Is this thing on? I tap the mic three times with a finger.
Right. I’ve been living in Aix-en-Provence, France for 8 months now. No one forced me. Unlike the majority of my friends here, my university program didn’t require me to pursue this and nobody told me I had to go.
“So why did you, Marisa?” Someone in the peanut gallery has his hands cupped around his mouth and is addressing me directly, from the audience.
I am here for a number of practical reasons, I tell him, mildly annoyed at his interruption. I’m studying International Relations, a political science, in a bilingual country (Canada) and am convinced this necessitates a fluency in the second language (French).
I’ve always liked languages. I don’t know why. One day in the car my mother asked me this very question—why I decided to go all the way with French—and I didn’t really have a response. I guess we just like the things we like because we like them. I told her that it’s not French, per se, but that I enjoy languages in general. I love my mother tongue, English, as well, and when given the opportunity will climb into books and hide inside them until summoned.
I am here because my parents were travellers and I suppose I have inherited this through osmosis. À la base, they were immigrants, brave enough to venture from one of the world’s warmest climates to one of the world’s coldest on the hunt for opportunities for their two young daughters. They enjoyed car trips with no destination in mind. I remember once getting in the car and driving North until we reached a nowhere city called Cobourg, Ontario. I remember it all very clearly. It was blustery that day.
Like sails catching wind, my parents veered often toward bodies of water, as if at some point they might discover somewhere as warm and inviting as the Caribbean sea. Sometimes they relented and surprised my sister and I with trips back to Jamaica, where they would pack our bags for us without our knowledge, pile us in the car, and drive us unknowingly to the airport.
Even recounting this to a hypothetical audience many years later, I can still recall the feeling; Pearson International cresting over the horizon when I had been told we were going somewhere mundane.
When I was ten years old, my parents sat around the dining table with my aunt and uncle, a map of Canada spread out before them, highlighters and pens strewn across the page. At this point, my young self was convinced they were adventurers. They were planning what was to be the greatest trip of my life thus far, known to all involved as “The Maritimes Trip,” or “The Halifax Trip”, a whirlwind road trip across the East coast of Canada and through the Northeastern US.
We stayed in around 10 different hotels and were on the road for two weeks straight. Spread out across two vans, our two families traveled one behind the other, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any more fun, my parents actually communicated with my aunt and uncle via walkie-talkie. They navigated with maps custom made for our trip called TripTix, provided by CAA (this was before Google Maps, mind you.)
I walked the rocky shores of Prince Edward Island and ventured too far out at the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, actually falling off the cliff and into the water, scraping my knees.
When the trip was over, I cried, wanting more.
“Back to life, back to reality,” my mother sang. (She is a broadway fan and tends to sing a lot of what she says).
I am in Aix-en-Provence because I had been saving my summer earnings for a long time toward something big, but I never knew what. And then when the opportunity arose to go abroad I knew I’d found it. The actual move, however, didn’t come out of nowhere. It was prompted by dissatisfaction. I was deeply underwhelmed. A lot of people do not know that I am in this little Mediterranean town because I wanted to escape. I found my university town claustrophobic.
“Why did you choose it, then?” This, now, from the woman standing next to the man in the peanut gallery.
I don’t know, I respond honestly. But in any case, I was tired of the city’s drinking culture; of lining up outside a dirty bar in heels that hurt my feet in sub-zero temperatures. I was tired of my roommates, who scared me. The house was sometimes so cold, and so quiet, that it made me want to scream. The place was, for all intents and purposes, dead. I wanted to cut the rooms open, dissecting them from the outside, just to prove to the rest of the street that we were alive. That they were living people in that house.
That year showed me that, if you are not careful, you can fade away.
It happens gradually. You can disappear, to everyone, to yourself. You must construct your life with people and events and places that inspire you otherwise you will forget who you are and you will start to fade away.
Trying to make friends with my roommates was like pulling teeth. (My own teeth. With a chainsaw. Blindfolded.)
I had to beg them to talk to me, to acknowledge me, to greet me when I walked in a room. They were supposedly friends before I joined the housing situation but you could have fooled me—they seemed only to tolerate each other. We had nothing at all in common. I wanted to travel and they wanted to stay put. They were all white and I was black. They were into sciences and I was into art. (I once tried to engage them in a conversation about foreign film and lost them almost immediately). That kind of isolation is scary.
I retreated briefly into my own mind. And I am still working to coax myself away from the distrust that blossomed that year, planted the year before, when I roomed with a girl who was similarly cold.
The day my father was set to pick me up from the house at the end of the year, he said he couldn’t until the next day. “I have a meeting,” he said, or something. I can’t remember because my mind was buzzing with radio static. I begged him but he maintained that he just couldn’t. It would have only been one more evening in the house bit nobody, he included, knew how badly I wanted to leave. At the last minute, Dad said he was on his way. My bags were already packed. I flung everything in his tiny VW Golf quicker than I ever imagined possible.
“I don’t know if it will all fit,” Dad said. “We may have to do two trips.”
“No!” I said, and forced everything inside as if by magic. “Drive, just drive. Please.”
Never in my life have I felt relief like I did that day. It was overpowering. I thought I might cry but simply placed my head against the window, breathing hard.
So, I began to associate London, ON with both discomfort and boredom. I wanted to see something that would make me think, something that would make me say, “wow,” or “hm.”
I regret nothing of this exchange, despite that it took five months of planning and required repetitive, confusing correspondence with around 25 people at home and abroad. Because of this exchange I have a new language. I have perspective, which is invaluable. I spent a year with very little schoolwork owing to the flawed French education system, and without this distraction I realized Who I Was with such force that it punched me in the face. It was as though before the exchange, I was a shapeless, blurry form, and that I had finally retrieved my pen, adding much-needed detail.
My friends and I cooked together and hosted events and always brought wine, never arriving empty-handed—a European rule. We threw last-minute barbecues and spent hours sitting in the sun. We did a whole lot of nothing, too. A lot of chatting and complaining and eating Nutella crêpes. A lot of random exploring and finding new routes to new places. A lot of buying bus tickets to nearby towns just because we could. (I flew to London and to Rome because the tickets cost less than the shirt on my back.) Europe is interesting that way. It has been fun being a temporary jet-setter.
I don’t need to tell you I am thankful. If you look close enough, you can see it for yourself: my heart, swelling with gratitude, fit to burst. “And it’s all because we moved to Canada,” my mother recently reminded me over the phone. “Look at the opportunities you have.”
I see them, Mum, I see them. The opportunities are splayed out before me like playing cards and it is my play. It is my turn to draw.
I’ve made friends here that I care about deeply. Selfishly, I would like to take them with me everywhere, in fact; I would like to put them in my pocket. I’d like to mark the page in my book with them. I want them at my wedding and on my doorstep and in my backyard. I want to write an alternate reality, placing them in houses near mine, in Toronto. I want to have grown up with them. I want to introduce them to my friends back home and I want dinners with them, I want parties, I want more moments, I want more time.
“But you’ve had time,” says the man in the peanut gallery. The people in the front row are nodding in agreement.
Yes, I say.
All things considered, it has been a good time.