Highs, lows, swings and roundabouts: Celebrating our mini victories
Updated: Jul 4, 2019
Recently I’ve been thinking about the direction in which I would like my blog to go in. I know that I advertised it as a way to document my year abroad in France and Spain and me building up the courage to say yes to new things. However, I’ve felt a little suffocated by these self imposed pre-requisites and I don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole my ideas and myself. I’ve been going through a creative slump as of late; moving to a new country and having to learn to adapt and be flexible has been harder than I imagined and it has definitely taken a toll on my mental health (I talked about this in more depth in my previous blogpost). I want to explore different themes- I want to be more candid yet I also do need to (for my own sake) hold some things back. I want to share recipes- if I find them- talk about my fitness journey as I start to head back to the gym and incorporate more photography, which an interest which has been steadily budding throughout my short time on my year abroad. I want to talk about the highs and the lows, favourite moments and top travel destinations of the month, things to avoid, lessons I have learned and friends that I have made. I don’t want this blog to become a ‘What I did on my year abroad’ format. At the same time I don’t want to imitate social media influencers and bloggers, mainly because that isn’t my goal for this blog- I want it to be boundless, for me to be comfortable writing about topics that I find intellectually stimulating, engaging and interesting to write or even sometimes just posts filled with pictures. Who knows? But that’s the beauty of the blog, I don’t want to plan it all completely- I want it to grow and mature on its own- of course I have a vision and some direction but I feel like I should let it run its course too.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been scrambling for blog post ideas as of late- the more pressure I put on myself to write the harder it becomes and I end up putting it off more and more. For me, my favourite blog posts and my best ideas have come when I’m genuinely interested in the topic or theme rather than thinking- what will people like to read. One idea that popped into my head today, just as I was heading to bed was about my personal victories. I think sometimes we forget to be kind to ourselves- to give ourselves credit when we achieve something new- no matter how small it is. The past few weeks I’ve been beating myself up about how bad my Spanish is and how unsettled I feel here in Valencia. I’ve also been neglecting the moments of personal growth that I’ve had- the times I’ve felt proud of myself for overcoming a personal obstacle- so I’m going to share a few of these today because I think we all need to start criticising ourselves less and appreciating ourselves and our achievements more. Sometimes we downplay our mini victories, as we don’t want to seem to be boastful however I think we should give ourselves a pat on the back when we do achieve personal goals- no matter how big or small they are. Here are a few of my own personal highlights from my year abroad; whenever I’m feeling low or struggling to adjust I try to reflect on the successes that I’ve had already and remind myself that I’ve still got time to grown and mature over the course of the year.
Mini victory #1:"Bonjour?" Answering the phone in French
This one seems so simple but for the first few weeks in my job in Paris this was the main thing impeding my self-confidence. Despite studying French for almost 10 years I had subconsciously convinced myself that I couldn’t handle telephone calls. My job interviews for my internships were either Skype interviews or phone calls in both French and English and in one case completely in French. I knew my fear was irrational as I’d managed to secure my job via a Skype interview and it was 100% in French- this fear came from self-doubt. For the first few weeks at my job, answering the phone and providing information consisted a large part; I was absolutely terrified to be on my own with the phone. To make matters worse, the landline phone was also connected to my own mobile so it was pretty hard to evade the phone calls. The first few weeks I managed to palm off the phone to my line manager. I’d had a few haphazard attempts at answering the phone, the first attempt was a prank call which wasn’t fun to handle, the second time the whole purpose of the conversation as lost in translation as neither I nor the caller could decipher what we were trying to say. These first attempts left me feeling even more discouraged and heightened my anxiety even more, I would have heart palpitations each time the phone called-, especially if my line manager was nowhere to be found. But then one day I had to tackle fear head on. It was the beginning of August and the office had been very quiet due to everyone taking his or her annual holidays. It was 16:45pm and the work day was almost over, I was just starting to let go of the stress of the day when I heard that familiar beeping noise. I was on the fourth floor, away from my desk with all of my prompts for answering the phone such as ‘Bonjour Madamoiselle comment vous aidez aujourdh’ui’ and ‘Malheursement il n’est pas ici en ce moment…’. I had to tackle this one on my own. I remember feeling the recurring sickening feeling of dreading when accepting the call.
