When Did I Stop Being Afraid? (With a Little Help From My Friends and Family)
If you’ve been following from the very beginning of my adventures, Reader, or if you’ve gone back and caught up, you’ll know just how long it took for me to get my head around the idea of fecking off to France. I’d calmed down only a little before D(eparture)-Day (mainly thanks to a last-minute holiday in Lanzerote with The Wife, her beardy boyfriend The Messiah and our cuddly friend Chunk). As Auntie No Bull, who is incapable of bullshit, put it (although she had no idea I was listening), “She’s bricking it, isn’t she?”
But by mid-November, I’d been through what I have now fondly come to know as the Two-Month Period. This is the period I spent bemusedly wandering the streets of my host city, or the halls of my host university, constantly being surprised, generally feeling lost or unsure and frequently screaming inwardly, “But HOW am I supposed to x,y and z?”… Actually, I still bemusedly wander the halls of my host university inwardly screaming, but that’s because life at Mirail is akin to that of Alice in Wonderland…
As much as I fail to understand fellow human beings and as much as I’ve never truly felt anchored to my home country, I distinctly remember feeling alien here. All the time. It was not the behaviour of the people around me that made me feel all that different. It came from me. I put myself under (probably unnecessary) stress to fit in, to disappear into the throng and for nothing about me- my appearance, my accent, my behaviour or my way of thinking- to give me away as an outsider.
Of course, being a redhead, I immediately draw some attention. And then when the weather began cooling down in October (to less than 16 degrees) I drew even more attention by deeming it t-shirt weather. I still get irritated when, judging by my appearance or my speech, people guess I’m English. Or Irish. Or worse, German. …I jest.
The first indication I had that I was emerging from the Two-Month Period was a little after two months of living here- it was the point I started saying “I live in Toulouse”, the point I started feeling I belong in Toulouse and, not when I stopped feeling foreign (because I still do on occasion), but when I stopped caring whether I was foreign or not. The minute I stopped trying to force my being accepted, I became part of the backdrop.
It wasn’t until the end of December that I realised the process was complete. I was laying in the middle bunk, in the darkness of a moving train, plummeting towards Metz, in the very Northeast of France. As blurred shapes streaked across the window by my feet, it suddenly dawned on me that I was diagonally conquering France. And I was doing it on my own.
When did I stop being scared?
I spent 14 hours on trains that day. I travelled for 16 in total with nothing but a rucksack and my old noggin for company. And at no point did I feel the slightest ounce of fear. I felt giddy with some kind of assumed invincibility. And as I stepped off of the train and rushed to give Columbo- the reason I travelled half way home and back a week before Christmas (no points for forward planning)- a massive hug, I knew I had this Year Abroad thing down.
I was of course wrong. It turns out there’s also a Two-Months-After-the-First-Trip-Home Period. But that’s a story for another day.
Metz and Beyond: With a Little Help from My Friends
I covered almost 600 miles with the change at Marseilles, snatched a couple of hours kip on the bunk which conveniently found itself at the hypotenuse of a young couple (who had evidently booked their bunks according to likelihood of being able to stare lovingly at one another) was asked in rapid French at 4am exactly what time the train had been due to leave Marseilles and finally stepped off of the train in Metz at 8am looking and feeling surprisingly bloody chirpy considering.
I’ll admit the first thing that struck me about finding myself in the North of France was the cold, the dark and the sheer amount of dog shit. But it was 8am on a December morning, so the first two can be forgiven. And it turns out that despite the frequency one must avoid dog turd, Metz is a very quaint and picturesque town, with an obvious German influence (and despite this one must pronounce the name “mess”).
There is a clear Mediterranean feel in Toulouse- the view from my window is a jumble of shapes across different levels in white and ruddy orange, with the whitewash of the house faces against the terracotta roof tiles. Metz is decidely more beige. Sandy maybe. And I am of course used to living in a big, student-y city. Metz is not a big city. And the average age is considerably older.
So far, Project Change of Scene so good.
