#15 Baggage Limit Exceeded

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.

#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.

Continue reading #14 Exchange: The Final Week

#13 To Build a Life

I.

I decide to start taking pictures of things I need to sell at the end of the year. Printer, microwave, and other things I have amassed over seven months. When I look back at the pictures I get a heavy feeling in my chest.

“It just made me so sad,” I say, when recounting this to a friend, over dinner. “I don’t know why. I’m hesitant to leave.”

From the other side of my small kitchen, he shrugs. He shovels himself another big helping of spaghetti. Every time I have boys over at my apartment they seem determined to eat all my food.

“This is the first time you’ve built a life away from your home,” he says. “Your family.”

He’s getting at something. We constructed small, humble lives in France. Alone. Faced with only vague ideas about different countries and cities, we were able to choose exactly where we settled, and where we studied (within certain parameters, of course!). We opened bank accounts and found apartments and surrounded ourselves with people we believed were good. Lately I have noticed that it is an existence so small and controlled that the individuals who populate it play an unusually important role. This is not always ideal.

Now we must, piece-by-piece, dismantle what we have created, settling debts and cancelling phone plans. In some ways I feel I have set up camp in a quiet clearing and am now yanking up the stakes of my tent, unceremoniously.

We did not face ultimate hardship here. We are from the first world, briefly resettling in the first world. But what if it had been different? How many times in our lives will we be able to construct, from the ground up, a new existence somewhere we don’t understand? Twice? Three times? Surely we will have more chances to pick up our lives and start again?

A friend recently told me she was proud of me. And of course, this meant a lot.

In the rare moments where I am able to set aside my perfectionism and examine what I have built here, I am proud of myself, too. I have established a small, private practice teaching English courses. My apartment is comfortable, despite its being a bit solitary. For the first time in years, I am away from the crippling intensity of bad roommates, away from all the noise, and I can breathe, read, write, think.

In my studio, one wall is a giant window. In the beginning I used to shudder with gratitude, wondering how I was lucky enough to wake up every morning and see so much light, so many trees. To have windows I could throw open at any time of year so I could hear the mourning doves. I am happy, and if I wanted to stay, I could, with the right paperwork. I won’t. But I could if I wanted to.

II.

“I’m going to struggle,” a friend agrees, when I mention how I’m feeling.

I am struck at the heaviness of the word she uses, and even more by the nonchalance with which she uses it. Struggle. “What will you miss the most?”

“This,” she says, gesturing around. We are having the conversation in an RV we rented with three other friends, which is currently heading west across the South of France, through small towns. By the end of the trip we will have almost reached Spain. It is the first time I have ever been camping (or “glam-ping,” as a friend of mine aptly calls it) and I love it.

“You can’t do this at home?”

“Not this. Here,” she says, and I understand what she means. There will no doubt be more camping trips, but not here, not in France, not together, not now.

I am proud of us. I like to think of the experience as a shiny coin we can pull out of our back pocket and look at whenever we need to remind ourselves what we are capable of. Oh, and by the way, I’m fluent in French. If we fall in love with a foreigner and have to move; if we are offered a job abroad; if someone suggests a spontaneous trip—we will hesitate just a bit less than everyone else, since we’ve done it all before. And I think that’s great.

I don’t doubt that myself and my friends have all grown over the course of the year, but personally, I won’t attempt to try and gauge it. It is a mark of human arrogance to believe we can chart our growth with precision, understanding exactly why and how we have changed. I have grown in ways I will never notice and I am fine with this.

The last line of one of my favourite movies is: Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through. Or feel we’ve had enough time. I remind myself I am lucky to have had any time at all.

MC

#12 Roma in the Rain

 

No pictures; no video

I.

As we explore Paris, the South of France, and Rome, my sister keeps me in stitches with her deadpan sense of humour. We are walking along the streets of Aix when a little old car typical of France passes us at a clip. “Woah, buddy,” my sister says calmly. “The last thing I want is to get obliterated by such a dumb looking car.”

Rome is beautiful despite the torrential rain that soaks us over the course of the entire weekend. I can’t believe that, every day, these people grocery shop and walk and chat among buildings that date back two thousand years or more. My sister and I see the Villa Borghese, the Vatican, Colosseum (for which there was only one exit; we and a few other tourists feared that we were trapped forever), the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Circus Maximus, and the Sistine Chapel. We stare up at Michelangelo’s ceiling and take secret photos even though it is not allowed.

My sister imitates the Italian security guards under her breath: “Silence! Silencio. No peec-tures and no vee-dio.”

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A secret photo I took of myself and Michelangelo’s ceiling

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Katya and I in Rome, beneath the Raphael’s “School of Athens.” See: Michelangelo looking down from above

Continue reading #12 Roma in the Rain

#11 Someday

There will come a day
When the books and clothes are tucked away,
The boxes sealed, the shutters drawn,
My small apartment
Emptied of song

When you come to help, you’ll say:
‘Doesn’t this room look big!
Without your life inside,
Without your socks and printer and iced tea, inside!
Without the fridge’s hum.’
Our voices will bounce around in echo
Pounding like a tuneless drum—

Whispering: “Thank you for your courage,
Safe travels back to where you are from.”

We knew this was a passing thing
(That’s what happens when you are nomadic)
We also knew that wouldn’t make
‘The End’ seem any less tragic

Come, friends, and sit with me
Wherever we first met:
Class,
Café,
On the stairs,
Or on that rocky bench,
Then tilt your face toward the sun,
Let its heat cradle your head.