I don’t know what happened to me in that moment- it was like a switch had been flipped within me. I spoke clearly and with confidence. For the first time I actually understood everything that they were saying, I knew all of the information by heart and could roll off facts and figures without hesitation. When I had finished the phone call I must admit I did have a little happy dance on the terrace! I had tackled my first mental block- for weeks and weeks I had been passively absorbing of the information, attentively listening to my supervisor answer the phone, taking notes and even practising simulations with my manager. In the end, all I needed was to be thrown into a situation where I had to answer the phone. I realised that it was all mind over matter. The only person stopping me actually was me. I still find it funny that towards the end of my job I actually liked having conversations in French on the phone. To a native level French person, this would be no feat at all, its part of everyday life; but for me that was the first of many personal victories and I felt proud of myself knowing that I’d conquering something which I had made such a big deal.
Mini victory #2: Do(n’t) talking to strangers: Making friends in the train station
When I was a child my mum always reiterated two things to me:
1. Don’t speak to strangers, no matter how nice looking they are.
2. Treat people how you would like to be treated.
In my first few weeks in Paris I came across a situation in which these two seemingly good pieces of advice appeared to contradict themselves. Parisians are notorious for being fast-paced, and perhaps slightly unfriendly (something which I have found to take with a pinch of salt). In the case of tourists, if you appear to be lost, out of place or confused there’s a very slim chance that a Parisian will come to your aid. I remember being in Bercy metro station, after having brunch with my friend Maz. I had only been in Paris for four days at this point but I had become quite familiar with the metro station. I hadn’t started my job yet as we were ‘faire le pont’ which basically means taking a long weekend/ extra days off following a bank holiday, which in this case was due to Bastille day and the victory of the World Cup (Allez les Bleus!). I had a free day and was hoping to explore a little bit more of the city. As I was walking through the metro station I saw I huge backpack and small girl carrying it, appearing quite flustered and confused at the barriers. Hoards of Parisians were passing by simply ignoring her. I felt really bad for her, I would hate if that was me in her situation, so I sidled up to help her, remembering my mum's words of wisdom: ‘treat people like you would like t be treated’. She couldn’t understand how to use her paper ticket and I felt uneasy walking past her, leaving her to struggle. I told her that she needed to insert it rather than tap it. She seemed really grateful for my help. I felt happy too, I had done my good deed for the day and was prepared to kind of carry on with my day. But instead she seemed to trail behind me to the metro stop and I wondered if she was lost. I broke my mothers first rule- I asked her name and what she was doing in Paris- it was evident from the large mass of luggage on her shoulders that she was backpacking but I was surprised to find that she was from Las Vegas and was solo travelling Europe over the summer, couch-surfing and figuring it out along the way. I was in awe of her courage but also slightly concerned that she had no plans. Then I did something out of the ordinary. She showed me a list of places that she wanted to see, Tour Eiffel, Sacré Cœur, Le Moulin Rouge, Arc de Triomphe. She then told me that she didn’t speak a word of the language and wondered if I could help her get by and be of some company.
My head was saying ‘No stick to your plan. You’re not very good with new people and you’re no Paris expert’. My head started to fill with all of the hypothetical situation that could happen, that we could be targeted and robbed, that she might not be who she says she is- totally exaggerated and over the top thoughts permeated my mind. But for some reason I said ‘Sure why not’ and that was probably one of my favourite days in Paris. We travelled all across Paris and I credit that day as to why I have such a comprehensive knowledge of the metro. system. We laughed when we got ourselves into funny situations such as wandering onto the wrong platform, walking around aimlessly in circles. Despite all of this we got to know more about one another and we even decided to meet up the next day for a picnic in the park. That day I let go of my anxieties and decided that sometimes its good to be a little reckless. That being said, I kept my wits about me and stayed safe but I made a new friend that day and proved to myself that saying yes to something you normally wouldn’t do can cultivate a new friendship or experience.
