Oberlin Blogs

Agreeing With Everything, or The Freedom of Knowing Nothing

June 28, 2010

Abby Ryder-Huth ’13

Southern France comes in webs of small stucco houses with orange tiled roofs, clustered around the sea at the base of blue mountains. Today I took a train from Toulouse, where everyone reminded me of Obies, to Nice, from where I write now. It took seven hours, which I cherished, because sitting on a train is easy to understand, unlike so many other things in strange places. You do not have to be traveling long before your perspective radically rearranges itself, and suddenly small things like someone smiling on the Metro are huge, and truly huge things like your backpack seem cheerfully small.

Last week I was in Barcelona with my friend Sasha, which was a bright shock after rainy Paris. Both Sasha and I had been separately to Paris a few years ago, and so this trip was an interesting clash of memories and reality. Somehow I did not expect traveling to be hard. Of course it was and is, especially when you come in with expectations based on a wholly different sort of trip. With teachers and parents and guides you make so few decisions it's frustrating, but alone, the decisions are overwhelming--where to eat, what to see, how much to spend, when and if to sleep and where. And in Paris, half knowing the language, (falsely) believing that we knew the city, it seemed even more so. Not that Paris wasn't marvelous--it was. But the marvels came wrapped in the dumb shock that French is tricky and Paris is really big--things that I managed to ignore the months prior to leaving. Barcelona was a different kind of newness, sunny and unintelligible. It was wildly relieving to let the patter of Catalan and Spanish just roll over our heads, miming swimming to get directions to the beach, repeating vegetariano! over and over again in restaurants. We saw everything we could, because we had no idea of what we should see, and so everything was surprising. Gaudi! Sangria! Beaches! It was heavenly.

But then something awful happened. After our 3 weeks of traveling together, Sasha flew home and I was on my own, dressed in a 35 lb. backpack and some sweaty clothes, about to miss the bus to Toulouse. The freedom that was supposed to be exciting, that I had spent the past semester itching with excitement for, was instead just foreign and lonely and sticky and scary. See, that's the thing about Knowing Nothing--it's freeing, but so are cliff jumping and ice diving and other things that aren't always chiefly pleasant. English also quickly stopped being a viable option. I stayed with a lovely French family in a small village outside of Toulouse, and found the obvious to be true: France is a very good place to learn French. Your head fills up with a zillion words and phrases and bits of grammar, and then the hard part really is figuring out how to put the right ones into your mouth and in the right order. I was probably a mess of mistranslation and gaffes, though luckily someone had the heart to remind me right before I left for Nice that je suis d'accord does not mean I'm okay as it directly translates to, but I agree. Good to know, because I had spent the past two days constantly agreeing with everyone at all the wrong times. But see, when you don't know anything, just agreeing with things might not be a bad tactic. At least it gets you something, even if something turns out to be a huge plate of hot green peppers you accidentally ordered at a Spanish tapas bar. But really, they aren't all that bad. And at this point, food is food.

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