Back to where we began
I spend a weekend in the French Alps with a friend. When I studied here last year, for a month, it was summer, and now it is much colder. A bitter wind nips at my collar.
It was a lifetime ago—long before I knew I would have the opportunity to study abroad for an entire year.
Grenoble is nestled at the bottom of a valley and is ringed by mountains. A year ago, my friends and I climbed up into the Alps to picnic or stargaze or just stare out at the city. I remember how, at sunset, yellow and pink was tossed into the air like confetti and the buildings below were reduced to pinpricks of light. Coming back, the city is just as I remember it, the mountains visible at every possible perspective, like a protective shield around the people.
(I think it is important to rewind, to go back to important places and walk along familiar streets. You will marvel at how quickly time passes. You will realize how much you have changed.)
“Where are we going?”
“To a friends’. I just have to pick up something quickly.”
My friend and I drive up to a house that looks more like a cottage, with vines growing over its face and lush green trees spotting the yard. Inside, his friends are dressed in knits with abstract prints, looking like a Robert Frost poem. We venture into the depths of the home and I admire the woody smell and creative architecture; in the living room, the couches are half-level below the floor, creating a sort of nook. Books with a layer of dust line the walls in the basement, and I am a sucker for a house with books.
They are eating all together in the French style, with an abundance of cheese and bread spread out on the table, and a big, lightly-dressed salad in the middle. We drink coffee and spiced tea hand-made by one of their friends. I try to follow their French and do okay. Before we leave, my friend picks up what he came here for: a generous crate of vegetables that another one of his friends has grown.
I am hesitant to leave and cannot help but wonder what it is like for them here, in a house with a view of the reds and oranges of the autumn mountains. A stubborn cat spread out on a chair. Tea brewing. Off the grid but not quite.
What they don’t tell you
I. The inherent, seemingly insurmountable difficulties of learning a Latin language when you speak a Germanic one.
II. That mastering a language may involve moving countries.
III. That language-learning is costly, both physically and mentally.
IV. That speaking English not only inhibits your learning of the French language, but can also jeopardize the quality of your French. (Speaking in English for prolonged periods actually means that any French I speak after that is lower quality. I become confused, and start speaking a Frenglish not even I can understand.)
V. That immersion is an active process; that you must construct it expertly around you, using movies and people and speech.
Here we go
My French is getting better. A few days ago, I was able to keep up a coherent conversation with a classmate about our courses. “We’re not getting enough context,” I
was able to complain. “You have to establish a base. Then you can speak about more specific topics.”
I was able to write a full lecture’s worth of notes that were coherent enough to study from. My personality is peeking out from behind my French mask: I can finally use the language to show who I am.
(If, when I leave this country, I am in fact fluent, it will have been the most rapid, most obvious, most effective acquisition of a skill I have ever experienced. This will be both incredible and jarring.)
To make a home
I have said it before, and I will say it again: I am consistently stunned by the dynamism of human beings. I am fascinated by the way we can adapt to difficult scenarios; the way we can make a home out of anywhere.
Sometimes I see apartment buildings and want instantly to cut them in half.
I want to see, in the style of a cross-section, the way the people live. I want to see what they have done with their small pocket of mankind.
And I think this is why I tried so hard to make a home out of my little studio apartment, shocking myself with my own military-like precision. I bought stick-on hooks to make up for the lack thereof; I took my cutting boards and cut them in half so I had multiple; I took down the greasy shower curtain and ordered a new extra-long one of precise height and width online that kept the rest of the washroom dry; I bought drawer organizers and over-door hooks despite not knowing the terms in French; I stared at my suitcases for days trying to figure out where to put them, and discovered a shelf above the front door, but the shelf was too small, so I left the suitcases alone, then I had a eureka moment days later, realizing I could fit them in there if both suitcases were exactly three-quarters shut; I had another eureka moment, and created a chain out of leftover shower curtain hooks from which I hung my shower caddy; on my father’s suggestion, I freed an unessential screw out of the bookshelf and drove it into the wall with a small hammer, and from this screw I suspended an overpriced hanging plant.
And in all this, I wondered whether I was trying to create a perfect space not simply because I felt like it, but because outside the apartment, out in my new world, I had no control, and was at the mercy of the country and the language and the people.
One day, in an apparent rush of mania, decided I needed to wash my windows. I borrowed a squeegee from a friend. It was harrowing—I nearly fell out the window in the process—but at least the windows were clean.
Slow down, you crazy child
My young English student and I discuss the song “Vienna”, by Billy Joel.
“Vienna?” my student asks.
“Vienna, the capital of Austria. Autriche.”
“Ah, Vienne,” she says.
“It’s a metaphor for everything the girl is looking for. He’s telling her that there’s no rush—how would you say this in French?”
She sticks out her bottom lip in the French way, thinking. “Il n’y a pas de feu.” There is no fire.
“Right.” I try to save this expression to memory. “The song is a plea to get her to slow down. Everything will still be there when she’s ready.” And I wonder exactly who I am talking about; the girl or me.
Sometimes I wake up and my heart soars with the sheer potential in the world. No word of a lie, I actually feel this in my stomach. I am completely overtaken all the things we can see and do and be. I imagine the vastness of the globe, and its people, living in infinite circumstances and scenarios: residing at the base of a mountain, for example. Squatting in a forgotten slum; crunching over snow; sipping lukewarm soup.
In a burst of inspiration, I once peered over at the world map on my wall and spotted an island I had never noticed before. It was off the coast of Antarctica, and had been previously discovered by someone, surely, but only very recently by me. Sandwich Island.
Other days I am not as hopeful, and find myself overwhelmed by the task we all have to create our own meaning in the world.
When I was younger I decided that the meaning of life was simple: loving and being loved. Now, I add a slight amendment. There needs to be something else, a forward momentum.
Kant once said: “Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”
And this is true, especially for someone as restless as myself. That I cannot stay in one place for long is a veritable blessing and curse. Even here, in France, I quickly catch the travel bug.
I came here for a change of scenery, to be inspired, and I am. But still I have the insatiable desire to see things unlike those that I have ever seen, and—inexplicably—to visit places that are extremely hot or extremely cold. I want to be moved! I am drunk on what appears to be endless youth.