Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"...That to learn gives the livliest pleasure..." Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.

I have been living here for almost one month, and above all, I have realized but one thing:

There's a lot that I don't know.

In fact, there's a WHOLE lot that I have absolutely no idea about, nor do I possess the capabilities to ever be able to imagine, conceptualize, or understand on any level whatsoever.

A glimpse of this became apparent the first few days when I, regrettably, was forced to admit wholly and honestly to myself that:

I cannot read a map.

My family will find much humor in this, as they have known for quite some time now (perhaps even before I knew) that I have absolutely no sense of directional awareness. I am a smart person and I have many good qualities, but if you ever find yourself lost and desperately trying to find your way and I am the only one to ask for assistance, good luck, because you will 9 times out of 10 not end up in the right place.

This particular slice of reality has become a solid 10 out of 10 fact since the night I decided to go home alone at 1:00am after clubbing with friends on the Champs Elysees. After traveling what was supposed to be only 2 miles between the club and my house, I arrived at my doorstep 4 hours later, map in hand, barefoot and crying.

*I'd like to take a moment to put into the spotlight Paris' public transportation system. Because the metro closes every night at around 12:30am, night-goers are left in a sticky predicament when returning home: take a taxi, which leaves a significant dent in your wallet when taken regularly, walk, which can be impossible when needing to travel long distances, or take the Noctilien--a word that strikes a bittersweet cord with nearly every American studying in Paris. The Noctilien is the all-night bus system that runs all over the city, stopping at every major transfer station at 30 minute intervals.

Although I should take all the credit for the disastrous mishap previously mentioned, from a purely objective standpoint, the Noctilien map and schedule is one of the most confusing and disorganized transportation systems for any normal, competent person to navigate--even more so for those crippled with the inability to distinguish between north and south.

But, I did make it home. And I continue to make it home every night safely because my map- reading skills ARE improving with time.

This is the type of thing you learn when you live in Paris, France.

Speaking of learning, someone recently asked me what I want to gain out of my study abroad experience. I frantically fumbled for answers like "To be a better person!" and "To have a grrrreat experience!" But really, I hadn't ever thought honestly about this question. Perhaps upon my decision to study here, I was hoping to get away from a life dominated by monotony, schedules and alarms, safety and comfort, boy drama, etc., and spend 4 months frollicking merrily through the cobblestone streets and eating crepes by the Eiffel Tower without a worry in the world. Of course, this wasn't the real reason--just a perk.

I soon ended my efforts in finding the "right" answer, assured that my real motivation lurked somewhere within me--I just didn't know how to articulate it. Until yesterday. When I was walking to the metro to go to school, snacking on my usual "pain au chocolat" (more on this later), the answer suddenly became quite clear. To learn.

Well, duh.

This is called study abroad.

There are 2 dimensions of this: I'm studying--learning about philosophy, the French language, and exploring the history of French art, cinema, and music--and it just so happens that these academic pursuits are taking place in another country. And I'm also studying--perceiving, examining, internalizing, interpreting, valuing, judging, fearing, loving, providing meaning for--Paris. France. Europe. The eastern hemisphere. The world outside of the suburbs of San Francisco and the sheltered borders of Santa Clara University. And of course, it is only natural that I come to learn about myself in relation to the place in which i am situated, and furthermore, to discover what I find truly fulfilling without the help of a constant crutch to steady my balance.

In everything we as humans do, we seek to be fulfilled--we seek some sort of pleasure (bear with me while I get philosophical for a moment). Pleasure, I think, consists, of different levels organized in a hierarchical structure of rings around the body, let's say. The widest ring is the furthest from the body, in whose reach are things within sight, smell, and hearing--for example, admiring a painting or landscape, smelling fresh baked bread, or listening to a symphony. This ring, arguably, produces the least amount and quality of pleasure. The next is a ring tied directly to the senses, which produces purely physical pleasure like touch, and also sight, sound, smell, and taste. Another ring is that of the ego, motivated by purely selfish social needs, another ring tending to emotion, and so forth. At the core is a ring wrapped around the soul--the innermost part of the human, elusive and mysterious in its wants and needs, its capacities, its purpose, and its functions. The degree of pleasure that surpasses the outer rings and reaches the center is the most profound, the most valuable, and consequently the most sought. These pleasures--the "pleasures of the soul" as I call them--are what keep us living and striving to reach our full potential (also referred to by some psychologists as self-actualization).

By this time I have finished my chocolate pastry and can be found sitting on a nearby park bench scribbling in my notebook, forgetting altogether about the metro I have just missed. And by this time I have provided an answer for my dear question-asking friend, who so easily probes so deeply into my conscience. It is now my mission, from my Paris days through my Paris nights, to feed the hunger of my soul. And that hunger is to learn.

To learn in my classes, to learn in museums, to learn on the streets, to learn at my homestay, and with all of this, to learn how to live on my own. Now this, obviously, is a BIG thing to learn--something that doesn't come easily or suddenly. Abroad, it begins with the little things: how to time manage, how to coordinate a 5-day trip to 3 cities in Italy with 6 people whom you've never met before, how to ask for directions and order in a restaurant, how to not blow through 15 Euro worth of cell phone minutes/text messages in only 2 days, how to choose the best restaurant for a certain occasion, and most importantly, how to budget the 5-letter word that makes me cringe: money. It has become evident that perhaps I only brought 1/3 of the amount of money I should have, so because of my limited budget (aka I'm quickly nearing poverty), I avoid 30 Euro meals and 5 Euro 1-ounce espresso shots and stick to the very bare essentials: school supplies, metro passes, cell phone minutes, pains au chocolats, etc.

And so i have decided, from here on out, to organize my travel journal entries into a numerical "lesson" form. The first lesson, informally, I have deemed: Learn how to read a map.

Lesson #2 : There exists an infinite unknown waiting to be enjoyed.