1.07.2011

Memory Fridays: When history books fail.

From 2003-2004, I lived in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Clermont isn't big; 500,000 inhabitants live around a Gothic old cathedral made of dark stone that came from the old volcanoes nearby. I was working as an English assistant and it was my first year out of college. My Muhlenberg friends were (for the most part) finding entry-level jobs and moving to New York. There were moments leading up to my trip abroad that I wished I were with them.

Now I cannot imagine it any other way.

I lodged at the high school where I worked for the first few weeks, spending weekends on my new friend Erica's couch and using the Internet at a small free space downtown. Every Monday morning, the local newspaper would come out and I'd run to be at the news stand in time to search for an apartment. I couldn't afford much and though my French was decent, I sometimes stumbled on the phone.

"I hear a little accent..." the owner would say when I called to inquire about a room.
"Yes, I'm American. I'm from New York."
"Sorry, the room's rented," they would say, and hang up quickly.

(It was the beginning of the Iraq war and it wasn't uncommon to encounter some hostility when people found out I was American. I didn't exactly disagree with them, but made it my job to be as charming as I could. I was over-helpful and uber-interested in the French language, all in the name of proving that people are more than their nationalities. And in the end, I encountered tons of open-minded and generous French people.)

There was still the issue of finding a room, though. And one day I struck gold. I called an ad for a room in a co-location and a young woman named Susanne answered.

"Are you French?" she asked. I knew what was coming.
"No, I'm American."
"Oh, I'm German," she said. "That could be fun to live together."
I explained that some French people weren't keen on letting me live in their apartments.
"Oh I'm used to it," she said. "I'm German." And we both laughed.

As it turned out, Susanne and I were exactly the same age - both born on January 14, 1981. Because of the time difference though, she had entered the world a few hours ahead of me. I didn't speak German and she spoke little English, so French was our language of choice. We decorated the bathroom with drawings of different animals and the sounds they make in English, French and German (Rooster = Cock-a-doodle-doo, Cocorico, Kikeriki). She taught me about St. Nicholas Day and I taught her about St. Patty's Day festivities.

One night I was reading through an American History textbook, preparing a lesson for my students. She came into my room and noticed it.

"Are there sections about World War II?" she asked. I nodded. "Will you read them to me?"

And we sat there for several hours, me translating many pages, cringing as I suddenly realized how biased the words sounded with her presence in the room. Sometimes it was awkward and sometimes she told me about a side of the story that I'd never heard and through it all I felt such kinship with her that it seemed we were destined to be roommates. No one else could have navigated the cultural differences like we did.

Susanne spent a year in Prague when I was last living in France and I visited her for a long weekend. It was just as comfortable as it had been, but I finally spoke some German and she finally spoke quite a bit of English. We tossed around all three languages, comforted by the fact that we were the same people deep down, no matter what words came out of our mouths.

I can never see international relations the same way since living abroad and, particularly, since living with Susanne. Governments are necessarily and important, but we can't let them get in the way of connecting with the people who live under them. People are people, no matter what your history book says.

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