On the Passage of Time

I move to clip up the lock of hair that normally escapes when I tie my curls into a bun. I am left grasping at empty air. The hair has grown and is now caught by the hair tie. I set the bobby pin down on the desk before me.

This is how time passes. (Subtly, while you are not watching.)

On the first day of my internship this summer, they took my photo for my key card. I looked down at the picture and hardly recognized myself. My face, settling into adulthood, with all these features I never noticed!

This is how time passes.

At 21, time is chopped into neat segments. University, internship, university, internship, and so on. Things are constantly starting and ending.

And at the end, I always find myself back in my father’s car. Back in my childhood bedroom, where my bookshelf towers over me like a record of my life. Here, I will briefly recover until I am ready to launch myself, inevitably, back into the beginnings and ends of things, back into the world.

A Little Less Young

There are three days left of my latest communications internship.

I’ve always sat in the wrong department, so it’s the Portfolio Management team that

buzzes around my desk.

Today, they are all talking at once, all around me,

their voices interspersed by the gentle classical music that comes in through my earbuds,

which creates an interesting effect:

Dawn by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, overlaid by older

male voices

passionately discussing concepts I don’t understand.

I become briefly melancholic, the music and voices growing quiet. I think about how with every internship,

with every day, I become a little

less

young.

I Guess I’ll Write About the Little Things

I.

At my new job downtown, people speak only in buzz words.

I start to keep a list. I quickly discover that their favourite expression is “high-level overview.” As in: “Marisa, we’re going to give you a tour of the office. Sort of a high-level overview.” This is funny: any sort of overview is – by nature of it being an overview –  high-level.

When I get home after my first day, my mother bursts into the room like sunshine. If you don’t know my mother, she is: a grin that takes up a good portion of her face, freckles, hair caught in a bun. She is: eyebrows set high on her face like everything is interesting. She is: a tinge of an accent, and a habit of referring to every man as “fella”.

“How was your first day?” she asks.

“Would you like a high-level overview?” I say.

“Of course.”

I consider this, placing a finger on my chin. “I did nothing and nothing happened.”

“Sounds like a low-level overview to me.”

“Katya,” I say, turning to my sister. “Give me a high-level overview of that sandwich you’re eating. And a bite.”

 

II.

What there is left to write about, when the exchange is over? When life is predictable and there are no longer surprises at every turn?

Let me tell you! There is a beauty in familiarity. In the noncommittal rain that falls over the Toronto streets. Outside the train, I watch the overcast skies turn the foliage a deep green. Small lavender flowers peek out through the brush.

I’ll write about the little things; about the man who greeted his wife and small daughter at the train station. He crouched down, hugged her and chatted to her animatedly. She was wearing sunglasses too big for her face and a pink sunhat. He then kissed her on the cheek, and kissed his wife, and then kissed her pregnant, bulging belly, and the whole group sought cover under the shelter, so the little girl could press her nose against the glass and watch the train whisk by.

I’ll write about the little things.

 

III.

After living in Europe, all prices seem deceptively low. I have developed the nasty habit of flinging my money at things: shoes, subway sandwich, phone case.

Compared to my life abroad, I feel like a princess. There is never any urgency to ensure my own survival. When I was away, if I didn’t take steps to go to the grocery store and cook something I would likely die.

But at home, barbecue chicken is always made à la Daddy, and Those Bagels I Like are bought consistently. My sister need only breathe the word cheeto and a bag will miraculously appear in the cupboard.

My fridge in France was almost always empty, with only Camembert, a single egg (rotten, probably) and an industrial-sized bottle of iced tea. The fridge at my parents’ house is so full to the brim I saw the cream cheese exactly once and never again. I suspect it is lost to the world.

Things have back to normal and life has resumed its ambling pace. I no longer have to jump through hoops to do anything administrative. Stores are open for twice as long as they were in France, with no endless midday lunch break. Sending a letter is no longer a spectacle. And by the grace of God I am able to order hawaiian pizza.

But things have changed while I was away. Minimum wage jumped to a whopping $14 an hour, and the prices of everyday goods rose as well. Recently, the family purchased a black lab-border collie cross that likes to use the furniture like a chew toy. He probably thinks his name is “no, no, no,” or “sit, sit, sit,” or “please stop biting me,” because that’s all we seem to say to him. (The puppy’s name, in reality, is Ziggy.)

At work, I am only one of two people in the office who speak French, and in short order, am given the opportunity to translate into French for the company. That was quick, I think, but the need for the language is palpable. I suppose this bodes well for me.

I am a newly-minted bilingual, eager to speak and write. Sometimes I forget the whole thing, the whole exchange. I open my mouth and am stunned all over again that it’s French that comes out.

 

IV.

Working downtown is an exercise in anonymity. I often feel as though I leave my identity at the train station and recover it at the end of the day.

