This month had some BIG challenges. I told lots of people, oh yes, after my course, I’m going to stay in Tuscany with a family and speak English for their little girl.
"How lovely," everyone said. And it was amazing! A wonderful experience.
Yet, I felt as though I was brought to my knees this month.
The setting was unparalleled: my hosts so welcoming and kind. I was with a lovely family, who looked after me, translated for me and didn’t require any ‘work' of me at all. We had an extended visit to the seaside and my room looked out of the windows to glorious Tuscan countryside.
But I had put myself in a situation which, for me, was a challenge. I was out of my depth, it wasn’t what I was used to. Living in London, working, living and socialising with people my own age and in similar situations for so long was a stark contrast to that of now: being part of the lives of a young family in another country, a different culture and at a different stage of life.
On all fronts my perspective, my approach and my views were turned over and torn up from the roots. I felt as though I had unearthed parts of me I had forgotten were there.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared for it. I’d considered it carefully. It was just that I hadn’t really been challenged on the things I thought I would be challenged on.
Yet I so glad I was brought to my knees, because down there, on the floor, you learn and grow in a powerful way.
You stop, you drop
I was physically exhausted. Years of working in a demanding job, months of planning, organising and thinking about moving, weeks of sorting, packing and arranging and 26 intensive days studying, teaching, learning and trying to fit in some food and sleep somewhere in the middle had suddenly stopped.
I’d been going and going and going for so long.
I basically collapsed.
It was actually quite embarrassing that in the first few days, I probably slept more than the two and a half year old I was helping to look after. I had my own room, a beautiful view and a mosquito net on the window. The first afternoon, when the little girl was asleep, my very kind hostess asked me if I would like to have a rest too. I gladly said yes.
I was so tired, and the constant trying to understand the language, the energy of a toddler and the unfamiliarity of another new place all contributed to that. I felt as though it was a whole new world I had stepped into, without the fresh enthusiasm and cheery smile I would like to have approached it with. I felt weak.
I had to let go and sleep. Not study Italian in the time I had to myself, which the 'high-achiever' in me told me I should be doing. Instead I had to surrender to what I needed, rest.
I had planned to only answer the most urgent emails during this time, but I fully intended to carry on with my newsletters through July. But the internet wasn’t working and so I had to change the plan.
It worried me - not having internet. I was worried I would feel disconnected and isolated, and I did have a fleeting glimpse of those feelings. I was in another country, knowing very little of the language, living with a family I didn’t know, for a whole month. I was used to being online, all the time, able to look things up, connect with my friends, keep up with what was going on. Reading blogs and receiving support that way.
Instead, I would have to rely on something else within me.
I would have to show up, be present, feel awkward.
Inability to communicate
I wanted to say so much, but my language skills, even by the end of the month, were poor. Yes, I can understand a lot more now. Yes, we also spoke English sometimes a lot during the day so I did communicate (in English). But for many situations I would have to sit there, dumb. Not being able to contribute to or even understand the conversation, and sometimes feeling stupid for not being able to do so. My hosts translated a lot and I was so grateful, but often I had to guess what was going on, through intonation, body language and facial expression.
Learning a language takes time. Little by little and bit by bit. I knew that if I pressured myself to learn faster than I seemed to be, would only slow my progress. Years of pushing myself to learn faster, quicker, more effectively meant this was the default setting. Although my Italian has improved, it’s frustratingly slow in learning. I would often try and pick up the book and learn, but my brain was tired by the end of each day, from watching conversations and trying to understand, repeating things to myself and listening hard all the time.
I was on someone else’s schedule, which sometimes wasn’t even a schedule but a moveable itinerary, depending on who was doing what and the general rhythm of family life.
Someone I’d known just for a few days was washing my clothes for me. In 10 years, no one but me has washed my clothes.
If I needed something I had to ask.
All these things are not easy for me. Independence, doing things my own way, in my own time is one of my core values.
I’m used to being self-sufficient, and I am efficient. I know me, I know how I do things. This was different. This meant I was vulnerable.
At ground level
The children I met and spent time with (the two and a half year old and her cousins) are amazing human beings: adorable, inspiring, special little people who bring so much joy.
All of them were hilarious - I spent a lot of time helplessly laugh at their antics, trying not to smile when they misbehaved and were warmed by their kind, loving souls. I fell in love with them all.
But I had to get down to their level, crouching down so I could look in their eyes. Smiling and connecting with who they are, not telling them who I was. Getting down on the floor to play. Because I couldn’t talk to them in their language with any fluency and they couldn’t understand mine.
I was brought to my knees, physically, to connect with them: to play with them. To ‘be’ with them.
Because there was no other way.
When you’re on your knees look around for clues
I felt confused. What would I do without the internet? Why was it so hard? I didn’t want to be this tired, what purpose was it serving? Why wasn’t I doing better with the language? Was I helping myself, them, anyone by being here?
I didn’t know.
I had to show up and be vulnerable. Feel awkward and isolated. Feel like a spare part and wonder whether I was doing something wrong or if it was all ok.
It taught me to value presence. It taught me to remember what it was like to depend on someone for everything and be grateful.
It made me think about what I was all about when I wasn’t online. When there was just me.
It taught me to be present in every moment, to really experience and delve deeply into the moment of what was going on around me. It showed me, minute by minute, the colossal range of options we have in every second of our lives. To speak or not. To choose love or fear. To act and move forward and claim power or to sit and be still.
To acknowledge when I needed something and for that to be ok. To admit that sometimes, this was hard.
To develop such love for strangers who are now wonderful friends. To commit, in that moment, to them, to us as a collection of people, including cousins, aunts, neighbours and to be together, sharing a time, a place, a drink - pain, laughter and joy.
A time together.