I immediately fell in love with the riverside, the grand Gothic structures standing tall (if foreboding) across the skyline and their sudden contrast with the shiny new Pompidou Centre (which is the subject of much excited conversation in Metz and Columbo could well have been lynched for not taking me there, so she did of course oblige).
We were of course in plain Christmas market season. So we spent a good bit of time admiring the range of potential gifts (and tat), looking up at the ferris wheel and eating local (German) delicacies. The Alsace-Lorraine region definitely has its food going for it. And of course we did the Pompidou Centre, which had some cracking exhibitions on, including one which involved stumbling around in the dark, with a wind up torch originally destined for an upmarket Christmas cracker, looking at photos. It left me feeling cultured, if with a mild wrist and neck ache. My favourite exhibition, however, was the result of a project worked on by dozens of art students, who had the patience to plan out a lot of very mathematical dots and lines. The finished works were a visual mind fart.
Of course, Metz wasn’t the only destination on my whistle-stop tour of the Alsace-Lorraine. I also made it to Nancy, which is a Versailles-like town with lots of gold and marble. Bits of it literally sparkle. Our exploration of Nancy included an impromptu trip to the zoo, hanging out with some friends of friends in a regular haunt of Columbo’s and strong coffee in a school (we were visiting a teaching assistant friend of Columbo’s who lives in the school he works at).
And we made it to Strasbourg, which did wonders for getting me into the Christmas spirit. We started off the day with Kono Pizza because where else can you get pizza in a cone? Turns out lots of places, but it was still pretty spectacular. Fuelled with ridiculous amounts of cheese, we hit the Christmas markets like the die-hard tourists we were.
Strasbourg’s population consisted of a beautiful, eclectic mix of Germans popped across the border for Christmas market tidbits and local and not-so-local French and German speakers, often bilingual. Sadly, I’ve never set foot in Germany and my German vocabulary consists of the words for “airport”, “yes, certainly” and “window factory” (true story and you can blame my father, The Bank, for the latter). The only complete sentence I can utter in German is “I have a rabbit, but I ate it”- this being the message that was left on my student flat fridge for several weeks by my wonderfully musical if a joker of a flatmate, The Voice.
The mix of people and languages just made it all the more new and exciting for me- although some of the oldy-worldy buildings made me very reminiscent of York. Strasbourg had a bit of everything- wooden bridges across waterways, buildings with traditional timber-framing… not to mention the countless market stalls and some of the biggest Christmas trees I’ve seen in my life. I managed to make an excellent start to my Christmas shopping- my judgement was apparently not impaired by the several glasses of mulled wine and cider I sampled along the way.
I came away, not only with the perfect gift (a wee model house with room for a candle to light up the windows) for my dear grandmother (a.k.a. Gribs), but also an assortment of plastic beakers, with various slogans reminding me how nowhere else in the world will ever compare to Strasbourg at Christmas. I use one to hold my toothbrush.
Home Sweet Home?
I spent the final night at Columbo’s abode drinking far too much wine, thanks to her favourite off-license down the road, where we earned ourselves quite a reputation for being regular customers. Columbo lives in a sort of renovated dormitory- it was clearly intended once for boarders- and the heavy doors and long, dark corridor were quite the trial when taking a 3am toilet trip. It does, however, have a balcony- when I say “balcony”, I mean “glorified fire escape accessible via a broken window”. So out we went, wrapped in blankets, to admire the silhouettes of Gothic constructions across the skyline and ponder upon a long weekend well spent… when we turned around to see a huddle of pubescent boys, students of Columbo, not quite believing their luck at spotting a teaching assistant on her balcony, dressing gown-clad, glass of wine in hand.
All too soon, it was time for me to depart and make the ten-hour trip to the opposite corner of the Hexagone. With the completion of this journey, I racked up over thirty train travel hours and had seen a good bit of France by railway. I knew I was approaching home when I clocked a couple of blokes adding a “g” to their “-ain”‘ and punctuating their sentences with either “putain(g)” (the Southern comma) or “con” (the full stop). It felt good to be home. Home from home.
I didn’t bother unpacking. I would be leaving for England with a case of dirty washing in a matter of days.