Saturday, January 08, 2011

The lives of others

I love France most when I'm in my new French class.

When I'm in my French class I am exactly where I want to be. When I'm in my French class, I am me, the American. Nothing more. Not mommy, not former pro snowboarder, not blogger, not wife, but Me. Me. Pure and unadulterated. Free from labels and nicknames. (The teacher and my classmates call me Elizabeth and I don't correct them.)

And in my class are not other French people, but foreigners, refugees, immigrants from around the world: Morocco,  Serbia, Belarus, Finland, Holland.

I  have nothing in common with these people. Except for maybe two things:
I am not home.
I take the same government -sponsored language course.

All these months of trying to figure out how I was supposed to get enough experience using my French to actually be able to connect with French people so I could further use my French, when I didn't have much French to use because I couldn't find anyone French to speak French to. And all I really needed was immigrants, who spoke French.

My first day at school, back in November, I was so depressed, I cried  on the way there. ( I essentially cried for most of November, but I'm over that now. ) Within a half hour of sitting down at the classroom table filled with dark strangers, I felt better. 

At break time, I went downstairs and got a 50-cent coffee from the machine and was invited to sit down next to the Moroccan and the Serbian, both men. They talked, and I listened. They talked about Bill Clinton. They talked about Germany. They argued, playfully, about which countries in the world were the richest countries. I listened, nodded, said a few halting sentences--talking politics in French is a bit beyond me-- and smiled a lot.

"On y va, Elizabeth," said the Moroccan. (Let's go.) I followed them back upstairs, and as we walked through the doorway into the classroom, a few minutes late, laughing like naughty kids, happiness rushed my heart. I was as happy as a depressed person could be. Happy in between those incredible attacks of sadness and tightness I had been experiencing. Happy in between sentences. This, after the longest, darkest November of the mind on record, was like spring coming early. Spring coming at all.

On the way home in the car at the end of the day, I had a flashback to my college semester abroad in Zurich.  I went to study Swiss culture and German. I spent most of my time with another American girl, Gretchen, where is she now?, Mostafa the Egyptian waiter and Ersin, the Turkish taxi driver, talking, drinking tea and wine, and smoking cigarettes. Spending even one afternoon with these immigrants, "guest workers" as they were called, was more eye-opening than an entire semester in a World History class, without the prerequisite boredom. I had no desire to nap. In fact I hardly slept that entire semester. There was no time to sleep. I had so much to learn.

While I tried to act all grownup and Euro -cosmopolitan, thus the cigarettes, the sheltered, small-town girl in me was intrigued, blown away, really, by the life stories of my new friends. Stories so much more colorful and dramatic, somehow more real, than my own.

Driving home from class, it suddenly made sense to me that I had befriended immigrants, rather than Swiss people. Conscious or not,  I needed them, like any lonely traveler needs an occasional warm smile. And, just like the Egyptian and the Turk, this new tribe that makes up my French class teaches me things. About the world and about myself.

Turns out, the Serbian was a war prisoner. He spent 12 months in a war camp during the Bosnian war. His only son was born while he was hiding in the mountains. He didn't meet his son until the boy was over a year old. He talks about the home he left behind in Serbia, a home that has been forever altered.

In between all the joking, he complains about the weather, the scenery, the French culture. It all makes his head ache. And it makes me feel strangely guilty for complaining about being here when I am, essentially, here by choice. I am enjoying a little selective life change, knowing all the while I can and will go back home, eventually.

The Serbian and the Moroccan and the Belarussian woman, they have no choice, they are stuck here, for whatever reason, money, politics, jobs. I am a fraud, a tourist, among these asylum, better-life seekers. These immigrants, these non-tourists, they put me in my place.

I complain about how boring my small village is, but I have the ability to go to the mountains to snowboard, and to Paris to wander.

I use the example of a mother needing to be alone to be happy in one of my written French exercises. The divorced-Morroccan needs me to explain that. Then he tells of how sad it is not to live with his children anymore.

I ask the Russian girl, with the painted on Barbie-blue eyebrows, who's been here only one year, how she learned French so fast.

"I had to," she says "No one speaks my language here. But I can't read or write it. I am like a child. It's terrible."

