When I was younger, I danced ballet. During my first few years dancing, I danced Cecchetti, which is a very technical and particularly demanding form of ballet. I didn’t start dancing when I was three years old like many of the other students, so I had to take private lessons with the instructor to keep up. Miss Minnie was over 70 years old, but had more grace and strength than anyone I’d ever met. She was a short, tan woman who always wore clunky turquoise jewelry and had long sliver hair that was slicked back into a neat bun everyday.
I came to my first private lesson expecting to work on some routines, or even to learn some of the French words that I was required to know for the exam at the end of the year. Instead, Miss Minnie lead me to the corner of the room and had me place my right hand on one barre, and my left hand on the other barre perpendicular to it.
“Today, I’m going to teach you how to do a sauté,” she said.
I hadn’t danced for many years, but I had danced for a few, and I already knew how to do that. “Sauté” means “jump” in French, and you literally just jump over and over and over again. We had done it all the time in class.
“I know how to do that,” I answered confidently.
“Okay, show me then.”
So I put my right foot in front of my left foot in fifth position, jumped up in the air, and landed with my left foot in front of my right in fifth position once again. I had done it, I thought.
“Again, but more slowly,” she said patiently.
Okay, how do I jump slower, I thought to myself. And so I asked, “I’m not sure what you’re asking me to do.”
“You can use the barre,” she replied.
So I clutched onto the barre and jumped up into the air once more, and landed back down in fifth position.
“Okay let me help you, “ she said still not satisfied with what I had done. “Bend your legs,” she said as she moved closer to me.
Confused about what I had done wrong, I did as instructed. She then forced my legs down by pushing her palms down on the top of my thighs.
“Go as low as you can without your heels popping off the ground.”
My thighs burned like I had never felt them burn before.
“Do you feel that?” she asked.
“Now use that to jump up, and hold yourself up when you get to the top.”
I grasped the barre with my hands and sprung up as high I could using my arms to keep my body suspended a couple feet off the ground. My legs dangled like noodles.
“Look at that!” Miss Minnie exclaimed as though it were blasphemy. I can stick my whole arm through there! She slid her arm in between my thighs. “I shouldn’t be able to slide even a penny in there! Squeeze! Squeeze harder! Use your abs!”
And so I pulled as tight as I could and once again I experienced a new type of pain. And I thought I had done a sauté before!
“Now squeeze and move your left foot in from of your right foot to prepare yourself for when you land.”
I let my heels slide past each other as I looked back up to see what more she had to say.
“Why do you look like you’re in pain?” Miss Minnie asked. “Put your shoulders down and lift your chin up. Make it look easy.”
I did what she asked and her distraught expression turned into one of neutrality. Okay, I thought. Maybe I was done now.
“Now I want you to come back down as slowly as you can.”
This should be easy, I thought to myself. But as soon as I started my descent, my arms, legs, and abs started trembling so badly that I thought I was about to collapse onto the ground.
“I don’t want to hear you land,” she added.
I pulled even tighter and moved down slowly inch by inch until my toes gently tapped the ground followed by my feet rolling down little by little until my heels lay flat on the wooden floor.
“And now straighten your legs. Slowly.”
That part wasn’t as painful but once again it seemed to work muscles I didn’t even know I had.
Once I was back in my neutral position I looked at her waiting for some sort of praise. I was done now, I thought.
“Why are you slouched over like that? Stand up straight, and chin up. Look pretty! There you go, she finally concluded starting to look a little bit satisfied. “That’s called a sauté. You should do all those steps every time you jump. Now again!”
And we spent the whole hour repeating that process over and over again. Once our time was up, I was almost certain my legs wouldn’t be able to make it out the door.
“See you next time!” she exclaimed.
“Bye Miss Minnie,” I said as I stumbled down the steps and limped towards the car.
The following lesson, I was expecting to work on something else. After all, we had already dedicated an entire hour to doing sautés.
“Okay, let’s do sautés,” she told me as she turned on the music.
Oh great, I thought. At least there would be music, though, so I wouldn’t have to jump as slowly. That should be easier, I thought. And with that, I started jumping.
Miss Minnie stopped the music so much that day, that it might as well have not been playing at all.
“You’re getting sloppy,” she would say. “Start over.” But eventually, after I became numb to the aching and trembling of my muscles, she started stopping it less and less.
“You should be like a feather, you sound like a horse falling down!” she would add while the music was playing.
“You’re shaking the whole building!”
“Straight up and straight down!”
“Squeeze in the air!”
“Lift your chin up!”
“You’re supposed to make it look easy!”
After a few minutes that felt like eternity and hundreds of jumps later, the music was still playing as strong and steady as ever. My feet, however, were starting to hit the ground more and more slowly, and I felt my whole body begin to tremble.
