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.
I decide to start taking pictures of things I need to sell at the end of the year. Printer, microwave, and other things I have amassed over seven months. When I look back at the pictures I get a heavy feeling in my chest.
“It just made me so sad,” I say, when recounting this to a friend, over dinner. “I don’t know why. I’m hesitant to leave.”
From the other side of my small kitchen, he shrugs. He shovels himself another big helping of spaghetti. Every time I have boys over at my apartment they seem determined to eat all my food.
“This is the first time you’ve built a life away from your home,” he says. “Your family.”
He’s getting at something. We constructed small, humble lives in France. Alone. Faced with only vague ideas about different countries and cities, we were able to choose exactly where we settled, and where we studied (within certain parameters, of course!). We opened bank accounts and found apartments and surrounded ourselves with people we believed were good. Lately I have noticed that it is an existence so small and controlled that the individuals who populate it play an unusually important role. This is not always ideal.
Now we must, piece-by-piece, dismantle what we have created, settling debts and cancelling phone plans. In some ways I feel I have set up camp in a quiet clearing and am now yanking up the stakes of my tent, unceremoniously.
We did not face ultimate hardship here. We are from the first world, briefly resettling in the first world. But what if it had been different? How many times in our lives will we be able to construct, from the ground up, a new existence somewhere we don’t understand? Twice? Three times? Surely we will have more chances to pick up our lives and start again?
A friend recently told me she was proud of me. And of course, this meant a lot.
In the rare moments where I am able to set aside my perfectionism and examine what I have built here, I am proud of myself, too. I have established a small, private practice teaching English courses. My apartment is comfortable, despite its being a bit solitary. For the first time in years, I am away from the crippling intensity of bad roommates, away from all the noise, and I can breathe, read, write, think.
In my studio, one wall is a giant window. In the beginning I used to shudder with gratitude, wondering how I was lucky enough to wake up every morning and see so much light, so many trees. To have windows I could throw open at any time of year so I could hear the mourning doves. I am happy, and if I wanted to stay, I could, with the right paperwork. I won’t. But I could if I wanted to.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.)
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 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.