The Boiling Point


This email was written in my pre-blog days while I was studying abroad.  It was sent to multiple individuals, all of whom were friends and family.  This particular one is very revealing of my transition into the manic phase that led to my first hospitalization.  My present-day commentary is in red.

Date: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 4:56:56 AM

Subject: The Boiling Point

This is it.  I’ve had it with the system and am overflowing with pent-up anger!

Here’s the deal:

I came here full of lofty ideals and dreams of the tables turning and me being the international student amongst the French.  For a while, I was teased with this notion.  I traveled with Fleuriane and we rarely ever hung out with people from my country.  Not that I’m anti-American, it’s just that I’m here for the international experience.  If I wanted America, I would’ve stayed there.  This was influenced by the observations I’d made of the international students at my university the year before. They had worked more independently instead of under the close surveillance of a director of students from their country of origin.  Even the students from the European exchange (Erasmus) were not “babied” like the Americans.  They actually had to struggle to find a place to live and acquaint themselves with the culture.

So I came to Montpellier, filled with desires and expectations.  I remember that I was just starting to feel comfortable with the language and, believe or not, having a great time on the train talking to fellow students in French.  I knew about pré stage and that I’d be surrounded by Americans in just a little bit, but I didn’t realize at the time just how miserable that would make me. Pré stage was a necessary evil for Americans from my university at l’Université Paul Valéry in Montpellier.  It was basically a “mini-America” because the Americans were all housed together in the same dorms.  We took French classes only with other Americans and we were required to go on excursions involving large buses and Americans who had yet to learn how to treat other cultures with respect.

After that, they stuck me in grammar and phonetics classes exclusively set aside for the American students.  Most people were satisfied with that, but for me it was like putting me in a cage.  I didn’t want to be treated different just because I was American!  But I survived.  What other choice did I have?  On top of that, advice from home was “be patient.  You’ve already been here a while; the others have just arrived.  Things will change, I assure you.”  I still made every possible effort to avoid the other Americans.  A therapist I spoke with not long after I returned from France described my behavior as isolationist (and she certainly didn’t see it as positive).  But, in hindsight, nothing short of an immense attitude adjustment would have convinced me to voluntarily befriend another American.

Recharged after seeing my friends in Strasbourg, my family in Ireland, and Linda in England, I bounced back.  It might be interesting to note that Linda pointed out how I was a people person because I was playing the same role I did with international students last year, talking to people so that I could learn more about where they were from.  I was in denial, but when I realize how miserable I am when I’m alone, I start to think she’s right.  The point when my mood began to dramatically shift from down to up happened just before the winter holidays.  That was the last time I saw all three of my Strasbourg friends and the only time I’ve ever been to Belfast and London.

Upon returning to my cherished Montpellier, I went to my first class.  What was it?  Dare I say?  It was phonetics!  Naively I thought the other Americans would be, like me, ready to speak French after their vacation.  Needless to say, I was wrong.  I poured out my French words and they responded in English (dagger!)  I was on the verge of crying out in frustration, but instead, restrained myself and moseyed off in another direction until class started, trying hard not to listen to the painful language I was trying to forget for the next 6 months.  I will be fair, there were maybe two Americans who responded to me in French, but the rest were lazy, in my view.  What I didn’t write about was my overwhelming desire to prove to the folks back home that, despite being a C-student in French in the United States, I was fully capable of becoming bilingual and my passion for learning would prove it.  I’d also developed a fear of losing the French I already knew, having heard such horror stories of Americans mastering French and the losing it completely after spending too much time with other Anglophones.

No matter.  I had bigger things to think about at the time.  After all, I had my exams, one in particular which loomed over me as if to say not passing it would mean the end of the world.  So I confined myself to my room and to the library for the next two weeks except to go to class.  I went through the 400 or so years of human thought as if it were a mystery to be solved.  The case of the missing religion in France.  After cramming my head full of dates, philosophers, and events, I landed at the same conclusion as always. Technology and the construction of society have all changed, but the hearts of men haven’t.  They are still greedy for money and power, and they’ll do what they can to suppress other ideas to achieve this goal (the irony of it all is that will eventually die and leave all their messes for the next generation to clean up).  More on this in my upcoming book…  Up to this point, I had a noticeable lack of self-confidence.  But somehow – whether it was Fleuriane’s encouragement to make the most of my last semester or simply observing Linda jotting down the names of people immortalized as statues (to research later) – I felt determined to give my remaining time in Europe everything I had.

