This email was written in my pre-blog days while I was studying abroad. It was sent to multiple individuals, all of whom were friends and family. This particular one is very revealing of my transition into the manic phase that led to my first hospitalization. My present-day commentary is in red.
Date: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 4:56:56 AM
Subject: The Boiling Point
This is it. I’ve had it with the system and am overflowing with pent-up anger!
Here’s the deal:
I came here full of lofty ideals and dreams of the tables turning and me being the international student amongst the French. For a while, I was teased with this notion. I traveled with Fleuriane and we rarely ever hung out with people from my country. Not that I’m anti-American, it’s just that I’m here for the international experience. If I wanted America, I would’ve stayed there. This was influenced by the observations I’d made of the international students at my university the year before. They had worked more independently instead of under the close surveillance of a director of students from their country of origin. Even the students from the European exchange (Erasmus) were not “babied” like the Americans. They actually had to struggle to find a place to live and acquaint themselves with the culture.
So I came to Montpellier, filled with desires and expectations. I remember that I was just starting to feel comfortable with the language and, believe or not, having a great time on the train talking to fellow students in French. I knew about pré stage and that I’d be surrounded by Americans in just a little bit, but I didn’t realize at the time just how miserable that would make me. Pré stage was a necessary evil for Americans from my university at l’Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier. It was basically a “mini-America” because the Americans were all housed together in the same dorms. We took French classes only with other Americans and we were required to go on excursions involving large buses and Americans who had yet to learn how to treat other cultures with respect.
After that, they stuck me in grammar and phonetics classes exclusively set aside for the American students. Most people were satisfied with that, but for me it was like putting me in a cage. I didn’t want to be treated different just because I was American! But I survived. What other choice did I have? On top of that, advice from home was “be patient. You’ve already been here a while; the others have just arrived. Things will change, I assure you.” I still made every possible effort to avoid the other Americans. A therapist I spoke with not long after I returned from France described my behavior as isolationist (and she certainly didn’t see it as positive). But, in hindsight, nothing short of an immense attitude adjustment would have convinced me to voluntarily befriend another American.
Recharged after seeing my friends in Strasbourg, my family in Ireland, and Linda in England, I bounced back. It might be interesting to note that Linda pointed out how I was a people person because I was playing the same role I did with international students last year, talking to people so that I could learn more about where they were from. I was in denial, but when I realize how miserable I am when I’m alone, I start to think she’s right. The point when my mood began to dramatically shift from down to up happened just before the winter holidays. That was the last time I saw all three of my Strasbourg friends and the only time I’ve ever been to Belfast and London.
Upon returning to my cherished Montpellier, I went to my first class. What was it? Dare I say? It was phonetics! Naively I thought the other Americans would be, like me, ready to speak French after their vacation. Needless to say, I was wrong. I poured out my French words and they responded in English (dagger!) I was on the verge of crying out in frustration, but instead, restrained myself and moseyed off in another direction until class started, trying hard not to listen to the painful language I was trying to forget for the next 6 months. I will be fair, there were maybe two Americans who responded to me in French, but the rest were lazy, in my view. What I didn’t write about was my overwhelming desire to prove to the folks back home that, despite being a C-student in French in the United States, I was fully capable of becoming bilingual and my passion for learning would prove it. I’d also developed a fear of losing the French I already knew, having heard such horror stories of Americans mastering French and the losing it completely after spending too much time with other Anglophones.
No matter. I had bigger things to think about at the time. After all, I had my exams, one in particular which loomed over me as if to say not passing it would mean the end of the world. So I confined myself to my room and to the library for the next two weeks except to go to class. I went through the 400 or so years of human thought as if it were a mystery to be solved. The case of the missing religion in France. After cramming my head full of dates, philosophers, and events, I landed at the same conclusion as always. Technology and the construction of society have all changed, but the hearts of men haven’t. They are still greedy for money and power, and they’ll do what they can to suppress other ideas to achieve this goal (the irony of it all is that will eventually die and leave all their messes for the next generation to clean up). More on this in my upcoming book… Up to this point, I had a noticeable lack of self-confidence. But somehow – whether it was Fleuriane’s encouragement to make the most of my last semester or simply observing Linda jotting down the names of people immortalized as statues (to research later) – I felt determined to give my remaining time in Europe everything I had.
I came in as ready as I’d ever be for this exam with the goal being equality. This was the one class where I had to work to be equal because I was the foreigner, doing two tasks, understanding the subject and understanding the language. So, the test was a commentary on a text. I read it, no problem. There was just one word I needed to look up. Then, I marked up the text, trying to find as many references to things we’d learned in class as possible. I strategically made my outline, then dug into my favorite part, writing the paper. I still don’t know the end result. I keep looking to see if the grades have been posted, but not yet. My determination to do well in this class had literally become an obsession. My parents, too, were doubtful as to whether or not I’d complete a full year there and withheld making travel arrangements to visit me until they knew I’d passed all my classes the first semester. I felt hurt that my parents had such little faith in me. At the same time, I became even more determined to excel. Ultimately, my grade was the equivalent to a “B+” in the US.
The institute classes were much easier. I studied for these exams the night before and had no problem remembering the material the next day. My bitterness came when, after all the work and effort I put in, I found that only a small fraction of what I’d learned was needed for the exam. I guess some people would be pleased with that. After all, it means that, for me, the exams were easy. However, like the runner who has trained harder than all the rest runs the race he has trained for, shouldn’t the student who has studied hard be tested on all she has learned? The unfairness of the system! Adaptation. Assimilation. The “institute” was the school for students learning French as a foreign language (Français langue étranger). I resented being there in the first place, but since my grades the previous semester were on the low end, I was only permitted to take one class with the French students. Although the tone of this paragraph was angry, there was a bit of sarcasm as well. I felt like I was on fire when I wrote this.
As for the rest of the semester, I don’t feel my French is nearly where it should be. Not to worry, though. I have a plan. The problem is, they still keep throwing obstacles at me! Problem: the other Americans. I can’t just avoid them and say “I don’t want to hang out with you ’cause you’re American.” Solution: well, as long as we’re both here to learn French, why not speak French with them? Problem: the French already have established groups of friends and aren’t especially eager to go out and meet new people, especially us who they know will eventually leave. Solution: don’t let them intimidate you! I wasted an entire semester not being social, I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. After all, life is an experiment of trial and error. One of my favorite songs is sung by an alternative/Christian group called DC Talk entitled The Hard Way (see link below). It says
Some people have to learn the hard way / I guess I’m the kind of guy who’s got to find out for myself / I’ve had to learn the hard way, Father / I’m on my knees and I’m cryin’ for help
This is me, this is you, this is everybody. We all have to learn the hard way. But once you’ve learned, there’s no turning back to the old ways. I’m angry, frustrated, and confused, but just having these emotions will get me no where. I gotta do somethin’ ’bout it! They may have put this bird in a cage, but she’s not going to stay there. She will fight. She will be free. The caged bird reference is from the musical Notre Dame de Paris in which there is a duet between Esmeralda and Quasimodo called “Les oiseaux qu’on met en cage” (the caged birds).
My friends, 6 months is not enough. One year is not enough. Nope. It’s all just the beginning.