An American in Lille

My former coworker told me this past summer that I would really get to know myself in these seven months abroad. Ten years ago, she taught English through the Teaching Assistant Program in France, as I’m doing now. She lived in Paris — I’m living in Lille — but the program hasn’t changed much since then, and so I don’t know why I didn’t believe her; maybe it was that “getting to know yourself” sounded so clichéd to me, or that I couldn’t possibly foresee how exactly I would come to do such a thing (though that, I suppose, was the point). Only three and a half months in, however, I’ve found that in fact I have learned quite a bit about myself.

For example, I notice details. Our second night in Lyon, my friend Shelby and I were walking to the next light installation when to our left we passed someone sitting on a curb and someone standing beside him or her. When we were out of earshot, Shelby turned to me and said, “That’s the third time today I’ve seen someone comforting someone else.” I’m not even sure if the person sitting on the curb was male or female. But when we went to a church the next day, I noticed that the chandeliers were chains. Shelby notices things about people; I notice things that are static.

I love creating ambience. This because I bought a candle (Durance Fleur d’Eau — fresh yet wet like dew on lily petals, a touch musky and divine) and discovered that burning it whilst sipping a cup of tea after dinner is just lovely. I finally burned through it last night; it’s the first time I’ve burned through a whole candle!

In a somewhat more quirky way, I like learning names of plants (in French). So far, I’ve got le tilleul (lime tree), le chêne (oak tree), and le cerisier (cherry tree).

Lastly, I’ve a proclivity for mind-wandering whilst taking public transportation. I tend to have my most inspired thoughts on trains, though trams work well too. These thoughts are like dreams: if I don’t note them down immediately, I can’t remember them later.

As I was taking the tram home from work at the beginning of this week, I kept looking from side to side, first out the windows on the left side of the tram, then out the windows on the right, in an attempt to look at all of the buildings at once. I love the buildings here: not only are they adorable, but they’re also structurally very interesting. Two weeks or so before, I’d gone to a café where on display were postcards of the fronts of houses in cities around the world to which the artist had travelled; they captured the cities’ architectural design and, I think, even hinted at their respective ways of life.

I began thinking about cafés, the outdoor ones where people meet and sit at tiny tables and socialize over drinks and smoke, ones you’d be hard-pressed to find in the U.S. Though people most often daydream about such cafés in a Parisian setting, they exist throughout France and so are, in a way, the epitome of the French lifestyle, in which the pace of life is much slower than it is back home.

Naturally, I then thought about the espresso (ESPRESSO!!), all of the espressos I’ve been having and how I’ll miss them when I go back to the U.S., where all we have is coffee. I thought about going home, when the time comes, and how I’ll describe this seven-month adventure to prospective employers, let alone to myself. What have I been doing?

I’ve been:

  • Hopping around like a bunny while reading a story I wrote to my sixièmes, to get them excited about learning the rooms of a house
  • Teaching troisièmes Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood”, in English
  • Speed practicing my spoken French with locals (it’s like speed dating, but totally platonic)
  • Reading books in French and writing, in a notebook, the definitions of words I don’t know
  • Searching for pink granite in Brittany, three hours by foot from the train station, without any idea of how I was going to catch my train back
  • Wandering the small streets of Montmartre in search of sunlight and flowers
  • Familiarizing myself with art (for example, I can tell a Dutch painting from a Spanish one from a French one)
  • Inspecting my first snowflake (snowflakes really do have six arms and mini crystals all over, just like in the pictures!)
  • Planning all of my travels to come

So far, I’ve travelled to Paris, Bordeaux, the Côte de Granit Rose, St. Malo, Quimper, Nantes, Lyon, Calais, Barcelona, and Prague, and I’ve a lot more destinations on my list. Before I came to France, I had the intention of spending my vacances (in the French school system, every six weeks is followed by a two-week break) travelling to countries nearby France, but once I arrived, I realized how much there is to see in this country alone: though France is but one-fourteenth the size of the U.S., it seems to me that there are more topographical and urban differences from one city to another here than there are in the U.S. Once I started travelling, I realized that the same places could be experienced much differently at different times of the year, and this, combined with the enormity of the number of places to go, as well as that of the number of things to do in each place, means that the possibilities for trips are very much endless.

Furthermore, in each place, I’ve noticed that people from the same culture may have very different ideas from one time to another about what’s beautiful. Take fashion, for example. In Lyon, which was once the capital of the silk industry in France, the Musée des Tissus has on display two dresses, one English and one French; the English one is characterized by its corset, the French one by the illusion it creates of hips that protrude at almost a 90-degree angle to the torso. Both silhouettes, one might imagine, were painful or at the very least uncomfortable, and the fact that women — let’s be honest, it was women who were most famously subjected to such fashions — willingly wore them or at least were obligated to wear them reflects a desire, always, to seek and to embody beauty, and it reveals something more about the individual society. Why the dramatically extended hips in France, and why at the end of the 18th century and not now? If such transformations take place within a single culture, it follows that two people from two wholly different cultures will have entirely different notions not only of beauty but also of how to live.

I came to France to practice my French and to travel in Europe, but I didn’t just want to travel: I wanted to live in another place for a while, to understand how a people lives differently. For what it’s worth, my friend David told me the other day when he met me on the steps of the opéra that I looked very European, sitting on the steps in my peacoat and scarf, so maybe I’ve come to live a little differently. 

I’ve noticed differences between French and American culture (more on this later), some which I like and some which I don’t, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the French are a beautiful people, just as one might find (I think) anywhere in the world. There’s a lot of horror in the world right now, but there’s a lot of beauty too, and I aspire to find it; I’ve gotten to know myself, but I’m on my way to knowing the world.


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