I am almost embarrassed by how little people seem to care about one another on the train. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the book’s pivotal moment is one where Briony, the main character, realizes that everyone is living a life just a complex and as vivid as hers: “…the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense…”

I wonder what the People On The Train would think of this.

At the office, I once caught my fingers in the hinge of one of the heavy doors. Be careful, my mother would have said. Those are your piano fingers. But when I look up, I realize no one has seen this small tragedy. No one here knows that I play the piano, either. I run my fingers under cold water in the staff bathroom and feel inexplicably lonely.

 

V.

The exchange is not “over”. The whole thing was so vivid that at times I feel I am still living it. I suppose it has to be that way. The drawback (or upside, you choose) of travel is that you leave little pieces of yourself everywhere. At the back of my mind I think about how I have spread my life across Europe, Canada and Jamaica, like peanut butter on toast. Spread it too thin it won’t taste like anything.

Or maybe life is not peanut butter. Maybe peanut butter is peanut butter and life is life.

I will always be stunned by the difference between my parents’ lives and mine. Their friends, family, and nearly everyone they had ever known – was limited to a single island with roughly the population of Toronto. I’m not sure what that’d be like.

 

VI.

I step out of my office building and the sun hits me, hard. I am in dress pants with a key card clipped to the waistline, masquerading as an adult. I don’t know what worries me more: the possibility that this fools no one, or that it fools everyone. Downtown bustles around me, always busy, always late for something.

The smell of food hangs in the air like a good idea.

MC

“If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” What it means to grow up with black hair in a white neighbourhood

“If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, they’re not happy.” —Paul Mooney


 

In business class one day, one of my closest high school friends eyed me strangely. “I just don’t really like the texture,” she said.

She was talking about my hair. It was the kind of jab that I never saw coming.

“What do you expect me to do about that?” I asked. My hair had just been straightened. I clamped my hands down on my head self-consciously, trying to smooth it. What more could I have done?

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging, and turned back to the work the teacher had assigned.

 

I. Introduction

Throughout my adolescence, everyone seemed to have an opinion on my hair, and it was almost always negative.

Owing to slavery and a complex history of oppression and marginalisation of blacks, black hair has always been seen as unkempt and unusual. Society’s aversion to black hair goes far beyond the scope of this essay. But comprehensive studies are not necessary to see the effects of these social norms. Stop a little black girl on the street and ask what kind of hair she wants. (Please don’t, but I think you know where I am going with this.) I will bet you any money that she will tell you: straight hair.

“Your hair is nappy,” our many stylists would tell myself and my sister. “It’s hard hair. Thick. Difficult to comb.”

“Do you wash your hair?” our friends at school would ask. This was humiliating. Of course we did, but why did we constantly need to affirm it?

“Why does it do that? It’s so strange.” Exhausted and embarrassed, I would tell them that my hair was very curly and this was how curly hair acted.

“Can it grow?”

“It’s so different, your hair.”

“Why don’t you just wear it out? I don’t think I’ve ever seen your hair down.”

“Can I touch it?

“Your hair is just like velcro,” said a girl on my street.

There was a game we used to play outside, with two velcro paddles and a felt ball, which you would throw to try to get it to stick to the paddle. What she had said was not a compliment, and it chafed me that she found my hair so strange, even at 9 years old.

She said, “What if I—?”

She approached me and I took a step back, but I was too slow, and the velcro paddle came down, fast, onto my braids. Just as she had expected, the paddle stuck to my strands, and she tore it off with a sharp, ripping noise. “Cool,” she said.

“Ow,” I said, my eyes filling with tears.

 

II. Change

When I was a child living in the Caribbean, my hair was coaxed into neat braids by the many nannies or “helpers”—as we say in Jamaica—that doted on my sister and I throughout our childhood. Cornrows or twists in elaborate designs. We cried every time we got them done, because they were so tight, but we quickly learned that this was necessary to look presentable. The image of a young black girl sitting between an older lady’s legs, rubbing her eyes, is not unusual, and is actually depicted in a lot of black artwork. “Beauty is pain” has always been the resounding lesson.

For myself and my sister, moving to Canada at ages 7 and 5 meant leaving our beloved helpers, more like aunties to us by then, behind. For the first time, it was my mother who sat us between her legs and attempted to plait our hair. She really did try, but taking care of black hair is complicated, and her hair, like that of many black women, had been relaxed since she was in her late teens. Young girls always believe their mothers are the most beautiful women in the world, and of course, we want nothing more than to look like them. I wanted nothing more than to look like my mother. And her hair was relaxed straight.

With society reinforcing this standard of beauty, there is no reason for young black girls to think their hair is beautiful. Think about it: when was the last time you saw a black hair product advertised in mainstream media? When was the last time you flicked through a magazine and saw a model with natural hair? Where are the black hair how-to’s in magazines like Cosmopolitan, as they have for white hair?

