Travel Journal: France
The others sported the newest shoes and wore the most popular jerseys. I have some of those same shoes in my closet back home in Beaufort, North Carolina and I've seen many of the men in person who made those jerseys famous. Yet, from the moment I stumbled through the glass door of Hall des Sports, I felt like an outsider. I felt like an outsider when the Alsatian Athletic Director accosted me about my membership status with the University of Strasbourg Sports Classes. I felt like an outsider when I shouted in broken French: “Euh, etudiant Americaine! I have a card!” I felt like an outsider when I didn't know which locker room I should change in or where I could enter the gymnasium properly for the advanced basketball class at 16:00. I felt like an outsider when, once I actually found my way to the court, I was picked last for the first game.
I've played pick-up basketball in many places with many different kinds of people. But when I stepped out onto the neat orange polypropylene court today, I felt as if I truly didn't belong. The others—mostly University of Strasbourg undergraduates—weren't mean or nasty towards me. In fact, I made fast friends with an Alsace native who had spent a few of his formative years living with family in Atlanta, Georgia. I quickly became both donor and recipient of a handshake that was previously uncommon to me: low-five followed by a fist bump. I jawed with the taller players in broken French and, after I lost my first game, they jawed with me: “Welcome to France!”
Despite this general pleasantness of spirit, I felt as if I was the ultimate outsider. Because French youth speak so quickly, I failed to fully understand most of what was said off the court and was thoroughly confused when trying to understand what was said on it! I seemed to trip over my feet more than the natives. I had trouble asking where the water fountain was located. I didn't understand the Athletic Director's “pre-practice” speech to the group. This state of unknowingness was woefully uncomfortable, inconvenient, and saddening. I really enjoy participating in team sports. So suffering through an inability to communicate was frustrating and threatened to dampen what would be an enjoyable time.
Luckily, the team with which I was able to play was comprised of very good athletes and we won nearly every game during the first hour of class. More importantly, I experienced things about European basketball that others can only learn during the summer Olympics. I learned that English profanity is a favorite amount French youth, but they will sprinkle in traditional French swear words sometimes when angry. “Bon shot” is a compliment meaning “good shot.” Trois-deux is a defensive set that, I was told, natives like to call “The French Zone.” I learned that, while European players really hate personal contact on the court, the bigger athletes tend to be so uncoordinated that you may leave the gym with a black-eye and a few bumps if you dare to play defense against them.
Despite the language barrier, despite the bumps and bruises, I was blessed to have extended interactions with young people who are natives to the region. By stepping outside of my comfort zone, I made new acquaintances, even if I couldn't understand what they were saying most of this time. Today's experience was a positive one: I'm learning Strasbourg and allowing Strasbourg to learn me. Each day, I'm trying to do what the natives do and live how the natives live. This was one more step in the transformation of a traveler.
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