22 May 2012


We've had a lot of lessons in humilité (humility) recently.  Mine are related to the fact that I am simultaneously a parent, a middle-aged woman, and a foreigner.  The humility that comes with parenting is certainly one that many of us understand.  In my case, as the parent of deux adolescents (two adolescents), I have these boys' challenges to authority, their encroaching height and developing bodies, their potty humor (which seems to be positively correlated with puberty), and their more elastic language learning to deal with.  I receive much eye-to-eye eye-rolling from one tall son when I "just don't understand" how important something is to a pre-teen, while I receive spontaneous French pronunciation lessons and translations from the other when I really just don't understand what that nice French lady said to me at the doctor's office. 

Then there is the humility of aging.  A woman of a certain age, at least this one anyway, really begins to see the effects of physical aging in this bright, unforgiving Provençal light.  The wrinkles are so much more visible here, on one's visage (face), as are the gray hairs (and one's kids don't fail to point all of these out).  And, try being the oldest person in the testing room at the autoecole (driving school), just old middle-aged me and the hip French high school and college kids in their ripped jeans, scarves, cute shoes and cigarettes.  Furthermore, while we may all be students and I may have many more years of experience being a student and studying for exams, my previously excellent memory is no match for the quicker, younger, brains around me, as we click our way through questions on sample épreuves théoriques générales (driving theory tests). 

My driving school experience also highlights the ways in which being a étranger (foreigner) is so very humbling.  My parents and I were foreigners to the U.S. many years ago, but I didn't have the experience of being an adult foreigner that they did, and that I do now.  There is nothing more humbling than having to learn, as an adult, different ways to do things that in another setting one has long known how to accomplish, perhaps even well.  I may be a fairly forthright, direct, confident speaker and teacher in the U.S. where my command of English is excellent, but here, I am very watchful and timide (shy), sitting silently on the seats at the driving school or standing on the periphery of the parent circles at sports events.  Likewise, I may be a driver of nearly 30 years, but that means nothing here in France where foreigners like me have to learn different traffic rules and processes, and we have to take the same tests as all the young aspiring drivers, only not in our native language(s). (For the record: a small miracle happened this morning, which I attribute partly to the good karma of the Seattle-like rain which has been falling in Aix since yesterday, to the dismay of many a tourist.  The rainy day for me was the day I somehow passed the driving theory test, in French, on my first try, even though I barely understood the facilitator.  It is not an easy exam to prepare for and I was thinking last night in my final preparations, that I am too old for this humbling experience.  Well, part one is done so I may as well move on to part two: practicing actual driving, with a French-speaking facilitator, and according to specific French protocols, like the order in which one adjust seats, mirrors, seatbelts....) 

May rain in Aix
I've spoken with others and we all agree that being a foreigner can make one feel especially stupide, and this is true for kids too.  My boys no doubt felt this way a little bit every day in the initial months of attending French school here, and one boy has had persistent feelings of inadequacy on his sports team.   (This latter is another excellent example of how not knowing how things are done creates humility.  We didn't understand how important parental patronage and French nationality were to a child's opportunities within a particular club until the very end of the season, so we didn't know 'the game' we were to play on our child's behalf.  Fortunately, we now know and we also know that there are other clubs with different ways of operating, so we have made a change for next year.)   In a way, the foreign experience makes us feel doubly humble, whether we are children or adults, because it accentuates or enlarges the learning curves that face us as we move through different life stages.  We may already be uncertain about being a middle school student or the parent of almost-teenagers or a driver(!), but being these things in a foreign country adds to our uncertainties.

Nevertheless, there is always something to be learned from lessons, especially from lessons in humility:
  1. Everyone feels stupid at one time or another.  Speaking and connecting with foreigners or anyone in new humbling situations can go a long way in making others feel less stupid, and it can help them navigate those aforementioned learning curves of their new situation or society.  I am privileged here in that I have access to people, through the parents we've met and the driving school staff, who have engaged me and helped me understand how to function in France and who have helped lessen the discomforts of not knowing.  They've extended simple human kindnesses such as speaking French slowly and patiently, or offering detailed information when requested.  Such small gestures offered to anyone in new straits can make a significant difference.
  2. Lessons in humility while painfully learned, do create a richness in our own lives that we might not have otherwise.  It's incredibly silly that my spouse and I have to pass new driving tests in France, and it's very frustrating to see one's child shunned while trying to play the sport he loves, but in the process of standing in line at the testing center or pacing on the sideline of a soccer game, our whole family is learning so much about French society and also about ourselves--what we believe in, how we want to behave towards others, and what we are capable of accomplishing.  


Anonymous said...

Onnea ajokokeeseen! Ja muuhun vieraan maan kommervenkkeihin :)
t. lupu

Tiina Kovanen-Bergman said...

Congratulations once again! I would not have been able to do the same thing, you can be very proud of yourself and your sons as well! As you know in some cases I`ve been there, I`ve done that. Bon courage!