The Girl on the Gurney

I pull on the shapeless blue gown. High fashion, I tell the outpatient receptionist at the hospital, haute couture. She smiles.

I sit on a gurney and wait for the doctor with my father, who is sitting in a nearby chair. I don’t like this thing in my hand, I say to him, gesturing to the IV. I try to rest it on my lap in a way that it won’t hurt, but any way I position it, it aches.

Don’t worry about it, says my father.

It hurts. How do they know they’ve even put it in a vein, and not somewhere else?

The nurse made you hold your hand in a fist and hit your hand until the vein showed up, remember? That’s how she knows.

Yes, I say, but how would she know she had gone in the vein and not under? It’s hard to see. I gesture around my hand, bewildered.

My father shrugs. I guess that’s why it takes training.

My father returns to the book he was reading, “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama. I liked the biography so much that I had bought it for my family, signing it, To everyone, from Marisa. Feb 2019.

I say: My roommates were trying to convince me to go to class even with the bandages on, after this is all over.

My father lowers the book a bit reluctantly, but listens.

They argued with me for like, an hour on it. They said ‘Marisa your education is more important than how you look’ and I refused, I said, ‘I know people on campus, and I’m too vain to go on campus with a bandage on my face. Besides, everyone is going to ask me questions.’ And they said ‘so what,’ and I said ‘what if they think I got a nose job?’ And they said, ‘Then you tell them no, I had sinus surgery, and now I can breathe clearly.’ And I scrunched up my face because it’s so unsavoury, isn’t it? Sinus surgery. Not exactly a glamorous topic. But they fought me.

My father nods, lifts his book.

That’s how you know they’re good people, I say. My father lowers the book, closes it. Sets it on the side table near the gurney.

And you know they’re right, I continue, You know they care. They’re so smart. I can talk to them about literally anything and I can trust what they say. Maggie has mastered two languages—French and Spanish. She’s wants to teach abroad next year. Cassandra impressed this one Genetics prof so much that the prof gave her a work placement and scholarship, then invited her to a conference, then got her a job for the summer. She’s going to do a half-law-half-bioethics degree at McGill to work on gene patent law, can you believe that? And Jasia is planning on going to teacher’s college. I read her application and it’s incredible. They can’t not let her in.

Talking about my roommates has made me a little less tense. My thoughts turn to my younger sister, Katya.

I guess Katya had a lot of these, huh? I ask.

What? My father stares longingly at the book.

Surgeries.

Of course, he says.

Where was I, in all of that?

We left you at home, he says.

Why?

You were young, he says. Katya was young. I remember, once, they gave her an IV, just like the one you have there, but because she was a child they had to wrap her entire wrist with tape. Her hand had started to change colour, it was so tight. I had to ask them to loosen it.

She probably had an itty-bitty hand, too, I say.

It was an itty-bitty hand, he affirms.

Sitting in the gown, I have a new appreciation for all that. Throughout her childhood, my younger sister Katya had multiple surgeries and had many IVs put in—not just one. And here I was, at 21, agonizing about a single surgery when she had had at least three before the age of five. Growing up, I was fiercely protective of my sister and quick to pounce on anyone who stared a beat too long at her scars. But there was no need. I had wrongfully assumed she was vulnerable and in need of my protection.

When she frequented SickKids, the Hospital for Sick Children, hospital staff awarded her a “Bravery Bead” for every blood withdrawal, surgery, etc. Each of the beads corresponded with a different treatment. By the time it was over, Katya had upgraded from a bracelet to necklace, which jangled with multicoloured beads that I would stare at, uncomprehending.

John Steinbeck once said, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” My sister has probably stockpiled bravery from her childhood, like a pile of matches you can set fire to when you need warmth or light.

For the surgery today, I would receive no beads. I was too old for that and not nearly brave enough. In place of beads I had inspirational young women. My roommates. My sister.

My father retrieves the book and opens it.

What part are you at? I ask.

He sighs. Chapter 1, page 1.

I’m sorry, I say, laughing. I’ll let you read.

My face changes when I remember why I am at the hospital, and what I am about to undergo.

He looks at the book, then looks back up. Sets it down. You’ll be fine, you know?

I know, I say.

You’ll be fine.

