This American Life reran an episode called “An American in Paris” last weekend. Host Ira Glass walks around Paris with American author David Sedaris who at that time had lived there for two years.
The episode is old, from 2000, but Sedaris breaks down the experience of being a foreigner as a series of constant humiliations, and the psychology hasn’t changed at all. While they’re exploring Sedaris’s favorite spots in Paris (Spoiler: none of these are places most tourists would think to visit in Paris), Sedaris discovers that his lighter isn’t working and is desperate for a cigarette. In a completely meta moment, as he’s explaining the subtleties of being a foreigner in Paris to Glass, Sedaris walks him through the humiliating process that he’ll have to subject himself to if he wants to light his cigarette, stringing together the French words he knows in order to make up for the ones he does not.
I totally get it. The humiliations were are a fact of my every day life.
Early on, I joined a gym in Nuremberg. The first task was programming my treadmill, trying to look like I knew what I was doing as I mentally calculated miles to kilometers and, later, trying to figure out how heavy a 5 kilogram weight would be.
New ex-pats don’t get many victories, so I was feeling it.
One day I was lifting hand weights when I saw a fitness trainer in my mirrored view, and it must be said— an incredibly fit, attractive trainer. I watched him, backwards, in the mirror, walking with purpose towards me.
As Sedaris mentions, this is every language learner’s nightmare. Yes, you can learn how to order and pay for your gas, but it’s the unexpected conversations and the inevitable curveballs that are the perfect set ups for sheer disaster. Even at the gym.
And, this is exactly what happened next. The man fired off a round of tips? critiques? suggestions? while standing behind me and gesturing with his own set of weights. Armed with my newfound metric system confidence and a 50% completion of the Rosetta Stone, I flexed my muscles and, with a huge ridiculous smile plastered across my face, loudly, proudly, said the only thing I knew how to say in German that remotely fit the context.
ICH BIN STARK. I am strong.
The cute trainer’s face went from an all business explanatory look to confused and then settled on the face you have when you’re embarrassed on someone else’s behalf.
I was glowing in the moment, patting myself on the back for my astute German performance! Spontaneous conversations were the enemy, and I had successfully said something that fit the moment. Buff trainer said a few things, and then hightailed it back to the front desk presumably to speak with sane people.
Secondary humiliation set in later when I played it back in my head. I am strong? And, when had I ever flexed my muscles ever, in any situation? I went to that gym regularly for the three years that I lived in Nuremberg, and that man never even as much made eye contact with me again.
Sedaris talks about the everyday humiliations, and Glass correctly infers that the places that Sedaris visits around Paris are the places where the humiliations are less likely to occur. It’s true, that, as time passes, the indignities become fewer and the circle of places that are safe from humiliation becomes wider. But, it takes awhile and there will be landmines of disaster as the circle widens.
German grocery store ladies are notoriously brusque and yet somehow command the respect of four star generals. Any snafu that arises is automatically the customer’s fault. For two years, I carefully chose my check out lane based on a thorough inspection of who was working and basically, if I had previously cried in their aisle before.
For a long time, I would never have questioned anything at a store. But, by the end of the third year, I was confident. At Christmas at the end of our third year as I was purchasing a gift for my son, my receipt came up much higher than it should have been. I brought the skateboard up to the return desk, explained the problem and showed him my receipt, and asked for a refund. The man, of course, told me how wrong I was and that, clearly, it was my issue, not his. I found the ad and showed the price to him, which briefly impressed him but not enough for him to change the price. He finally asked a teenage worker to check the display. The man in charge cooly ignored me, and I mentally stuck pins in a voodoo doll with the likeness of a crabby German grocery store man. I waited for about 15 minutes, determined, while the teenage underling checked the price took a smoke break and, upon return, confirmed what I had been saying.
The man, although never admitting defeat, refunded my money. The only word for my feeling was exhilaration, and I was absolutely flying. When that man handed me back my money, it was nothing short of a vindication.
Germany had not beaten me that day!
Sedaris talks about how the feeling of humiliation is a familiar one, but that he doesn’t really mind it too much. In fact, he goes on to say that when he improves his French and understands more about about being a foreigner in France that he’ll probably leave. Maybe there’s some deeper psychology here, but I understand him completely. I don’t think I’ll leave any time soon but Sedaris now lives in England where he presumably doesn’t have (too many) language challenges.
Dealing with the every day complications of being a foreigner has forced me to develop a skill set, new set of muscles that I didn’t have before. I like this part of myself and, when we repatriated back to the States, I missed flexing these muscles. The victories are more regular and the indignities, while not completely absent, are fewer. It’s been years since I saw that trainer, and my 40+ muscles are not quite as shapely as those that belonged to my 35 year old self. But, the truth is Ich Bin Stark…and I’ll be even stronger in ten more years.
* If you don’t know David Sedaris, get thee to a bookstore or at least to amazon.com. I was lucky enough to see him at a small reading at Politics and Prose, and the ease with which he approaches the dirty, yet banal moments of life caused me to laugh/cry hard enough that I lost a contact lens.