My mother quickly passed us off to professional stylists. We got our hair braided by a woman in Toronto, and would smile tearfully into the mirror when it was all over. We could ask for anything and Aleisha would do it with flair: zigzag patterns, twisting swirls, braided or twisted ponytails.

We dutifully wrapped our hair in satin scarves to preserve the shine. My parents paid inordinate sums for these styles, and wherever our stylist moved we followed her, no matter how far she relocated to in the city, no matter where she moved to—even once getting our hair done in a pretty dangerous part of Toronto—owing to the lack of women who could do our hair.

~

Once, our hairstylist did something a bit outlandish with my sister’s braids. The result was strange. “It looks…” my mother said.

“I was trying something different.”

My mother was not amused. We were paying a lot for the style.

“Should I do it over?”

My mother bit her lip. My sister’s face was twisted in indignation. She was what stylists would call “tender-headed,” which meant she would cry easily at the tightness of the braids. And I could see that her scalp was already red and sore. I watched the standoff closely, feeling horrible for her but feeling—cruelly—relieved that it wasn’t me. I couldn’t imagine sitting in that chair twice in one evening, having the whole thing done again.

“She can’t wear it outside like that,” my mother said.

“Beauty is pain,” Aleisha said, and started all over again. My sister bawled.

 

III. Assimilation

We eventually outgrew the braids and, like most black girls, we relaxed our hair—me at age 12, and my sister at age 10. My sister’s hair texture was looser than mine, and so her relaxed hair was straighter. I looked at my own tresses in the mirror, still quite curly, and started to cry. I wanted my hair as straight as hers. I felt less beautiful.

I started to come to school with my new straightened, relaxed hair. “Your hair looks great,” people would say.

“I like your hair better that way,” people would say, meaning, ‘straight.’ They did not know that the harsh lye could sometimes cause the scalp to ooze pus and scab if it was left on too long. It made it hard to sleep, the first night after.

To give myself a break, I tried occasionally to wear my curls, but the relaxer had stretched them into strange shapes that were not uniform.

“It’s interesting,” people would say at my attempt.

My processed hair was limp and couldn’t grow past my shoulders, and was so weak it would break off. When we went swimming, people liked to comment on how strange it looked wet. But the relaxed hair could be easily straightened, and when it was straight it was beautiful. Everyone said so.

~

For years, my sister and I would hand our stylists as much as $150 at a time to relax our roots. We did this for picture day, school dances, special events. Just before I relaxed my hair, I would run my fingers over curly roots and think they felt sort of nice. Soft, but strong. Shiny. Healthy. I wondered vaguely what they would look like all over my head. And then I would go to the salon and relax them into submission, the curls disappearing as quickly as they appeared.

Beauty was straight hair.

When my hair was straightened I felt a satisfaction I cannot explain to you. I looked in the mirror and felt, at once, older, more attractive. I stood out a little less. (This was in high school, you know, before we realized that the things that made us different were the things that made us interesting.) Relaxing was $70 every time, and periodic hair straightenings were $35. We have never calculated our hair expenditure but I will do that here, now. $3500 between my mother, sister, and I, every year.

But we paid the money, as so many black families do.

In high school, I tried everything to blend in, trying desperately to brush my hair flat and sometimes retreating to the washroom in the middle of class to make sure the style held. Somehow my beauty was in constant flux, prone to sudden decrease depending on how my hair decided to act that day, sticking up in ways my white friends weren’t used to (but that black hair tends to.) I would flat twist the front of my hair and try to coax it into styles that my hair did not want to be in—ponytails, for example—styles that were not meant for black people. I figured out how to tie a neat bun and wore my hair this way for much of my adolescence. My hair began to take up disproportionate space in my mind. I was constantly worried people were looking, or that my hair had freed itself from my very deliberate bun.

Like many, in the tumult of adolescence, I would sometimes find myself unhappy for reasons I could not explain. So, if I was feeling low, I would try to trace back the emotion to the root source, and this worked swimmingly, making me more self-aware over time, and more conscious of the things bothered me most. Sometimes, I could trace my unease back to something someone had said earlier on in the day, but most often my mood was directly correlated with how my hair looked that day.

If it was straight, I was upbeat, and felt beautiful. If it wasn’t, the day seemed gloomier, and I was unhappy. This was what it came down to.

~

As high school went on, it became annoying to try to outline the fundamentals of kinky hair to my friends on a daily basis; everyone seemed very underexposed and I was embarrassed on their behalf, yet I still felt like I was the one doing something wrong somehow. (There were so few black kids in my high school that it was very easy to feel like the odd one out.)

