Sylvia Grove is a Current PhD student of French language and literature at the University of Pittsburgh (and current undergraduate French instructor); bloggist (paindecampagne.wordpress.com) and freelance writer. She is also one of the few people who can testify to my marching band greatness; she was in pit percussion with me at Shippensburg Area Senior High School back in the day. One thing I love about Sylvia is that she is extremely thoughtful about interactions and about her life. I love talking to her, because she gives time and space to the discussion and really engages her mind before responding. And I think that holds true for how Sylvia responds to life – especially traveling – always thoughtful, always listening, always looking for that next good cup of coffee.
Q; You are pretty deeply involved in your studies. What surprises you about life where you are now, in Pittsburgh, studying French literature?
SG: In terms of literature, I am surprised at its implications. My studies encompass French literature from the Middle Ages (before France was really a nation) to the present, and I am amazed by the themes of love, loss, and power that continually reoccur as individuals work out the messy, the mundane, and the beautiful in their lives. I’ve always been drawn to journalism or creative nonfiction—my favorite genre—due to its ability to paint and explore the tensions of modern life, but the study of literature, too, is the study of people. I’ve found that studying literature at Pitt links me to a larger concept of humanity, which I did not expect—I thought I’d just be reading old books all day.
In terms of where I am in life, I am surprised that life is still a process and not a destination. This was a mantra that my friend and I came up with when we hiked portions of the Western Front from Belgium into France in 2010. I spent half our journey being incredibly frustrated with the daily grind of putting one foot in front of the other, and my friend graciously reminded me that all of life is about movement instead of ending points. When we’re younger, especially as women, I think we’re given so many conceptions about how life is just a to-do list to check off: college, husband, children, house. But what would our life be if we were meant to finish it at age 30?
Being a student again after having held a full-time job with a full-time salary—and being an instructor to undergraduate students— has better helped me realize that all of life is the alternation between learning and teaching, giving and receiving.
Q: Tell me what you have learned from all your travels.
SG: I grew up on a dairy farm in central Pennsylvania, but since 2005, I’ve been to France, England, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Trinidad, and Chile for work, school, study, or travel. While it sounds exotic (and was), the experience of traveling is also terrifying, since many of those trips were taken due to standby flights (when you’re not guaranteed a seat) and since I approached new places with the hope of finding real relationships, people, and lives. Traveling with the hope of going beyond the tourist sites takes a depth of vulnerability regarding yourself and others that can be incredibly rewarding.
Traveling has also taught me the fluidity of what I assume to be normal. When I first left the United States in 2000 to visit my cousins in Holland, for example, I was most shocked that the light switches were different but that gravity felt the same. After a few more trips abroad, I was able to apply this sense of difference and sameness to people and reflect on how vast and beautiful this world is.
While not everyone has the opportunity to travel so deliberately, the type of destabilization is what I try to pass on to my students through the study of language to display that what we think we know is often more complex than we assume.
Q: What does everyone in the world need to know?
SG: I wish I could tell everyone to better listen without passing judgment. So many social ills take place when we’re not hearing the smallest voices—right or wrong—and so much relief is given when the unheard perspectives are acknowledged as legitimate. Listening and expressing are two of the biggest influencing factors in the way that I write and teach.
Q: What inspires you?
SG: I’m a foodie and a former dancer, so on a simple level, the ability to dance or to share a well-crafted meal is enough to move me to tears if I let it. However, on a complex level, I’m most inspired by moments that I’ve failed. Since we’re talking about traveling, I’m most inspired by the moment that I ran up to the gate in Paris, had lost my carry on, and missed the flight—and then realized that I’d simply take the flight the next day. I’m most inspired by dragging myself into a campground in northern France after having backpacked all day in 100-degree heat—only to have a stranger duck into her caravan and bring me out a bottle of water and a glass of ice cubes. So much of life is spent worrying about failure that it astounds me that rock-bottom moments actually pass and that I’m better, not worse, for the wear. These are the most humbling experiences I carry with me.