Sunday, December 19, 2010

One hundred six

Exactly seven hours from the moment I began writing this sentence, my plane will start its journey across the Alps. It will deposit me in Munich and jet off to who-knows-where, leaving me to navigate a German airport and find my way to the next plane to Philadelphia. That's all well and good; the only part I can't quite fathom is that it won't be coming back for me any time soon.

It seems so recently that I made this journey in reverse: one hundred six days ago. Somehow the time remaining dropped to two months, five weeks, days, hours. I'm excited, sure, and I'm as prepared as I'm going to get (minus the odds and ends and scarves that have yet to be shoved in my bags), but I still can't quite believe I'm leaving.

The reality of departure started to hit me at the end of a stressful finals week, when the AUCP students, staff, and professors gathered for celebratory champagne and Secret Santa. This was definitely my worst overall final exam performance yet, but I'd just finished absolutely nailing the translation final, the last of the week, and I was elated. I was done.

As I looked around the café where I'd spent so many lunch hours, it occurred to me just how much these people toasting each other and swapping gifts were part of my life for the past 106 days, and just how much I'll feel their absence when I part ways with the last of them in Philadelphia tomorrow. This goes for everyone, not just my fellow students--watering pot that I am, I've done my share of crying over goodbyes in the last couple of days, but the first time I teared up was on parting ways with my theater professor.

In an attempt to cheer me up about my departure from Oberlin at the end of the summer, a friend insisted, "Just think of the people you're going to meet." I thought I understood him then, but I never envisioned myself becoming this attached to my professors, my American classmates, and my French family. All of them have made an impression on me that's not going to fade any time soon.

My professors--while I liked all of them, Francesca Manzari and Jean-Claude Azoulay stand out in my mind. In Francesca's case, this is mostly because translation was by far my favorite course this semester. Jean-Claude Azoulay, on the other hand, is that rare professor who seizes my attention and never lets it go, without my ever quite understanding why. My best guess is that it's a combination of the charisma of an actor and the linguistic prowess of a translator. Both of these professors have left me with a new drive to actually pursue a career in translation, which has always seemed like something of a pipe dream. It helps, of course, that Francesca flat-out told me that should I ever find myself in need of a job, I could always be a translator.

My classmates--there was an incredible solidarity among us this semester, and I would count everyone as a friend, but there are certain people who are particularly important. First on the list, of course, is the Corsica crew. I'm going to miss them terribly, as well as the ever-encouraging cries of "Mega...SMERALDA!" and even all the good-natured mockery.

My host family--I could not have been placed with a better one. No elaboration necessary. My host sister might as well be my real little sister, and it's her above all that I'm going to miss. She's even more upset about my departure--for days now, she has hugged me every chance she's gotten and asked why I'm abandoning her. When I was stressed out over finals, she drew me a card wishing me a "bone exam'" (bon examen, Ève-style). As we were brushing our teeth together for the last time tonight, she actually cried because I'm leaving, and it was all I could do to keep it together myself.

This semester has been one interminable whirlwind. One hundred six days both dragged and flew by. I thought I was prepared to leave Aix-en-Provence, but as my departure draws nearer and nearer, I am more and more aware that I am not at all ready. There's too much to leave behind, and too much I haven't experienced. Too many restaurants I haven't tried, too many little roads I've never ventured down, too many French people to whom I've never spoken.

"An utterly foreign experience." That's how I phrased it back in September. I was going to embrace my insecurity, speak French, eat, explore, and belong. All goals accomplished, to varying degrees. All satisfactory, but never complete. I have no illusions--one hundred six days is simply not enough.

But maybe that's the whole point.

Whirlwinds and Wet Feet

Whirlwinds. This semester certainly has been one, which is partly responsible for the lack of blogging, but I've had a couple of whirlwind weekends as well. Given my course load and budget, I didn't do much traveling this semester other than to Corsica, but I did manage to visit a couple of other French cities and old American friends. Being able to hop on a train or bus and be in Paris or Nice in no more than three hours is fantastic.

In the interest of activities such as sleep, packing, and the marché de Noël, I'm going to write this post in true whirlwind fashion. Here, friends, is your crash course in making these weekends happen.

How to make a weekend trip to Paris

1. Spend an hour trying to find your dear Parisian Obie-friend and escape the Gare de Lyon. 
2. Go see Potiche at la Pagode, a Japanese-themed movie theater.
3. Pick a terrible sweater/coat combination. Ouch.
4. Go by Notre Dame, bien sûr.
5. ...and the bookstores. Oh, the bookstores.
6. Gawk at schools you wish you could attend.
7. Take the obligatory tourist photo. It's essential.
8. Get on the métro. Get off. Repeat.
9. Go to the mosque and drink the best tea of your life. Not kidding.
10. Pay your two euro to visit the mosque itself. It's so beautiful.
11. Continue the required tourism: stop by the Musée du Louvre.
12. Go to Montmartre, visit the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, ignore umbrella vendors.
13. Kill time before braving the Gare de Lyon once more.

