Tag Archives: Travel

When I Caused the Cringe

*Daily Prompt

There are two occasions when I speak French perfectly: 1) when I’m dreaming, and 2) after my third glass of wine.

During my graduate studies in the quaint town Leuven, Belgium, I lived in a small flat above a coffee shop. The owner was a lovely middle-aged Jordanian man who spoke Arabic, English, Dutch and French. He’d switch languages with enviable ease for his patrons who came in ordering in Flemish, French, or English.  Without hesitating, he tended to their requests in the language they spoke.  I watched in awe.

My landlord and I, of course, dialogued in English, but one day I asked if we could converse in French. He made us some strong espresso, took a seat, lit a cigarette, and then signaled for me to begin. After my first few words his face contorted in pain from the sounds of my speech. He looked like he heard a cacophony of nails down a chalkboard made by cats fighting in an alley. I decided to end our session and switch back to English for the rest of our friendship.

I was/am able to read French; however, taking the time to speak it always proved to be a challenge. Living in Belgium brought many opportunities to practice, but whenever I did venture a try people either responded in English or with a look as though they’d smelled something bad. A fart. They looked at me like they smelled a giant menacing blast of fart.

To earn a bit of money I taught English at a Belgian corporation in Brussels. (Because of the European Union and globalization in general, many businesses invest in their employees learning English.)   At the end of a class one of the students encouraged me to say something in French.

I hesitated.

I spoke.

He was quiet for a moment.

Did I stun him with my skills? I waited with hope.

Finally he said, “Whoa! You have a thick American accent!”


My good friend from Romania and fellow philosophy student who had lived in Belgium longer than me said: “It took me a year of speaking Dutch before anyone would reply to me in something other than English. Keep practicing.”

Being the cause of a cringe due to an accent is something for which I am honestly grateful. The frustration of searching for the right word in a second language while in the throes of communicating taught me the importance of patience. There I was, a Ph.D. student in philosophy with the speaking capacity of a child in French, and people would sometimes view me as such.  Despite this I hold the experience dear.

Learning to communicate in another language is incredibly humbling. One must step outside of their comfort zone and be vulnerable. Mistakes are inevitable. Once the language begins to take root in the thinking process it is an amazing sensation. The world opens up. Objects seem different. Expression is different. Interaction is different. It’s like walking around in a parallel universe.

Returning to my home, southern California, I encounter people on a daily basis who are non-native English speakers.  Shifting into an alternate grammar structure, pronunciation, alphabet, and all the nuances of language is difficult; moreover, the endeavor deserves respect.  I’ve witnessed frustration and cringes on the faces of the native English speakers when they hear accents. “Speak English!”  Assumptions about intelligence come into play albeit unwarranted. I wish for the angry hearted to give communication in another language a go.

Because of my time trying to speak French I make a conscious effort to listen carefully as non-native English speakers reach into their repertoire of unfamiliar words for communication.  Now I cringe at the cringers!

A Trip Down Memory Lane with Books

The philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that forgetting is not solely about forgetting an object but about forgetting yourself in relation to the object, time, and place.  For example, if you cannot remember where you put your keys, you also cannot remember yourself in the context of the last time you held your keys.

The inverse of this, namely calling upon a memory via an object, works similarly.  On a coffee date with a friend, I casually mentioned that my books serve as a sort of photo album.  When my eyes scan them memories crop up as to why I bought the book in conjunction with where I was in my life. They even remind me of who was in my life at the time.

Now, there are a lot of books about my home, so my friend took my claim as an exaggeration.  Not at all, I assured her.

As a little test she picked fifteen books at random, without me looking, to see how much memory the books could prompt.  Curious about the validity of my own claim, I took up the challenge:

1. Phenomenlogy of Spirit by Hegel.  Canada, working on my MA, around 2000.  My undergraduate work comprised only of philosophers in the analytic tradition, and I found myself in a terrible struggle to understand Hegel.  The class on Hegel was quite small, we sat around a large horseshoe table with the professor at the front of the room. I hesitated to contribute to discussion, which proved to be taxing since there were only about a dozen of us in the class. I learned to treasure Tim Horton’s coffee.

2. What is Literature? by Sartre.  Belgium, working on my dissertation, around 2003.  I fell in love with existentialism and its connection to literature.  This book was used for my dissertation.

3. I Married a Communist by Philip Roth.  I’m not entirely sure where I bought this, but I recall why.  I had read The Human Stain by Roth and was in awe of it.  Anticipating another great read I picked this up because the title was provocative.  But, I remember not enjoying it and thinking that The Human Stain was a far superior read.

4. On Beauty by Zadie Smith.  I was in the mood to take a break from philosophy in graduate studies, and this book popped up on several reading lists.  I enjoyed it and have recommended it to several friends.

5. The Best of Roald Dahl.  San Diego, undergraduate years, about 1998.  I purchased this after visiting an old high school friend at her university. She lit up when talking about Dahl and highly recommended his short stories.  photo-29

The first in the collection I read was “The Way Up To Heaven.”  I recall thinking that I’d just read a bit before bed, but once I started I couldn’t put it down. Dahl’s twisted sense of irony is marvelous and should probably come with a warning label: “Not for bed time,” or “For wanna-be insomniacs.”   I now have him as required reading for my Intro to Philosophy class.

6. Gone by Mo Hayder.  This is a recent read.  Pasadena, some time this year.  I was in the mood for a mystery and I thought I was going on the recommendation of a friend, but she had actually suggested Gone Girl.  It was a fortunate mistake because I later picked up Gone Girl and felt so-so about it; whereas, Gone captured my attention and was a more satisfying read.  I purchased it while on an evening stroll in Old Town Pasadena.