“My hair is so frizzy today, it looks like an afro,” my non-black friends would say, frowning into the mirror in the washroom. Or: “With this humidity my hair puffs up like an afro.” The word afro always had a negative connotation, and I wondered if they realized that’s what my hair was: afro-textured. I thought their complaints ridiculous, and felt a mild resentment and jealousy that they could roll out of bed and wear their hair as it was.

At sleepovers with our friends, my sister, and I always faced a dilemma with regard to our satin scarves. It was a cultural norm tying them on at night, and we felt strange without them. Tying your hair with satin not only maintains whatever style you’re trying to wear but also prevents harsh rubbing and breakage from cotton pillowcases. But at sleepovers, we didn’t want to make our white friends uncomfortable. So, sometimes we wore our scarves, but most times we didn’t.

 

IV. Realization

Owing to the racial make-up of our neighbourhood, my sister and I had very few black friends growing up, so the people we talked to the most about our hair was our family. At family gatherings, we would quickly start in on hair talk. What we were doing, what products we were using. Trading ideas. Some family friends would complain they suspected they had been passed over for jobs because of their hairstyles, and vowed never to enter the interview room with their natural hair again. This is not a new thing.

But I soon grew tired of the straight look. I tried everything, from roller sets to rod sets to braid-outs and twist-outs. I tried to curl it like my white friends did, which just did not work. To educate myself about my hair, I watched YouTube videos and bought reams of black hair products, which, in my predominantly white town, were expensive and hard to come by. Black hair products are much more expensive than white hair products and are scarce; we would sometimes crisscross the city in search of them.

My mother was on the receiving end of many of my anxieties. “I can’t do anything with my hair!” I cried, brandishing my flatiron and comb like weapons. “I just need one style! One style I can wear!”

She would shrug. “Oh, Marisa.”

“Why don’t you just embrace the natural look?” my father would say.

“It’s just not that simple,” I would hiss. But then again, what was simpler than wearing your hair the way it grew out of your scalp?

~

Someone—I can’t remember who—recommended I watch the music video for “I Am Not My Hair,” by India.Arie, and was instantly struck by the lyrics.

Hey (hey)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations, no (hey)
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am the soul that lives within

[…]

Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair make me a better friend? Oh
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)
I am expressing my creativity
(Whoa, whoa, whoa)

This, to me, was a new concept. For the first time, I considered my hair as an entity separate from myself—a simple accessory, rather than a sign of my worth. I had radical ideas, then, about individuality and inherent value. Who was I without my hair? What if my hair was short? Or gone? Would I still consider myself a woman? Would I still consider myself beautiful?

I came to the conclusion that I could never be truly happy if I continued to hate this part of myself.

But could I really wear my hair natural? All throughout my life, stylists had been telling me that my hair had to be relaxed. It was hard hair, tough hair, nappy hair. Impossible to handle. And after almost a decade of relaxing my hair, I had all but forgotten what my natural hair looked and felt like. I began to go through old photos to try and gauge the texture. The situation soon gained new relevance: at university, the cost of relaxing my hair along with textbooks and groceries was starting to weigh me down.

By the mid-2010s, the natural hair movement was in full force, and my friends and family were all getting swept up in the wave. One of my Aunts stopped relaxing her hair. Watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, I pointed out to my sister that all the black characters were wearing their satin scarves before bed.

“It’s different. Accurate,” I said to her. “I like it.”

I watched Chris Rock’s “Good Hair” documentary, outlining the ins and outs of the 700-billion-dollar industry hinged on the self-consciousness of black women. I began to realize that the black struggle for beautiful hair was symptomatic of a larger issue, and that I believed my natural hair was ugly and hard to handle not because it actually was, but that’s what society was pushing me to believe.

Now aware of these invisible, societal structures, I tried to educate people when they’d say something offensive about my hair.

“How often do you wash it anyway? Once a week?” one of the girls in my residence building had been talking to my roommate and now addressed me.

I furrowed my brow. “Actually, if I washed my hair every day as you do with yours, it would dry it out, because the oils don’t travel down curly hair shafts as quickly as they might on straight hair. So once or twice a week is good.” I even forwarded her a link to a webpage explaining this.

But even this became tiring. When, in second year, a roommate asked the same question, I merely said, “Yeah. Once or twice a week,” and retreated to my room.

 

V. Transition

In March of 2016, at age 19, I relaxed my hair for the last time.

At the time, I wasn’t trying to reclaim my identity or anything. I just decided I didn’t like paying almost $100 a month for it anymore. I had also begun to suspect that relaxers had to have negative health effects, and had done a bit of research. I read some unsettling articles about the links between hair relaxers and long-term illnesses such as reproductive problems, fibroids, heart disease, cognitive disorders, cancers, early puberty, altered immune systems or even blindness. It felt ridiculous to pay so much to potentially hurt myself.

