Most come to France for vacation, others for business, but for the few who have chosen to immigrate, our arrival marks the moment life starts over.
I recently learned that France is the most visited nation on the planet. If we look just at Americans, approximately 13,000 of us step off a plane here every single day. Most come for vacation, others for business, but for the few who have chosen to immigrate, our arrival marks the moment life starts over at zero.
A new country! A new beginning! How exciting!
Later, but perhaps not much later, we might begin to appreciate just how far down zero really is…
I arrived in France the greenest of greenhorns possible. I spoke essentially no French and certainly comprehended none. I had 150 pounds of luggage and three trains to catch in the middle of a nationwide transportation strike. Somehow I made it from the airport to Gare du Nord in downtown Paris, but then spent hours wandering all over that place unable to find my next train or even where or how to buy a ticket.
On that day Gare du Nord seemed the most immense and confusing building in all the world, a kind of real-life M.C. Escher maze on a colossal scale. When I next happened to be in Paris almost two months later, I was genuinely surprised to see that it had shrunk considerably from my first impression. It was almost as if on that first day I had seen everything from the eyes of a small child — which in fact was not far from the truth.
The rest of that day I remember only as I might the images from a fever dream. My strength was depleted early on from shouldering and dragging so much weight up and down stairs and on and off trains. My hands were bleeding. All the exertion dehydrated me nearly to delirium, yet somehow I never had the sense of mind to buy a bottle of water. Although I did not recognize it then, I was already in a state of shock.
By some miracle I did eventually arrive at my destination of Amiens, long past dark and after having traveled through the fog the whole way there. I found my hotel and slept as if I would never wake again, having seen essentially nothing of France to that point.
The next morning, only very slightly recuperated and still very jet-lagged, I shyly ventured outside to see what my new surroundings had to show me. For someone coming from the suburbs of Kansas, I may as well have discovered a new planet. Down every cobblestone street was revealed a new and astonishing gift to the senses — the fanciful buildings, the canals, the little cafés, the unusual mode of dress, the smell of perfume and baked bread, the unintelligible language I heard all around me, and finally, the cathedral of Amiens which was by far the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. If this was a dream — and it certainly felt like it — I did not want to wake up.
I had made an appointment at a student lodging complex to see about getting an apartment. The manager spoke no English but invited me into her little office and we communicated by taking turns at her keyboard typing our conversation into Google Translate. She agreed to rent me an apartment even though I was not a student and wouldn’t be there during the usual term. The true extent of her kindness and generosity, not to mention my great good fortune, wasn’t fully appreciated until much later when I better understood the bureaucratic frustrations that more usually attend to this process.
The apartment was furnished but still lacked many day-to-day amenities, to say nothing of food. In America we drive our car to the massive big box place and buy everything we want all in one trip. Not so when your life is lived on foot. There is a limit to how much you can carry in your two hands, or on your back, and that is the limit to what you are going to bring home. In the early days it is never enough, and my first week in France was largely spent being a literal pack mule. I found myself resenting certain inanimate objects for the space or weight they took. Toilet paper weighs nothing but takes up a lot of space, meaning this particular trip isn’t going to accomplish much. Forget buying cases of your favorite soft drink, that’s too bulky and too heavy. Just as well, you’re not going to find your favorite soft drink in France anyway. What about a floor lamp? Not only is that going to be a single-item shopping trip, but afterward you are going to be walking down the street in the rain carrying a lamp over your head. However I learned this is not the most unusual thing you will see in France…
It was frustrating, to say nothing of physically exhausting, to leave the store with my heavy burdens for the umpteenth time, knowing that half of what I wanted was still sitting in the store. The good news is that life in France, for this and many other reasons, is very conducive to weight loss.
In the midst of all the logistical challenges to “installing myself” (as the French say), I was also trying to navigate the human and cultural dimensions of this foreign world, almost invariably with spectacular failure. An example symbolic of so many others was the door handles.
In my long life in America I had learned that handles on doors are meant for pulling. If instead a door needs to be pushed, Americans typically install a flat metal plate that, you know, you push. But in France the same pully-handle is very frequently installed on both sides of the door. How many times (I can’t even begin to count) would I approach a shop door on a gloomy winter day and see a nice warm interior through the glass, with cheerful humans doing happy humans things that I too wanted to partake of, and so to enter I pulled on the door handle — and nothing.