I complain about having had to move house twice since arriving in France. The Finn woman tells me about living in her car with her dogs.

Poljak, the Serb, came into class one day with chocolate bonbons and Pepsi. It was the anniversary of his liberation from prison. After having spent 12 months pacing back and forth in a yard filled with other shackled men, being forced to look at the floor and not look at or speak to anyone, one day,  he was set free.

Then he told me about Richard Holbrooke, who just recently died, and the integral part he played in brokering the peace agreement that made Poljak a free man. What was I doing when all this was going on? Riding my snowboard around the world, probably complaining about having to live out of a bag, and the stress of competing for a living. Blah, blah, blah. I may have read a headline or two about the Bosnian war, said, "Oh, that's so terrible. Can't someone do something about it?" and continued on with my self -absorbed daily existence.

Poljak is happy to be alive today. Happy to be free.

And I? I have no idea what it is like not to be free. Not even for a day.


Emma said...

It's pretty confronting, isn't it, when you get a perspective like that. My mother used to teach english to migrant adults, many of whom came from war torn countries, and their stories were amazing. And now I sometimes work with refugees from Africa at the hospital. One woman kept her 5 small children alive by hiding them in a tree while the enemy soldiers were sweeping through the villages.

Lovely post Betsy, I appreciate your honesty. It's normal, I think, to feel down when you're so far from home, but indeed helpful to put your situation in perspective.

Anna said...

Another moving piece, Betsy. I love your writing. anna

Anonymous said...

It really changes your perspective to hear the stories of other peoples' lives, doesn't it? Some of the things that people in other countries have to endure is horrifying! And because as Americans we're so sheltered, we don't even know about it or understand it. Beautiful, moving post, Betsy.

mooserbeans said...

Wow, wonderful post. Around here when we get bogged down in our own small miseries, we call it "swimming in lake so and so," as in swimming in lake Missy. That is one of the things that I like about teaching where I am. My students pull me out of myself pity. My problems are nothing compared to what some of them go through. That said, for my sanity, I allow my self to have small private pity parties, otherwise I'd go insane. You have been under stress. It's not on the same life altering level as some, but it is your stress and it does affect you. You're only human. I am glad you are feeling more at home. I really admire you, I do not think that I could move to another country and try to learn a new language.

Victoria Hutt said...

That just gave me goosebumps. Sometimes major events on the news make me stop and realize how lucky I am. When people are trapped under buildings from an earthquake and you keep getting the news updates that they're still working on getting them out or something. And I think about what I've done in that time. Had a tea, washed some dishes while looking out at the weather from my warm house, fed my kids lunch. All while these people have been going through so much, at that very moment. We are very lucky, it's good to get these reminders of it.

Living Down Under said...

Really well written Betsy. This one brought tears to my eyes. Though my parents' families were displaced in the early 1960s after the revolution in Zanzibar, I don't think they ever looked back...though my grandfather refused to talk about it -ever. On the other hand I recently read about an afghani woman who was displaced to the US. She sid she was grateful to have a new home and to have been educated but she missed her home in Afghanistan. In her story she wrote that people always ask her if she's happy to be in the US and she finds it difficult to reply because most expect that she should be but, she says, their homeland was beautiful and it wasn't their choice to leave....I suppose that's what it comes down to isn't it. Choice. And ironically, the fact that i have that choice (to go home or to stay in this awesome country) is what makes my heart heavy...

Kathleen Trail said...

So lovely... It seems like we do so much of our "living" in the space between the definable moments of our days and I'm glad you found some space here.

I have to admit – on a much lighter and possibly inappropriate note given the seriousness and beauty of this post – at first I thought this post might take a David Sedaris turn:

Meowmie said...

Wow. That was quite a post. Thank you for sharing this - your thoughts, your classmates, their lives and their hopes. And I hope that the dark sad times of being in a foreign country soon lift for you.

Mama Badger said...

I'm remembering a 60's song my Mom used to listen to, "You're only as free as your mind lets you be."

It is interesting to see how the others view things. Some times all we need is perspective and a place where we can breath.

Megan said...

Thank you, Betsy. I needed to hear that.