2.11.2011

Soul Stories: Building your inner tools.

Pretty houses in Clermont-Ferrand, France.
The hardest thing about moving away (far, far away) is your first free Saturday morning. This is particularly true in France, when Saturday mornings are for dipping baguette into bowls of cocoa alongside your French siblings and grandparents and invisible ancestors, who hover constantly over your old, old city. Lonely Americans don't fit the morning routine.

I moved to Clermont-Ferrand in October 2003 and I had been in town about a week when my first free Saturday occurred. At the time I was living in the boarding quarters of a high school on a hill. The students went home Friday evening for the weekend and I was left alone on the campus with a bed, desk and tiny closet to my name. Oh, and an awkward leaky shower. That too.

My room had seemed a haven of quiet against the students' lively noise during the week, but come the weekend, it was hollow, cold and empty. And so when I awoke early in the morning that first free Saturday, the entire day lay ahead of me, 16 hours of cursed time to kill.

As familiar as you can be with the whole "I. am. alone." situation after you move, it isn't possible to avoid it. The anchor that keeps you sane and stops you from believing you've made the largest mistake in you life must come from deep within, from the recesses of your experience of the last time (if you were fortunate enough to have already lived through a first lonely time away).

You have to sit there, on your hard bed in a chilly room, and say to yourself: this will get easier. And when that's not enough, you have to get up and go take a walk.

On my first free Saturday in Clermont-Ferrand, I ate three breakfasts because I was so lonely. The first was a banana and granola bar I'd been saving in my room. (No kitchen, remember?) The second was a croissant at a bakery on my walk down the hill towards the city, an attempt to extract company from calories. And the third was a glass of orange juice and small meal at a cafe on the edge of town.

At a table for one, I ordered in French and pulled out the kids' book I'd retrieved from the library the day before. Le Petit Nicolas and I were about to get acquainted. There I was, feeling a little bit sad, finishing my orange juice and reading about a naughty little boy, understanding only every other word.

When my loneliness ached too badly, I got an idea. I decided that I should go up to the waiters who were speaking with the cafe owner, and ask them the meaning of one of the words on the first page of the book. There was no one else in the cafe and I felt like I might feel a little bit better if I talked to someone. So after a couple of nervous moments, I pushed my chair back and took my book with me.

"Excuse me," I said. They stopped their conversation and turned.

"Well, I was just wondering if you could tell me the meaning of a word in my book." A moment passed; no one was sure how to proceed.

"Of course, mademoiselle," one of the waiters said.

I pointed; he read the word out loud.

"La craie, la craie..." he said. "You know, it's like... it's when you're in a classroom? And a teacher is writing on the blackboard? It is this, what she is writing with."

He gestured and suddenly all three of them were waving their arms in the air, miming a teacher writing on a board. Communication! People! Interaction! all rushed forward, a welcome familiarity.

That's how I learned the French word for chalk.

I don't remember much of what happened for the rest of the day. I probably made my way into the city and checked out the cathedral. I probably ate a bunch of times, paying for the opportunity to sit in public spaces among strangers so that I would not feel homesick.

But what stuck with me, in a place so deep that it is no longer a memory but a tool, is the fact that inviting others to interact with me makes me feel better. Striking up a conversation is not nearly as intimidating as the prospect of a long, lonely day with no smiling.

I used the "strike up a conversation" tool so often that year that its handle conformed to the shape of my hand. And though it wasn't always comfortable, it got easier to pull out and wield the more I did it. At the end of the year, I took a bus to Italy and spent two weeks working on a farm alongside strangers. My conversation tool came too, proof that it worked outside of France and that I had earned the right to own it.

I still carry it with me everyday, except I barely recognize it anymore. The borders of where it starts and I end are too blurry. It's somewhere, deep inside me, where it's been tightly stitched into what makes me me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if this is your best post to date -perhaps because I identify it but even if you didn't awesome writing Jen.
Biz de CF, Ciara