MC

 


Image credit: Woman in the Hospital by Gyula Szabó.

 

I Guess I’ll Write About the Little Things

I.

At my new job downtown, people speak only in buzz words.

I start to keep a list. I quickly discover that their favourite expression is “high-level overview.” As in: “Marisa, we’re going to give you a tour of the office. Sort of a high-level overview.” This is funny: any sort of overview is – by nature of it being an overview –  high-level.

When I get home after my first day, my mother bursts into the room like sunshine. If you don’t know my mother, she is: a grin that takes up a good portion of her face, freckles, hair caught in a bun. She is: eyebrows set high on her face like everything is interesting. She is: a tinge of an accent, and a habit of referring to every man as “fella”.

“How was your first day?” she asks.

“Would you like a high-level overview?” I say.

“Of course.”

I consider this, placing a finger on my chin. “I did nothing and nothing happened.”

“Sounds like a low-level overview to me.”

“Katya,” I say, turning to my sister. “Give me a high-level overview of that sandwich you’re eating. And a bite.”

 

II.

What there is left to write about, when the exchange is over? When life is predictable and there are no longer surprises at every turn?

Let me tell you! There is a beauty in familiarity. In the noncommittal rain that falls over the Toronto streets. Outside the train, I watch the overcast skies turn the foliage a deep green. Small lavender flowers peek out through the brush.

I’ll write about the little things; about the man who greeted his wife and small daughter at the train station. He crouched down, hugged her and chatted to her animatedly. She was wearing sunglasses too big for her face and a pink sunhat. He then kissed her on the cheek, and kissed his wife, and then kissed her pregnant, bulging belly, and the whole group sought cover under the shelter, so the little girl could press her nose against the glass and watch the train whisk by.

I’ll write about the little things.

 

III.

After living in Europe, all prices seem deceptively low. I have developed the nasty habit of flinging my money at things: shoes, subway sandwich, phone case.

Compared to my life abroad, I feel like a princess. There is never any urgency to ensure my own survival. When I was away, if I didn’t take steps to go to the grocery store and cook something I would likely die.

But at home, barbecue chicken is always made à la Daddy, and Those Bagels I Like are bought consistently. My sister need only breathe the word cheeto and a bag will miraculously appear in the cupboard.

My fridge in France was almost always empty, with only Camembert, a single egg (rotten, probably) and an industrial-sized bottle of iced tea. The fridge at my parents’ house is so full to the brim I saw the cream cheese exactly once and never again. I suspect it is lost to the world.

Things have back to normal and life has resumed its ambling pace. I no longer have to jump through hoops to do anything administrative. Stores are open for twice as long as they were in France, with no endless midday lunch break. Sending a letter is no longer a spectacle. And by the grace of God I am able to order hawaiian pizza.

But things have changed while I was away. Minimum wage jumped to a whopping $14 an hour, and the prices of everyday goods rose as well. Recently, the family purchased a black lab-border collie cross that likes to use the furniture like a chew toy. He probably thinks his name is “no, no, no,” or “sit, sit, sit,” or “please stop biting me,” because that’s all we seem to say to him. (The puppy’s name, in reality, is Ziggy.)

At work, I am only one of two people in the office who speak French, and in short order, am given the opportunity to translate into French for the company. That was quick, I think, but the need for the language is palpable. I suppose this bodes well for me.

I am a newly-minted bilingual, eager to speak and write. Sometimes I forget the whole thing, the whole exchange. I open my mouth and am stunned all over again that it’s French that comes out.

 

IV.

Working downtown is an exercise in anonymity. I often feel as though I leave my identity at the train station and recover it at the end of the day.

I am almost embarrassed by how little people seem to care about one another on the train. In Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the book’s pivotal moment is one where Briony, the main character, realizes that everyone is living a life just a complex and as vivid as hers: “…the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense…”

I wonder what the People On The Train would think of this.

At the office, I once caught my fingers in the hinge of one of the heavy doors. Be careful, my mother would have said. Those are your piano fingers. But when I look up, I realize no one has seen this small tragedy. No one here knows that I play the piano, either. I run my fingers under cold water in the staff bathroom and feel inexplicably lonely.

 

V.