“I’m sorry, Miss Minnie, I just can’t anymore,” I said as I came to a stop.
But the music kept going.
Surprised by her abrupt response, I sprung up once again off the ground.
“Don’t stop,” she told me. “Does it hurt?”
“You want to quit?”
I nodded again, but kept jumping. And then she said something that has stuck with me ever since.
“This is the point where you progress. You have to decide whether you want to quit, or you want to get better. When it hurts and you’re tired and you want to quit, but you keep going, then you grow. That’s when you improve.”
Suddenly, a burst of energy came from within me, and I kept jumping.
I was never the best at ballet, but I am grateful I had the opportunity to dance. I am grateful I was able to learn discipline, hard work, and humility. Unfortunately as I got busier, I attended lessons less and less frequently. And then one day Miss Minnie told me something else that made an impression on me.
“Sabah, you’d be a terrible farmer,” she said. “You know why?”
“No, I don’t,” I chuckled. “Why?”
“Because you’d have no crops to harvest.”
I looked at her confused.
“Farmers plant their seeds early on in the year. They take care of them. They water them everyday. They watch over them and tend to them, and then when it comes time to harvest, they get nice ripe fruit.”
I started to get what she was saying.
“Well, you have no fruit! You didn’t plant anything, and now you want fruit, but you have no fruit!”
I stood there with both hands hanging on either side of me. What was I supposed to say?
“Ballet is like farming. When you don’t plant seeds, you have no crops. You’d make a terrible farmer.”
So then alright, maybe ballet wasn’t my thing, but I figured out a lot of other things are like farming too. Miss Minnie taught me many important lessons that I am trying to keep in mind right now during my time in Austria and as I’m learning German.
Learning German is hard. I usually have to see a word multiple times before I actually remember it, and even more so with grammar concepts. It’s just a complicated language. You don’t just have to memorize the noun, you have to memorize whether it’s feminine, neutral or masculine. And then you have to ask yourself, what is the role of the noun in the sentence? Is it the subject? The direct object? The indirect object? That’s how you determine which article to use. You can’t just say “the” for everything like in English. You also can’t just remember the verb, you have to remember how to conjugate it (if it’s irregular), and then what preposition to use with it. And that’s not all! They you have to remember what case comes after the preposition. Do you use the dative or the accusative case? Is it at exception? It always seems to be an exception. It’s just a lot to remember.
I do the best that I can, but a lot of times when I speak, it just comes out as a jumbled mess. I have studied German for five years total now (on and off since 2010), but I still feel like I’m not as good as I should be. I’m always forgetting things, I make silly mistakes, and many times, I make the same silly mistakes again. I feel like all the other students know more than I do, and that they all learn more quickly than I do. But I’m trying my best. I make flashcards ( I love you, Quizlet), I pay attention in class, I ask questions, I do my homework, and I study for exams. I’m planting all my seeds. Now, I just have to tend to them, and eventually, I hope, I will be able to harvest. Farmers have to be patient, I keep reminding myself.
It’s not just the learning German part that’s frustrating, it’s also living in a foreign and unfamiliar country. It’s not my first time abroad. I’m actually an immigrant and I have travelled quite extensively, but it’s my first time living somewhere on my own for this long of a period of time. There are just so many things that are different.
I’ve been really sick this week (its’ been going around), and so I feel like everything has been happening in slow motion. My body is dragging, the sight of even a short set of stairs has me looking around for an elevator, and the short walks I have to take everyday have seemingly gotten longer. It also feels like my three hour class every morning goes on for days. Being sick really makes you notice things you don’t usually pay attention to when you’re happy and healthy (it sometimes makes things seem way worse than they actually are, too). There’s nothing wrong with that, though! It’s a new perspective. There are always good things and bad things, and that’s what makes life so interesting. The bad days make the good days seem even better. So with that, here are some of the things that have been on my mind.
First of all, what irritates me the most is the smoke. Half the people here smoke cigarettes. There’s smoke everywhere, and now that it’s getting colder, people are starting to smoke indoors more often and it’s driving me crazy. My hair is starting to smell like smoke sometimes too, even though I stay as far away from it as possible. Even when I can’t see anyone smoking, and there’s no smoking allowed, it still always somehow smells like smoke. It’s in people’s hair and clothes and breath, and I feel like I can never get a way from it.
On another note, when it comes to choosing and signing up for courses, I feel like no one can really help me with my course selection. I’m going through the process of registration right now, and the international students’ advisors tell me to talk to the department advisors, the department advisors tell me to talk to my professors, and my professors don’t email me back. It must be because a lot of them aren’t back from the break yet. Since there are so many international students and everyone’s situation is different, they can’t have an individual advisor for each student. So instead, they refer students to other people, who then refer students to other people, and it just keeps on going.
