My year abroad began in Nanterre, one of the westerly suburbs of Paris. I lived with a French woman and her five-year-old son. In exchange for picking him up from school and looking after him in the evenings until she arrived home, I had a bed and a powerful view of La Défense. The University of Southampton’s Parisian pairing was Univeristé Paris 8, based in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis. I really wasn’t far from England, neither my north-westerly home nor the Sainsbury’s in Saint Denis, Southampton.
It was an odd concept to my European counterparts that in England you can do a degree in Modern Languages. “What do you study them with?” / “Nothing, just the languages” / “But do you do German and History or French and Film?” / “Well, we do modules in that sort of stuff along side the language part” / “Ah so it’s a History and Modern Languages Degree?” / “No, no, just Modern Languages”. The quadri-lingual polyglot of a Greek stood quite silent in front of me. For my Erasmus friends from all over the world, languages were quite an obvious skill and everyone spoke two or three along side their degree of International Relations, Law or arts plastiques.
I felt pointless. Whilst everyone else studied their socks off, trying to make sense of their final year in French, this year meant nothing towards my degree, the requirement being to pass half of the modules. We only had to do 15 credits, each class being five credits. This removed all incentive to do anything. On my days out of uni I’d explore Paris, which I definitely enjoyed but after three months of lazy apathy I decided to get out. I found an internship on indeed.fr in a language school in south-west Paris as a receptionist and client assistant. At the very least, my French will improve was the thought.
I spent a couple of weeks watching Friends in my room, I don’t think binge watching TV is healthy but it reminded me of my childhood. I remember when it was on 164 and then 136, then it swapped from E4 to comedy central. I remember watching it with Ed, I remember watching it by myself. That TV lounge, I used to take in binge food, junk food and watch TV show after TV show. It’s always been escapism, a product of loneliness.
Around the beginning of November I started to write things down. I wrote, “Here begins my consciousness. I know this isn’t the beginning, it’s been here my whole life, but I feel it stab me so strongly, and this feels new. Blinking my eyes in the shade of this autumn, I see the sandstone trail we walked along, I see horse chestnuts and smell Cheshire’s seasons, whichever one I imagine to be in. Do I miss home? I don’t know. I don’t know what I miss or who I am or what I’m doing. I’m here to learn French, yes that’s clear, that’s fine, but how much? Am I supposed to spend my free time in my room writing notes, learning grammar, all that stuff? So I do a bit, I do some French and some German, maybe an hour of each a day, theory and writing, that seems enough, I use the French when I chat to people, I do, I do speak and I do try. It’s the people, they’re both everywhere and nowhere, all at once. It’s November and I thought I would have settled by now. Am I not? I’m keen to find work opt volunteer somewhere like Shakespeare and Company, I might meet some nice people, some people I can love and that might love me, we’ll have the books in common and that’ll be a start. I’m endlessly going for coffees and chatting to people and sometimes it helps. Sometimes it’s depthless and I feel worse than when we started the conversation but other times I can purge my soul and I feel light as a feather. I can’t spend three days Monday to Wednesday cooped up in this house, these walls they’ll crush me hard. Why is this lump lingering in my throat like an anchor pulling my entire self down, attached to these drooping eye-lids.
I had to tell Z that I’d be leaving. The little boy was finishing his fromage and watching a show. I told her in English so as not to bother him, yet. I leaned across the counter in the kitchen, across the barrier she’d put up between us since day one. She wouldn’t really take no for an answer, suggesting methods and ways to make the arrangement work. This made the reality much harder. I shouldn’t have gotten invested with a family, it got tough and I quit, if you don’t like where you are in life then change it, you are not a tree, unless you are affecting other trees, I’m scared I’ve stunted the growth of a beautiful little sapling. Even though I’d found an apartment to move into at the end of November I’d stay for another month trekking from Belleville to Nanterre every evening to cherche le petit à l’école. It’s the least I could do. I moved in with S, a studio apartment at Jaures and it’s all we needed: kitchen, bathroom and the room we lived in with two beds, a sofa and a desk and I’d found a job to start after Christmas.
Looking back on my time in Nanterre, it was bitter sweet, as all experiences are. I had a lot of freedom in the day so I’d run and read and see friends and Paris, it was the constrained evenings that go to me, especially as the days grew darker. Dinner in my room every night, smells in a house that is not mine. Some nights she wouldn’t get home until ten and I’d cancel on a friend again. But I can bitch and moan all day about this. It’s not worth a minute. How could I have known that no evenings in a new city would take a toll, in a flat an hour from Paris. I don’t regret the decision, because it’s brought me to where I am now and I loved the autumn leaves in Mont Valerian, I liked reading on the bus into Paris and I needed the time to think.