The exchange is not “over”. The whole thing was so vivid that at times I feel I am still living it. I suppose it has to be that way. The drawback (or upside, you choose) of travel is that you leave little pieces of yourself everywhere. At the back of my mind I think about how I have spread my life across Europe, Canada and Jamaica, like peanut butter on toast. Spread it too thin it won’t taste like anything.

Or maybe life is not peanut butter. Maybe peanut butter is peanut butter and life is life.

I will always be stunned by the difference between my parents’ lives and mine. Their friends, family, and nearly everyone they had ever known – was limited to a single island with roughly the population of Toronto. I’m not sure what that’d be like.

 

VI.

I step out of my office building and the sun hits me, hard. I am in dress pants with a key card clipped to the waistline, masquerading as an adult. I don’t know what worries me more: the possibility that this fools no one, or that it fools everyone. Downtown bustles around me, always busy, always late for something.

The smell of food hangs in the air like a good idea.

MC

Why

I.

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.

 

II.

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).

 

III.

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.

 

IV.

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.

 

V.

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.

 

VI.

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.

MC

 

IMG_3388
The Maritimes Trip

#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.”

IMG_4010
A secret photo I took of myself and Michelangelo’s ceiling
IMG_4030.jpg
Katya and I in Rome, beneath the Raphael’s “School of Athens.” See: Michelangelo looking down from above

II.

We walk up and down the street staring at Google Maps until a man with a cigarette hanging from his lips motions us over.

“You are looking for the hostel?”

My sister and I look at each other in the way we do when things are getting absurd. This man is standing in front of a laundromat.

“Yes,” I say.

“Follow me,” he says.

We soon learn that the hostel is a moderate scam. The public laundromat serves as its makeshift lobby and every one of the employees looks questionable. Despite its 9.0 rating, I quickly realise that every one of the hostel’s reviews was probably written by Laundromat Man with Cigarette.

We drink terrible, complimentary red wine with a British teenager we just met who is trying to travel Western Europe but has “washed” his money. I am not from Britain but assume this means he is broke. Watering down the wine with 7up, my sister and I complain about the German PhD student with whom we share our hostel room—every day he gets into the shower and uses it as an opportunity to hack and cough and clear his nasal passages, waking us up.

 

III.

IMG_3329Later, my sister and I are sitting at opposite sides of the hostel room. A photo appears on my phone. It is my sister’s face at a strange angle. She has just taken it and is Airdropping it to me from across the room, for no reason in particular.  If you have a younger sister you may be familiar with this particular brand of nonsense. I try to click exit but it keeps popping back up.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask. “It won’t let me exit.”

“Click accept,” my sister says, half-smiling. “Just accept it…”

 

 

IV.

We attempt to buy some souvenirs for our parents from a stall on the street. It quickly becomes clear that the vendor does not know any English.

“Man?” I say in Italian, pointing at a shirt.

“No,” he says. “Bambini.” A child’s T-shirt.

“Ah,” I say, in the way I have heard Italians and Frenchpeople and other Latin language speakers express assent. I turn to another shirt. “Small?”

,” he says. I sling this shirt over my shoulder for my father.

“Woman,” I say, pointing at another shirt. “Medium?” I just heard him use a word which I think means medium so I decide to try it out.

At the end we have 3 items, a sweatshirt and two T-shirts. “Twenty,” I offer, attempting to barter.

Non possibile,” he says.

“Twenty-two,” I say, inventing the number because I do not actually know the word in

IMG_3922
Katya at the Villa Borghese

Italian. It turns out to be right.

Ventidue,” he agrees. We pay the man and leave.

“Congratulations,” my sister says, rolling her eyes. “You’ve saved exactly 2 euros.”

“Don’t you think it’s strange?” I ask, ignoring her sarcasm. “Two Jamaican-Canadians wandering the streets of Rome, speaking semi-coherent Italian. Don’t you think that’s random?” In Toronto we are already far from home, and all the way over here, in Rome, doubly so.

My sister shrugs, and we step back out into the rain.

 

From Here

When I get back to the South of France, I wonder how it is for people that are actually from here, who look around at the Cypress trees and the cobblestones and feel that familiar twinge that reminds them they’re home. A sigh is coaxed from their lungs and their heart is pinched, maybe.

