We are strangers. She messages her boyfriend and hands the phone back to me, saying, Thanks for letting me borrow it.
At least he knows where you are now, I sigh.
She smells of alcohol, and is wearing a very short dress that rides up on her thighs. Beige heels. Then she asks, Can I talk to you for a while? Just small talk. Don’t feel obligated to say yes. You can say no, if you want to do your own thing.
It is very late at night, I think. But I close my book, agreeing, because I always do—because I always have to—with the people on the bus.
Three minutes in and I am her confidant. She is a half-Dominican, half-Quebecois mix who admits that she can speak neither her mother’s Spanish, nor her father’s French. Her parents are separated and she lives with her older sister in a basement apartment. She’s going to McDonalds to exist, drunkenly, with her boyfriend and to bother the employees. What could be better?
Her smile falters. She knows it is strange, and says so.
At least she knows.
Ten minutes in and I am an unlikely friend, made privy to the hazy world of the sad, pretty drunk girl. The pleading gaze. The alcohol-induced charisma: arm slung coolly over the back of the seat, swaying with the rhythm of the bus. Uneasiness bubbling somewhere underneath. A flicker of self-consciousness every time I look away, out the window, away from her.
Look at me, she screams silently, hazel eyes wide with childlike ferocity. Like I have all the answers.
Twenty minutes in and we are adversaries.
What’s your background?
Jamaican, I say.
Oh, cool. Her eyes light up, the thrill at the duality of my citizenship. The way I am suspended perpetually between two lifestyles,
Two modes of being.
You’re pure, though, she says, and my ears buzz, as though clogged with radio static. I ask what she means.
Other black girls stand in groups and stare at me; they ask what I am. I’m just a person. But you’re not like them. You’re pure, you know?
Thirty minutes in and my stop is here, and we are strangers once again. It’s a shame; I was just starting to get used to the smell of the alcohol, the way she leans forward as if to absorb my words before they dissipate into the air, her story, the subtle storm that bubbles beneath her skin.
Once off the bus, I weigh the encounter in my hand, like a stone with heft. The desperate, heavy way she stares at me; the way she measured my movements, my discomfort.
I stand at the corner and look up as the bus drives away, expecting her to wave, but she does not see me. She is moving breathlessly through the aisle toward another waiting pair of ears, as though our small words are her sustenance, and she is starving.
Yesterday on the bus, I forgot what I looked like. Surrounded by people, I made mirrors out of their eyes and saw myself as I imagined they saw me.
There are two kinds of people in the world; those who look through the window to see to see their own reflection, and those who look through the window to see what is outside.
Isn’t there something poetic in the way the commuters swing – listlessly but in perfect unison – with the lurching movements of the train? They ignore each other with an almost passionate conviction, but are thrown in all the same directions, reminded constantly that they are all vulnerable. All in the same car.
Aix-en-Provence reminds me of Kingston, Jamaica in many ways – sweltering at times, cool in the evenings; narrow roads, hilariously tiny cars with horns that go bip-bip; bizarre, desert-looking plants that stick up in every direction; the gates and grills on some of the windows; the cooing of morning doves. But the streets are lined with trees I’ve never seen before.
They are eggshell white and spotted with brown, as though the fierce Aixoise wind (which I experienced earlier this week) have stripped off their bark in curving patterns. I don’t know what they are called but I love them.
Sometimes my French is great, and sometimes it’s downright terrible
I’ve realized the quality of my French varies based on context. If I’m comfortable with the person I’m able to communicate more complex ideas; if they’re a stranger, my accent is heavier and I make more mistakes; if the person is unaccommodating, or rude, my French deteriorates in quality and I say almost nothing at all. The more intense the emotion I’m feeling, the more I turn to English, by instinct.
I first learned about this phenomenon when studying Aneta Pavlenko’s “Emotions and Multilingualism.” In it, she quotes Chinese-American writer Minfong Ho. “When I cry, I cry in Chinese,” he says (Pavlenko, Emotions, 179-80).
Now, I feel this distinctly. I guess I haven’t yet found my voice in French.
Tell me if something’s wrong
When I arrived at my residence, the lady at the front desk gave me some papers to fill out. I said something, and then was suddenly quiet.
“What’s wrong?” she asks. “You can let me know if something is wrong, you know.”
“No, it’s fine,” I say. And it’s true. In reality, I was going over the conversation we had just had in my head, trying for the life of me to figure out if my grammar was correct.