I came in as ready as I’d ever be for this exam with the goal being equality.  This was the one class where I had to work to be equal because I was the foreigner, doing two tasks, understanding the subject and understanding the language.  So, the test was a commentary on a text.  I read it, no problem. There was just one word I needed to look up.  Then, I marked up the text, trying to find as many references to things we’d learned in class as possible.  I strategically made my outline, then dug into my favorite part, writing the paper.  I still don’t know the end result.  I keep looking to see if the grades have been posted, but not yet.  My determination to do well in this class had literally become an obsession.  My parents, too, were doubtful as to whether or not I’d complete a full year there and withheld making travel arrangements to visit me until they knew I’d passed all my classes the first semester.  I felt hurt that my parents had such little faith in me.  At the same time, I became even more determined to excel.  Ultimately, my grade was the equivalent to a “B+” in the US.

The institute classes were much easier.  I studied for these exams the night before and had no problem remembering the material the next day.  My bitterness came when, after all the work and effort I put in, I found that only a small fraction of what I’d learned was needed for the exam.  I guess some people would be pleased with that.  After all, it means that, for me, the exams were easy.  However, like the runner who has trained harder than all the rest runs the race he has trained for, shouldn’t the student who has studied hard be tested on all she has learned?  The unfairness of the system!  Adaptation.  Assimilation.  The “institute” was the school for students learning French as a foreign language (Français langue étranger).  I resented being there in the first place, but since my grades the previous semester were on the low end, I was only permitted to take one class with the French students.  Although the tone of this paragraph was angry, there was a bit of sarcasm as well.  I felt like I was on fire when I wrote this.

As for the rest of the semester, I don’t feel my French is nearly where it should be.  Not to worry, though.  I have a plan.  The problem is, they still keep throwing obstacles at me!  Problem: the other Americans.  I can’t just avoid them and say “I don’t want to hang out with you ’cause you’re American.”  Solution: well, as long as we’re both here to learn French, why not speak French with them?  Problem: the French already have established groups of friends and aren’t especially eager to go out and meet new people, especially us who they know will eventually leave.  Solution: don’t let them intimidate you!  I wasted an entire semester not being social, I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  After all, life is an experiment of trial and error. One of my favorite songs is sung by an alternative/Christian group called DC Talk entitled The Hard Way (see link below).  It says

Some people have to learn the hard way / I guess I’m the kind of guy who’s got to find out for myself / I’ve had to learn the hard way, Father / I’m on my knees and I’m cryin’ for help

This is me, this is you, this is everybody.  We all have to learn the hard way.  But once you’ve learned, there’s no turning back to the old ways.  I’m angry, frustrated, and confused, but just having these emotions will get me no where.  I gotta do somethin’ ’bout it!  They may have put this bird in a cage, but she’s not going to stay there.  She will fight.  She will be free.  The caged bird reference is from the musical Notre Dame de Paris in which there is a duet between Esmeralda and Quasimodo called “Les oiseaux qu’on met en cage” (the caged birds). 

My friends, 6 months is not enough.  One year is not enough.  Nope.  It’s all just the beginning.

Allez!

Clara

 

Medicine Side Effect: Weight Gain

Left: Me (2003) Middle: Me (2002) Right: Me (2011)

Since I wrote about medicine yesterday, I was reminded yet again of a most unwelcome side effect of many psychotropic drugs.  It is the dreaded weight gain!

I don’t know anyone, male or female, who is fond of gaining weight.  But if the medicine is working, weight gain is a much more viable alternative to suicide.  Still, a patient should work extra hard to prevent it.

I am not the one to be telling you this, considering my own state of obesity.  My hypothyroidism came from the lithium, a mood stabilizer that’s been used to treat manic depression for over a century.  After months of chronic fatigue draining me of all motivation to go outside and exercise, I finally learned I had acquired another illness requiring more medicine.  Then the obesity spawned high cholesterol and elevated blood sugar, making me dependent on a total of three more medications to counteract the side effects of the psych meds.

