As a student in France in 2002 who, the previous year, had spent the majority of her time with international students who were trying to learn English, I knew my best chance of gaining fluency in French was to spend as little time with those who spoke my own language as possible. The best French teachers were the ones who spoke no English at all. Still, the study abroad program I’d signed up for was set up in such a way that I couldn’t possibly avoid all the other Americans. We were forced to take grammar, phonetics, and other French as a foreign language (FLE) classes together and as hard as I tried to resist forming attachments to my fellow countrymen, I couldn’t justify ignoring them completely. After all, it wasn’t our fault that we all happened to have been born within the same political boundaries.
My first month in Montpellier I had to live in the student residence where at least I had my own room. Afterwards, I managed to procure a small studio apartment atop a building on rue Joachim Colbert near the cathedral and one of my American classmates took the apartment just below me. Later on, a young Irish and English couple moved into the apartment below him so my attempt to totally immerse myself in French was somewhat thwarted.
My attitude changed when I decided to let go of my pride and begin to see my compatriots in France as people like me. My neighbor, whose home university was William and Mary, began hosting Bible studies in his apartment and invited me along. He also introduced me to a Pentecostal church in Antigone with a congregation full of young people who spoke French. A group so passionate about their beliefs that we’d even sing praise and worship songs on the tram together.
Soon my experience became less about blocking out my fellow Americans and more about my quest to turn my study abroad experience into something truly deep and meaningful. Nevertheless I still distanced myself somewhat from my American friends. To be completely honest, I hardly had any friends at all and I’d become very accustomed to loneliness. I’d wander solo around the narrow streets of Montpellier lost in my thoughts. I didn’t bring headphones with me when I traveled. Headphones, I’d learned, were a tool for isolation and I wanted to be as open as possible to new experiences. It was on one such wandering that I saw a young man looking at a poster advertising international calling cards. He had a dual-language dictionary with him so I asked him in English if I could be of some assistance. Before long we were sipping coffee together in my apartment and sharing stories. He was a medical student from Germany searching for a place to live. He knew a little French but English was far easier for him.
We met up a few weeks later, after he’d settled in a bit. Around that time, my wallet had been stolen and I had no money. Without telling him my situation, I suggested a “cheap date” of exploring the Centre Ville and scoping out the local bookshops. The escape from my loneliness was more valuable than anything money could buy and I was extremely grateful for it.
The wallet situation, on the other hand, was more serious than I’d let on. Still, I didn’t think I could tell the few friends I had in France about my hardships. I didn’t want to seem needy and besides, what if my wallet hadn’t actually been “stolen” but simply misplaced? What if some kind stranger had found it and would return it to me at any moment?
This, of course, was nothing more than wishful thinking. When reality finally set in, I reached out to my parents for help who, in turn, wired me some money from the States and helped me replace the DEBIT card linked to my US bank account as well. When it all cleared up, I finally told my friends the story in a generic email sent on December 9, 2002:
I didn’t really get into the holiday spirit until last week when, at one moment I was sitting in my room, staring at my almost empty shelves and praying that money would arrive in my account soon so that I wouldn’t have to start asking my friends for food and toilet paper and so that rent could be paid on time. Of course, that same day, a letter arrived in the mail box from the bank saying that the money transferred from my account in the US had arrived and was already in my account. I was so thrilled that I almost started crying on the tram to class.
To put things in perspective for you, my wallet was stolen about a month ago, with all my credit cards, ID’s (except passport), and cash inside. This scenario is a familiar one, I know, for some of you, but it’s stressful nonetheless. It was the closest I’d ever been to poverty which sounds pretty lame when you consider the fact that even though all I had to eat was rice and canned vegetables for a while, there are children in this world who only dream of such things. So, as you see, when everything is put into perspective, you find that you have a lot to be thankful for.
As for me, I had given up going out for an entire month. This meant no movies, no eating out, no new CD’s or clothes, and not so many trips to the internet cafe. So what did I do? I did lots of reading. I read all of the books Fleuriane loaned me, the entire New Testament in my English translation of the Bible plus Genesis and Exodus, two of the books my professor recommended for my one class that I have with the French students, Le Petit Prince (for the second time) and any magazines my parents happened to send me.
That month of rationing taught me many amazing things about gratitude and certain symbolic images remain engraved in my mind. For instance, because of the way my studio window was positioned, my place had more sunlight than any other apartment in the building and I began to let the sunlight dictate my day. I’d read and write for as long as I could in the natural light and then, as the sun began to set, I’d race to le Peyrou, join other dreamers and romantics, and watch the sun set. At the FNAC and Virgin Megastore, I’d stroll through the music department and pause to listen to the latest French music with the in-store headphones. Everywhere I walked I began to notice details I’d never noticed before. I discovered the jardin des plantes and tried to learn the French names for every tree and flower. I learned to walk slower, to enjoy every sent and every sound. But for all I experienced alone, the most endearing moments happened when I encountered other people.
Take for example the American friend I’d run into on the tram one day. We hadn’t really hung out with each other before but for some reason that particular day he felt compelled to tell me he was having a bad day. I had nothing planned except lunch and no one to share my lunch with so I invited him to join me. He offered to pitch-in so I let him buy us a baguette at the neighborhood boulangerie and then we went to my apartment and made (if recall) some sort of rice and vegetable combination with a little cheese on the side and plain, tap water to drink. Then he looked at the bookshelf my landlord had built for me when I moved in and saw my CD collection which included the two-disc original recording of Notre Dame de Paris. Suddenly he became ecstatic and told me how much he loved this musical. I smiled and we put it in the CD player. He couldn’t resist singing along with the opening number Le temps des cathédrales. He belted the song with all his heart and I just sat near him, intoxicated by his joy.
He gave me a hug before he left and I couldn’t help but smile as I sat on the stairs and watched him go. On his way out, he turned around one last time and said “thank you.” I remained on the steps for a few moments, lost in my thoughts. Then, in a split second I felt as though perhaps I should run after him and tell him “thank you” too. After all, he had no way of knowing the depth of my loneliness that day. He had no way of knowing that what I did for him was nothing compared to what he had done for me.
My final months in France are filled with such stories. I’ve thanked people from that time period for the things they’ve done, going above and beyond the call of duty that last month in France when I was stuck in a hospital. But the people who rescued me in my darkest moments, who freed from the prison of my mind no matter how brief the escape, those are the people I most wish to thank but can’t. You see, when I lost my mind, I left town without telling anyone. I almost told my neighbor on my way out. I remember hearing him as he played his guitar and sang so I knew he was home but as I walked toward his door, I quickly turned around and changed my mind. He won’t understand; he’ll only try and stop me, I thought. To him and so many others I disappeared without a trace. Even when my whereabouts were finally discovered, the nature of my illness made it impossible for me to turn around and say goodbye. But I do hope that somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know how grateful I am for them.
A week or so after I returned to the United States, I received a card in the mail from France. The boy who lived downstairs along with a few of the people from his Bible study had gone to the trouble to find out why I’d “vanished.” They’d inquired with the director of American students at the university. I’m not sure how much of my story they learned but it was enough for them to find my address and send me a note of encouragement. These Americans who I had tried so hard to distance myself from were the only friends from Montpellier to reach out to me when my world had fallen apart and show love with their words. The card they gave me is one of my most precious possessions.