“You’ll regret it,” my stylist back in Toronto said. “You have hard hair.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

Having two hair textures—relaxed and natural—is not easy. The hair is extremely weak at the “line of demarcation” (where the two textures meet) and breaks violently. I could have cut off the relaxed ends in one fell swoop but I was scared; scared of cutting my hair too short and shedding, with it, my femininity. So, I bought a pair of trimming scissors and cut the ends off slowly, struggling to blend the two hairstyles during this transition period. My family followed my hair journey with mild amusement, but also with interest.

Sometimes, in desperation, I considered relaxing my hair. And this, I suppose, is why they call it the creamy crack, likening it to the highly addictive drug.

“If you’re not going to relax your hair, neither will I,” my sister said one day.

“What? You’re serious?”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling.

And later, my mother said the same thing. The Coulton women were going natural, and I was thrilled. But how long would it last?

“Have you found a hairdresser in France?” a family friend asked repeatedly. “What are you going to do with your hair in France?”

By the time I arrived in France for my full year academic exchange in September 2017, I was almost completely natural, with only an inch of relaxed hair left. And then one day I sat in front of the mirror and cut off the remaining silky ends. I looked back at myself, at my afro, and felt actual fear. There were no curls, just frizz, just as my many stylists had warned me. I figured it was only a matter of time before I relaxed it again.

I watched a YouTube video to try and figure out what to do with my hair. The woman demonstrated how to very gently define and detangle the curls. Not many black girls are taught how to handle their natural hair like this—how to properly take care of it.

I used the technique outlined in the video and sat in front of the mirror, examining the result.

It was beautiful. I had dark ringlets that sprung back vibrantly when tugged on. When I brushed it back, my hair shone. The hair was versatile and could hold any style I attempted, straight or otherwise. I knew vaguely what my natural hair looked like but not like this—not when it had been correctly styled, the proper curl creams and oils applied.

I noticed that I had the same hair texture as an acquaintance of mine. Years ago I had longed for her hair. It was really quite perverse; I knew so little about my natural hair texture that I was jealous of someone with hair exactly like mine.

I took pictures and videos and sent them to my family.

“Do you know our hair looks like this?” I said, stunned. “Our hair is beautiful; did you know this?”

 

VI. Arrival

My black hair journey is not over. Societal norms can creep into my head again, insidiously, at any moment. My natural hair seems childish, and less adult, in a way. But this feeling is fading.

My sister and I still get silly questions. I was recently asked if my hair actually grows. Then, later, I was told it “wasn’t even hair” and that it had a “three-dimensional quality,” which was particularly scathing.

In her first year of university, my sister was asked in a room full of people whether she washed her hair. She decided not long after to transfer universities, citing that her peers were just too underexposed, in more ways than one. Our university is outside of Toronto, in a small town. I fully support her decision.

I am beyond thinking that black hair is just hair, now. In fact, natural hair is a political statement, and a marked deviation from social norms.

When it comes to styling our hair, the issue is a lack of knowledge transfer as well as misunderstanding on all sides. The story is almost always the same: our mothers relaxed their hair for their entire lives and therefore are limited in their ability to teach us how to handle our natural tresses. Black haircare requires a measure of technique and patience.

The prevalence of relaxer-use in the black community is not linked to relaxer brands and beauty supply stores, but rather a lack of understanding about black hair, a lack of representation of our hair in the media. But most of all, it lies in perverted beauty standard branching from a buried history. It lies in the Caucasian, Euro-centric ideal that dominates our magazines and televisions, which translates to a lack of knowledge transfer in the black community and apathy toward proper styling techniques.

~

For the first time, I posted a picture of my natural hair on social media. Ironically enough, the first person to compliment my hair was the same friend from high school who, in business class one day, pointed out that she “just didn’t like the texture.”

It took some bravery to wear my curly afro out, the first time.

“Your hair is just beautiful,” a friend said immediately. “I would kill for hair like yours.”

I raised my eyebrows. My hair had a history she was not aware of, stretching back through my teenage years, to my childhood. But I accepted the compliment because she was right, it was beautiful.

 

VII. Forward

Recently, I was getting ready to go out with a friend. My hair had been straightened using a flat iron.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said, looking into the mirror, feeling uneasy for some reason. “Wait a minute.”

I stepped into the shower and washed my hair, watching my curls come back to life.

“I’m ready,” I said, after smoothing my hair into curly updo. The style was easy, taking all of 10 minutes, and so, so pretty. I couldn’t believe how I looked. I wanted to go back in time and tell my younger self about this hair, about what it could do.

“I feel very… I feel like…” I couldn’t pin down this emotion.

“Yourself,” he offered.

“Right,” I said, smiling. “I feel like myself.” We left my apartment and pulled the door shut behind us, stepping out into the world.

MC

Many Lives

I.