I may not be a good role-model for the bipolar community, but I have lost weight while on medication before.  It’s just much harder than you may think because it requires strong will power and patience.  Dieters will not see results overnight.

I used to be athletic.  I was never a competitive athlete, but I used to enjoy running, hiking, swimming, and so on.  But after a dry spell as long as the one I’ve been experiencing, I think the hardest part is getting started.

My dad, the trustee to my account (apparently bipolar people are notorious for compulsive spending and therefore need a little help financially), has offered me a weekend solo retreat, or vacation, if you will, if I walk at least a mile a day for a month.  Today was my first day walking for exercise after who-knows-how-long.  And you know what?  I feel great!

I brought my iPod with me and listened to my favorite weekly podcast.  Walking used to be a natural stress-reliever for me.  I enjoyed the fresh air and the solitude!  I can’t think when I lost interest in it.

Running was a favorite activity for at least a third of my time in college!  My best friend got me into it after a semester or two of nagging me until I said yes.  Even if I didn’t want to run, I’d still end up thanking her in the end.

In January of 2002, I ran my first marathon.  My time was about 5:15, give or take.  So yeah, I was never a fast runner, but I still enjoyed it.

By the time I reached France, I was running as often as I could.  Then, one fateful night, I tripped over an uneven sidewalk while running and flew threw the air.  It was seriously one of those moments where I felt like time stood still.  When I hit the ground, I landed on my knee.  The injury was bad, but I wouldn’t know how bad until a year later when I started to run again.

I guess my point is, anything can throw off your game.  I can’t remember becoming this big!  I feel like it snuck up on me.  But, now it’s time to shape up.  What motivates you to be consistent in your exercise routines?

You think I’m crazy? Prove it!

Some of the things a bipolar patient thinks in learning they have to take medicine for life.

How do you convince a psyche patient to voluntarily take psychotropic medicine for the rest of her life?  Beats me.  Each person is an individual and so there’s no blanket answer for this one.  I can, however, tell you what I HATED to hear as a newly diagnosed psyche patient.

It seems to me that every time I quit taking my meds and had a relapse, the overwhelming response from my medical team was “Think of it like diabetes.  A diabetic has to take his insulin to survive.  It’s the same with your bipolar disorder.”

No!  I’m sorry doctors but there are blood tests the doctors can give patients to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt they need medicine.  Do you have something like that for my “disease?”  Because, as far as I can see, the only test you gave me was to ask me a bunch of stupid questions.  How do you know I’m telling you the truth?

Newly diagnosed bipolar patients need a little extra convincing I think.  For one, most of them have high enough IQs that you really can’t pull the wool over their eyes on anything.  Also, if they’re bipolar  1, they might very well be “addicted” to their mania.  For example, my first manic episode I looked at as a religious experience.  Afterward, when the hyper-religiosity died down, I attributed it to the massive amount of stress I’d dealt with just prior to the episode, but I still longed to experience it again!

In my case, I honestly believe all the hospitalizations after the initial one in France were due to me rejecting my medicine and denying there was anything wrong with me.  This included self-injury in the form of intentional drug overdose, multiple lacerations to my wrists and left arm, and superficial stab wounds to my abdomen.

You see, the brain is our most important bodily organ.  Without it, you’re dead.  You want it to function brilliantly and, believe me, even if we’re ordinary, most of us bipolar people believe we’re brilliant.  A malfunctioning brain we often look at as a sort of death sentence.  When I was suicidal, I thought of my death as a noble sacrifice.  It took years to convince me I needed to keep living.  And voila: here I am, writing this blog.

What would you say to a newly-diagnosed bipolar patient to help convince her of the importance of following her treatment plan?

Staying Sane in the Mental Hospital

Disclaimer: these ideas and observations are based solely on my observations and personal research.  If they are in error, please let me know.

Unless you’ve either worked or been hospitalized in one, you may not be aware that inpatient mental hospitals do not regularly divide their patients according to their diagnosis.  And since mental illness, regardless of diagnosis, is also dependant on the patient’s IQ and personality (as well as family history, culture, etc.), no two patients with the same diagnosis will suffer the exact same experiences.  To be diagnosed with a particular diagnosis, a patient must meet the criteria as set forth by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).  Everything in between is left for psychiatrists and psychologists to decipher.