But it can’t be locked, the shop is clearly open, I can see everyone inside laughing at me. Maybe if I pull harder…nope, not budging. The thought of trying to push never entered my mind. What might have entered my mind was, By God I’ll show these Frenchies what American muscle looks like! If I have to grab this thing with both hands, lean back, and brace myself against the curb, this door is coming off! But the door didn’t come off, nor did it open, and never would it open until some exasperated occupant within did it for me, effortlessly and with the helpful comment that “Monsieur needs to push.”
In foreign environments it is necessary to bend or break, the problem is that at the beginning we don’t yet know enough to see when or how we should do that. But never fear: swiftly and painfully, the world is going to teach us.
The doors were embarrassing enough, but by far the worst experiences involved any kind of communication. I suppose I had a vague idea that navigating the world in a foreign language would pose some kind of challenge, but having never been in that situation before I had no concept of just how bad it could be.
Let me tell you: it was bad.
Before going anywhere I would memorize a phrase or two to get me through whatever I needed to do next. On my first night I walked into my hotel and said in French “Hello Ma’am, I have a reservation for tonight.” The receptionist behind the counter immediately broke into laughter. I looked around…was there a monkey behind me? Then she replied to my statement with a long monologue of which I understood precisely nothing.
Other times someone would appear sincerely annoyed or even upset at something I had said, but in either case (both no doubt well deserved), I never had the first clue about what I had done to elicit the response I received. This added to a general sense of disorientation and regularly made me question my sanity.
Once, and I can assure you it was only once, I memorized a question for my apartment manager which I skillfully posed to her down in the office. Possibly my stupidity will surprise you, but it wasn’t until the very moment I had finished my question that I realized that whether she replied with a nursery rhyme, the formula to cure cancer, or even the answer to my question, it would make no difference — I couldn’t understand any of it. She did respond with something, I know not what, and I left feeling both like a moron and also completely helpless.
Worst of all was being asked a question by someone else. My first time at the grocery store I was hoping to just swipe my credit card and get out of there, but before ringing me up the cashier asked me something incomprehensible.
I froze in terror. In an act of stupidity equal to the prior example, I finally croaked back “Pardon?” As if repeating unintelligible sounds a second time would make any difference! Yet she did repeat them, and I still didn’t have an answer. The people in line behind me were already getting impatient (it happens fast in France), and the cashier started to look as confused as I did. What did I do? Nothing. I just stood there with a dumb look on my face and prayed I would wake up from this awful nightmare, back in my warm bed with a binky.
I know, you’re yelling at your screen right now — why didn’t you memorize the phrase for “Sorry, I don’t speak French”? Or just pipe up in clear English and say the same thing? Good idea, and sometimes I did just that, but what I am describing here are deer-in-the-headlight moments. It’s not that the deer has run out of options while he stands in the path of the oncoming car. It’s that some sudden fright has disengaged his brain completely.
These moments were daily occurrences that first week (and well beyond). Within a very short period of time I had quite effectively been conditioned to associate any verbal interaction with embarrassment and panic. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I soon reached a state where even the thought of going to the bakery in the morning, and having to speak or hear even a few words of French, filled me with so much dread I felt physically ill. These emotions were often all out of proportion with reality (the bakery for example was always a pleasant place), and they persisted long after my French improved to where I was better able to communicate. These unwanted but involuntary responses, as well as my vain and often absurd attempts to avoid them, colored a good deal of my early experiences in France.
At the end of my first week I was overwhelmed. I felt that I knew absolutely nothing about anything. I felt as if I had regressed back to a toddler of two years old: I could walk, I could feed myself, probably I was more or less potty-trained. But that was it. Into thin air had evaporated all the other competencies I as a grown man had once prided myself on, and before me lay the task of reacquiring the most basic of life skills.
There was some good news. Underneath mental bewilderment and emotional mayhem, this daunting challenge served to order and simplify a more profound facet of being. In the midst of countless obstacles, life had begun to acquire a tinge of those things we often seek the most: purpose and direction.
That manifested in the growing conviction, even that first week, that I was in the right place, on the right path, despite all the challenges and adversity (often self-imposed) that I was running into.
This article originally appeared on The American in Paris.