loneliness is still time spent with the world

I have been meaning to write something for a few weeks now. Or perhaps more accurately, I have been trying. The title of this post comes from one of my favorite poems entitled “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong“. Ocean Vuong is a gay Vietnamese-American poet, and my life was changed a little bit when I first heard a recording of him reading that poem. His debut full-length poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds is one of the few non French literature related texts that I allowed myself to pack into my suitcase. My two months in Paris found me reading and re-reading his poems while doing things like: taking the metro, standing at the bus stop, waiting in line for a museum, queuing at Forever 21, crying while laying upside down on my bed, taking in the stillness of a mid-autumn afternoon with the Eiffel Tower peeking over my shoulder in the distance.

I don’t feel as cosmically lonely here in Paris anymore, equal parts thanks to the friends that I have made and the comfort that I have found in being by myself. In Philly, I find that I spend a lot of time alone but it feels different. I imagine that being in a different country away from my friends and family has something to do with it, but moreover I think that this time abroad has coalesced with my general introspection about my place in the world. I would say that this is a normal existential crisis for a senior in college, and one that may or may not have been exacerbated by re-reading Camus’s L’Étranger. Being away from everything that I’ve gotten used to over the last few years feels like putting a spotlight on all of the things I have been trying to shove under my bed. The language thing really doesn’t bother me anymore, I am comfortable enough with my French to do most everything without thinking twice about how my tongue and throat work together. It is only when I encounter something beyond my routine (how quickly we form habits) that I fret about whether or not something takes le or la, or if I should conjugate something in present tense or the subjunctive.

I went to Normandy this past weekend with two guys that I’ve gotten close to here. We rented a car and put just about 960 kilometers on it, crisscrossing the French countryside. Our first major stop was visiting Omaha Beach, the site of the D-Day landings during World War II. Vague flashbacks to AP Euro aside, it was a really special experience to walk the shoreline and see all of the memorials. As a child of immigrants from former colonies, my relationship to the concept of nationhood is a little tricky. I don’t really feel any longing for European conquest or any real sense of pride in American war accomplishments like many of my white friends. Then again with my father being a Navy veteran, and virtually all of my relatively comfortable upper middle life being built on his career, I have some sort of intimacy with the military system regardless. Critiquing a system that has sustained me is certainly a challenge. I feel it when I talk about the American university, my own urban public college and its role in the ecosystem of North Philadelphia, or even when I think about my own Blackness and our current political moment. Sometimes I feel like I will never be radical enough. Or maybe my politics will be ever changing.

My courses are going fairly well at this point, after a shaky period of forcing myself past my fear of sounding dumb in my second language. The only way to get past that uncomfortable wall was to climb it, sentence by sentence. To be honest, my pride was getting in the way of me really getting substantially better, as I wouldn’t let myself leave my comfort zone of small talk and safe phrases. But then, after some reflection, I realized I wouldn’t really be taking full advantage of this opportunity if I don’t dance in some unknown linguistic territory. The worst thing that has happened is that I’ve had to figure out a different way to say something. Hearing Je ne comprends pas is not a death sentence.

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