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.