All I wanted was a SIM card for my old phone. And all I wanted to do was to know how to send a text message to a mobile number. I wasn’t asking a lot, was I?
After approaching the orange information desk for the third time, the woman that had at first smiled at me when I approached the orange desk the first time was smiling no more. “Oh no, here he comes again.” I knew she was thinking it.
“No, no! You do it dis way,” she said as she grabbed my mobile and typed in the number for me.
“Mursee Bod Coop.” I said.
After that I did not forget how to enter French mobile numbers in my phone.
Traveling is always one way to help you wake up to the fact that most of our lives inhabit some sort of vacuum. As a recent graduate, the Queer Urban Geographies experience reminded me of a world that exists beyond the academic padded room I had occupied for almost a year. It reminded me that despite faculty approvals, awards, and accepted thesis documents, there is a real world out there that will force you to re-examine your work — again, and again, and again. This examination is scary, rewarding, and beautiful. I would argue that, in our case, it was the geographical aspect of it that made it so.
By this, I mean that placing ourselves in a city in which we were vulnerable to an unfamiliar location, language, and customs was key to making this project queer. In other words, the strength of this project was that I was a foreigner in an unfamiliar, new place – a suburb of Paris, France. In a strange way, it was like stepping back into the closet. This time, though, I wasn’t peeking out to tell the world that I am gay, but to see what people think of the homo-normative world I have so carefully crafted in my head, in the safe world of New York City, and in my thesis project. As an inherently apprehensive and award-winning worry-wort, this was practically terrifying.
Being able to step back and retain a certain vulnerability but at the same time exert a quiet sense of purpose is a trait I am only beginning to undertand. The issues we sought to address in that suburb were familiar to us, but I now know less familiar to the people we worked with. We came at a time when the same-sex marriage argument was a hotbed of activity. At one point during a workshop, I thought I would have to stop. Questions were coming at me in two different languages, and people, I thought, were getting impatient. I was unsure, not confident, and a little on edge. The feeling was all too familiar.
Suddenly, though, we got over the hump. In some ways, the people I was working with were better problem solvers than I was. I say this because while I was unsure and on edge, people in the room were thinking; they had ideas. In the end the people of Argenteuil developed a fantastic methodology for me when I didn’t even ask for it. After that, we received a sense of warmth and generosity I think few of us had experienced before. We were given delicious homemade food, given places to sleep, and we even had poems written for us. It was a blissful reminder that in the end it always works out.
Remembering that it’s going to work out, though, is harder that it sounds. It’s true, the experiences of being vulnerable allow us to grow as human beings. Learning to manage and profit from these experiences — and to do so on the spot — is one of the skills I believe my master’s degree sought to address. Acting in the face of uncertainty is perhaps a skill more closely related to queerness that I had ever thought. While I think it’s easy to speak of our Queer Urban Geographies project as it relates to topics like same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, in my own reflection of the week I’m tempted to think of our group’s displacement and vulnerability as a reason in itself. Being in a new place and not knowing how to talk about who we were or what we did was all too familiar. Learning to overcome this and still be productive and enthusiastic is a skill that, as I mentioned before, I am still learning. I think it’s going to be a long process, and I’m sure I’ll visit many more orange desks with grumpy French ladies along the way.
What can I say? Dis is just how you do it.