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Feeling stupid in France was the greatest lesson I could learn



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From the rooftop at Galeries Lafayette. Brielle Saggese Buy Photos

Four months ago I wrote my first travel column, and this week I’m writing my last.

I remember sitting on my porch back home in Indiana, absolutely terrified for the semester ahead. This was new because normally, I’m the gal who loves the start of a new semester. 

Syllabus day is my Christmas morning. Beating a course’s waiting list is my sport of choice. I like school — there, I’ve said it. 

I could pretend it’s because I liked my major or my classes or watching Kelley kids pretend they did the readings in discussion sections. But honestly, maybe too honestly, it had a lot to do with the fact that I liked feeling smart.

I liked learning about fashion history or how Nietzsche’s theory of art applied to “The Bachelor.” I liked making fake ad campaigns for Diet Coke or writing short stories for my Hutton professor.

And I liked that when I did these things, it made me feel good to learn, to develop ideas and to express them in my own words.

Yup, feeling smart is great. You know what doesn’t make you feel smart? Trying to do all that in a different language.

In that first column, I said I was worried about taking 15 credits of French classes, living with a French host family or just knowing how to ask which grocery store aisle had the oatmeal. To summarize, I was scared to feel stupid.

It’s by no means a fun feeling.

No one wants to be the one who makes the French waiter switch to English. No one wants to ask directions for the train station, which is the "la gare," when really you asked how to find the war, which is "la guerre."

No one wants to realize after cussing out a French cat-caller that you accidentally conjugated the wrong verb.

I tried as hard as I could to avoid it. Before leaving for Paris, I spent days leafing through old grammar exercises. I researched French faux pas. In a truly desperate moment, I YouTube searched “how to learn French in 48 hours,” as if I hadn’t been taking classes since sixth grade.

But feeling stupid in a foreign country is inevitable. In the last four months, I’ve probably mispronounced more French words than I’ve swiped my metro card. Then again, I’ve probably learned more French words than I’ve said wrong.

As it turns out, feeling smart is probably something I should’ve done less in college. I was so scared to feel stupid that I never took the risk to try something I’d probably fail.

These last four months though, I’ve failed constantly — and thank goodness. I stumble through conversations daily, but I’ve never felt more comfortable talking to new people. It may take a few extra seconds for me to think of the words to say, but I’m OK with sweating a little to gather my thoughts.

Sure, I could have registered for another semester where I’d feel at the top of my game. But instead, I put myself in a new position, one where sometimes feeling stupid was my only option.

Regardless of those first column’s jitters, it’s been my favorite semester yet.

Now, come January, it’s back to square one in Florence. Good thing I don’t know a lick of Italian.

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