Reculer Means to Step Back
Checking out new apartments, the shame of learning a new word, and rummaging through a dead man's stuff
The French word for this week is: reculer.
I’ve said that learning a new language will inevitably put one into situations of shame and humility. But it’s one thing to acknowledge it theoretically, and another to experience someone screaming at you, “Reculez un peu!”, as you fumble at the sensory assault of multiple “Monsieur!”s being thrown at you while you try to figure out why the scanner at the godforsaken door can’t detect your gym card. It doesn’t help that a queue has already formed behind, and you look exactly the part of an annoying tourist who is seemingly ignoring instructions just for the sole purpose of being annoying.
A former friend told me once how she tried to beat the red light at EDSA. The police officer signaled her to stop, and as she rolled the window down she attempted to pull up her best damsel-in-distress face—crying as she explained that she didn’t know what had happened. Except that act could only work if one didn’t have a bitchy face ready to pounce on unsuspecting strangers, which my former friend had, made even worse by her preference of wearing all black. She got a parking ticket and a scolding from an irritated officer.
That memory flashed in my head as I bowed my head down, thinking whether I should grin and exaggerate my ignorance. I decided against it because I was scared I would look like I was mocking the attendant, which was the last thing I wanted to do. Fortunately, my partner was waiting outside for me to get in, and he swooped immediately to explain to the attendant that I was having a hard time unlocking the door while translating what the person was saying to English.
Recoil, which traces its etymology from the French reculer, is precisely what I wanted to do, if only for a moment. It seemed counterintuitive to keep trying to learn French, like an idiot who keeps putting his hand in the fire after getting burnt. Was I going to have more of these incidents? Would they be progressively less humiliating as time went by? Was learning meant to degrade and debase you before you truly reach a breakthrough, much like in the film “Whiplash”?
The past week, we have been checking out different apartments around the city center, making mental lists of the pros and cons of each flat—unfurnished means we’ll need to buy beds and tables and other appliances (which is stressful, time-consuming, and potentially problematic should we decide to leave next year); separate toilets and shower rooms can both be good (no more waiting for someone to finish showering before you can use the toilet!) and bad (with bidets not being a thing, that leaves using the toilet paper without washing up); older buildings could mean larger spaces, but also strange floor plans.
I can be indecisive when it comes to these things, knowing that I can somewhat adapt when push comes to shove. My partner keeps asking, ‘What would make you happier in the long run?” But that only makes me think: how can one truly know? And what is happiness anyway, but a word that means different things to people in different situations—a room that shrinks and grows depending on one’s lot in life?
As existentially frustrating that dilemma is, there are a few creature comforts that I’d like to have at this point in my life: I’d like a well-lit place with a large bed and a clean toilet. Nothing too garish or gaudy, but with a few sturdy pieces of furniture here and there, preferably secondhand, and not a lot, since space accentuates really good design (and the lack thereof could drown even the best name-brand pieces.)
Also: does anyone truly need so much? This morning, we went to a large house a few kilometers away Montpellier’s city center, owned by the father of a friend’s friend. The man died recently and they were selling off some of the stuff he had owned.
The deceased owner loved art, and had collected paintings and sculptures which he displayed all over the handsome, albeit cluttered, house. (Some of the artwork were questionable and racially-insensitive, I have to say.) As I scanned the things that he had left behind, I couldn’t help but think, all this stuff, and for what? You accumulate so much and leave behind things sold off to strangers who question why you have accumulated so much in the first place. What a bummer.