#14 Exchange: The Final Week

I.

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Sara and I in Prague

Before I leave Europe for good, I quickly tour a few cities I have been meaning to see.

My friend and I miss our bus to Prague and take an endless detour through the German cities of Erfurt and Dresden. Once in Prague, we wander around and take in the charming architecture.

Next, we stop in Berlin and take part in a walking tour so moving that by the end we are both on the verge of tears. We find ourselves stunned and humbled by the city which is clearly very willing to accept its troubled past. Everywhere, there are remnants of the Berlin wall and stores and parks named after it, things like, “East Side Kiosk,” “Wall Park,” and so on, which I find both funny and a bit unsettling.

Berlin is unapologetically cool, boasting exclusive clubs and a thrumming, alternative vibe. As our tour guide informs us, many clubs require you to be wearing “toned-down, all-black, sport-chic” to get in, and there is one club that has never closed in 37 years. But in the evening, we decide to forgo the clubs, instead choosing to see a live performance by my favourite composer: Hans Zimmer.

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The East Side Gallery, Berlin

On the Berlin metro to the airport, our tickets turn out to be Zone A/B instead of Zone C,

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Thermal Baths in Budapest

which earns us a lovely 120 EUR fine—60 euros each.

“Schönefeld Airport is not Berlin,” the controller says, shrugging, in spite of our pleas. “Do you prefer to pay now or later?”

The last stop is Budapest—a city with the most incredible skyline I have ever seen. Everything is lit up in gold and yellow. We wade in natural thermal baths which I find extremely pleasant; they remind me of the sea.

 

II.

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Andrea and I in the Aix city centre

The last few days of exchange are bittersweet. In French, the adjective is partagé(e), or ‘shared,’ which I think is accurate.

I circle the residence complex and post paper ads to help sell my things. Soon enough, nearly everything is gone, half sold to different individuals and the other half sold to a Brazilian who contacts me on seeing my ad. He just moved in and has nothing, he says. He’ll take anything I’m willing to sell. He buys so much that I resort to using a spreadsheet to calculate the cost, and I end up giving him everything for a tidy little sum.

I pack, weigh, and re-weigh my luggage. I repaint my wall where I have destroyed it. I submit insurance forms I have been meaning to submit. I cancel my phone plan via letter, the only way to do it in France. But this is not the hardest part, by far. The week is peppered with difficult goodbyes.

“How’re you going?” my friend says, as she enters my apartment on the day she is set to

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Chaos: packing up my life

leave. She is a Londoner originally from New Zealand, and her expressions are so varied I can never trace their origins. This one is Kiwi, I think; How’re you going.

I notice that she is wearing a hat I have not seen since the very first days we met. It is a blue baseball cap that suits her sporty persona. Her hair is in its customary blond ponytail.

She hands me a card she has written. I was not expecting this. I hand her the card I have written for her that she didn’t expect, either. Mine is accompanied by photos I have developed, ones where I feel she looks happy—where we look happy.

She and I only realized how close we were only a few weeks before.

“We have a lot in common, don’t we?” she pointed out one day, as we were housesitting for a friend, cooking salmon together. I nodded, because she was right: we both had the same ideas about travel and were both relatively easygoing on that front. We both liked to cook, liked to run, liked to read. We had the same music taste: alternative rock and indie. We both played the piano at precisely the same level and had started learning an upbeat duet together. We even considered moving from the university residence into an apartment in the city to change up the experience a little.

“Well,” I say now, looking down at the pot before me, the last thing I own after having sold everything. I am boiling eggs and they have exploded in the water. I start to cry. “Don’t mind me. These aren’t tears. They’re from the… egg fumes.”

We embrace and cry together. Her brother, who has come up from London to help her move out stands back, watching us knowingly as though this is not the first tearful goodbye he has seen nor the last.

She promises that we will see each other again and I believe her. In our cards we have referred to each other, independently, as best friends, which I think is sweet.

 

III.

Another good friend and I are sitting together in a café the day before I am set to leave.

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Tom, Andrea and I on my last day in Aix

“It’s going to be strange, not having you all in such close proximity,” I say. “I won’t be able to walk to your apartments.” Something breaks in me and I begin to ramble. “This is just like high school. One day you have friends and the next you just don’t—

I am referencing events that happened long ago that she cannot know. I will myself to stop. “I’ll just miss you all a lot, is all,” I say, in summary.

She is staying in France for the next few months so I hand off my English students to her as per the parents’ request, so that the kids can keep studying and working at the language.

