Notes from the Other Side of the Looking Glass
A Discussion of Questions
Where to begin? According to King, I should begin at the beginning and go on until I come to the end, and then stop. So here is the beginning: a much younger version of myself picking up a copy of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” Though I was too young to understand most (if not all) of the allegories and allusions, I loved the sheer nonsense and logical illogic of it all. These two books reside deep in the whimsical heart of my imagination, somewhere next to my enduring belief in Santa Claus and the inherent kindness of humanity. Because of these books, I will always taste the cake that says “Eat me.” I can believe in at least six impossible things before breakfast. In fact, I think this mix of curiosity and childlike acceptance of the bizarre that I try to live by explains why I went abroad. For what is life in Toulouse if not a daily challenge to try new things and to look at the world in a completely different way?
The parallel between my life here and Lewis Carroll’s mad, mad world is best described as a Venn diagram. No, I have not seen any chain-smoking caterpillars or mimsy Jabberwockies in these past few months. But when you take a look at what overlaps, there is indeed a striking similarity between the two: the staggering amount of questions asked. The books are full of them—almost every interaction demands some sort of explication, no matter how illogical and fantastical that answer turns out to be.
The same holds true in Toulouse. Of course, being in a foreign country and culture requires a certain amount of inquisitiveness necessary for survival. But I’ve discovered that my questions go far beyond the expected inquiries regarding food, bathrooms, and final exams. The reason for this is simple: I realized early on that, even in English, I am terrible at starting conversations. Therefore, to compensate for this considerable handicap (or overcompensate, as I would soon learn), I started asking random questions. If you could be any animal, which one would you choose? Which superpower would you like to have? Pirate or ninja? And so on.
This habit quickly became problematic because it conflicts with the French sense of privacy. To give you a cultural crash course, there is a pervasive allegiance to the implicit in French society—that is to say, they value above all things the ambiguous and the indirect. And there lies the problem. Although everyone I asked dutifully answered my questions (most likely due to pity for the bizarre American), I might as well have been the Mad Hatter at the end of the tea party, trying to fit the Dormouse in the kettle and demanding to know why a raven is like a writing desk.
In spite of myself, I have not become a social pariah (ah, the kindness of humanity). I am glad, however, that I spent as much time as I did asking these kinds of questions because I’ve learned (albeit the hard way) a lot about the French world view. Much like Alice, the questions and the answers themselves are not as important as the experience of asking them. For all of the questions she asks about the events of Wonderland, Alice is able to accept from the start what has taken me almost three months to learn. The point of asking questions is not necessarily to obtain an answer. Having the courage to admit ignorance or curiosity is not easy, but doing so is an important step in understanding the world around and within us.
The poet Ranier Maria Rilke described it best: “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
And now we have come to the end of the article, so it is time to stop. Be a dear and pass me a tart and a cup of tea, if you please.