I was an infant when my mom started taking me into the water. I don’t remember ever not being able to swim, although it was sort of a freestyle doggy-paddle rather than anything proper. My grandfather tried to sort me out one day in the summer, but alas, my swimming experiences in this life since that day have been almost exclusively recreational, so I never really mastered the coordination of it all. Face in the water breathing out through the nose for one-two-three strokes, kicking legs almost-straight, toes pointed, arms digging, thumbs first, then face up to the side – inhale, face back in the water, breathing out…
We didn’t have a pool when I was little, and by the time we moved to a complex that did, all anybody my age was doing was sitting in the jacuzzi and occasionally diving into the deep end when nobody was looking. In the summer, my friends and I would wake up early and board the bus before 7 to get to Huntington Beach as early as possible. We’d snooze in the sand and talk trash to each other for the first twenty minutes or so, willing the water to warm up under the California sun. I learned to dive into, jump over, and even catch waves with grace, and I could swim out so far my friends on the shore were indistinguishable from the other beach bums dotting the white sand. But this wasn’t proper swimming. It was playing. I could swim, but I couldn’t really swim.
Around the same time, I was studying Spanish in school. At first, under the instruction of the heavily-accented German Mrs. B, I found the class tedious and uninteresting. Spanish 1 taught me nothing, and I was annoyed with our authoritarian teacher who couldn’t even roll her r’s properly. But I really wanted to speak Spanish, and by the time I was 16, I was getting there for a number of reasons, not least a conversation with my fluent-in-Spanish 17-year old amigo of Irish origins, R.
“How come your Spanish is so good, R? ” I asked one day, frustrated with my inability to make it click. “I feel so embarrassed by my accent every time I try to speak.”
“Dude, Ann,” he said, sounding more than a little annoyed – perhaps not with me, but with the roughly one gazillion U.S. Americans who refused to learn Spanish (This is ‘Merica! Spake Anglish er go home!). “Every day, immigrants have to go to the bank, the grocery store, their kids’ schools. They have to find the courage to speak, and I think it’s a lot harder for them than it is for you. You couldn’t make the effort every once in a while?”
Boy. Nailed it. Yeah, I could.
So I spoke Spanish at every given opportunity – probably really poorly – and in return, I received a whole lotta good vibe from the people with whom I spoke. By my early 20’s, I was confident in saying that I spoke fluent Spanish. Then I moved to England and met Spanish people. I realized this: I spoke Mexican, and poorly, and was helped along the way in my efforts by the gratitude of people going through the immigrant experience. Don’t get me wrong – I could carry out all your basic business transactions as customer or vendor, give or get directions to distances both near and far…I could even follow along with the telenovelas at my telenovela-obsessed Puerto Rican friend M’s house. But I got about 3 chances to use my Spanish in the 5 years we lived in London, and in each case I failed miserably.
But I wasn’t too terribly concerned about my below-average Spanish in London. I was worried about getting experience – getting my “career” off the ground. And I did. What a pain in the arse it was! But I did…and then decided that that life was killing me.
London was never where it was at for us, anyway. We’d always known it would be temporary. Still, I didn’t want to find myself in that situation again – forever afraid of losing my job, forever qualming my staff’s fears of losing theirs, spending more time proving what we were doing than actually doing it…it wasn’t for me – not like that.
The road we’ve stumbled along since we made that leap into the great abyss of not-knowing has led us here – this small French town I love, changing seasons that make my heart leap like I’m a kid all over again, a lifestyle that is in so many ways more than I could have ever dreamed up for myself. And yet…
After a year of trying to make a living out of writing for magazines, I have had to concede: I’m just no good at it. It’s okay – the lack of loss I felt upon making the realization actually helped me understand how unimportant writing for magazines really was for me. Writing means a lot. Writing for magazines…not so much. I had (incredibly) naïvely supposed that I could learn the basics of magazine writing and make it a viable source of income while I did the things I really loved. Turns out writing for magazines as an independent freelancer with no experience is super hard. Also turns out it’s better to write the same things you read. Yeah – pride goeth before the fall and all that.
Yesterday at the pool, a woman finished her lap in my lane just after I’d finished mine. I hesitated because I’m really stinking slow, and tend to let people go before me. But she hesitated, too, as she was about to get out of the pool. She looked at me, so I figured I should say something. People can be awfully social at the pool sometimes.
“Busy, huh?” I said. It was 12:45 on a Tuesday, and all 10 or so lanes had 3 or 4 swimmers.
“No, it’s alright!” she replied. “There’s only 3 or 4 swimmers per lane!”
I’d been swimming along, pretty annoyed with the whole situation, thinking, Why bother coming at lunchtime? while this lady was probably swiming along, pretty contented, thinking, Oh, now, isn’t this lovely? The difference between us? She gets the whole culture of swimming in public pools. I don’t.
As I struggle to speak this language, sometimes I find myself forgetting even the English words I’m trying to morph into their French equivalents. It’s not unlike doing a crossword puzzle every time you open your mouth to speak. Making my mouth fit around the subtle vowels and throaty r’s, I’m reminded of a Mexican-American (can’t remember who, though…a friend? Famous person? Beats me.) who once said that speaking English feels like having one’s mouth filled with cotton. I always considered myself empathetic to ESL speakers. Now…I get it. This is empathy.
Soon, I hope, I’ll have again figured out where my career is heading. I will have mastered (insofar as French is master-able) this language. I will look with relief – rather than panic – upon a lane with 4 swimmers. For now, though, all I can do is learn and learn and learn.
*partie profonde = deep end