 

Das ist gut

At 4 or so in the morning, I put my sister in a cab and tell the driver in French where she needs to be and what time she needs to be there by. “Take care,” I say, sadly, hugging myself against the early morning chill.

With my sister on a plane to Toronto, it’s back to business as usual. As I am walking toward the laundromat to wash some clothes, a German friend peeks her head out of the window of her apartment just as I pass. I love Aix-en-Provence for this, the smallness of the place. How you are constantly bumping into friends everywhere you go. Sometimes you may be texting a friend, or walking into town meet them, or merely thinking about them, and you will see them—something that is virtually impossible where I’m from.

“Hey!” I call out in English, involuntarily.

“Salut !” she responds in French. Hi.

“Ça va?” I ask in French. All good?

“Ja!” she responds in German. Yeah!

In true exchange student style, I switch to German too. “Haha, Das ist gut!” That’s good.

In the laundry room I load my clothes into the washer, laughing and shaking my head at this bizarre, multilingual conversation.

IMG_3872
Myself and umbrella @ Villa Borghese

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Thank You I Don’t Drink Coffee

 

This is a personal essay I wrote for a job application. It is an amalgamation of a lot of the ideas expressed on this blog.

 

I.

I am fascinated at the dynamism of human beings.

Ever-changing, we can be anyone or do anything or live anywhere. We can interact with every passerby, or only those wearing the color blue, or none at all. We can spontaneously move countries (as I have just done); speak languages we have just learned; drink coffee when we are not coffee drinkers.

A few months ago, I practically inhaled my first cappuccino after having spent the better part of my 20 years telling everyone “No thank you, I don’t drink coffee.” I used to balk at the very idea of the drink, turning up my nose at the smell, chanting, “Tea, please! Tea, please!” This time; however, I ordered without hesitation.

 

II.

Human beings move at breakneck speed. Today I am in France, on exchange, but tomorrow I could be in Thailand. I find this mildly unsettling, how easy it is.

For no reason in particular, my friends and I were one day sitting on a cliffside at the southernmost point of France. We waved at unknown sailors on a ship turning into the quay. They waved back, startling us.

“I love people,” my friend pointed out, vaguely. “Two sets of strangers, waving at one another.”

 

III.

Whenever I see an apartment building, I want instantly to cut it in half. I am not being malicious! Rather, I would like to see—in the style of a cross-section—the way the people live. I want to see what they have done with their small pocket of mankind.

(Give a human being a room and they will construct it as a bird does a nest. They will wallpaper it with colourful posters and rearrange things and, at the end of it all, will stand back and smile at their handiwork. They will grow herbs in the feeble light of the windowsill.)

 

IV.

In a sudden burst of inspiration, I woke and glanced at the world map pinned to my wall. I spotted an island I had never noticed before. It was off the coast of Antarctica, and had been previously discovered by someone, surely, but only very recently by me. Sandwich Island. On days like this, my heart lifts at all the potential in the world. Other days I am overwhelmed and must find reasons to rise from bed.

 

V.

Not long ago, I was eating at a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris with an old friend. We are far from home, I considered, sitting in a restaurant we chose at random. Surrounding us are faces we will never see again.

She told me quite casually that her master’s program required her to do an internship abroad, and that she could choose any city, any country. The entire globe was effectively at her fingertips.

I sipped my coffee.

“I’m thinking somewhere in Senegal or New York, maybe,” she said.

My friend continued to explain, but I could hardly hear. I was quaking with excitement, the roar of life itself filling my ears.

 

#2 The Machine Ate my Money

Mystery girl

Here, I am a bit of an enigma.

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 Machine ate my Money

The laundry is halfway across the residence complex, and on top of that, it costs a whopping 3 euros (almost $6 CDN) to wash and dry. When at last I find the laverie, I toss down my heavy bag of clothes in submission. I notice that only one washing machine is empty. In retrospect, this should have been a red flag.

I put in my clothes and insert my money into the slot. Nothing happens.

I call up the front desk of my residence. “The machine ate my money,” I tell the man on the other end, in as best French as I can muster in my exhaustion. That was almost $4 CDN.

“Ah, yes, but you see, I cannot do much, me. You will need to call the emergency number written on the wall.”

This is an emergency?”

“Well, I would assume so? You are there, your clothes are there, you cannot wash them, I cannot help you, the machine has taken your money. Yes, definitely an emergency.”

