Aix-en-Provence reminds me of Kingston, Jamaica in many ways – sweltering at times, cool in the evenings; narrow roads, hilariously tiny cars with horns that go bip-bip; bizarre, desert-looking plants that stick up in every direction; the gates and grills on some of the windows; the cooing of morning doves. But the streets are lined with trees I’ve never seen before.
They are eggshell white and spotted with brown, as though the fierce Aixoise wind (which I experienced earlier this week) have stripped off their bark in curving patterns. I don’t know what they are called but I love them.
In French, owing to a lack of vocabulary, I speak ambiguously about “people” in “places” who told me “things”. When speaking generally I forgo the widely-used “one” and instead say “they”, which generates the image of a secret, shadowy group that dictates my every move. I am lost in time, perplexed by the 24-hour French clock. I can’t remember how long I’ve been here and speak of indefinite time periods, saying that things happened il n’y a pas longtemps or “not long ago.”
I say “okay” when the answer should have been “yes” or “no”, I hold up the lines in the supermarkets because I didn’t know I had to weigh my bananas beforehand.
I draw the eyes of people in the street because they look at me and know that I am neither white nor North African. When people stop me in the street to ask me where I am from, I say, “Jamaican-Canadian”, which seems to create more questions than it answers, as it’s a combination nobody here has really considered before.
I have not met any other Canadians, or even Americans. Other than rumors circulating about a boy from Idaho named “Sam,” I seem to be the sole representative for the entire continent. What a load to bear.
The first few weeks have been focused on getting established – opening bank accounts, buying insurance (health, housing, and civil liability), paying rent, enrolling in the university, buying furniture, figuring out where all the discount stores are. It hasn’t always been easy, and it has been a very stressful, very expensive process.
Most of all, we’ve been trying to get our bearings around the city. My little group of girlfriends are cautious, and try to stick together. We tell each other “text me when you get home” and mean it, following up if we don’t hear anything. One of us came up with a convenient way to remember the fastest route to get back to our residence from the city center.
“Gare, Spar supermarket, blue garage, stairs, bridge, home,” she offers.
I try to walk home without searching for directions on my phone. I arrive at forks in the road and try to take what I feel, instinctively, is the right path. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes I take a bus in the wrong direction and end up on the outskirts of town. Sometimes I take 40-minute detours.
Above all, I try to trust myself. One day, when I am walking home and it is dark and a little eerie, I find myself saying, “Gare, Spar supermarket, blue garage, stairs, bridge, home.”
Portrait of Aix
Girls with red lipstick and hair cropped at the shoulder with the neck of a bottle of Rosé in a chokehold.
Tall, thin boys with flippy haircuts and low-cut collared shirts, moving determinedly through the city center looking for something to do, or otherwise standing around and chain-smoking cigarettes they have rolled themselves.
Older people sitting in cafés, smoking, squinting out at passersby.
Narrow, pedestrian-only streets, with determined Clios inching carefully past. The city center, buzzing with activity at midday on a Monday.
I want to open a bank account. Seems simple enough, right? Wrong; I am in France.
I go to a bank branch that immediately turns me away, saying they do not deal with students. They direct me to another branch.
When I arrive, they say I must have my physical passport so I leave. The second time I go, the bank is closed. The third time they say there is no one available to help me and to Please make an appointment, but I say Actually here’s the thing this is the third time I’ve been here and I would like to open an account please, and an associate appears as if by magic. He tells me to prepare myself because this will take an hour. I ask how it could possibly take an hour. He unsheathes every piece of paperwork in the world. I kiss my evening goodbye and set to work signing everywhere he tells me to sign.
When I am done he tells me that I will receive my credentials to my online account in a week, but I receive no email and end up having to go into the branch and asking directly for the password. I log in successfully.
I get my pin number by post along with a bunch of other information I don’t know what to do with, but I have to go into town to pick up the card. It is only days later that I notice that they have spelt my name completely wrong: “Marisa Culton,” without the “o”.
They have written it exactly how it is pronounced in French, and this makes me laugh. The literal translation is Marisa Ass-ton, and I wonder if the universe is trying to tell me something.
It is not long into my exchange that I realize I should try and find part-time work to fund my travels, groceries, and other things. One of my friends suggests I post an ad on a French website called leboncoin, which, for you Canadians out there, is essentially kijiji.
I draft the ad and have two French friends read it over, and it is something along the lines of, “My name is Marisa, I am Canadian, I can teach you English, please hire me.” The accompanying logo is painfully cheesy: I have added a google image of a French flag crossed with a Canadian one captioned by the words, “EASY ENGLISH”.
Quite a while after I post the ad I receive an email from a woman who is looking for someone to help her daughter with English conversation. I am elated. I call her back, trying desperately to come across as professional even though I am very aware of my accent and have rehearsed the conversation in my head beforehand.
My little client is 14 years old, adorable, and extremely dedicated to the language. I decide instantly to only teach her relevant things, to make sure she can get by in a store or restaurant or meeting a new friend. I dive headfirst into our courses, drafting a lesson plan and conducting role plays. We analyze scenes from “Friends” and “Forrest Gump,” we discuss the lyrics from John Lennon’s “Imagine.” We do read alouds and rehearse the elusive “th” sound in English.
I make sure she knows expressions I wish I knew before coming to France. One of our first role plays takes place in a store.
“If someone in a store asks you if they can help you with anything,” I point out, “you might say, ‘I’m just browsing, thanks,’ or ‘Actually, yes, do you have this in my size?’ or ‘Do you have this in a small?’ or ‘Do you have this in red’?”
On the way back from my first lesson, I message my mother and tell her: “Teaching is rewarding but so difficult. How do you do it?”
“Of course, it’s not all perfect,” she says. “But the kids make me laugh. It’s never boring. Never the same.”
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.)
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.”
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 EasternAirline 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.