With illnesses and treatments running the gamut, psychiatric hospital patients can expect to be exposed to anything from violent rages, suicide attempts, clingy people, sexual advances, crankiness, and multitudes of others.  Technicians, nurses, and doctors keep a close eye on patients so as to ensure everyone’s safety.  I’ve been an inpatient in three different psyche units as well as the local Urgent Psychiatric Care (UPC) and no harm has befallen me.  Nonetheless, it is quite possible to lose your sanity in the hospital if you don’t know how to work the system.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to lump psychiatric patients into two categories: high-functioning and low-functioning.

High-functioning patients are those with average or above average IQs but who struggle with, for example, mood disorders, personality disorders, or (like John Nash of A Beautiful Mind) schizophrenia.   Many of them are able to complete 4-year college degrees and often go on graduate school.  Many are also creative in art, music, and/or writing and have the potential to achieve almost anything.

High-functioning patients are likely to have a keen understanding of their illness and are much more likely to seek and accept help in dealing with it.  Many of them can blend in with the rest of the world, so long as they stay on top of their treatment.

In contrast, low-functioning patients have below average IQs and have an extremely difficult time seeing beyond their egocentric worlds.  Often they are not convinced they are sick and frequently refuse treatment.  Their innate lack of patience and self-control forces their inevitable removal from inpatient group therapy.  They have no functioning moral compass to keep them from breaking boundaries.  Finally, though their diagnostic labels may share similarities to their high-functioning counterparts, they require much more individual attention.

State run hospitals are overrun sometimes with low-functioning patients.  Sadly, this probably has a lot to do with their low-income level and their tendency to be disowned by their families.  Private hospitals, on the other hand, seem to have more high-functioning patients.  But what do you do if you’re in a hospital where, try as you may, you can’t seem to tolerate the more “unruly” patients?  How do you keep from becoming even more insane?

Here’s my solution:

  • Read a book or doodle on some paper and let the more demanding patients go first (for meals, meds, etc.)
  • Don’t engage in trite conversation out of pity or guilt.  You’re in the hospital for you, not them.
  • If you feel a fellow patient has broken some serious, personal boundaries, let a tech or someone else on staff know right away.
  • If the depression of feeling like a prisoner in a locked unit has you down, take some time to journal or talk to a staff member.
  • If you can find two or three patients you get along with who are also up to it, play board games, card games, or make paper airplanes and see whose plane glides the furthest down the hall.
  • Exercise whenever possible.  Even just walking back and forth down the hall can help your mind stay focused and ensure better-quality sleep.
  • Above all, allow yourself to feel.  Some of the other patients might be “crazy” but you’re not – particularly if you can still practice the fruits of the Spirit even when you’re at your lowest: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  (see Galations 5:22-23)

As a side note: two of the hospitals I’ve been in have had pianos.  If you have a musical talent, by all means, use it!  You could potentially lift the spirits of everyone around you.

That said, mentally healthy people are not often sent to the mental hospital.  The hospital is for the mentally ill who are trying to find a way to cope with their illness (since most of them don’t have a cure).  Medicines are kind of a matter of trial and error since everyone’s body chemistry is different and so finding the right combination is often the goal in the hospital.  Side effects are usually temporary, but doctors prefer their patients deal with them in a safe environment.

Rich Mullins: Still an Arrow Pointing me to Heaven

The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart – it is a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that befits mankind.  It is not the collection of pretty little anecdotes mouthed by pious little church mice – it does not so much nibble at our shoe leather as it cuts to the heart and splits the marrow from the bone.  It does not give us answers fitted to our small-minded questions, but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask.” ~ Rich Mullins

My mom loves to read biographies, particularly if they’re stories of public figures she grew up with and admired, politicians, actors, musicians, and more.  I didn’t inherit that trait and so I haven’t read many biographies or autobiographies at all; a few memoirs, but that’s about it.

Rich Mullins devotional biography, Rich Mullins: An Arrow Pointing to Heaven, was among my exceptions.  Rich was one of the bestselling Christian artists in the nineties.  His most well-known songs include Awesome God and Step by Step.  I knew several of his most popular songs from listening to the Christian radio station.  But it wasn’t until after he died in 1997 that I actually bought one of his albums.