When I call, the phone blares in English: The number you are trying to reach is not available at this time. Please try again later.

I redial the front desk. “Yes, me again. There was no response,” I say.

“Ah, but I don’t know what you want me to do, unfortunately I am here, and you are there, and I have no cash register to reimburse you. We do not manage the laundry, you see. It is an outside company. They deal with the washers. They deal with the machine. You will just have to call the number. I don’t know what you want me to do—”

“One second,” I say, and hang up to put an end to his tirade. A guy a little older than me has come into the laundry room.

“The machine ate my money,” I say in lieu of a greeting.

“It doesn’t work,” he says simply. He points at the machine. “Millions of euros probably. Stolen.”

“But the number—”

“The number doesn’t work. There is no one there,” he says ominously, eyes wide. “If you knock on the machine, I am sure you can hear the mice running.”

“What?” I say, taking his French too literally.

“It was a joke.”

“Oh. Ha.”

Grumpily, I put my clothes in another washer and imagine sinister men coming in the dead of night to empty the machine, collecting sackfuls of coins that have gone nowhere.

 

A cappuccino with a side of soap

I.

I made the mistake of trying out a 4-hour long course called “The History of Modern Provence” which should have been called: “The History of the Marseillaise Soap Industry and Please Make Sure You Bring a Pillow.” My eyes were closing throughout the whole thing, and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been that tired in my life.

When the professor mercifully allowed us a 10-minute break, myself and two English-speaking friends stumbled toward the student restaurant. I realized then that I’d forgotten my wallet, but my new friend from Berlin offered to pay.

“What would you like?” the cashier asked.

“Coffee,” I blurted.

Normale ou cappuccino ?

“Cappuccino,” I said, picking arbitrarily.

And there I was, downing a cappuccino after having spent my entire life telling people I didn’t drink coffee, balking at the very prospect of the drink, crinkling my nose at the smell, saying No thank you, but I prefer tea. This time, somehow, I ordered a coffee without hesitation. Something switched inside me right then and I drank the whole thing.

I am always stunned by the dynamism of human beings, how quickly we can change.

How we can move countries or change our names or learn languages. Or drink coffee when we are not coffee drinkers.

II.

Back in class, I am awake, and decide to participate.

“What else do you notice about this piece?” the professor asks.

I raise my hand, trying not to think about how my accent will sound to the class of French-speakers. “He talks about morality. That they think only about themselves.”

“And?” the professor asks.

“Uh,” I say in English, starting to panic.

“I need concrete examples.”

I quickly scan the page and read out a passage. “…que leur intérêt personnel, sans consideration pour le sort à venir des propriétaires infortunés d’une contrée à trois quarts ruinée—”

“Thank you,” he says. That seems to have satisfied him.

I look around at the class, hoping to see, in the eyes of my peers, evidence that they either understood or didn’t. Everyone is looking at their pages and they don’t seem confused, or ridiculing. No one is laughing. I feel a wave of relief and am prouder of myself in that moment than I have been in a long while. It’s then that I realize this was one of the hardest days of my life so far – finding the campus and the classroom, navigating the French administrative system, feeling all eyes on me, yet being brave and participating – and that I’ve survived.

 

20-somethings

Myself and a friend are walking back to the residence. Night is falling.

“When I was backpacking around New Zealand, I never told my parents I was going skydiving,” she confesses.

“Wow.”

“I know. My mom was glad I didn’t tell her. She said she wouldn’t have let me go.”

To be 20 is to be doing, right now, all the things we’ll refer to offhandedly for the rest of our lives. Like going on exchange. Or skydiving. Things that demarcate a before and after.

“How was it?”

“I went through a cloud. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I just saw this solid thing beneath me.” She places her hands on her cheeks, her eyes lighting up. “And then I went through it, and there were a thousand hard, tiny rain droplets on my face.”

 

If you can’t beat ‘em, type up a strongly-worded sign

I print out a piece of paper that says “EN PANNE” and below it, write in English, “OUT OF ORDER,” and tape it to the broken washing machine. Damned if the thing eats anyone else’s money.

MC

IMG_1924
Sitting on top of Mount Saint Victoire after a 2 1/2 hour hike, at an altitude of around 1000m.