My "real life" is slowly coming back into focus after a week-long vacation in France. I've been back home for just over 24 hours and jet-lag has not yet subsided, though the laundry is done and the e-mail (mostly) answered. But I'm trying not to let the vacation vibe dissipate too quickly. In a week of slow-moving travel, breath-taking landscapes, good food, and abundant wine, I didn't even read a newspaper, let alone open a laptop or answer a phone call. Instead, I sat around a table with my extended family and talked, I sat on the deck of a barge and knitted, I curled up with a good book, I walked and biked and swam. I slowed down. I breathed. I paid attention.
This was not my family's typical vacation -- we're more the type to share a week in a beach house, or to road trip around to family and friends, than to travel by hotel barge around southwestern France. But this was a special occasion -- my parents' 50th wedding anniversary -- and so a special vacation was called for. The whole family (my three siblings, two siblings-in-law, and two nephews joined my parents and my own family of four) had never been on vacation together before, but we found a week we could all get away and my mother, a former travel agent, took it from there.
The best part of the week -- other than the fact that the thirteen of us managed to get along so well for a week -- had to do with the experience of being foreign. Although I briefly studied French in college, and was later able to pass a graduate school reading exam in the language, I don't speak it. I can manage a bit of restaurant French, but that's about it. No one else in the family has any French, either, though we had a phrase book. We weren't on our own all that often, but when we were, we relied on gesture, stammered phrases, and the kindness of strangers -- and were rewarded, over and over again. Along the way, our French improved. Not much, but enough to navigate public transportation, taxis, and even a grocery store. Time and again, people repaid our efforts to communicate with grace and good humor, trying out their own English (usually better than our French), pointing and smiling, and (most importantly) slowing down and trying again until we got it.
On the job, I'm the expert. On vacation, I was anything but. Sometimes I felt like a child, somewhat at sea in a world of adults who knew the ropes. In fact, as I watched my three-year-old nephew Eli, I realized he might even have an advantage over me -- he's used to having to figure things out, to try again and again to conquer seemingly simple tasks. I've mostly forgotten how that feels, but this vacation reminded me. It was a lesson in humility, and in openness -- things I need to remember as the semester approaches.
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