The Wonders of Living in a Foreign Tongue
Letting new cultures and languages shape me into myself.
As I sat in the Parisian metro, I tuned out the world around me without having plugging in my headphones. Tired from my busy day at university, I am once again reminded of one of my favourite parts about living in Paris, about living in France. Unless I'm actively listening, my French isn't fluent enough to understand a random conversation. I get the opportunity to tune out.
I grew up across Western Europe and am fluent in Dutch, English, and Italian. I love these languages, each provides something unique; although I might love Italian the most - I find it the most expressive language. I adore being able to converse in them, to understand the culture better because I speak the language. But fluency isn't always a blessing... it also means understanding everything.
This never-ending understanding is a big reason why I always feel odd, almost out of place, upon arriving in the Netherlands. Dutch is my mother tongue; a sound that sounds almost sweet when spoken in my own home (I say almost because Dutch is by no means a language that sounds sweet). Taking the train from the airport to my home town, I need my headphones to survive the ride; that or sitting in the "silence carraige". It's not that the noise of the conversations of others bothers me - I usually enjoy the buzz of people conversing. What is bothersome is that, suddenly, I'm getting snippets of this strangers' life. I can understand everything, allowing me to picture their life as they talk about it. It's like watching along with a movie another plane passenger is watching. You didn't choose the movie, yet it plays in your line of vision; you're unable to look away. You're unable not to listen.
Luckily for me, I've lived most of my life in a country where I haven't been fluent in the language. At least not the first few years of living there. After a while you start to grasp words and sentences and slowly the world around you no longer feels so foreign. Yet you still have the ability to tune out conversations when you're not actively listening. Like my Parisian metro ride, I can still choose when I turn off my surroundings.
The challenges of living in a foreign tongue
Although I absolutely adore living in a place where I'm not fluent, it can bring it's challenges too.
Communicating with strangers can be challenging, whether it's someone at a café or supermarket, or whether it's someone you're trying to flirt with. Even with expressive body language, there is lots that can get lost in translation. Sometimes this can feel like like a huge burden, one that often leads to you to looking for people that speak your language, instead of further emerging yourself in the language that surrounds you.
Even when you do dive into the language of the place you're living in, there will still be moments when you feel like a fish out of water, where you don't understand the cultural norms or the humor in a foreign language.
There's a common conception among expats that, if you can make a joke in a foreign language, you've achieved an advanced level of understanding the language and culture.
The wonders of living in a foreign tongue
Albeit some difficulties in communication and in being understood, living in a foreign tongue is, to me, the most wonderful way to live. You get to explore new cultural traits, you get to learn a new language, a new way to express yourself, you can shape yourself from that which you learn along the way, adapting and integrating new things that feel important to you.
Living in Italy for six years, I found my desire for actively living, for enjoying all the little things in life, grow tremendously. The Italian people, especially in Rome, are always out and about, seeing friends, sitting at a café, wandering stylishly through the cobblestone streets of the city. Living in Paris right after, I found my love for style and walking to grow. The style is no surprise as Paris is one of the fashion capitals of the world. That my love for walking grew could be surprising, considering the Parisian metro works really well. But there is so much that you miss when you take the metro, that I found walking was the best way for the city to reveal itself to me. It was from all this walking that I felt confident enough to walk the Camino de Santiago, an 800 KM trek, a few summers later. Now, living on a tropical island in the Caribbean, I've found that I've become really invest in my diet and physical activity. Not in an obsessive sense, but rather, how is what I'm eating affecting the world and this island. Once you start putting in the right fuel in your body, you also find yourself more eager to get moving.
All these little bits and pieces of the places I've lived have shaped the way I am. They shape my own culture, manifesting it from all the bits and pieces that each city brought me. The fact that it was all in a foreign language was the icing on the cake. When you don't always understand everything, but have to interpret from your observations, you open your mind up to a lot of creativity. I've found that a foreign tongue reveals itself quicker, easier, when you've plunged into the ways of the city. As if you need one to have the other.
Yet I like floating on that line, where I'm comfortable with the language, but not yet fluent. In a way it leaves the city and its people to be just that, too. It gives you the possibility to tune in, more easily, with what feels important to you and tune out with that which isn't. And alongside all these impressions we take in on a daily basis, you find the opportunity to turn off your mind, something not a lot of people can say nowadays. At least not without using a mindfulness or meditation app. When you live in a place where the language isn't your own, where the cultural norms are different than where you come from and where you have been, you can really easily mute the outside world if you so desire. Your rides on public transport, your sitting at a café don't have to be filled with the conversations, the energy of others. You can fill it in with the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that occupy your own mind.
Yet you have the opportunity to "turn back on" too. Any time you like, you can choose to hear the diversity of sounds around you, feeling proud when you understand a few words of a conversation that isn't yours.
I closed my eyes, leaning back in my seat. Sitting there dressed like a Parisian, I felt as if I was a part of the crowd, all waiting to get home. It'd be another thirty or forty minutes until I'd reach my metro stop. The French conversations around me slowly fading until they were no more than a comfortable buzz. I felt myself relax, allowing the weight of the day slowly disappear.
Yet, even though I was tuned out, it was a moment where I felt as if I finally belonged. No matter whether I speak the language fluently or know all the cultural traits. I belong simply because I'm willing to learn, to try and adapt the cultural traits that speak to me. Slowly cultural and linguistic pieces have found their way into my daily life and are starting to shape me into who I am. The language, the culture, the living somewhere foreign is moulding me into myself.