#3 Les étrangers/the foreigners

Tips for the directionally-challenged

The first few weeks have been focused on getting established – opening bank accounts, buying insurance (health, housing, and civil liability), paying rent, enrolling in the university, buying furniture, figuring out where all the discount stores are. It hasn’t always been easy, and it has been a very stressful, very expensive process.

Team grocery shopping #teamworkmakesadreamwork #especiallywhenyoudonthaveacar

Most of all, we’ve been trying to get our bearings around the city. My little group of girlfriends are cautious, and try to stick together. We tell each other “text me when you get home” and mean it, following up if we don’t hear anything. One of us came up with a convenient way to remember the fastest route to get back to our residence from the city center.

“Gare, Spar supermarket, blue garage, stairs, bridge, home,” she offers.

I try to walk home without searching for directions on my phone. I arrive at forks in the road and try to take what I feel, instinctively, is the right path. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes I take a bus in the wrong direction and end up on the outskirts of town. Sometimes I take 40-minute detours.

Above all, I try to trust myself. One day, when I am walking home and it is dark and a little eerie, I find myself saying, “Gare, Spar supermarket, blue garage, stairs, bridge, home.”

Portrait of Aix

Girls with red lipstick and hair cropped at the shoulder with the neck of a bottle of Rosé in a chokehold.

Tall, thin boys with flippy haircuts and low-cut collared shirts, moving determinedly through the city center looking for something to do, or otherwise standing around and chain-smoking cigarettes they have rolled themselves.

Older people sitting in cafés, smoking, squinting out at passersby.

Narrow, pedestrian-only streets, with determined Clios inching carefully past. The city center, buzzing with activity at midday on a Monday.

English as a privilege

Ancient Roman thermal baths in Arles, dating back to the 4th century


You don’t need to spend a lot of time in Europe to realize that there is a very distinct privilege that comes with speaking English, which I have heard some people refer to as the modern-day lingua franca.

People hear your accent and switch immediately to English; professors translate key words into English on the white-board, assuming that most people in the class will understand. My friends accidentally speak in English to shopkeepers and receive coherent – if exasperated – responses.

Often, in a room full of foreigners, it is your language that is being spoken between individuals of different backgrounds, and you are probably one of the few that understand completely and benefit most from the conversation. It is music in your language that blares through the speakers at events. Shows and movies in your language are dubbed over and subtitled.

I can’t figure out how the French feel about this language. Some seem to switch to English with ease and energy, thrilled to have the opportunity to practice. Others are neutral and seem to take it as a necessary evil. Others are annoyed, saying, as one student did: “Wow! There are a lot of étrangers here.” We – the ‘foreigners’ she was talking about – were sitting right behind her, and it was although she believed we wouldn’t understand.

One particularly bad experience took place in overpriced French store called Monoprix. A teenage boy heard us speaking English and made animal noises at myself and my friends.

“What do you want?” I said in French.

“What do you want?” he said back.


Somehow, the temptation to speak English persists. Once, in a group of Germanic language speakers (a Swiss guy, myself, and a German) my German friend pointed out that she felt it was inauthentic to speak French in such a scenario. We should be speaking the lingua franca, she said.

I didn’t understand. If we are in France, shouldn’t our default language be French?

But this sentiment is not uncommon. Many exchange students refuse to speak French with anyone but French speakers. They find other ways to subvert the language; in class, they speak in French but say their names in English, to the confusion of our classmates.

“When I speak in French, my personality is lost in translation,”  they claim. “I can’t be myself in French.”

And like this, they constitute a little army of étrangers, determined to fight the language tooth and nail.

Travel as a privilege

Not everyone has free roam of the earth. And the more I travel, the more I become aware of this.

People fortunate enough to be a citizen of the first world, with a Canadian, American, or European passport, for example, have the freedom to go anywhere they please, essentially. It is a powerful little booklet.

Yes, we may need to apply to visas, but the process is definitely more straightforward than it would be for a citizen of Jamaica, or India, for example.

Ages ago, sitting in the visa office, I met an Indian exchange student who had to fork over $150 CDN for his visa, while I paid nothing, because of an accord between France and Canada. Barriers like this, in the form of visas, fees, lengthy wait times, and exchange rates impede travel for people hailing from the developing world.

So, when I see friends posting pictures of themselves posing with dolphins in the Dominican Republic—as so many do over the holidays like this past Reading Week—I wonder if they think about what the process would be like in reverse.

Is it as easy for the étrangers to visit our countries as it is for us to visit theirs?

Can you write?

Something strange is going on with my bathroom drains. Naturally my first step is to text my father who can fix anything. But he is many thousands of kilometres away and tells me to get a plumber, so I do. Luckily my residence can send one for me and will absorb all the costs. All I need to do is go down to the front desk to fill out a sheet.

The girl who deals with me is evidently a trainee, and is being walked through the process by a superior.

“So you’re going to fill out a form to call for the plumber. Then ask her to explain the problem on the sheet,” she says to her colleague, as though I am not there. “She’s foreign, so you may need to help her.”

I am starting to hate this word, ‘foreign’.

The girl finally takes notice of me. “You. Can you write?”

I have never been asked this question before, and am taken aback. Can I write?

“I mean, can you explain the problem in French. If not, she’ll help you.”

“Sure…” I say.

She did not ask if I could write well, or what I like to write, or what I have written in the past. Instead, if I could at all. If, when I hold the pencil in my hand, I have the skill to create letters. It is a question so basic that all I can do is nod.

Later, I head back up to my residence with my hands pushed into the pockets of my jean jacket, frowning. I think endlessly about this comment.

Can you write. Can you write.

Yes, I can write, I want to scream. Sometimes I write better than I can express myself verbally. Sometimes all I can do is write. My writing probably explains more about me than I ever could.

The plumber is booked for tomorrow, but I have all but forgotten about the drains. I wonder, again, exactly who I am in this language.

And to keep my mind off it all, I write.


Hillside view of St. Tropez

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I believe that: (1) language is the most powerful tool we have (2) that bravery is the most admirable quality in a person and (3) that the best is yet to come.

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