In ’97, Rich Mullins died instantly in a car accident when he was only in his early 40s.  My sister purchased 20 the Countdown Magazine’s radio tribute to him on CD.  The tribute was a mix of Mullins’ words and music and it has so touched me over the years, I’ll still play it when my heart feels compelled to.

During Contemporary Christian Music’s heyday in the ‘90s, there was a Christian sub-culture who followed Christian bands and singers like they were rock stars.  The  lyrics were clean, earning them the parental stamp-of-approval, and they were beginning to make Christianity cool.  But ultimately, people like me, who were teenagers during that era, became disenfranchised by the hypocrisy that had infiltrated the Christian music industry.

Rich Mullins was the exception.  When the “industry” told him how he should dress and do his hair, he refused to conform.  While other songs on the Christian radio station sounded increasingly superficial and shallow, his songs maintained their integrity.  But the extent to which he served God would not be revealed until after he died.  He was not one to boast of his accomplishments and even entrusted his income to a church, asking he only be paid a “working man’s” wage (about $20,000/year).  He went to school and studied music education and spent the last years of his life teaching on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

His biography is hard to come by these days.  You’ll probably have to special-order it.  But I highly recommend it.

A few of Rich’s songs I’ve felt a close connection to: (available at Amazon.com or iTunes)

  • We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are
  • Elijah
  • Hold Me Jesus
  • Sometimes by Step
  • I Will Sing
  • I See You
  • Somewhere
  • Growing Young
  • Bound to Come Some Trouble
  • The Love of God
  • Ready for the Storm
  • Be With You
  • The Color Green
  • The Just Shall Live
  • What Susan Said
  • The River
  • Hello Old Friends
  • You Did Not Have a Home
  • Hard to Get
  • Nothing is Beyond You
  • Man of No Reputation
  • Heaven in His Eyes
  • That Where I Am, There You….
  • Land of My Sojourn

Included in this are a couple of clips from Rich’s last concert.  Among the standard instruments pop musicians know (piano and guitar), Rich also played the hammered dulcimer, a folk instrument from his father’s place of birth in Appalachia.   Anyway, the last concert you can watch in 10-minute intervals entirely on YouTube, so I’ll just but a single clip here and a clip from a documentary about him as well.

“Medicine is for sick people. I’m not sick”

I was transferred to a different building a day later.  My escort seemed happy to be doing here job.  When we arrived at the entrance, she introduced me to the nurse on duty.

“She is English,” she said in reference to me. “But her French is excellent!”

I smiled.

The new building was a designated waiting area for those, like me, who hadn’t been officially diagnosed yet.  Soon after being shown my room, the doctor came in to analyze me. 

In French, he asked, “Were you a student in Montpellier?”

“Yes.” I blurted out, curious as to how he knew.   

Almost immediately after he sat down, he received a phone call on his cell.  All I remember from his end of the conversation was his smile and laugh as he said “Dieu soit bénit,” which means, “God be blessed.”  That simple phrase was adequate enough to put me at ease.  After all, was this not proof that he was a man of God?

“Do you have any friends?” he asked.

J’ai trois amis à Strasbourg.” I have three friends in Strasbourg, I replied

Amis you said.  That means they’re more than just copains.” In French there are two words for friend: ami and copain.  Ami is someone who will be there for you in your time of need.  A copain is closer to an acquaintance, someone you associate with but have no deep and profound relation to.

Then he said something I couldn’t understand but still left my imagination running wild.  He said, “Do you know what’s happening in Strasbourg?”  The second half sounded like les bombardes, but I had no idea what exactly he meant.  Nevertheless, it instilled my trust in the doctor.

The doctor smiled and told me he’d order me some medicine with my dinner and I should take it because it would help me think more clearly.  But when dinner rolled around, I refused to take the medicine.  I hadn’t taken so much as an aspirin in almost a year.  My body was a temple!  Besides, I wasn’t sick.  Medicine was for sick people.

My room was upstairs and had a small window, a locker, and an adjacent washroom.  There was just one bed and a small table.  That room would be my refuge for the first couple of weeks. 