7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas.  I read this while in the final throws of my Ph.D.  This book is in my top ten favorites.  It poses an incredible contrast from the existentialists’ work in so far as it brings about a neat ending.  Justice exists!  All is right in the world.  I ended up mentioning this contrast in the concluding chapter of my dissertation.

8. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. The first time I heard of this book was in Belgium when a friend/classmate of mine (fellow bookworm and now super philosopher) mentioned that he hated it.  We were walking briskly in the cold and he railed against all the fluff about the genius of this work.  Approximately three years later, another friend mentioned that she was reading it.  She couldn’t put it down.  I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about.  It started off a little slow for me, but then I came to like it.  However, his second book Freedom, I think, is much better.

9. Middlemarch by George Eliot.  Guelph, Ontario.  About 2001.  I had read The Mill on The Floss and I wanted to delve into another book by Eliot.  While visiting a friend in Guelph, he introduced me to a delightful little book store called The Book Shelf, and that is where I spotted this gem.  The Book Shelf was part store, cafe, restaurant, and indie movie theatre, and the town’s claim to fame is that it was the first place in North America to begin a recycling program.

What initially drew me to Eliot was the fact that she used a pen name for publication.  photo-29 copyWhat would it be like to be a talented author and believe that gender would hinder the possibility of being read?

10. Anthem by Ayn Rand.  Orange County, high school freshman year english.  This book made such an impression on me that I’m still toying with Rand’s ideas.

11. All Men Are Mortal by de Beauvoir.  Belgium, about 2003, summertime.  I read this while on break from my studies at one of my favorite spots to work in Leuven, The Metropole.  I spent so much time there that my friends would sometimes go to The Metropole to find me instead of ringing me at my flat.  Once I finished the novel, I decided to completely alter the direction of my work to existentialism.

12. Albert Camus Lyrical and Critical Essays. I remember seeing this in a book store while I was home visiting during a holiday.  I thought I’d read everything by Camus and I was shocked that something had escaped my attention.  Orange County, about 2005.

13. The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.  I don’t know.  This shouldn’t be on my shelf.  I bought it because I had (well, still do) an obsession with Jane Austen.  I know for certain that this book didn’t resonate with me.  On one long flight this was listed as a movie and I watched only a bit.  Apparently, I couldn’t bear that version either.  Lesson: not all Jane Austen fans are alike.

14. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  When I picked this off the shelf, a store clerk assured me it would be a good read.  I bought this around the time it became big in the states.  My guess is, Orange County, Borders Book Store, about 2009.  My girlfriend told me her father-in-law read it on a flight and apparently there was an extraordinary amount of turbulence, but he was so engrossed in the book he didn’t even notice the shaking.  She said, “That’s the power of Stieg Larsson.”

15. La Cantatrice Chauvre by Ionesco.  My good friend in graduate school, Vlad, is fluent in four languages and proficient in another two. Encouraging me to enhance my French, Vlad selected this for me to read.  Belgium, about 2004.

On a recent trip forming new memories, San Francisco

On a recent trip forming new memories, San Francisco

Six Sentences

*Posts from my 6S (Six Sentences) Blog

The Take Over

Undetected, I slither into the depths of your being, transforming serenity into a volcano of emotion on the brink.  Your concentration paralyzed by a tsunami of anxieties swirling around your platform of ego.  Grocery clerks appear menacingly slow, the traffic agonizing, your husband seems to be a stranger, and nothing tastes quite right except for ice-cream and Taco Bell.

I enforce a fog to diminish your inner mute button just when a conversation desperately requires it.  Fatigue replaces the beauty of sleep; you desperately wish I were a mere vodka induced hangover.

My name is S: PM, S.

Missing You

There was a time when you showed the utmost devotion, and I would surrender in sweet peace upon your arrival. I barely needed to call on you; yet, without a miss there you’d be, cradling my exhausted body, shushing my woes away, marking the end to another day.

Now I stare at the ceiling longing for you, my eyes sometimes bouncing from corner to corner in anticipation, wondering what I did wrong for you to abscond. Perhaps this is punishment for ignoring you (but I didn’t mean it!); staying online, absorbed in the noise of the internet…a google here, a tweet there…

Now I cast my gaze to the crack of light peeping out from behind the curtain, my stare numb but not relaxed enough, a scatter of thoughts flutter about in my mind, the rhythm of my breath my only company.

Please come back to me, for I miss you terribly, my dear beloved Sleep.

Ode to Leuven, Belgium

Soft sounds of Flemish float through the air from those bustling along on cobblestone streets, winding around and about towards the center of town.

A lavish Town Hall pierces the sky; a masterpiece of detailed work calling upon the observer whose gaze cannot bear to rest on just one spot.

Sweet aroma from Bakers’ shops infiltrate the senses, draws one in without mercy, lining their windows with enticing treats sinfully sparking a pang of hunger unnoticed just moments before: “Een chocolade broodje, alstublieft.”

At the heart of several buildings sits a white brick embossed with the year 1914 above flames; a haunting reminder that the work was once the object of destruction but built anew; a historical signature memorializing the despair of war and the dignity of repair imprinted on the consciousness of all who pass.

Gray skies perpetually hover, threatening rain, teasing umbrellas to unleash their protection and force a hasty skip in one’s step; no matter,  because a café around the corner invites shelter, offering strong espresso, Koffie verkeerd or an impressive array of beer that imbues power to erase any hint of discomfort from the cold.

Church Bells chime, monopolizing the pulse of the town, and alerting the denizens of the hour as they continue about on foot or bicycle through this lovely little place, Leuven.

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