France

sorting through a backlog

15 minutes into Christmas – I tag this quickly atop a post I wrote this morning about the beginning of the past two weeks. It has been a very quiet Christmas eve, with the gift of unexpected company and little delights besides. I find myself heading to bed in a far more settled, peaceful mood than the one with which I woke up, which is a small mercy in and of itself. The sky was relentlessly gray all day; I woke up at 8 am thoroughly confused at the flat, gloomy darkness, and moped around in bed for half an hour. The house was, as they say, in a tip.

But tides recede and surges subside into a patient sea of sentiment that transcends petty attachments. Skyped my mom and a tipsy, happy friend today. What is distance but an evaluation of sincerity, a decisive revealing?

*

It has been a … preoccupying two weeks, a bit of a whirlwind of sorts that’s only just now spat me out to the ambiguous gift of solitude. In any case, I am currently housesitting in Narbonne, France. I flew from London Luton to Paris CDG (or Roissy, as the Parisians like to call it) and then took a train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Narbonne, where I’ve been for the past two weeks.

(The website linked above is the one I used to find this arrangement; it has a £20 annual membership fee, which I think is worth it even if you only use it for a week-long stay. For my fundamental purpose of immersing myself in the country, however, I’m looking at another one instead. That, however, requires work in exchange for food and board.)

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I am going to admit that I was actually a little nervous before the flight. Sometimes I forget that I’ve travelled alone numerous times before and start worrying about not having my passport or being stopped by border control or losing my way in a foreign airport.

But the moon was strikingly calm, and the thrum of anticipation reassured me. This is an unremarkable photo; I took it for memory’s sake. This was 10 Dec.

(On an unrelated note, I can’t figure out if I should simply backdate these posts – I had initially planned to just write one that covered the past two weeks but it stretched far too long. Now that it’s been broken up, however, and I’m queueing them, backdating them seems natural but also … misrepresentative.)

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Since I don’t have a wifi-enabled device and the attendant access to Google maps, this has become my make-shift guide: taking photos of maps. The one on the left was to enable me to walk 1 km at 3 am to get to my easyBus ride from a friend’s place to London Luton airport. It was a bit of an anxious trek, not going to lie. My friend offered to walk me across, but I didn’t want her to have to walk back alone.

The one on the right is in Paris during my three-hour transit time between my flight and my train, when I thought, very optimistically, that I was going to be able to drag 20 kg of luggage around with me on an impromptu walking tour of Paris. I made it down four blocks.

A French guy stopped and offered to take a photo of me with the signboard (he must have thought I was a really overeager tourist) but I replied in halting French that I just needed a map. I actually like the French’s attitude when they speak French casually to foreign-looking people as though they expect everyone to be able to speak it – then again, the way that attitude strikes me as a little presumptuous is only indicative of my own Anglophone bias. Then again, English is more of an international language than French is.

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La Gare de Lyon. It was exciting to be in Paris, albeit only briefly. Sitting in the train station, I was overwhelmed by the rush of being in France, a visceral pleasure I can never explain, given my utter lack of affiliation with the country, and I promised myself I’d definitely come back. Two weeks on, I must say my French has seen very little improvement (mostly because I haven’t gotten out of the house much and I haven’t really put much effort into it); I will try harder from now on, but I suspect a better choice next time would be to actually volunteer for food/board so I (am forced to) interact with people.

There’s something evocative I cannot yet articulate about being in a foreign country – the strange signs, a thrilling excitement of disorientation, the mildly narcissistic awareness of being exoticised as other. It has always been a dream of mine to study, work or simply function in a foreign country, to be forced to relinquish the command of English (and the intimation of intelligence, to be brutally honest) I sometimes use a a crutch. To me, first and foremost, it will be a humbling experience, to be reduced to the vocabulary (and social position?) of a seven-year-old child. All these drive me to return to France during Easter; I’ve already found a few interesting postings on helpx – there’s one that requires an English or Chinese helper for four homeschooled children. Not too often that you see requests for Chinese-speakers!

Then again, it seems a little over-involved to head to France twice in a year, particularly if this month does nothing for my fluency in the language. In addition to that, the house-sitter I met today raved about Berlin so much during dinner that I am very, very tempted to head there instead. German is an easier language to struggle with and speak as a novice than French, anyway. Decisions, decisions!

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