Today was colder. The last week was sunny and warm, but today the Big Gray returned to Troyes. Yet evidence of spring remained. On what was my very last walk to school, as I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck to combat the breeze, I passed a beautifully flowering tree. As the wind blew, baby blossoms were pulled from the branches. They fell hurriedly from the tree boughs on high to the street below; they fluttered and flew; they blew quickly past my face.
And I couldn’t help but think: it’s like time. For time too seems to flutter and fly by. Time too blows past quicker than I can catch her.
And as she continues to pass, she does nothing but gain speed.
Seven months here were short. Time didn’t used to feel so fast. Is it because I’m older now? Is it because of my constant movement over the past few years? Is it because anything, when compared to the extremes of a Peace Corps experience, seems light and easy? I’m sure it’s a combination of these things.
En tout cas, here I am, at the end of this French adventure, looking behind in gratitude at the things I learned and the opportunities I took advantage of; and looking ahead in excitement and anticipation of future travels and further adventures.
* * * * *
Once upon a time (it does feels like “once upon a time”—it was that long ago), I was a student studying French, Art, and Art History in Paris. It was a glorious time. I listened to Joni Mitchell and Five for Fighting on my long metro rides to school; I spent weekends seeking out the emptiest rooms in the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay where I’d sit and draw for hours; I fell deeply in love with new foods, new customs, and new people; I was free and alive.
I was in France that year specifically to study. And study I did. In classrooms, in Paris’s many libraries, at my host-family’s kitchen table, and in so many cafes, I studied from books and papers. But the real learning came from the people, places, sights, and sounds. The real learning came from life happening around me, and to me, and within me.
I began that year speaking mediocre French. And I began that year with a dream, one that I’ve often since recalled. I dreamed of being able to finish the year around a table, with sumptuous food, bon vin, and beautiful friends. We’d sit and laugh and eat and drink, but most especially we’d speak both French and English, mixing and mélange-ing the two.
It was a dream that really did come to pass that year. Une ami and I prepared a lovely meal. Then the whole gang, my friends French and American, showed up. There was bread, and vegetables, and cheese, and wine. The air was warm. The music was soft. And the mix and exchange of French and English was exactly how I had hoped it would be. It was not my first experience of an international table (I grew up with that in my own family’s dining room). But it remains one of my clearest memories of finding family among strangers, of feeling at home even as a foreigner, of creating from scratch my own international table.
I’ve thought of that night a lot. The scene has been repeated in various forms over the years. This past year’s Thanksgiving in Brussels was perhaps the most international I’ve ever experienced (and that’s saying something), and the many events K and I have hosted chez nous have always comprised of mingling languages and colorful cultural exchanges.
Last night was the last night all the Language Assistants in Troyes gathered together. Beginning today, we’ll all start peeling ourselves away from our French lives (or at least our Troyen lives). Thus, last night we said our goodbyes before heading back to the States and Germany and England and Spain. And our table last night, our French-Swedish-American-Syrian-British-Spanish table, was the wonderful mix of people, ideas, cultures, and languages that I love.
All those years ago, when I first lived in Paris, I knew what I wanted. Yet it’s only now that I feel better able to articulate it. I wanted learning to take place at my dinner table, and not just in my classrooms. I wanted to be surrounded by those who inspired me, who helped me grow, and who taught me more about myself and the world. And it is exactly that that I continue to search out in life. I don’t want the “and she lived happily ever after” ending. I want instead “and she continued to learn, and to laugh, et aimer, et vivre, et voyager for ever and for always.”
* * * * *
I’m sitting in the teacher’s room at Edouard Herriot for the very last time, drinking my very last little plastic cup of café au lait. In fifteen minutes time, the bell will ring, I’ll visit one last class, and then I’ll leave the school grounds. On my way to the bus stop I’ll pass by that lovely tree, the ones with blossoms that remind me of time. There will probably be students on my bus that will invoke memories of the high-school version of myself. I’ll walk through the center of Troyes and think of the other foreign cities I’ve lived in. I’ll pack my bags and recall the hundreds of times I’ve left and arrived, packed and unpacked, before this time.
My students this week have often asked if I’ll return to France. Of course I will. “When?” is the far trickier question.
It is early spring now, but when I leave France in a month the sun’s rays will have grown much stronger. It will be hot this summer as I work in California. Fall will bring autumn leaves and colors as I make the transition to Washington D.C. Time and seasons, both ephemeral and fickle, will pass by at alarming speeds.
When will I return to France again? Who knows? Perhaps much time will have passed. But I have no doubt that I’ll be back.
And in the mean time, I’ll be sure to experience extraordinary new adventures elsewhere.
* * * * *
From three years ago: Just Another Day In the Life
From two years ago: Springing Awake