Years from now you’ll be reminded of these:
Cypress trees, Mediterranean breeze,
And I’ll think of you—you’ll think of me

I can chart our growth just like a map,
Look!
There we were young and here we are old;
There we were nervous, here we are bold;
Here, we spoke in riddles, in themes,
like love, distance, and fear
In personal musings, in philosophy,
Voices growing louder, more clear

Shoulders were offered, dinners were held,
To help us all get through,
We realized even the bravest souls
Were lost and wanting, too.

I’ll see you all again, someday
Once the wind has blown us
Every which way,

I’ll see you again someday.

MC

#10 Thank God I Met You, Otherwise I Never Would Have Sailed

Halfway

We are halfway through. If the exchange were a day, I imagine this would be the point where the sun creases over the sky and begins its slow but deliberate descent.

The exchange students must now regroup. Our friends who were staying only for the first semester are gone. We are not exactly sure who is left, and are reminded, yet again, of temporary nature of the year abroad.

In a recurring dream, I am at a final dinner with these people who have become such good friends. Here it gets confusing: I am wearing a one-shoulder green dress and I do not own a dress like this. Anyway, there I am, wearing I dress I do not own in a restaurant I do not recognize. (Bear with me, here.) Raising my glass, I try to tell the people at the table how much they mean to me but I am having trouble getting the words out. I do not know if this will happen. Probably not.

But it gives me comfort, because everyone is there. And you, reader, are by my right-hand side.

Continue reading #10 Thank God I Met You, Otherwise I Never Would Have Sailed

#9 How to Miss an Important Train (and Other Misadventures)

I.

Before I miss my train, a few very crucial thoughts go through my head:

    • Where are the service people? (My ticket wouldn’t print, and I insisted on fiddling with the machine, on my own, for way too long.)
    • Where is the platform? (It doesn’t say on the confirmation.) How far is it?
    • Why aren’t I running! I should run! (The clock on the wall reads 20:17. I have two minutes. And I remember, heart sinking, that European trains always leave on time. Without fail.)

Ca va être chaud, hein ?” The guy who is trying to help me print the ticket is shaking his head, saying it will be difficult for me to make the train.

“Go! Just go!” cries his colleague.

By the time I get to the platform, the train is already pulling away. It is moving so slowly it is hard to believe it is really missed. I want to jump on top, or something. But when the train is gone, it’s gone.

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Home for the holidays

It is a strange end to what was otherwise an incredible holiday—two weeks in Toronto, followed by three days in London and three days in Paris. It was the first time I had been to London, and I was struck by the city’s mix of styles, unlike anything I had ever seen. My first impression was that the city had a really industrial look to it; the brown brick and red metal of the buses reminding me vaguely of a fire station.

I was led around the city by Londoners I met in the South of France, also on exchange, who were back in the city for the holidays. I walked around the Tate Modern gallery and was actually moved by the artwork; I wandered through markets with my friends and chatted with the merchants; I ate brunch at a restaurant with an underground speakeasy, which required a password to get in. I watched a show called “A Comedy about a Bank Robbery” at Picadilly Circus which was very slapstick but entertaining. All the while, I admired eclectic style of Londoners: bangs, turtlenecks, newsboy hats (which I haven’t seen since 2008), and huge fur coats.

“Was that the last train to Marseille?” I ask a guy in uniform, panting.

He is with some other men, also in uniform. “Oui,” he says simply. Then the group turns away in unison and walks away like a gang. I am left alone on the platform, gripping the handle of my suitcase.

Think, Marisa. Think. I force myself to find a chair and sit, because when I panic, bad things happen. I leave things behind, like bags and wallets and keys. I have an English class to teach tomorrow morning, and if I miss this class it will be the fourth week in a row I have missed, due to the holidays.

Using the GoEuro app, I do a quick search. It compares all the possible routes from one place to another in Europe: plane, train, bus, whatever. The trains for tomorrow morning are 100+ euros. Nope. The flights are 150+. Double-nope.

It’s worse than I thought. I’m stranded.

There are three buses leaving from Paris to Marseille. They are 10-11 hours. Overnight. I vowed years ago to never take one of these buses. But I have to teach a class. You made a commitment, you have to follow through. This phrase flies to the forefront of my brain, without me even realizing. These are my mother’s words; she said them so often that they are now mine.

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In London with Nicole

Continue reading #9 How to Miss an Important Train (and Other Misadventures)

#8 The Longest Day

I.

“Have you heard the news?” I ask anyone who will listen, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “The CAF has processed my application. Can you believe it?”

The CAF (or Caisse Allocations Familiales) is a housing subsidy program that all students studying and living in France are eligible for. You can have your rent cut in half—if you’re willing to endure the weeks of grueling paperwork. Not only did they require my birth certificate, but a certified translation, as well as a bunch of other paperwork not readily available. After 8 weeks of my application being “en cours de traitement,” two emails and a phone call later, they finally respond to say that I have been approved.

La CAF a traité mon dossier !” I squeal to my French friends. Needless to say, I am thrilled.

“I have a contact on the inside,” a friend tells me shadily. “Mine’ll get processed now too, I know it.”

I am still waiting on a document, potentially the most important one. (The document to rule all documents, if you will.) My carte de séjour, or stay card.

Continue reading #8 The Longest Day

#7 Little Victories

(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.

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A Canadian in her natural habitat

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.

 

Continue reading #7 Little Victories

#6 What They Don’t Tell You

Back to where we began

I.

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.

 

II.

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.)

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Grenoble, France

Continue reading #6 What They Don’t Tell You