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Archive for the tag “Nantes”

30×30: Lesson 28: The language of self-erasure

Students in Paris, June 2014

Students in Paris, June 2014

When I was teaching French this summer in Nantes, France, my students made one mistake above almost any other: when in French to say “I’m sorry.” Rather than expressing empathy (“I’m so sorry for your loss!”) or shame (“I entirely regret my actions!”), my students were constantly attempting to use the French phrase Je suis désolé to express something else.

Sometimes they wished to say politely, “You’re blocking the Monoprix grocery aisle with your cart; could you please move?” Other times, they had just interrupted a stranger to ask them the directions to the Place du Cirque. In both circumstances, Excusez-moi or Pardon would best expressed their desire to briefly assert themselves into the life of someone whom they did not know.

But instead, from my students’ lips escaped — as we do in American English — the same words that connote deep apologetic shame: sorry, sorry, sorry.

Especially the female students.


What are the implications of a language that allows its speakers to merge the usage of such an intimate, humbling phrase as “I’m sorry” with other, more public phrases? It’s a phrase that has become coded as respectful (“I’m sorry to interrupt”) but hides a quiet self-erasure, a removal of one’s importance. I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’m sorry because you are somehow the most important.

Another example is the word “just.” Rather than summarizing (“I just want you to be happy”), the word diminishes the meaning of everything that has previously been said.

On the sidewalk in Pittsburgh, I’ve begun refusing to say “I’m sorry” simply if I am taking up too much space (I opt for “Excuse me”). I also delete “I’m sorry” from all the emails that I write that are suggestions and not apologies. When summing up my day with Jon with the phrase “I’m just… frustrated,” I now try my best to remove the “just.” I’m frustrated. Period.

My body belongs on the sidewalk, my apology can be heard without groveling, and I have feelings. “I’m sorry” is a phrase that should be reserved only for moments of sincere empathy or deep shame.

Using words wisely is a simple way to respect those around me and believe in my own strength.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 25: The world is big, and life is long

From the airplane, 2014

Leaving Pennsylvania, 2014

Every time I climb into a plane to leave Europe, I’m filled not with regret but with longing. I was abroad last summer for seven weeks, but I did not manage to see my friend Abdel in Metz nor my former roommate Tobias who just had a baby. I had tried to go to Morocco to see my friend Jen but didn’t make it — too expensive, not enough time. I’ve never seen Rome, never been to Spain, never made it to Berlin. I just backed out on an opportunity to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro (again, finances, time) despite my extremely strong belief in the importance of spending time in a place that’s neither Western nor developed.

When I first began to travel, I was told, “Life is short. Go now, or else you never will.” On some level, this is true. Traveling is aided by the certain freedom that comes from not having a mortgage or a typical job, by the open mentality that is most often cultivated when the soil of your day is never packed and firm. One never knows, either, at what point his access to travel will close, or if/when his body will fail.

But as I kissed my teary-eyed host mom goodbye in Nantes, when I think about the book that I want to write, when I imagine owning a piano in a house in which I live for more than two weeks at a time, I have to believe that life is also long. This is not an excuse to endlessly defer dreams but simply to admit that no one can have it all — at least, not at the same time.

Believing that life is long requires a different type of openness than does taking the plunge. A belief that life is long is a subdued pressing-back against time, a stubborn belief that many things remain possible if you don’t stand in your own way, a gracious placement of faith beyond yourself.

Believing that life is long is a patient bravery that discerns between which choices are not in your power — as well as which choices are.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

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