(Almost) home for the holidays
At Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, it takes 3 hours to get through security, check-in, and customs, because they have put me on a different flight than the one I have booked. In the line, I sit on my hand luggage, and the frazzled American behind me offers me Xanax. She seems unhinged. I politely decline.
She takes another pill. “Oh, this isn’t a narcotic,” she reassures me. “This is just a Gaviscon.”
“Gaviscon, and then it’s gone!©” I say, pointlessly.
In the next line, I meet a Chinese girl who is studying in Paris. She is wearing black, thick-rimmed glassed and—despite being older than me—is so small she only comes up to my chin. She is worried she will miss her flight. Before we can say goodbye to one another, we are split into two separate lines by customs. Later, I see her and catch her eye, giving her a little smile.
On the plane, I make friends with the two men next to me, due to my unsettling habit of engaging strangers in conversation as though we already know one another.
The guy on my right is a white guy coming back from his son’s wedding in India. “Wedding took two days! Very traditional! Took us four hours to get from Pune to Mumbai! Or maybe Bombay! The Indians say Bombay!”
The guy on my left is actually from India.
He uses the interactive map on the back of the seat in front of me to show me India’s different cities. I listen, rapt.
“I am from the North. I work here, in Bangalore. If you are going to travel India you will need a few months. You will start here, where the tourists go, lots of nice beaches.” He does that thing that Indians do with their heads that means neither yes or no. “This is New Delhi; it is very polluted, but you should visit. Every 200 kilometres you have a new language and culture. Traffic is terrible. It would take you weeks to cross the country. Then you go up here, this is Kashmir, it’s snowy.”
“I just studied Kashmir for my exams,” I say, thrilled. “The course was on the whole Indian subcontinent, actually. What brings you to Toronto?”
It turns out he is moving to Toronto, today, to do his master’s. I decide to brief him on the Greater Toronto Area, using the map. “This is downtown Toronto. This is where I’m from, further North. Here is Niagara Falls, Buffalo… cheap shopping there. You should visit Montreal, it’s 6 hours from Toronto, and then you should see Quebec city, 10 hours. New York City proper, also 10 hours. Rent a car or take the train. This is where you are moving to. There is a large Indian community there, actually.”
“How cold is it, there, now?” he asks. He sounds uneasy.
“The pilot said -1 C. Don’t let the cold scare you, it’s not that bad.”
As the plane begins its descent over Toronto, his eyes are glued to the window.” He is looking at the city in the way I am sure my parents did, over a decade ago, eyes wide.
“Lots of immigrants?” he asks.
“Lots,” I tell him. “This is one of the most diverse cities in the world.“
The plane lands. I pull on my woolly headband and gloves. “You’re just at the beginning,” I tell him.
At the carousel, I spot a China Eastern Airline booth. (Peculiarly, it is staffed only by Jamaicans.)
I yank my suitcase off the conveyor and treat myself to a hot chocolate from Tim Hortons, which I haven’t had in several months. I wonder about my Indian friend, but I know he’ll be okay. This is Toronto, after all. I step out into the cold with my suitcase in tow, and wait on the curb for my family to come get me. I’m home.
When things go right
My professor allows me to sit an exam earlier than the rest of class so I can go home to Canada early for the holidays. Before I start, he gives me back the grade for an exam I had written previously for one of my courses with him.
“You did very well,” he tells me. I don’t quite understand the marking system here but, looking at the grade, I think he is right. “You really seem to have understood the texts.”
“Uh, that’s reassuring,” I say in French, flattered. “Thanks so much.” I think back to the exam, where I was flicking through my massive English-French dictionary, trying to express myself in a way somewhere near to how I would in English.
He turns to leave, but then says, “I didn’t mark you as an exchange student. I didn’t have to. I marked you on par with everyone else.” I wonder where he is going with this.
“Yours is the highest mark I gave,” he says, almost as an afterthought. He leaves the exam room.
I sit there for a minute in shocked silence, then a smile splits out over my face. I move the pages around a bit in front of me for no reason. Then I open my enormous English-French dictionary, and flip over the exam booklet.
I write, urgently, desperately. I want to show him what I’m made of.