Cockroaches (small ones though, please don’t panic)
On moving in I spotted small cockroaches in the throes of death along my sink and shower. One was still moving. I killed him quickly and apologized for some reason.
It’s no big deal; cockroaches are common in warm climates, I know, but it’s startling anyway.
Today the cockroach man I booked at the front desk burst into my room, and started talking from the moment he walked in. He was going on so fast that I was struggling to cling to every word. One of his sentences went over my head entirely. It was a shame – he seemed very funny and charismatic and I really would have liked to understand. He kept on, showing no signs of knowing that I was having trouble, and I just kept nodding, something I’ve vowed not to do but end up doing anyway.
“…[Indicipherable French] but you must make sure to throw away this pizza box, and that one, because that attracts (?) them. See, you, your apartment is clean, but a lot of people… [Indicipherable French]. Take the garbage out when you can. You understand me…?” he asked finally.
“Oui” I lied, nodding furiously.
The tables have turned
“I’ve never felt more foreign in my life,” I say to a friend.
Speaking English in the streets with my friends makes me a little self-conscious. So does my tendency to throw small English words into sentences like, “yeah” and “alright” and “oh” and “mhm” – but it’s hard, staying in character. At times like this, my French hat falls off my head.
In the lines of stores, I quickly look up words like, “hole-punch,” and “bookends”, because these are things that I need and want to ask for. I listen closely to the corrections made by my Uber driver, by a friend of a friend, by the girl who lives in the apartment next to me.
“You can’t say we are almost there. You have to say we have almost arrived.”
“‘Meaningful’ can’t be used in that context actually. Rather, you should say that the thing ‘had meaning for you’.”
“You shouldn’t say that your hot plates are broken, rather, out of order.”
I try to speak, thinking less about the fact I’m speaking a different language and more about whatever idea I’m trying to get across. I’m sure the people I’ve met think I’m eclectic, the way I use my hands a lot, providing gestures where my words fail me.
I’ve had so many people switch to English for me in the last few days. My Uber driver, the woman in the Casino supermarket, people in the street, people in stores. Sometimes I inadvertently prompt it by saying, “ah, I don’t know the word in French-” but other times, it’s almost eerie the way people can detect that I speak English. I am stunned at the average French person’s proficiency in the language.
Walking through the city at night, my new friends from London and I came across some French teens sitting on a bridge. “Oh, they’re English?” one said. “Welcome to paradise,” they said to us in English, darkly.
All we’d said was “Pardon,” and for the life of us we couldn’t figure out how they knew.
Keep an open mind
I know the brands and what I like and stick to them.
Me: “Can I please have a small Hawaiian pizza?”
I’m trying to really get into the culture, eat French food, step out of my comfort zone.
Also me: “Est-ce que je pourrais avoir une petite pizza hawaïenne?” (Can I have a small Hawaiian pizza?)
The more things change
I can’t believe the universality of some things. Sitting at a table in a bar, talking to the English and Australian students I’ve only recently met, I find that some things are so similar: everyone loves Game of Thrones, everyone barely tolerates Friends but watches it anyway, everyone is relieved Miley Cyrus is out of her crazy phase, Frank Ocean’s album definitely wasn’t as good as his first…
Et tu viens de quel pays ?
People who learn I am from Canada ask me if it is really as cold as they hear, and I say “yes” without hesitation. I enjoy shocking them with stories of cold-weather alerts and minus 30C days (temperatures people here can’t actually conceptualize), ice storms (what is that! they say), black ice, and fleets of snowplows. I tell them about how my family has done every winter sport known to man, and how skating was the one that stuck for me. I tell them about Toronto, about the sprawling highways and big cars, about Walmart, about the fact that our country is only 150 years old this year. About white Christmases.
The man who moved me into my room said he thought Canada was nice.
“Oh, you’ve visited?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But I’ve seen it on the television.”
I smiled. The idea that some people know Canada only through a television screen floors me.
One of my new friends has the most hilarious roommates. They’re French, but went to an international school so they speak to us in English.
Walking through the city, they muse sarcastically about the typical French man.
“He drinks, but is never drunk.”
“He smokes, but he never gets cancer.”
“He is never wearing a shirt.”
“Don’t forget he plays the accordion,” they snort. “Baguette. Beret. Striped shirt.”
One of them studied literature, and insists I read Camus. I promise I will.