Here, I am a bit of an enigma.
In French, owing to a lack of vocabulary, I speak ambiguously about “people” in “places” who told me “things”. When speaking generally I forgo the widely-used “one” and instead say “they”, which generates the image of a secret, shadowy group that dictates my every move. I am lost in time, perplexed by the 24-hour French clock. I can’t remember how long I’ve been here and speak of indefinite time periods, saying that things happened il n’y a pas longtemps or “not long ago.”
I say “okay” when the answer should have been “yes” or “no”, I hold up the lines in the supermarkets because I didn’t know I had to weigh my bananas beforehand.
I draw the eyes of people in the street because they look at me and know that I am neither white nor North African. When people stop me in the street to ask me where I am from, I say, “Jamaican-Canadian”, which seems to create more questions than it answers, as it’s a combination nobody here has really considered before.
I have not met any other Canadians, or even Americans. Other than rumors circulating about a boy from Idaho named “Sam,” I seem to be the sole representative for the entire continent. What a load to bear.
The Machine ate my Money
The laundry is halfway across the residence complex, and on top of that, it costs a whopping 3 euros (almost $6 CDN) to wash and dry. When at last I find the laverie, I toss down my heavy bag of clothes in submission. I notice that only one washing machine is empty. In retrospect, this should have been a red flag.
I put in my clothes and insert my money into the slot. Nothing happens.
I call up the front desk of my residence. “The machine ate my money,” I tell the man on the other end, in as best French as I can muster in my exhaustion. That was almost $4 CDN.
“Ah, yes, but you see, I cannot do much, me. You will need to call the emergency number written on the wall.”
“This is an emergency?”
“Well, I would assume so? You are there, your clothes are there, you cannot wash them, I cannot help you, the machine has taken your money. Yes, definitely an emergency.”
When I call, the phone blares in English: The number you are trying to reach is not available at this time. Please try again later.
I redial the front desk. “Yes, me again. There was no response,” I say.
“Ah, but I don’t know what you want me to do, unfortunately I am here, and you are there, and I have no cash register to reimburse you. We do not manage the laundry, you see. It is an outside company. They deal with the washers. They deal with the machine. You will just have to call the number. I don’t know what you want me to do—”
“One second,” I say, and hang up to put an end to his tirade. A guy a little older than me has come into the laundry room.
“The machine ate my money,” I say in lieu of a greeting.
“It doesn’t work,” he says simply. He points at the machine. “Millions of euros probably. Stolen.”
“But the number—”
“The number doesn’t work. There is no one there,” he says ominously, eyes wide. “If you knock on the machine, I am sure you can hear the mice running.”
“What?” I say, taking his French too literally.
“It was a joke.”
Grumpily, I put my clothes in another washer and imagine sinister men coming in the dead of night to empty the machine, collecting sackfuls of coins that have gone nowhere.
A cappuccino with a side of soap
I made the mistake of trying out a 4-hour long course called “The History of Modern Provence” which should have been called: “The History of the Marseillaise Soap Industry and Please Make Sure You Bring a Pillow.” My eyes were closing throughout the whole thing, and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been that tired in my life.
When the professor mercifully allowed us a 10-minute break, myself and two English-speaking friends stumbled toward the student restaurant. I realized then that I’d forgotten my wallet, but my new friend from Berlin offered to pay.
“What would you like?” the cashier asked.
“Coffee,” I blurted.
“Normale ou cappuccino ?”
“Cappuccino,” I said, picking arbitrarily.
And there I was, downing a cappuccino after having spent my entire life telling people I didn’t drink coffee, balking at the very prospect of the drink, crinkling my nose at the smell, saying No thank you, but I prefer tea. This time, somehow, I ordered a coffee without hesitation. Something switched inside me right then and I drank the whole thing.
I am always stunned by the dynamism of human beings, how quickly we can change.
How we can move countries or change our names or learn languages. Or drink coffee when we are not coffee drinkers.
Back in class, I am awake, and decide to participate.
“What else do you notice about this piece?” the professor asks.
I raise my hand, trying not to think about how my accent will sound to the class of French-speakers. “He talks about morality. That they think only about themselves.”
“And?” the professor asks.
“Uh,” I say in English, starting to panic.
“I need concrete examples.”
I quickly scan the page and read out a passage. “…que leur intérêt personnel, sans consideration pour le sort à venir des propriétaires infortunés d’une contrée à trois quarts ruinée—”
“Thank you,” he says. That seems to have satisfied him.
I look around at the class, hoping to see, in the eyes of my peers, evidence that they either understood or didn’t. Everyone is looking at their pages and they don’t seem confused, or ridiculing. No one is laughing. I feel a wave of relief and am prouder of myself in that moment than I have been in a long while. It’s then that I realize this was one of the hardest days of my life so far – finding the campus and the classroom, navigating the French administrative system, feeling all eyes on me, yet being brave and participating – and that I’ve survived.
Myself and a friend are walking back to the residence. Night is falling.
“When I was backpacking around New Zealand, I never told my parents I was going skydiving,” she confesses.
“I know. My mom was glad I didn’t tell her. She said she wouldn’t have let me go.”
To be 20 is to be doing, right now, all the things we’ll refer to offhandedly for the rest of our lives. Like going on exchange. Or skydiving. Things that demarcate a before and after.
“How was it?”
“I went through a cloud. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I just saw this solid thing beneath me.” She places her hands on her cheeks, her eyes lighting up. “And then I went through it, and there were a thousand hard, tiny rain droplets on my face.”
If you can’t beat ‘em, type up a strongly-worded sign
I print out a piece of paper that says “EN PANNE” and below it, write in English, “OUT OF ORDER,” and tape it to the broken washing machine. Damned if the thing eats anyone else’s money.