At home, things are just as I remember. I take a southbound bus and find that I still have all the stops memorized. I even see faces I recognize from high school, an unlikely thing in the expansive Toronto outskirts. The sheer familiarity unnerves me; after 8 months of constant variation and challenges at every turn, my hometown seems all too predictable.

The city has remained static. I have changed.

The most obvious difference, of course, is the French language, which now flies to my tongue with relative ease. On the train one day, I speak in French with my sister to practice and she follows along, responding where she can. I read and watch movies and forget momentarily that they are not in English.

These changes in myself become even more pronounced when I spend a day back at my university campus. The last time I was here, I was a year younger and in a completely different frame of mind. It is the setting of a past life.

Looking toward the year ahead, my final year, proves daunting. I wonder: How can I do this? How can I do this without them?

 

II.

It is difficult to wrap my mind around: the friends with whom I spent every waking moment of the past 8 months are now thousands of kilometres away. Yet they have expertly woven themselves into every fibre of my being. At a family BBQ I sit by the poolside in a floral swimsuit given to me by a friend, reading a book in French she has given me, as well. Earlier in the day I listened to a playlist she recommended—I cannot extract myself from our intermingled existences and I am not sure I want to.

Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding is aired on the television and upsets me for some reason. It takes me a while to realize that it is the English accents that are sending me into a spiral: these people, on the television, sound like many of the friends I have left behind.

 

III.

At a lunch, a friend notes that I seem happier and lighter now. It is true; I am buoyed by the year abroad, held aloft by the memories. A waiter sweeps to our table and the service is friendly, sincere. It is one of the most distinct differences between France and here. Canada is, without a doubt, a customer-centred society. The customer is always right. (In France, the customer is more often than not, wrong.)

On Skype, I tell my friends, “Just remember that although I may not be there with you I am always there with you. I am thinking of you.”

I hope my friends find this idea reassuring. It is an idea as simple as it is revolutionary: that someone very far away in a city called Toronto cares deeply about them. Their voices fill my bedroom through the speaker of my laptop and it feels for a moment as though they are right next to me.

 

IV.

Sitting on the couch, despondent, with nothing within walking distance in my quiet suburb, my earlier plan to live downtown for the summer becomes not only a desire but a necessity. “I am in exile,” I tell my father. I am being dramatic and he laughs. But without a throng of friends surrounding me like a protective shield, without the thrum of the city, I am dying.

I rush to interview for jobs in Toronto. In late May it initially feels as though there are simply no relevant positions left, but I pursue a few promising leads.

While I am downtown for an interview, I message two friends who live in the area to see if they would like to get together. Both are occupied; working late. I ask another friend when she might be free and she responds: “never,” citing work, a course, and other things. Another friend says she is “booked up.” I can’t remember any friends abroad ever saying they were “booked up.” That’s four “no’s” in a row and I must refuse the urge to throw my phone at the wall.

North American society is more fast-paced, I know. People are busier. Work, regrettably, sometimes takes precedence over friendships, an issue I never faced in Europe. This is a quality of European society I have learned to appreciate. I now prioritize coffees with friends; I take time to eat. “Why don’t we sit?” I ask my sister, just as we are leaving a café with the intention of drinking our smoothies on the road. “Let’s just sit for awhile.”

I think of all the endless time spread out before me. The job I will eventually start and the school year ahead and the masters programs I will apply for, at some point. How can I do this? How can I do this without them?

At only 21 I feel I have lived many lives.

 

V.

I reunite for sushi with high school friends who have not changed, save for experimental haircuts and new boyfriends. My love for them has only grown deeper with time and space. It is lovely to have friends that have spent enough time with you to notice the intricacies of your personality.

“Marisa, you’re a little scatterbrained, you know that? Always losing your keys. It’s pretty endearing actually.”

“You’re always checking a watch that isn’t there. And then you say, oh, I guess I’m not wearing my watch today! Again and again.”

“You eat so slowly. And order so slowly.”

“You are always moved by things. That’s your personality. Always touched.”

I can’t even deny this. I am moved by my friends, near and far, and how lucky I’ve been to know them. Is it selfish to want it all? To want all of these people together in the same room, gathered around a single bottle of wine? Maybe it is too much to ask, for now.

Here is my friend, sipping her soup. My friend, who has cropped her brown curls short, who has proved time and time again that she will never leave my side. Here, we pick up where we left off as though no time has passed. I have friends across three continents: Oceania and Europe and right in front of me.

I wolf down a roll of yam sushi and smile, looking at my friends talking animatedly over one another, and a Samuel Beckett quote springs to mind:

I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

 

MC

#15 Baggage Limit Exceeded

Before I’m set to leave I realise
There is no space in my suitcases for the friends
and the memories

Everything is so full!
And the luggage is already
overweight (as usual).

I shrug.
I suppose I will have to put them in my heart.

