I got to the lady at the passport desk at Gatwick Airport and it suddenly occured to me that I could talk to her. What a weird feeling. Everything is delayed for me in France: not only do you have to focus and listen to what the other person is saying, but you have to translate that into your own language, come up with a reply, and then translate that back into French. And then somehow get it out of your mouth with some semblance of an accent. All while still paying attention to whatever it is they’re saying. Living in France is wonderful; living in French is hard.
Today’s realization: after spending four months navigating brand new cities while speaking little to none of the language, going to a city where they speak English is a breeze. Ticket machines and I don’t have to first find the little British flag to make it all English, so I don’t accidently purchase a three-month pass for my weekend trip? Not having to wonder whether the reason the lady at the desk is making no sense at all is because she: a) doesn’t speak clearly, b) has a weird accent, c) doesn’t know what she’s talking about and is therefore genuinely not making any sense in any language, d) all of the above, or e) none of the above and I just cannot French/Italian/Spanish/German? Try to figure which of these options it is and still understand her? You mean I don’t have to do that? Being able to go out and not be 100% where exactly I’m going but it’s ok because I can always stop and ask for directions without involving elaborate charades and creative ad-libbing? LOL. Give me something that’s actually a challenge!
But gosh it definitely took me a couple days to not feel overwhelmed. I didn’t even realize that back in Grenoble I don’t pay any attention to the people around me. I have to focus so hard to understand what they’re saying so most of the time I don’t bother, I just switch off. I slide past them and their lives so easily. And now I’m back in English and I feel like my head’s been invaded. I don’t care who is covering your shift at work next week. I don’t want to know what your mother-in-law has said this time. It’s like I’ve been living everything on mute for four months and now someone’s suddenly fixed the volume and the world is blaring in my ears again and it’s defeaning. I can’t even describe how strange it is to be a part of other people’s lives again: even as just a witness to a split-second of a lifetime, that connection between me and the stranger is still there when it hasn’t been there in four months. I feel a little afraid, going out of the house and plunging back into this mad-cap world again.
I’ve listened to the Kinks and the Who in London, and Simon & Garfunkel while exploring my new hometown, and Radiohead while snowboarding on Chamonix, and U2 while on the train back from Geneva. I feel very happy. Can I do an exchange to London next year? Lol jk maybe if I wanted the life experience of being a hobo on a diet.
I have so far tried to apologise three times to complete strangers in French. I am so clearly a Canadian living in France: massively culturally-confused!
Also when they said “mind the gap” they were not kidding, I think gap is an understatement! Is everyone in London on the Olympic long jump team?! These pants were not made to do the splits in!
I like this city, do I have to leave?
Everyone looks like you and Sue in the 90’s, and you can tell her I said that and that I miss you both and your Laura Ashley dresses. Everyone here has this kind of comfortable, unprentiousness to the way they dress. So vastly different from the French: when I go out in Grenoble I can feel the stares if my shirt is untucked at the back, or the scuffs on my shoes are a little too noticeable. The French pride themselves on their style; the English pride themselves on not priding themselves at all.
I love the English: “The shuttle will be arriving in 3 minutes. The shuttle will be arriving in 2 minutes. The shuttle will be arriving in 1 minute. The shuttle is approaching. Please board the shuttle through the doors. You are quite stupid but it’s alright we still love you and we’ll help you through it.” France: “the shuttle is in a secret location somewhere far far away possibly near the bottom of Indian Ocean but more likely under a mountain of bureaucracy but we’re not too sure have fun finding it trolololol we will continue laughing madly after our three hour lunch break.”
I also just looked up out the window (I’m on the train) at Clapham Junction and realized I had a dream about here, dreamt I was trying to find you and I couldn’t. Something like that. But now I’m here and I feel like I’m seeing you everywhere, Mum.
I wrote this before I got off the train; I would like to make an adjustment and say that at least when you clearly don’t speak the language people are either more patient with you or you don’t know when they’re being rude. How was I supposed to know museums are free?! And everywhere else I’ve been you have to wait for the prompt before you put your card in the machine!? But at least they stick a “darling” on the end of everything to make you feel marginally better about yourself. And at least I speak enough English to be snide back when ladies at desks are snide to me.
Lots of love from your daughter who finally feels like she’s found somewhere she wants to call a home,