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.
On the Berlin metro to the airport, our tickets turn out to be Zone A/B instead of Zone C,
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.
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
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.
Another good friend and I are sitting together in a café the day before I am set to leave.
“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.
The father of one of my students kindly offers to take me to the airport. He lugs my
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.
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.
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.
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 here. 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
Later, 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…”
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?”
“Sì,” 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
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.
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.
“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.
I filled out the paperwork for the stay card in my first week, as I was instructed to.
“Why did you do that?” my contact at the university asks me.
I stare back at him blankly. “I followed exactly what it said on the application.”
“No, you were supposed to send it through the school, I told you.” (He didn’t.)
“Okay,” I say, biting my lip, “but it will still be processed, then, right?”
“Yes,” he says, but I am not sure I believe him.
Now, three months later, the deadline to receive this card comes and goes. I still don’t have my stay card,” I tell my friends, bewildered. “I did all the paperwork when they told me to. I sent it to the right address and everything.”
“You don’t have a stay card? How did you get in the country?” my friends tease.
I laugh, but only half-heartedly. Without that card I don’t know if I have the right to stay here.
I call the visa people and get the answering machine. I press “1” to be connected to their emergency line, because maybe this is an emergency; I am not entirely sure. The lady on the other end yells at me for a solid 5 minutes and hangs up on me. Evidently it was not an emergency. I send two emails on two separate occasions and then finally decide to call another number.
The response is as follows: go to the prefecture. This is not ideal, as it requires a 40-minute train ride out of town to Marseille. I ask the woman on the phone again if this is necessary, given that I did everything I was supposed to, and she assures me yes, it is.
So, I wake up early to go to Marseille. Once in the city, I descend into their metro, walking in the slow, measured way I do when I am navigating a new subway system, eyes darting back and forth in search of signage. I do not know this city and am instantly overwhelmed. When I emerge from the metro, I find myself in a marketplace, and a man is selling spices, saying, Come one and all to see the things you can do with these spices you’ll be amazed it’s just incredible.
At the prefecture, an employee is asking people if they have their passports with them, and if they don’t, he shakes his head and asks them politely to leave. I wonder how one can come to a prefecture to do visa things and not have something as crucial as their passport. I realize I don’t want to be a hypocrite and quickly flick through my documents to see if I have mine.
Is this really happening? Did I really take a 40-minute train here without my passport?
My passport is in my scanner at home. The employee assures me that in my particular case, I will be okay without the passport. I am stunned at my luck.
I head up the counter and tell the woman what I am looking for.
“And? What do you want me to do?” the woman says.
I wonder why she is already angry. “My… carte de sejour.”
“I don’t know what you are asking me. Why didn’t you go to the OFII office?”
“I sent some emails and called and everyone told me to come here.” I even show her said email which she reads uninterestedly.
“You don’t even have your passport!” she shouts.
I allow myself to be stunned at this lack of communication, on the most basic level, between this woman and the man who is only an arms-length away. “That man just told me I didn’t need it, he’s over th—”
“Where is your identity card!” Everyone is looking, now.
This is a French thing so I hand her my driver’s license instead. “Marisa Cool-ton, is it?” she yells at me.
I nod slowly. You can’t just spit someone’s name like that, like it’s nothing, I think. It’s my name.
“I have nothing on file for you. You will have to go to the OFII office. Here is their address and number.”
“This process is so confusing,” I try to say. To my surprise, tears spring to my eyes.
Her tone softens suddenly. “Calm down, okay?” She proceeds to rattle off a list of 10 things I must do, and I start to take notes, but stop when I realize how convoluted it all is. I leave without a word.
On my way out, a man hovering near the entrance mutters something under his breath when I walk past, which sets the hairs on the back of my neck on edge. I turn up my collar.
When I call the number I have been given, the woman on the other end is hysterical. “This is not OFII,” she says, and a few other things in French I do not understand. I assume she is making a joke, and so I say, ha, ha, and ask for information on my visa.
“I told you, this is not OFII.”
So, they have given me the wrong number. I do a quick google search and find the right one (they have written a 5, instead of a 2) but when I call, it gives me a brief message and drops the call. I decide just to go home and postpone this to another day.
On the train, I fume silently, thinking about how nothing has come of this trip and how I’ve wasted money on train tickets and several hours of my time. I do not know, in that moment, that my stress and lack of attention will cause me to miss my stop and end up in another city altogether: Avignon. I will take another train in the opposite direction, which will overshoot my stop, taking me back to Marseille, where I started. Then, mercifully, I will take a bus home. At the end of everything, I will finally be able to reach OFII by phone who will tell me card is not even ready, making the entire trip pointless.
“When will it be ready, then?” I will ask. “It’s been 3 months.”
“I don’t know.”
“But you did get my documents, right? Does it say they were received?”
“Don’t worry, mademoiselle. You will get your card,” she says, not answering my question. Much later, I will find out that not only were my documents not received, but that no paperwork had been processed at all.
“Don’t worry,” she says, “Just keep calling back.”
That sounds literally awful, I think, but I agree to keep checking back. I hang up.
It is a long day that will get longer. But like all long days, it will end, and I eventually I will be home. I will be a little older, and my skin will be a little thicker. I’ll be better equipped to handle long days to come.
A lady jumps on the train with a younger woman who is probably her daughter. The daughter is struggling with a large black suitcase, and the mother is helping her move it through the narrow passageways. The doors ping, and suddenly the mother is squeezing past people, trying desperately to get off. As I watch her pushing past, I sincerely wonder if she will make it off the train before it pulls away with her inside. She wanted to stay with her daughter for as long as possible, I imagine. But this is her daughter’s trip, not hers.