“Remember to hound her about the past tense in English,” I say, referring to my star student. “She fences in her spare time and would like to go to a university near the sea. She’s passionate about the language. She’s so smart and doesn’t even know it. Make sure to make her laugh. In our classes we were always laughing together.”

That night we go to another friends’ apartment, where he cooks a nice risotto with asparagus. As usual, we bring the wine and dessert.

 

IV.

The father of one of my students kindly offers to take me to the airport. He lugs my

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Patrick and I at a goodbye dinner

suitcases, 25- and 30-kg apiece, from my apartment and places them in his car; he hauls them out of the parking garage and places them under the bus for me.

Danke schön!” I say, an expression I learned from my brief time in Berlin. It is ‘Thank you very much’ in German, his native tongue.

As the bus is pulling away from the station, toward the airport, I wonder: When is the next time I will be in this city? When is the next time I will see my friends? A thousand questions flick through my mind, and all fizzle out simultaneously because they are unanswerable. I will answer them in the weeks, maybe years, to come.

My mind flits inevitably to my parents. They immigrated years ago and left behind old friends with whom they had sat in the sunshine, drank wine, laughed with abandon. How did they find the strength to continue?

I note that poppies have sprung up all over the South of France. They have lowered their dainty heads against the impending storm: dark clouds above forecast a downpour. I do not worry for them; the poppy is a flower much more robust than it appears.

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Poppies in Aix

 

V.

At the airport, I get a message from the girl with whom I shared a teary goodbye.

Hey! Busy day yesterday. How did packing go? I suppose you’re getting ready to leave? Hopefully it all goes smoothly—

I stop reading because my eyes are blurring with tears and I need to read the screen above me to see what gate to walk to. There is no gate number yet.

Dammit! I think, getting unnecessarily distraught. I am upset and decide to get a cup of tea. While sitting, I empty my European bank account and am pleased to see the value explode in Canadian dollars.

On the plane, I cannot help but think about the residence complex, specifically the ads I didn’t have time to take down and the recycling I didn’t have time to sort in my rush to the airport. 6,000 kilometres away on a continent far from my own, in a small town in the South of France, I have left up four posters. I have left my recycling in front of the bins, unsorted. It is not my concern anymore. Someone will do it, eventually. But somehow I am unsettled, absurdly, by these tasks I have left undone.

My layover in Lisbon is 5 hours long. I stuff my things into a luggage locker so I can wander around. I buy a pretty postcard. When, finally, I land in Toronto, my family is there to greet me and waves frantically out the car window. They put all of my suitcases in the trunk for me, as I watch, tiredly.

Many hands make light work, I think. It will be nice not to have to do it all on my own, anymore.

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My apartment: cleared out!

 

VI.

The coming days will be an adjustment. I need to renew my health card. My drivers’ license has expired, too. There are doctors’ appointments to go to and dentists to see and phone lines to re-instate. There are old friends to meet with. I need to find a job for the summer, and a place in Toronto if that’s where the job takes me. I need to choose my classes for next year. I need to find a supervisor that will oversee my research.

It’s a lot to think about the first day back. Taking a baby step toward readjustment, I reluctantly switch my phone and laptop from French to English.

I have been thrust from one life into another. Soon, Aix will not be the same city I left behind. Without the exchange students I know it just won’t be the same.

“I’m beyond thinking that it’s France that made the experience great,” I told my friend in the café just the day before. “We could have been anywhere. We could have been in Mexico and it wouldn’t have mattered. It’s the people. It’s being around people that are willing to do something like this.”

“This is not goodbye,” my friend said, seeing the distress on my face. “We’re going to video chat.”

“The plane tickets aren’t that expensive. And I’m good at saving money.”

“Exactly. So why are you crying?”

I wiped my eyes. “I’m just thinking about a poem I wrote. It’s sad.” I handed my phone to her.

Before I’m set to leave I realise
There is no space in my suitcases for the friends
and the memories

Everything is so full!
And the luggage is already
overweight (as usual).

I shrug.
I suppose I will have to put them in my heart.

I open myself up
and a quick scan of the organ
to ensure there is ample room, and there is.

I place them next to my family,
next to my old friends,
And wind them up with bubble wrap
To keep them intact for the bumpy ride
Home

This is so convenient!

At the airport, I won’t need to join the “things to declare” line
(Because the most valuable goods are hidden inside.)

No customs fees to pay;
In my heart they will stay.

“It is sad,” she agreed. Her face reddened. “But lovely.”

“What should we call it?”

We named the poem together. Baggage Allowance Exceeded. It is a technical title for an experience that was decidedly un-technical and improvised. Friendship.

MC

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thingsconsidered

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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