted that day, climb any mountain, cross the snow-capped Pyrenees.

I wish I could say this particular morning changed my fate and that everything became easier with an old man’s serenade and a familiar holler from a neighbor. But I still wake up feeling caged and mute and foreign, disconnected from anything that matters. The only difference now is that I tend to move through it, knowing I’m not alone in my prayer for sunshine. That singing man could not possibly have had such wild joy without having known some pretty dark places himself. His song was strong enough to break through the oh so French stonewalls I’d thought were impenetrable. Witnessing that outburst was almost as encouraging as coffee.

(note: still an old entry, written in Oct, will catch up to current time sooooon xoxo, a)

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