A Conservationist Abroad #6

by Emily Sloan, ‘05

Sixth in a series about life in a small French village
It is unusually warm here, around sixty degrees and sunny in the early afternoon at the very end of November.  My mother said it’s warm in Massachusetts right now, too.  Apparently last year at this time, Gérardmer’s ski slopes were already up and running, and as of now there’s not a spot of snow on the mountainside.  Climate change in action, or just a natural cycle in the midst of its cycling?  Who knows?

I spent Thanksgiving in Remiremont, a nearby town and home to the nearest other American teaching assistants here.  In the States, you’d hardly call me patriotic, but traveling is wonderful for making even the most cynical American appreciate certain things about her country.  And because I hadn’t spent any time whatsoever among Americans for about six weeks, Thanksgiving was a nice respite.  I am trying to be as socially outgoing as I can within my little town, but my lack of fluency is limiting.  My American compatriots are experiencing some of the same frustrations; one told me, “I don’t think my French is improving at all, and my English is getting worse.”  Nice to commiserate once in a while.

Christmas break isn’t far off now, and I’m of course thinking about how to spend it.  I have a friend who’s teaching English in Prague this year and some cousins in Vienna, and it seems I’ll be heading their way.  My Prague friend is very into eastern Europe and has suggested we travel into some unknown and exotic parts—Bulgaria, Croatia, the High Tatras mountains of Slovakia, Latvia?  I know very little about any of these places, but my preliminary research suggests that Croatia is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  I am constrained by money (750 Euro a month doesn’t permit luxury vacations) and somewhat by time (and I’d hate to rush a place that requires a leisurely pace), but am propelled, as always, by an attraction to the unexplored and a severe case of wanderlust, so I’m sure something interesting will emerge.  I’ll keep you posted.

Life here is good.  The worst part continues to be not feeling completely integrated.  It’s still a bit of a challenge to practice French enough simply because it’s hard to find ways to spend time with potential friends in casual settings.  This is mainly a town of retired folks and families with young children.  While I’m teaching, my numerous linguistical mistakes go uncorrected by my nine-year-old pupils, and outside of my intermittent social engagements and organized group activities, I’m alone (sometimes a bit too much).  Through the alpine club, I have managed to make some friends near my age; I’ve also started tutoring a couple high schoolers and running with a triathalon club.

There’s a fine line between complacency and sage acceptance of a situation.  I’m aiming for sagesse.  And so although life is hardly exciting (on a daily basis), nor validated by an external entity (no university, employer, or even close group of friends is telling me that what I’m doing here is acceptable and worthwhile), I have (I think) wisely accepted the unavoidable uncertainty and loneliness that inevitably acoompanies independent forays into the unknown.  A friend recently sent a fitting quote in a letter, so I’ll end this week’s blog with it, words from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:

“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”