I went straight to my room after dinner that night.  Once there, I grabbed my bag and put on my coat and hat, for I was sure it was time to move on.  Downstairs one of the nurses was finishing her shift and going home. I asked if I could go with her.  Je dois partir.”  I must leave, I said.  She shook her head and told me to return to my room.  Believing this must also be God’s will, I shrugged my shoulders and obeyed.

As I lay in bed reading from St. Paul’s epistles, there came a knock on the door.  One of the nurses came in and offered me the medicine I’d turned down at dinner.  I told him I couldn’t take it.  He left and then returned with three other nurses and an injection needle.  Terrified, I stood on my bed and tearfully told them again I couldn’t take medicine.  The nurses seemed confused but held to their duty. I reached out to a male nurse, because his eyes seemed full of kindness, and wrapped my arms around his neck while praying “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  He gently pushed me away as tears fell from my eyes.

They lay me face down on the bed, restraining me so that I couldn’t move, and gave me an injection through my lower back.  I whaled but didn’t struggle.  I was sure they were giving me a lethal injection.  That’s what the enemy wanted right?  To destroy all of God’s faithful servants?

I lay in bed while silent tears continued to moisten my face and pillow.  I wasn’t surprised at knowing this was to be my end, alone and forgotten in a foreign land.

I could hear the steady drip of a leaky pipe in the nearby bathroom.  It was as though a time bomb had been set counting the minutes until I died.  I cried heaps of tears, pleading with God to take me home.  Home, for me at least, was heaven.  It was a place where all the pain and suffering of this life disappeared.  I longed for it with all my being.  In my prayers, I pleaded to God as if I were a child:  “Daddy, take me home!  I don’t want to be alone anymore!  I don’t want to die alone!  Daddy, please take me home!”

Throughout the night, nurses periodically came in to check on me.  Since I’m near-sighted, the first nurse was a blur.  To my vision, with his white coat on and the hall light behind him, he looked like an angel.

He said there would be three nurses.  I imagined this to be preparation for my final journey, the journey of death.

The first nurse to come into my room had dark hair and menacing eyes.  She seemed like the devil incarnate to my ill mind.  She leaned close to me and demanded my name and where I was from.  I whimpered a bit.  Je ne peux pas vous dire,” (I can’t tell you) I whispered.  Then she left.

The second nurse was a man and all I remember hearing is, “Clara, are you okay?”  I was too tired to give a verbal response, so I just nodded and fell back asleep.

At last the sun rose and two more nurses joyfully greeted me as they prepared to take my blood.  It was a man and woman and the woman was lively and welcoming while her colleague quietly assisted her.  “Don’t worry.  Your family is in England.  I speak little English.  It’s funny, no, to have a man nurse?”  She glanced at her partner as he sheepishly smiled.

I smiled as well.  I had survived the night and thought surely my family was safe in England.  The United States, I feared, was on the brink of the most catastrophic of wars.  And though my delusions were a far cry from  what was actually happening in the US, just a couple months later President George W. Bush would be sending troops to Iraq.

J’aime les français!

Dear friend from long ago,

Remember those three exchange students from Strasbourg?  There were two guys and a girl and they were super nice.  They gave me many wonderful memories and helped me improve my French.  I think they knew how my heart had been captured by their language and culture.  For my birthday they had given me Bilbo le Hobbit, JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece, translated to French.  They accompanied me to le Table Français even though I could barely follow the rapid French conversation let alone contribute to it in any way aside from bonjour, je m’appelle Clara.  

Anyway, I was thinking about them the other day.  One of them – let’s call him Richard (although that’s not his real name) – warned me not to romanticize too much about France or the French because I’d be setting myself up for disappointment.  I suppose I can understand why he felt prompted to warn me.  After all, I’m not very well conditioned to reality.  Reality is akin to endless sadness and desperation in my world.  I try not to dwell too much on it.  How do people living in the most devastating conditions survive, I wonder?

For me, the trials I faced while living in France only amplified the romance I felt there and the sensation that those thousand-year-old ruins were magic.   Does that sound crazy?