I’ve also never felt so embarrassed to speak before. It’s getting a lot better, but sometimes I don’t ask for help just because I want to avoid turning beet red as soon as I stutter, mispronounce something, or forget a word. As much as I plan out what I want to say in my head before I say it, it never comes out the way I want it to. I don’t want to speak English, because that would be too easy, and I don’t want to speak German, because that would be too hard, so a lot of times, I just don’t say anything at all.
I also have done so many embarrassing things since I’ve been here that I can’t even count or remember them all anymore. I ride the bus everyday, and I noticed it always stopped where I needed it to, so I just assumed it always did and always would. The other day, it drove past my stop, but it didn’t stop. I looked around the bus confused, and I suddenly noticed all the big red stop buttons. Stupid mistake, I know. How did I not see that? I have no idea. I guess every time I had been on the bus, someone else had been going to the same place I was and had clicked it for me. And I hadn’t noticed. I must have been either checking the app on my phone making sure I had taken the right bus, or staring out the window. I guess I never thought to look around inside the bus. If I had, maybe I would have learned earlier. Anyway, I waited until the next stop, I clicked the “stop” button, and I sprinted into class ten minutes late.
Another time, my very friendly dorm manager lent me an umbrella because it was pouring outside. Well within 20 minutes, I forgot the umbrella on the bus because it stopped raining and I’m not used to carrying an umbrella. It rarely rains in New Mexico, and when it does, the rain stops before I even have time to open an umbrella. I’m just glad my dorm manager was really nice about it. I even tried to buy her a new one, but she insisted I keep it for myself.
Something else I noticed is that customer service isn’t as good here. (Some) people, not most, make their jobs feel like a burden. I asked the lady at the grocery store to help me with the orange juice machine and she gave me so much attitude that I felt that I had done something wrong. It just needed to be cleaned, and if I were able to do that myself and not have to ask for help, believe me I would have.
Another time at the grocery store, I was buying a laundry basket along with a few other things, so I put all my items in the basket thinking I was making it easier for the cashier. I thought she could scan everything and then get the basket last. Well, she saw the basket, rolled her eyes, and then flipped the whole thing over with half of the items falling on the conveyer belt and half on the ground! Again, I didn’t want to speak, that time mainly because I didn’t know what to say, so I completed the transaction in silence. Since she didn’t look up at me once, she probably didn’t notice how hot and red my face got. The guy behind me in line, though, who gave me a sympathetic half smile as he handed me the box of pasta that had fallen on the floor, definitely did.
Then to top it off, the other day, I tried to ride my bike to the main plaza to get some more Vitamin C filled orange juice. It was my first time biking in the city, so I used my phone as a GPS, and I put in the wrong destination (surprise). I had already biked 20 minutes when it was supposed to initially be 10 (I’m slow), and my destination was yet another 15 minutes away. I turned around to go the other way, and I got stuck going the wrong way on a one way street, stopped on the side of the road to google something written on a sign that seemed relevant to bikers, still didn’t understand what was written on the sign after translating it, got honked at by a tram, almost got hit by a bus mirror, got frustrated almost half an hour later, and found a place to lock my bike less than five minutes away from the main plaza.I figured I’d just walk from there. Well then, while locking my bike, I realized I hadn’t looped it onto the rack. No big deal, right? I tried to open the lock to relock it to the rack, and I realized I had accidentally reset the code and the lock wouldn’t open. I had also locked the wheel, so I couldn’t ride it. The sun was setting, it was getting late, and my phone only had 9% battery left, so I eventually had to call for help (Thanks Zefr). I took this picture while I was waiting next to my bike with the locked up wheel. There’s something beautiful about even the worst of times.
And that’s about it! I think being sick this week has really made it hard, and everything seems to feel like it’s going wrong. I keep thinking of Miss Minnie, though.
It hurts being here sometimes (my body is actually aching), and it’s hard, and I find myself sometimes pretty uncomfortable, but that means I’m growing, and that’s what I wanted from this experience. And every time I think about what Miss Minnie said to me, I get the energy inside me once again that made me keep jumping in that ballet studio many years ago. It makes me open my notebook one more time after I’ve closed it out of frustration while studying. That energy also makes me want to try asking for help just one more time in German after having an embarrassing experience and never wanting to speak German again. It makes me get back on my bike after I’ve gone a mile in the wrong direction, to go two miles in the right direction. It makes me happy that I’m struggling at times, because it assures me that I’m growing.
So thank you, Miss Minnie, for the valuable lessons that I may not have applied to ballet, but I have learned to apply to almost everything else in life. Maybe I didn’t plant those seeds at the time, but I’ve learned to plant others, and I’ve learned to be persistent and patient with them. And thank you, if you made it all the way through this post for sharing my experiences with me.
I’m truly having an amazing time. I’m happy to be here, I’m excited to be learning, and I’m thankful for this opportunity.