How to make a weekend trip to Nice
1. Visit the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. Learn how to pronounce "Rothschild" the French way.
2. Be wary of employees who offer to lend you an umbrella. It's actually a ploy to make you look silly and run into all of the trees.
3. Visit the gardens. Figure out how to navigate them with your oversize borrowed umbrella.
4. Walk over and visit the Villa Kerylos, even if there's wind and drizzle and general unpleasantness.

5. Spend a nice evening out with other Americans. Try not to react while getting danced at by two presumably intoxicated French men. (No pictures of this one, unfortunately.)
6. Walk up la colline du château for some great views of the city.
7. Figure out how to get back down, port-side.
8. Eat a sizable portion of socca. So. Good.
9. Visit the Matisse museum. Finish up with a visit to the gift shop. (Funnily enough, I picked up a postcard of a Matisse I liked, flipped it over, and saw that this painting is housed at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA. I did not buy this postcard.)
10. Check out the beach before traversing the vieille ville one last time to catch your bus.

Look long, and look well. It all goes by too fast.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Swedish Fish

"C'est vrai que tu ne ressembles pas du tout à une française." Such was the consensus of my language partner and her French friend over dinner several weeks ago: "It's true that you don't look at all like a French girl." This statement and the absolute conviction with which it was uttered surprised me, not because I think I blend in perfectly with the French, but because it was in reference to my actual physical traits rather than my wardrobe or the way I carry myself--my face, my hair, they are somehow distinctly foreign.

I've always thought of myself as pretty generic-looking, obviously of European ancestry but not obviously from one nation or another. I know I have quite a bit of German and English in me, but I didn't realize that those two nationalities were immediately recognizable in my facial structure (my friend guessed them in one go). I don't know what "French" is supposed to look like. I've even thought on several occasions that my host mom looks somewhat like my grandmother on my mother's side, but younger. This seemed like a good argument against a "French" appearance versus a "German" one, until I remembered my host family's name: Meyer-Hilfiger. German on both sides. No wonder.

How can anyone ever be expected to integrate fully into French life? I know that we're not expected to be indistinguishable from the French after just one semester abroad, but in general, if I'm standing there with French clothes and French posture and a French haircut, yet my face still screams NOT FRENCH, is there ever going to be a point at which the French cease to see me as first and foremost an outsider?

Actually, there isn't usually such an instant judgment. Most of the time, people wait until I've spoken to clarify that I'm American, and the exchanges usually go something like this (italics indicating French):

M. Untel: Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to [insert landmark here] from here?
Me: Heuuu, well, I'm pretty sure if you keep going down this road, turn left, take such and such a route, you'll get there.
M. Untel: [slight air of surprise] You speak French very well. Thank you!

Just as frequent, but more fun, are these:

Mme Untel: [not loud enough to be clearly heard over traffic, crowd, etc. or possibly mumbling] Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to [insert unintelligible landmark here] from here?
Me: Pardon?
Mme Untel: [strong accent] You do not speak French?
Me: No, I do, it's just that I didn't hear you. Where was that?
Mme Untel: [slight air of surprise and embarrassment] Ah. Can you tell me...[exchange continues as above]

I really enjoy defying assumptions that because I'm American, I will prefer and/or find it easier to speak English. I realize that most attempts at English on the part of the French are intended to be helpful rather than belittling, but I still look upon them with a certain disdain. Arrogant, egotistical, cocky--certainly, there's part of me that is all of these things when it comes to my language skills, and my French in particular. That part of me doesn't like feeling that someone's accusing me of not making a good enough effort, whether the accusation is intended or not.

Fortunately, I have had exactly zero experiences in which the French have been judgmental about my command of their tongue. While I'm not above correction, the reaction to my speech is usually the opposite--I speak, I impress (provided I don't speak too much, that is--the trick is to let out just enough to show off my accent while hiding how bad I am at formulating my thoughts in any language). Therein lies, I think, half the reason I love language as much as I do--there's something beautiful about doing something and getting instant, positive feedback. Instant gratification. If you can communicate at all, you've won, and the subtleties are bonus points. It's a game that never loses its fascination, because nothing is static.

Someone please, please stop me before I compare language-learning to Settlers of Catan.

So: there she is, your friendly American stranger in Aix. Too friendly, too American, too friendly because too American and vice versa. Her wardrobe has colors in it. She sticks out. But as what, exactly?

While I'm waiting on a crêpe or a panini, the vendors make small talk. Am I English? German? American? There we go, that's the one. Bizarrely, though, what I get the most is, "are you Swedish?" Swedish. Suédoise. Really? That was a new one to me, but I've been getting it all semester, even when I went to Paris for a weekend.

I'm not sure what that says about the impression I give off, but at least I'm not the image of the obnoxious American tourist. Sure, I wear sneakers all the time, my wardrobe has actually gotten more colorful since I've come to France, my stride might be a little too bouncy, and I am, unfortunately, terrible at not smiling at the friendly men who sell me food. I'm okay with that, because I never have to show my face in that baklava shop again. I can still speak to them in la langue de Molière, and that, at least, is going swimmingly.