I open myself up
and a quick scan of the organ
to ensure there is ample room, and there is.

I place them next to my family,
next to my old friends,
And wind them up with bubble wrap
To keep them intact for the bumpy ride
Home

This is so convenient!

At the airport, I won’t need to join the “things to declare” line
(Because the most valuable goods are hidden inside.)

No customs fees to pay;
In my heart they will stay.

#14 Exchange: The Final Week

I.

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Sara and I in Prague

Before I leave Europe for good, I quickly tour a few cities I have been meaning to see.

My friend and I miss our bus to Prague and take an endless detour through the German cities of Erfurt and Dresden. Once in Prague, we wander around and take in the charming architecture.

Next, we stop in Berlin and take part in a walking tour so moving that by the end we are both on the verge of tears. We find ourselves stunned and humbled by the city which is clearly very willing to accept its troubled past. Everywhere, there are remnants of the Berlin wall and stores and parks named after it, things like, “East Side Kiosk,” “Wall Park,” and so on, which I find both funny and a bit unsettling.

Berlin is unapologetically cool, boasting exclusive clubs and a thrumming, alternative vibe. As our tour guide informs us, many clubs require you to be wearing “toned-down, all-black, sport-chic” to get in, and there is one club that has never closed in 37 years. But in the evening, we decide to forgo the clubs, instead choosing to see a live performance by my favourite composer: Hans Zimmer.

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The East Side Gallery, Berlin

On the Berlin metro to the airport, our tickets turn out to be Zone A/B instead of Zone C,

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Thermal Baths in Budapest

which earns us a lovely 120 EUR fine—60 euros each.

“Schönefeld Airport is not Berlin,” the controller says, shrugging, in spite of our pleas. “Do you prefer to pay now or later?”

The last stop is Budapest—a city with the most incredible skyline I have ever seen. Everything is lit up in gold and yellow. We wade in natural thermal baths which I find extremely pleasant; they remind me of the sea.

 

II.

IMG_5169
Andrea and I in the Aix city centre

The last few days of exchange are bittersweet. In French, the adjective is partagé(e), or ‘shared,’ which I think is accurate.

I circle the residence complex and post paper ads to help sell my things. Soon enough, nearly everything is gone, half sold to different individuals and the other half sold to a Brazilian who contacts me on seeing my ad. He just moved in and has nothing, he says. He’ll take anything I’m willing to sell. He buys so much that I resort to using a spreadsheet to calculate the cost, and I end up giving him everything for a tidy little sum.

I pack, weigh, and re-weigh my luggage. I repaint my wall where I have destroyed it. I submit insurance forms I have been meaning to submit. I cancel my phone plan via letter, the only way to do it in France. But this is not the hardest part, by far. The week is peppered with difficult goodbyes.

“How’re you going?” my friend says, as she enters my apartment on the day she is set to

IMG_5261
Chaos: packing up my life

leave. She is a Londoner originally from New Zealand, and her expressions are so varied I can never trace their origins. This one is Kiwi, I think; How’re you going.

I notice that she is wearing a hat I have not seen since the very first days we met. It is a blue baseball cap that suits her sporty persona. Her hair is in its customary blond ponytail.

She hands me a card she has written. I was not expecting this. I hand her the card I have written for her that she didn’t expect, either. Mine is accompanied by photos I have developed, ones where I feel she looks happy—where we look happy.

She and I only realized how close we were only a few weeks before.

“We have a lot in common, don’t we?” she pointed out one day, as we were housesitting for a friend, cooking salmon together. I nodded, because she was right: we both had the same ideas about travel and were both relatively easygoing on that front. We both liked to cook, liked to run, liked to read. We had the same music taste: alternative rock and indie. We both played the piano at precisely the same level and had started learning an upbeat duet together. We even considered moving from the university residence into an apartment in the city to change up the experience a little.

“Well,” I say now, looking down at the pot before me, the last thing I own after having sold everything. I am boiling eggs and they have exploded in the water. I start to cry. “Don’t mind me. These aren’t tears. They’re from the… egg fumes.”

We embrace and cry together. Her brother, who has come up from London to help her move out stands back, watching us knowingly as though this is not the first tearful goodbye he has seen nor the last.

She promises that we will see each other again and I believe her. In our cards we have referred to each other, independently, as best friends, which I think is sweet.

 

III.

Another good friend and I are sitting together in a café the day before I am set to leave.

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Tom, Andrea and I on my last day in Aix

“It’s going to be strange, not having you all in such close proximity,” I say. “I won’t be able to walk to your apartments.” Something breaks in me and I begin to ramble. “This is just like high school. One day you have friends and the next you just don’t—

I am referencing events that happened long ago that she cannot know. I will myself to stop. “I’ll just miss you all a lot, is all,” I say, in summary.

