As hard as I’ve resisted it, the Earth has kept turning these last few months and somehow, I find myself suddenly at the beginning of my last week of teaching in France. A summer camper seeing my parents’ car pull up outside the camp, I am overcome by a feeling of intense dismay. Surely we haven’t reached that point already? I must have just left my bathers in the car. Six months ago.
At this juncture, I’m left with two options – either I can be depressed about the way my household is starting to disintegrate, with my housemates leaving one-by-one, and my own departure being imminent. Or, I can be optimistic, and enjoy my last few weeks as much as possible. After all, I still have the better part of six weeks to hug this precious slice of Earth to close to my chest, whisper sweet nothings to it and promise – cross my heart and hope to die – that there will never be anywhere else that makes me feel this way.
In the spirit of that optimism, here is a more-or-less randomly selected look at some of my most favourite things about life in France for me.
My favourite answers to problems are the combinative kind, when two independent problems can be act as each other’s resolution. Somehow more elegant and satisfying, it’s indecently pleasant when the tetrominos settle together and disappear, with an electronic buzz, into the hellish aether from whence they came. All of this, of course, is my long-winded way of saying that I’ve started writing in my journal when I eat lunch alone at restaurants. Since I had begun to resent the obligation to do this in the evenings, this allowed me to kill two birds with one stone. Or make two birds kill each other with the same stone. Actually, I think I’m going to stick with my tetris analogy. Continue reading
Dobrý den, Prosím and Děkuji. Hello, please and thank you. If I thought my German was sparse, being in the Czech Republic was an even more illuminating experience. Before going, I was repeatedly told that everybody there speaks English, and that one need not worry about Czech too much. This is more or less true – I only encountered a few people who didn’t speak English, leading to a hilarious but ultimately successful game of charades in a newsagency. All that said, the language barrier can still be quite isolating; everyone around you is incomprehensible, in shops, on the train, on the street. It’s an interesting feeling.
Unfamiliarity is also often the source of mistake-making. It being my first time in Prague, I made the error of taking out entirely too much money each time I went to an AT machine. This wasn’t because I didn’t do the calculation – at the time, one euro was about 26 CZK – but rather because things in Prague are surprisingly cheap. For example, a great many bars advertise beers at around 30 koruna. It’s actually pretty great. Many places also accept euros out of concession to their proximity to the euro zone, but they typically attach their own extortionate exchange rates.
Be ready to own your ignorance. This is the lesson I’ve repeatedly learnt while travelling in countries where I don’t speak the local language. As a tourist in a foreign place, you have to walk the tightrope between the appalling rudeness of expecting everyone to speak English, and being too timid, too silent, mumbling and swallowing your words so that the locals couldn’t understand you even if they were perfectly bilingual. Sometimes this balance is hard, but I’ve found that a quick study of everything between “Hello” and “do you speak English?” is a great help.
The most common response I get from Germans when I ask them (in an apologetic tone) “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” is the rather charmingly modest “Ja, a little bit.” I say that this is modest because these same people will usually go on to answer all of my questions in a perfectly comprehensible and quite serviceable English, which leaves me wondering what someone who speaks a lot of English looks like to them.
In Berlin, this is particularly true, owing presumably to the cosmopolitan nature of the capital. My experience there began with a midnight arrival by plane, a trip to a pizza place for a very late dinner, and settling into the extremely quirky apartment that I would be renting with my friend for the next few days. This place reminded me of nothing so much as the Paper Street Soap Company, albeit much more hygienic. Fortunately.
People did tell me Berlin was particular, and I think that’s true. It’s a weird and wonderful city.
As fate would have it, our return to Paris was pre-empted by the unfortunate events of January 7th, in which a pair of homicidal religious fanatics attacked the offices of a satirical newspaper near République. Whatever the other consequences may have been – and they were numerous – this meant that Paris was tense, locked up tight and festooned with so many red warning signs that a nearsighted person might have thought they had put the Christmas decorations back up. Honestly, we were a little fearful about all this at first – a few people told us not to go, although the overwhelming attitude was – if you’ll excuse me – fuck those terrorists, go anyway.
And fuck the terrorists we did – figuratively speaking – after I finished work on Friday afternoon, we set off on the train. And as we spent our evening walking around that beautiful city – emptier than I’d ever seen it before – I was glad we had. Terrorists or no, Paris will always be Paris and the romantic magic of the city seems – at least so far – to be resilient to attack. We didn’t know it yet, but we’d also be back just a week later, unable to resist one last visit before Alex had to pack her bags and head home to Australia.