Or, How I Came Upon Solitary Bottles

One of the many privileges I’m given by virtue of my birth into wealth and West and whiteness and whatnot is university education. Oddly enough, whenever I’m asked what I study, people pay more attention to my minor, Philosophy, than my major, English. (My theory is that there’s some secret law outside of uni that entitles everyone — especially those with an unfounded disregard for the subject — to an opinion about the cultural merit of philosophy.)

Anyway, semester break has been pretty busy for me so far. In case you didn’t know, in Germany exams and assignments are all crammed into the end of the semester for some ridiculous reason, so papers are usually written during the break. I just finished writing my first term paper in literary studies — a comparison between two of my favourite short stories, one by Raymond Carver and one by Hemingway. After submitting something I’ve put a lot of ~academic effort~ into, I usually prefer to get the whole thing out of my system as quickly as possible. But this time, instead of filing a restraining order on computer keyboards for the next two weeks, let’s sit back and reflect on the experience, shall we? Not the experience of writing that particular paper but how I make sense (and use) of the institution of university after three semesters of wearily trudging toward graduation.

This past semester, I took a Portuguese 101 class on a whim, which in retrospect proved to be 1. eye-opening, 2. rewarding, and 3. anxiety-inducing. (It’ll come as no surprise that I’m going to talk about that last bit…) First off, I have to give credit to my tutor for being exactly the kind of understanding, easy-going tutor I needed, even though I didn’t know it at the start. Secondly, although I’m sure I won’t even retain half of the knowledge I accumulated over the course of the semester by the time the next one’s due to start, I’m incredibly glad that I took the course and stuck to it. (And now don’t leave me hanging, Duolingo.)

Onto my anxiety. The fact of the matter is that despite generally being pretty  lazy  fair to myself when setting study goals, I’m more than just reasonably cautious of making mistakes. Now, before you get into your little pep talk about the fallibility of humankind and importance of making mistakes, let me get this straight: I didn’t need a lecture. I just needed patience.

As it turned out, quite a lot of the students who’d signed up for that class had already studied Spanish in school or gone abroad to a Spanish-speaking country or, hell, even grown up speaking Spanish. (I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about why I felt at a disadvantage.) Truth be told, I’m not exactly at my most studious when I do extracurriculars, but I can assure you I was attentive enough not to deserve being punished by dread and anxiety before and during classes.

There’s something about being completely new at something that just chills you to the bone. I can’t put my finger on it, especially because I don’t recall feeling that way in school too often, but I can tell you it’s terrifying. You don’t get to experience it very much after your teenage years. You get so used to avoiding things you’re no good at that you come to feel as though the whole process of specialization that’s taking place around you might not be for the greater social good after all.

Learning a new language is more frightening in a lot of ways than learning a physical skill like drawing because you at least know roughly what a pencil will do to a piece of paper when you grind it against the surface. The blank space you’re staring at when you’re fumbling for words in a strange language is something else altogether. My personal brand of coping mechanism that I’ve developed for the sole purpose of dealing with this situation is called the Intent Stare of Utter Cluelessness™, in case you were wondering.


Eu estou tão solitário quanto uma garrafa de vinho.

What it comes down to for me, all insecurities aside, is that language is a gift. A toy that is so versatile you’ll never grow tired of it. How neat is it to be able to express the thought “I’m as lonely as a bottle of wine” not only, like, at all, but also in several different semiotic codes? (The answer we were looking for is: pretty darn amazing.) At the beginning it feels a lot like you’re just appropriating foreign syntax, toying with an unfamiliar lexicon, but it’ll soon grow into something more organic.

Instead of obsessing over the fear that I’m not well-read enough to be an English major or not politically engaged enough to be a full-fledged citizen of my country, I should be grateful that I still get to be new at things. I still get to read the Great Classics for the first time and stare in awe at their literary ingenuity (while simultaneously giving up on the prospect of ever grasping their full meaning). I still get to learn how to take apart the mechanics of bigotry which once governed my own thoughts and which to this day fuel millions of people’s political outlook. I still have a low threshold for mind-blowing experiences, for genuine eye-openers. I’m gullible, impressionable, and irritatingly skeptical at once.

Riddle me this then. Why do I feel like a fraud putting together a term paper that has to meet a lot of standards — both academic and self-imposed — even though I’ve done my best to do them all justice? Why, after all this time, am I still faking it? Flicking through my little vocab book now, I’m absolutely sure I’ll be haunted by anxiety again as I enter the next course. Maybe all I can do is keep in mind that when I lack the words to say something, I can always change the subject to lonely bottles of wine. It might make for an amusing tangent, and it’ll definitely buy me a little time.

(I totally faked that conclusion tbh.)

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