She is staying in France for the next few months so I hand off my English students to her as per the parents’ request, so that the kids can keep studying and working at the language.

“Remember to hound her about the past tense in English,” I say, referring to my star student. “She fences in her spare time and would like to go to a university near the sea. She’s passionate about the language. She’s so smart and doesn’t even know it. Make sure to make her laugh. In our classes we were always laughing together.”

That night we go to another friends’ apartment, where he cooks a nice risotto with asparagus. As usual, we bring the wine and dessert.

 

IV.

The father of one of my students kindly offers to take me to the airport. He lugs my

IMG_5218
Patrick and I at a goodbye dinner

suitcases, 25- and 30-kg apiece, from my apartment and places them in his car; he hauls them out of the parking garage and places them under the bus for me.

Danke schön!” I say, an expression I learned from my brief time in Berlin. It is ‘Thank you very much’ in German, his native tongue.

As the bus is pulling away from the station, toward the airport, I wonder: When is the next time I will be in this city? When is the next time I will see my friends? A thousand questions flick through my mind, and all fizzle out simultaneously because they are unanswerable. I will answer them in the weeks, maybe years, to come.

My mind flits inevitably to my parents. They immigrated years ago and left behind old friends with whom they had sat in the sunshine, drank wine, laughed with abandon. How did they find the strength to continue?

I note that poppies have sprung up all over the South of France. They have lowered their dainty heads against the impending storm: dark clouds above forecast a downpour. I do not worry for them; the poppy is a flower much more robust than it appears.

IMG_5149
Poppies in Aix

 

V.

At the airport, I get a message from the girl with whom I shared a teary goodbye.

Hey! Busy day yesterday. How did packing go? I suppose you’re getting ready to leave? Hopefully it all goes smoothly—

I stop reading because my eyes are blurring with tears and I need to read the screen above me to see what gate to walk to. There is no gate number yet.

Dammit! I think, getting unnecessarily distraught. I am upset and decide to get a cup of tea. While sitting, I empty my European bank account and am pleased to see the value explode in Canadian dollars.

On the plane, I cannot help but think about the residence complex, specifically the ads I didn’t have time to take down and the recycling I didn’t have time to sort in my rush to the airport. 6,000 kilometres away on a continent far from my own, in a small town in the South of France, I have left up four posters. I have left my recycling in front of the bins, unsorted. It is not my concern anymore. Someone will do it, eventually. But somehow I am unsettled, absurdly, by these tasks I have left undone.

My layover in Lisbon is 5 hours long. I stuff my things into a luggage locker so I can wander around. I buy a pretty postcard. When, finally, I land in Toronto, my family is there to greet me and waves frantically out the car window. They put all of my suitcases in the trunk for me, as I watch, tiredly.

Many hands make light work, I think. It will be nice not to have to do it all on my own, anymore.

IMG_5269
My apartment: cleared out!

 

VI.

The coming days will be an adjustment. I need to renew my health card. My drivers’ license has expired, too. There are doctors’ appointments to go to and dentists to see and phone lines to re-instate. There are old friends to meet with. I need to find a job for the summer, and a place in Toronto if that’s where the job takes me. I need to choose my classes for next year. I need to find a supervisor that will oversee my research.

It’s a lot to think about the first day back. Taking a baby step toward readjustment, I reluctantly switch my phone and laptop from French to English.

I have been thrust from one life into another. Soon, Aix will not be the same city I left behind. Without the exchange students I know it just won’t be the same.

“I’m beyond thinking that it’s France that made the experience great,” I told my friend in the café just the day before. “We could have been anywhere. We could have been in Mexico and it wouldn’t have mattered. It’s the people. It’s being around people that are willing to do something like this.”

“This is not goodbye,” my friend said, seeing the distress on my face. “We’re going to video chat.”

“The plane tickets aren’t that expensive. And I’m good at saving money.”

“Exactly. So why are you crying?”

I wiped my eyes. “I’m just thinking about a poem I wrote. It’s sad.” I handed my phone to her.

Before I’m set to leave I realise
There is no space in my suitcases for the friends
and the memories

Everything is so full!
And the luggage is already
overweight (as usual).

I shrug.
I suppose I will have to put them in my heart.

I open myself up
and a quick scan of the organ
to ensure there is ample room, and there is.

I place them next to my family,
next to my old friends,
And wind them up with bubble wrap
To keep them intact for the bumpy ride
Home

This is so convenient!

At the airport, I won’t need to join the “things to declare” line
(Because the most valuable goods are hidden inside.)

No customs fees to pay;
In my heart they will stay.

“It is sad,” she agreed. Her face reddened. “But lovely.”

“What should we call it?”

We named the poem together. Baggage Allowance Exceeded. It is a technical title for an experience that was decidedly un-technical and improvised. Friendship.

MC