Get yourself a friend who —
If I can recommend anything to you, it would be to get yourself a friend who will run with you for the train;
Who will come to your apartment unannounced to help you in your last-minute panic;
Who will wash your dishes for you because you didn’t realise you’d have no time to do them before you left;
Who will tuck snacks into your suitcase for the ride while you are not looking;
Who will haul your suitcase across town, because they know it is too heavy for you;
Who will be there for you when you least expect it;
Get yourself a friend who will run with you for the train.
Travel tips from an un-traveler
I must learn to be a better traveler. Not only do I miscalculate the time I have to get to the train station but I go to the wrong one. I hail a cab in desperation.
“I have to make a train at 1:11pm. Can you get me there?”
“It normally takes 20 minutes or more to get to that station,” he says.
I check my watch. We have 15 minutes.
“Let’s try,” he says, and I toss my stuff into the trunk. The taxi driver peels across the highway at 140km/h, and I am sitting on the very edge of my seat wondering whether I will survive this.
Once there, I practically throw my debit card at the driver. “Thank you!”
“Good luck!” he yells, as I dash into the station with a minute to spare.
It turns out the rush was totally unnecessary. The train is running late and is nowhere to be found. I should have checked that. And on top of the everything, I realise left the nice lunch I had packed in the backseat of the taxi. (Much, much later I will realise I have left my keys in the same bag, the second time I have lost them this month.)
I tally my losses. I no longer have my good tupperware. I have wasted almost 50 euros (75 CDN) on the cab, a cancelled Uber, and now an overpriced, not-even-that-good sandwich. This does not even include the price of the train ticket. Why don’t I just set my money on fire? I fume.
I climb onto the train, exhausted. This journey would normally take 10 hours by car but will take only 3.5, because if there’s one thing Europe has mastered, it’s public transport. The train whisks me to Paris at 300km/h, cutting clear across the country.
I place my head against the glass and eat my terrible sandwich. I must learn to be a better traveler.
At a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, I eat with a Canadian friend I have not seen in quite a while.
Sometimes, I like to think about all the complex moments and decisions that led me to the present. We are far from home, I consider, sitting in a restaurant we chose at random. Surrounding us are faces we will probably never see again. Young and ever-mobile, she and I have spent the better part of the last year tucking ourselves into the forgotten corners of large cities.
She is now doing a master’s at one of the best universities in the world for International Relations, which is what we both study. The intensive program requires her to do an internship abroad, anywhere in the world. What a daunting task, I think. To have the
entire world at your fingertips!
“Where are you thinking of going?” I say eagerly. Conversations like this inspire me. With so few obligations, we could work and study anywhere in the world.
“Senegal. New York maybe,” she says, smiling.
Later I meet a guy from her university, a Belgian who is confronted with the same predicament. He says he is thinking South Africa for his placement. “Where would you go, if you could?”
I raise my eyebrows, and sip my iced tea, ever-present in my hand despite being in France, the world’s wine capital. “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”
But he is not done with me yet. “What do you think you’ll do afterward?” he asks.
I set down my bottle, and steel myself to answer these questions. “A master’s, probably. In a big city. New York or London,” I surprise myself with how set I am on this, given that this is the first time I’ve said it aloud. “But I need to take a break. Living abroad is exhausting! Bank accounts and making friends and everything.”
“So,” he says seriously, “Will you do Columbia or NYU? Or the London School of Economics?”
The fact that he turns, immediately, to some of the best schools in the world, makes my heart soar. I grin back at him because it’s possible—it’s all possible.
How does one gauge fluency? I realise I must set some sort of goal for myself, a way of knowing if I have gotten enough French out of this trip. If not, I may never be satisfied. In theory.
“You are bilingual,” says the Belgian.
My eyes shoot up to my forehead. “What? Really?” I am skeptical, but I suppose I should trust him, given that he is French.
“But. I still get mixed up with expressions,” I attempt.
“Yeah, but.” He shrugs.
So this is it, then. I am fluent. Bilingual. I realise I do not mind this label at all.
I realize I am happy with my progress, and that perfection might not be necessary, or even possible, here. Near-fluency will have to be enough.
I realize, shockingly, that I am okay with this.