6 min read

A nun and a young man

A nun and a young man

As a child, I used to imagine myself being the “first” to do something. Walking to the park, I was the first to jump from a bench, clap, then kick a rock with my right foot. In all of history, not a single living thing, did that exact thing in that exact place.

Coincidently, this idea has been magnified to absurdity on social media. This TikTok is captioned “Y’all the first people in the world to see a potatoware plastic fork dipped into a mixture of mayonnaise and sriracha”. And indeed, me, and the 3.5M viewers probably were the first to see that.

Although a joke, the underlying concept behind my callow beliefs and the TikTok trend is the singularity of lived experiences. Anything I have done or seen is the first. Not one person has ever, or will ever do something in the exact way and during the exact circumstances as me. However, despite all the firsts to exists, only some stories rise to the surface.

Approximately one month ago, in an international flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, I sat next to a Roman Catholic Sister- a nun.

At the rear of the flight, seat 57G, I situate my belongings. In the last remaining sliver of space, I hoist a densely packed pelican case along its side into the overhead bins and shut it closed. Like a well rehearsed dance, I slide the shoulder strap of my bag off my left shoulder, transfer my lunch (Panda Express) to my left hand, then shrug the opposite shoulder strap off my right side. As I slide into my seat, I carefully tuck my bag in front of me, taking care not to squish the orange chicken meal on my lap.

With a smile and crows-eyed squint, I turn to acknowledge my traveling partner, seat 57H. However, my gaze isn’t met. Clad in a worn blue habit, my traveling partner closes her eyes softly and in her right hand, textured by time, she embraces a rosary. She twirls a bead between her thumb and index finger and it roll along the grooves of her skin in rhythm to the murmurs of her prayers.

As I buckle myself in, the seat displays harmoniously play the pre-flight Delta video. Smoking is prohibited, check. Federal law prohibits tampering with, disabling, or destroying any lavatory smoke detector, also check. In my peripheral, my traveling partner pulls a tote bag from under the seat and readjusts the contents. She removes a blanket, rolls it and stuffs it back into the bag. In the bag directly under my feet I carry a laptop, a DSLR, a kindle and a collection of chargers. In the tote bag my traveling partner only carries blankets.

Perhaps, I’m staring too intensely, because the elderly woman meets my gaze and delivers a kindred smile. I return the gesture, and she says something in French. I shake my head and politely say no. She widens her smile forgivingly and follows up with, “¿Habla Español?”

I wrack my brain for the Spanish speaking neurons I developed in high school. “Un poco. Pero mi Español no es bueno.”

Despite my disjoined Spanish, me and my traveling partner, who I learn is named Elizabeth, converse. I learn that Elizabeth was recently serving in Argentina for the last two years and now returns home to Belgium for her mother’s 92nd birthday.

“Happy Birthday to your mother!”

“Thank you, I’m excited to see her. I haven’t been home in several years, so it’ll be great for us to see one another.”

“How many days?”

“Ten days. Then after, I’ll meet with the other sisters of the convent, and there we are told where to serve our next mission.”

Perhaps, it’s because I’m unable to formulate cohesive thoughts in a foreign language but I struggle to respond. Lost for words, I give an exaggerated nod and a sound of approval. Without the convenience or skill of English, I struggle to communicate. Yet, even if we both spoke my native language, what would I say?

Small talk (best achieved by asking questions and listening) is a skill I pride myself on. Usually, the questions I ask are shaped by my understanding of the other’s lifestyle. How was your weekend? Did you watch the finals game yesterday? Are your kids excited for vacation? But what questions do you ask when you have little understanding of another’s life?

All I can infer about Elizabeth is that she leads a life of faith, dedicating her life to God through vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Constrained by language and lifestyle, it is moments like this where the singularity of lived experiences are on full display. It’s in the obvious; I’ve experienced 22 years and she has experienced 77. It’s in the present; I’m traveling for occupation and she’s traveling for family and faith. It’s in the future; Elizabeth will live a faithful life absolved from material possessions, and I will not.

The questions left to ask must acknowledge these differences. Regardless of the different paths chosen, even one’s mundanity is another’s novelty.

Once the plane is in the air, I eventually resort to asking Elizabeth where she’s been. Argentina and Spain she tells me. “That’s where I learned my Spanish. And you? Your Spanish is good, where did you learn how to speak?

“I learned Spanish in school. But, I didn’t learn French.” Jokingly, I look at my watch and add, “Only 9 hours to learn.”

Elizabeth tosses her head back and laughs. A universal noise. “You’ll need more than 9 hours to learn.”, she says as she reaches into her habit pocket (habits have pockets?), removes a Bible and a piece of notebook paper.

30,000 feet in the sky, amongst the cloud and over the Atlantic, a Belgian Nun teaches a young man French in Spanish. With her left hand she props open the Bible and with the right she dictates psalm 17 on a line, and translates it directly below.

Je t’aime seigneur ma force

Yo te amo, Señor, mí fuerza

Syllable by syllable, she enunciates the prayer and I follow suit. The sounds, unfamiliar to both Spanish and English often stump me, but Elizabeth patiently corrects my pronunciations. She points to her lips and tells me to watch. Some sounds seemingly identical, are distinguished by the shape of the mouth. The “r” sound I learn, originates from the back of the throat, like a gargle of sorts.

For several hours, the lessons continue. We finish by practicing sounds and numbers, until eventually, dinner appears. We share a meal and for the remainder of the flight mostly keep to ourselves, cycling between sleeping and brief conversations.

After nearly nine hours of flight, we land in Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport with the rising sun. As we deplane, I help Elizabeth with her belongings; two large backpacks and several tote bags stuffed with blankets and fabric, while also juggling my things.

After we pass through customs, I receive a phone call from my colleague looking for me to convene with the entire group. It’s now time to bid my new friend farewell.

“Thank you for teaching me French. Have a safe trip home, and happy birthday to your mother!”

Elizabeth thanks me for helping her and holds out her hand.

Among us, the rest of the airport continued to move. Families huddled around pillars and couples embraced one another. Luggage in hand, a few individuals weaved through traffic, while others floated aimlessly. In the airport where Elizabeth and I said our farewells, many first were certainly happening; the first time in France, the first missed flight, and the first time traveling alone.

The awe behind the singularity of lived experiences is that they’re ours to experience and ours to share. Through questions, these lived experiences can transfer across people, generations even, with a little curiosity and kindness. However, despite the uniqueness of each our experiences, they can still share the same time and place.

I take Elizabeth’s silent offer and place my hand within hers. She closes her eyes, delivers a prayer in Spanish, and draws the sign of the cross on my forehead. Amongst the clamor of everyone’s first, I barely catch Elizabeth’s last lesson.

“Keep the paper I gave you. Regardless of the language, that’s the word of God. Whether it’s Spanish, French, or English the meaning remains true.

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