The woman makes it onto the platform at the last minute and peers through the window. The daughter is busy with the bag and I’m thinking she won’t spot her mother in time, but she does. The mother taps four fingers against the glass and blows her a kiss, and the daughter returns it.
I find this little gesture—the fingers and the tapping and the kiss—so moving. I am probably still fragile from the episode at the prefecture, but the scene actually brings tears to my eyes again, because I know if it was my mother she would probably do the same thing.
Your family will send you off into the world with a suitcase in the hopes that you will be able to navigate large cities on your own and that you will not be yelled at by strangers in an unfamiliar tongue. But when it comes right down to it and the train pulls away, all you can do is hope.
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.
When things go right
My professor allows me to sit an exam earlier than the rest of class so I can go home to Canada early for the holidays. Before I start, he gives me back the grade for an exam I had written previously for one of my courses with him.
“You did very well,” he tells me. I don’t quite understand the marking system here but, looking at the grade, I think he is right. “You really seem to have understood the texts.”
“Uh, that’s reassuring,” I say in French, flattered. “Thanks so much.” I think back to the exam, where I was flicking through my massive English-French dictionary, trying to express myself in a way somewhere near to how I would in English.
He turns to leave, but then says, “I didn’t mark you as an exchange student. I didn’t have to. I marked you on par with everyone else.” I wonder where he is going with this.
“Yours is the highest mark I gave,” he says, almost as an afterthought. He leaves the exam room.
I sit there for a minute in shocked silence, then a smile splits out over my face. I move the pages around a bit in front of me for no reason. Then I open my enormous English-French dictionary, and flip over the exam booklet.
I write, urgently, desperately. I want to show him what I’m made of.
Get yourself a friend who —
If I can recommend anything to you, it would be to get yourself a friend who will run with you for the train;
Who will come to your apartment unannounced to help you in your last-minute panic;
Who will wash your dishes for you because you didn’t realise you’d have no time to do them before you left;
Who will tuck snacks into your suitcase for the ride while you are not looking;
Who will haul your suitcase across town, because they know it is too heavy for you;
Who will be there for you when you least expect it;
Get yourself a friend who will run with you for the train.
Travel tips from an un-traveler
I must learn to be a better traveler. Not only do I miscalculate the time I have to get to the train station but I go to the wrong one. I hail a cab in desperation.
“I have to make a train at 1:11pm. Can you get me there?”
“It normally takes 20 minutes or more to get to that station,” he says.
I check my watch. We have 15 minutes.
“Let’s try,” he says, and I toss my stuff into the trunk. The taxi driver peels across the highway at 140km/h, and I am sitting on the very edge of my seat wondering whether I will survive this.
Once there, I practically throw my debit card at the driver. “Thank you!”
“Good luck!” he yells, as I dash into the station with a minute to spare.
It turns out the rush was totally unnecessary. The train is running late and is nowhere to be found. I should have checked that. And on top of the everything, I realise left the nice lunch I had packed in the backseat of the taxi. (Much, much later I will realise I have left my keys in the same bag, the second time I have lost them this month.)
I tally my losses. I no longer have my good tupperware. I have wasted almost 50 euros (75 CDN) on the cab, a cancelled Uber, and now an overpriced, not-even-that-good sandwich. This does not even include the price of the train ticket. Why don’t I just set my money on fire? I fume.
I climb onto the train, exhausted. This journey would normally take 10 hours by car but will take only 3.5, because if there’s one thing Europe has mastered, it’s public transport. The train whisks me to Paris at 300km/h, cutting clear across the country.
I place my head against the glass and eat my terrible sandwich. I must learn to be a better traveler.
At a Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, I eat with a Canadian friend I have not seen in quite a while.
Sometimes, I like to think about all the complex moments and decisions that led me to the present. We are far from home, I consider, sitting in a restaurant we chose at random. Surrounding us are faces we will probably never see again. Young and ever-mobile, she and I have spent the better part of the last year tucking ourselves into the forgotten corners of large cities.
She is now doing a master’s at one of the best universities in the world for International Relations, which is what we both study. The intensive program requires her to do an internship abroad, anywhere in the world. What a daunting task, I think. To have the
entire world at your fingertips!
“Where are you thinking of going?” I say eagerly. Conversations like this inspire me. With so few obligations, we could work and study anywhere in the world.
“Senegal. New York maybe,” she says, smiling.
Later I meet a guy from her university, a Belgian who is confronted with the same predicament. He says he is thinking South Africa for his placement. “Where would you go, if you could?”
I raise my eyebrows, and sip my iced tea, ever-present in my hand despite being in France, the world’s wine capital. “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”
But he is not done with me yet. “What do you think you’ll do afterward?” he asks.
I set down my bottle, and steel myself to answer these questions. “A master’s, probably. In a big city. New York or London,” I surprise myself with how set I am on this, given that this is the first time I’ve said it aloud. “But I need to take a break. Living abroad is exhausting! Bank accounts and making friends and everything.”
“So,” he says seriously, “Will you do Columbia or NYU? Or the London School of Economics?”
The fact that he turns, immediately, to some of the best schools in the world, makes my heart soar. I grin back at him because it’s possible—it’s all possible.
How does one gauge fluency? I realise I must set some sort of goal for myself, a way of knowing if I have gotten enough French out of this trip. If not, I may never be satisfied. In theory.
“You are bilingual,” says the Belgian.
My eyes shoot up to my forehead. “What? Really?” I am skeptical, but I suppose I should trust him, given that he is French.
“But. I still get mixed up with expressions,” I attempt.
“Yeah, but.” He shrugs.
So this is it, then. I am fluent. Bilingual. I realise I do not mind this label at all.
I realize I am happy with my progress, and that perfection might not be necessary, or even possible, here. Near-fluency will have to be enough.