Mini victory #3: Life doesn’t come with subtitles: immersion and understanding French cinema
So throughout my time in Paris I had created a personal bucket list of things to do. Out of the 37 things I think I did about 28-29. I purposefully left some things as a way to ensure that I go back. One thing that I knew I had to do before I left was head to the cinema and watch a film in French without subtitles. Earlier in the summer I went to an open-air cinema screening with my friend Jake and we watched a Pedro Almodovar film ‘Atame!’ (Tie me up, Tie me down) with French subtitles. This helped reassert my confidence in my Frenhc reading level as I heavily relied on the subtitles. However we also saw a short film –which was somewhat questionable without subtitles before the main Almodovar one. I struggled to understand the plot- but again it was quite a strange film concerning gender, sexuality, intersex characters all based in an 18thcentury boarding house. (Yeah I didn’t really get it either). I didn’t like not being able to follow the storyline therefore I set myself the goal of watching a film in VO (version originale) without subtitles. Over the course of the summer I exclusively read French books and watched a plethora of French TV shows and films- but always with French subtitles as a safety net. I had seen a new Vanessa Paradis film advertised called ‘Photo de famille’ and convinced my friend Jake to come along. At the start of the film I doubted my abilities- the actors spoke very quickly and the father figure had an extremely gruff voice and barely articulated his words. I thought that I’d be in for a long ride but surprising it got easier to understand as the film progressed. I realised that I didn’t have to concentrate as much and even if I didn’t understand everything word for word I understood the general gist of what the characters were saying. After the film I had some kind of epiphany; everyday that I’d been living in Paris I had been speaking French daily, having to listen and converse via the telephone, emails and in person. Life doesn’t come with subtitles. I had managed to get by in the real word so why would this film be any different. If anything, watching a French film without subtitles is easier than speaking and interacting in real life, you have to listen and process As a spectator you aren’t expected to come up with a retort or an opinion on what has been said. By watching that film and understand 99% of it, I felt that one of my goals on my bucket list had been achieved; not just to watch a film in French and understand it, but to be confident in myself that I understand everyday situations in French.
Mini victory #4: The tale of the Spanish photobooth
My most recent mini victory happened here in Valencia. I haven’t settled as well as I’d hoped here but I do have to remember that it has only been 2 weeks and I’m here for 8 months. I started to learn Spanish at university as part of an ab initio intense course and instantly fell in love with it. I love the sound of the language and of course the culture; the food, the music, the landscape of Spain, the different types of dances, the architecture- so many things. That is why it is so frustrating for me when I struggle to articulate myself in the language. I do remind myself daily that I have only been studying for just over 2 years and my level of Spanish incomparable to my level of French. Nonetheless I still become frustrated when I scramble to find words. I’ve been documenting my struggles with the Spanish bureaucratic system and I’m slowly navigating my way through getting all of the required documents. On Monday I embarked on getting my travel and young person card. I realised that I didn't have any passport photos and needed to have some printed. One thing that I’ve noticed about Valencia that is different to Paris is that the Spanish aren’t as eager to practise English with you; rather they find it quite frustrating if you say you don’t speak Spanish or you only speak a little. Working in a school has shown me the drastic differences between the teaching of modern languages in the UK and Spain. I understand why so few Spaniards speak English comprehensively, yet this also poses an issue for me when dealing with bureaucracy. Subconsciously I have been using my Spanish more than I have realised; so far in my short two weeks I have liaised with ambulance staff, police officers (don't ask) and head teachers just to name a few.
However my personal victory came in the form of an older Spanish woman who I encountered at the photo booth on Monday. She had been sat in there for a while, her companion was waiting outside for her but they seemed quite confused. Jacob, my housemate, and I had gone to get change and returned they still seemed uncertain about what to do. She exited the photo booth, empty handed, seeming somewhat embarrassed and she asked me for help- in Spanish. Oh boy. How was I going to explain how to work this photo booth to her- especially in the weakest of my three languages? In that moment my newly acquired teaching skills came in handy as I managed to use gestures and basic Spanish to guide her through the process. I was coming up with words that I didn’t even know I had in my vocabulary. After her photos had finally developed she seemed extremely grateful and in that moment I felt so happy- the most happy I have been since I arrived. It felt nice helping someone else, especially in another language. This experience enabled me to realise that sometimes I am too critical of myself- I’m not terrible at Spanish, I’m just in a transition period from being fully immersed in French culture, to having a week at home in Manchester and now being thrown in the deep end in inner city Spain.
Each of these four experiences have taught me that I’m still learning to be kind to myself but more importantly I am learning to give myself praise for the little things. Sometimes you need to be your biggest cheerleader and say ‘Hell yeah I’m proud of me’. Moving to a new country, uprooting form what is ‘normal’ for you is definitely challenging- especially if you don’t have established links in the new town or city. Of course I’ve had low moments, and days where I have felt frustrated with my situation and myself but I’m learning to take the good with the bad. Self-appreciation is so important and it is in no way ‘showing off’ or conceited to be proud of yourself and your achievements. I know that I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m also learning to embrace all the new opportunities, the highs and lows, good and bad, swings and roundabouts.