When my flight descended into Paris, CDG, my eyes grew large, beaming with excitement!    Yes, the two people sitting next to me had been monolingual Americans and thus a major let down for my transatlantic flight.  I ignored them as much as possible despite being sandwiched between them.  Somewhere behind me I heard the soft chatter of French-natives.  Why couldn’t I have been assigned a seat next to one of them?  No matter.  We had landed safely on the ground and, sans hesitation, I stood-up and turned around.  The French natives were there and I blurted out in pure jubilation “C’est ma premier fois en France!” (It’s my first time in France!)

“A bon?” (really?) a confused passenger replied.

Oui!”

“A bon” (Oh good). (Yes, this expression changes meanings in French depending on how you say it.)

The airport scene was a far cry from Hemmingway’s Paris.  It reeked of sweaty tourists, pushy taxi drivers, and long lines at the currency exchange desk.  I was so lucky Fleuriane had given me written instructions to guide me through the mayhem.

As you know, Fleuriane had been an exchange student from Strasbourg too.  She made the most of her time in the States and created as many great memories as she possibly could.  She also stayed with my family during break and went on a couple of road trips with me.  In return, I would visit her family in Auvergne.

When I traveled to France, I was completely alone.  Can you imagine?  A new language, a new culture – all alone!  Yes, I had two years of French under my belt permitting me to “get by” if complications arose.  But it was still a challenge for this young American.

Upon arriving at the airport, I needed to:

a) Exchange my American dollars for Euros

b) Purchase a bus ticket to the train station

c) Purchase a train ticket to Vichy for a very specific time

As is often the case, I immediately fell victim to Murphy’s Law.  This is how American’s get a reputation for being stupid, and I apologize to my fellow Americans for perpetuating this degrading reputation.

I had my money in three forms in case of emergency: traveler’s checks, a credit card, and an ATM card.  There was no time to wait in line at the currency exchange, so I went directly to the ticket booth and presented a $20 traveler’s check to the cashier.

He looked at me like I was completely bonkers.  “This is not the United States.  We don’t take dollars.  Sorry.”

I felt the tear mechanism in me start churning, but I fought it and walked to the ATM.  That was what I should’ve done the whole time!  It was so easy!  Stick in the card and out pops Euros at the day’s most current exchange rate!

I returned to the ticket booth, bought a ticket, and hopped aboard the bus.  I didn’t want to speak English.  The previous year, virtually all my international friends had no choice but to speak English because there weren’t too many Americans who spoke their native tongues.  I wanted the same experience.  I wanted to know what it was like to abandon one language for another.

The books I packed, including my Bible, were all in French save a couple of tour guides and the one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings I’d carried with me on the plane.  A woman in the bus noticed the book in English sitting on my lap and began chatting.  She was American, of course.  Common courtesy overruled my stubbornness and I chose to listen to her.

She was a seasoned tourist to Paris and thus advised me, “You can always tell which restaurants are the best because those are the ones to which the French bring their dogs.  Also, if you need to use the bathroom, McDonald’s is always clean.  The other restrooms are filthy dirty!”

Not long after leaving the airport, the driver’s side window abruptly shattered.  The cause the bizarre occurrence was never explained, but all connections were delayed so we could switch vehicles.  My only choice was to wait patiently.

By the time I arrived at the train station, it was too late to take the train Fleuriane wanted me to take.  So I hopped on the next one just in the nick of time.

The conductor came through to punch our tickets.  I was worn out but I needed to let Fleuriane’s folks know I’d be late.  I tried to explain to the conductor in French how I desperately needed a telephone, but my broken French was incomprehensible to him.

D’où venez vous ? Allemagne ? Angleterre ?” 

 (Where are you from?  Germany? England)

Les Etats-Unis.” 

His eyes widened and he virtually sang “oh la la la la la la” as he strolled through the cars in search of an English-speaker.  At last a young French woman showed up beside me.  Her English was perfect.  She offered to call my friend’s family and then told me where on the train I could find a sandwich and a drink.  I thanked her.  When she left, I leaned against the window and closed my eyes.  Tears exhaustion trickled down my cheeks.  It had been a very long day, but I was safe thanks to the aid of French friends.

That is all I can allow myself to write for now.  Friend, I have not seen you in a long time, but I hope you are doing well.  I will write you again soon.

Love,

Clara