On Vulnerability

Since beginning this post almost two weeks ago, so much has shifted that I’m not sure I know where to start anymore. Yesterday, I sat down to write and got sidetracked reading my friend Jeffrey Chapman’s blog post and the comments following it. What I had already written seemed directly connected to what I was witnessing on Jeffrey’s blog. I was writing about watching Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability prior to my recent travels… that it must have set a tone for the way that I traveled throughout the next three weeks.

Having traveled a fair bit in France and Italy, I have a decent repertoire of memories to draw from. This time, something felt different. It wasn’t until I reflected upon the possibility that I was doing it differently that it all started to make sense.

Jeffrey’s post elicited a landslide of comments. Thoughtful and sensitive, full of depth and very personal, they came from the heart… The original blog post itself was unusual. In it, he was open and vulnerable about personal grief and loss. It was this vulnerability that elicited the ensuing rare conversation, which I found refreshing, exciting and heart-warming.

Waiting for the TGV to Lyon

Flashing back to my experience in France and Italy this spring … What did I do differently this time and how did that affect my travel experience? In retrospect, I must have unintentionally allowed myself to be more vulnerable. When I was younger, I sweated while schlepping gear, bicycles and bags through airports, train and metro stations as if I were some version of Wonder Woman, or trying to set a record for managing awkward burdens. I stood on street corners and turned maps upside down and sideways trying to orient myself. I got frustrated and mad at French bureaucrats and functionaries. I had anxious moments trying figure out public telephones because I didn’t have the right “jeton” or phone card and couldn’t quite figure out the directions, but because I spoke the language, I was too embarrassed to ask for help.

Due in part to lack of forethought, but also, I presume, to a greater willingness to expose myself to the world, I found that this spring, in every situation in which I felt out on a limb, people stepped up to help me or engaged with me in a way that was new and unusual (at least in my experience). While speaking French and Italian has often made it easier to travel there, it also made it easier for me to think I could and should be able to figure things out on my own. Well, its been a long time since I used either my French or Italian, and this year I found myself stumbling over words and trying to remember things that once rolled off my tongue, which was uncomfortable and, I have to admit, a little embarrassing.

Arriving in Lyon, my cousin was incredulous as I described the string of interactions leading from my hotel in Paris to arriving at the train station in Lyon two and a half hours later than scheduled. While France and the French have not always enjoyed the reputation of being the friendliest place to travel, I’ve never found it unfriendly, but his time, I was positively bowled over by the people who reached out to make it easier for me: The French gentlemen; one who carried my rolling duffel up the stairs from the Metro into the Gare de Lyon, and another who tried to help me with my e-ticket because it “gave him a sense of mission while waiting for his train”  (don’t bother with buying train e-tickets for France, they don’t work anyway…), the two who let me cut in front of them in the queue because the e-ticket didn’t work, the SNCF official who assured me that he would take care of me because the e-ticket mess was about to cause me to miss my train, the business woman who had offered me the use of her phone when I couldn’t get the code right on my American Blackberry to call my cousin, then dialed for me to make sure it worked, her friend who got off the train to usher me to the correct coach when he saw me looking at the map on the platform, then lifted my bag onto the train before dashing back to his part of the train just before departure.

Continuing on to see a friend in Italy, followed by meeting up with Jeffrey and five “strangers” for a photography workshop in Croatia, the trend continued.

Sitting in the airport in Seattle, watching a TED talk while waiting for the flight that would take me through Iceland and on to Paris at the beginning of this adventure, I had no thoughts of how what I was hearing would affect the next three weeks. Maybe it did, or maybe I’ve just changed and become more willing to be vulnerable over the last ten years. I’ll never know. But what I do know is that I learned a lot about not being Wonder Woman, about being willing to be less than completely self-sufficient. And as I write those words, I wince… Did I really say that? Am I really willing to give up some of the self-sufficiency I’ve prided myself on for 50 years?

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2 thoughts on “On Vulnerability

  1. I don’t think you’re giving up something of yourself. If anything by reaching out to someone you can only gain something from them.
    I wonder why we put so much pressure on ourselves. What if we do something wrong? Yes it’s embarrassing sometimes, but if that’s the worst that could happen…really, is it that bad? Come to think of it, I’ve embarrassed myself so many times already, it shouldn’t come as a surprise :))
    Fear of failure… is it something that came with the age of industrialization or has it something humanity has always suffered?

  2. Jilske,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I had to write that last part because I know that even though I feel like I know how to live a little more vulnerably in the world today than I used to, I recognize that urge within myself to try and do it all myself and be able to handle it all without asking for help. Its one of those “true confessions” kind of things. And you are so right about embarrassment. Its so silly. But I had to write that too – primarily because I realize how hard I have tried at times to avoid making a fool of myself. Maybe giving up on that comes with age. I look back and groan at the number of times I didn’t do something simply because I was afraid to embarrass myself… how dumb is that?

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