What You Learn From Living Abroad
Last year, I went to France for two months because I had nothing better to do. I had taken the quarter off between finishing undergrad and starting graduate school, and during that time, a French friend I was not so secretly in love with insisted that I should come live with him in the city proper. One day, I ran out of ways to tell him, “Non.” So, I said, “Pourquoi pas?”
The only way this trip could have gone worse is if my name were Elizabeth Smart.
But to not get ahead of myself, this story is really about my family, about my father. After I graduated college last spring, my father told me he was dying, and I moved back home to be with him, to be closer to a father I never really knew. However, he wasn’t actually dying. He just had sleep apnea but wanted me to move back home, and so he thought that dying sounded more compelling.
I tried to get past this and my hatred of him, to ignore the ridiculous lies he always tells me. I tried to understand him, to forge any kind of connection with this monster. But I couldn’t. I remembered the times he didn’t tell me he got married, didn’t tell me he had two other children, didn’t tell me he used to hit my mom a lot. I couldn’t learn to forgive, and so I ran away to Paris.
A week before I left, my host, Claude, told me that he was actually living with his parents in the suburbs. Because I couldn’t cancel my plans at this point, I went with it.
I flew out of Chicago on a cold November night — spent three hours in a Turkish airport, which is exactly like a Turkish prison — and then landed in Paris on a slightly warmer November night. Claude and his father picked me up and drove me to his house, a trip during which we sat in silence, and I found out that Claude’s parents didn’t know that I was staying for two months. They thought I would be there for three weeks. He lied. On top of that, his parents were at the beginnings of a divorce, and to get them to let me stay, Claude had told them that I was going to do the young, idealistic-college-grad thing and schlep around Europe, treating the world as my oyster. I’m allergic to oysters, highly gullible (clearly), on my own in a foreign country and don’t want to end up a Roman Polanski movie; I like not being murdered. So, backpacking was never gonna happen, ever.
To make matters much worse, it turned out Claude was still in high school. He was repeating his last year at a Lycee in the city for the third time — because he was secretly a total moron, which I had never noticed before. The French accent just made him sound smarter than he was. For instance, he had never seen a Godard or a Truffaut film, and he’s fucking French. When I asked him what the French consider the greatest film ever made (what would be “their Citizen Kane”), he said “something with Gerard Depardieu in it.” So beautiful, so wrong.
Thus, I had to entertain myself in the city every day, which wasn’t difficult in the most beautiful city in the world. However, every morning at the breakfast table before I left, Claude’s mother would ask me when I was moving out, when I was starting my intrepid, idealistic journey across this great continent. I didn’t know what to say, and I would just smile and quickly fill my mouth with whatever cheese was lying on the table. I’m lactose intolerant, and I started eating so much cheese that I actually shit myself at family dinner one night. It just kind of came out, and it looked exactly like baby poop. I just smiled and kept eating the cheese, pretending nothing was wrong.
At the time I ran a website for a living, and I figured that the best way to navigate the situation was put my head down, work on the site and either stay out of the house or hide in my room until I found somewhere else to live. Claude’s parents were getting more politely hostile toward me by the day, and if I wanted to be resented for existing, I would have stayed at home with my family. I figured that Claude’s family couldn’t hate me if they never saw me.
Wrong. After two weeks of hiding from them, Claude’s family kicked me out. Interestingly, they didn’t even kick me out to my face. They told Claude to tell me, told him that they didn’t want to see me on the street, but they also didn’t want to see me. So, I packed all my things and moved out the next morning with my person-sized suitcase in tow. Claude walked me to the train and hugged me goodbye. I never saw him again.
I moved to the cheapest hostel in Paris for a few days to sort things out, sharing a room with two Italian girls who drank fermented apple juice. I felt better, emptied of the anguish I’d built up the last three weeks. I looked out on the cars turning and turning underneath my window and I breathed, probably for the first time since I’d been there.
It would be the last.
At the end of the week, I moved in with some friends of Claude’s near Gare de L’Est. There were five roommates. Three were the dumbest people I had ever met, and they threw parties and trashed the apartment almost every single night, leaving the mess for everyone else to clean up. They were in their late twenties, and none of them had paying jobs. Mom and Dad’s money is a wonderful thing.
The other two roommates were brother and sister, and their dad owned the building. One was possibly bipolar, and the other was the scariest person I’ve ever met. Because of the circumstances, we became friends.
The sister’s name was Marie. When I met her, all we could talk about is how much alike we were, and I would light up the moment I saw her. But we were more alike than I knew. Three years before I went to France, I broke up with my Most Significant Boyfriend for cheating on me and proceeded to go Tonya Harding crazy on him. Two weeks before I moved in, Marie broke up with her girlfriend of two years for similar reasons and quietly fell apart. Every morning, I would wake up to her playing Skrillex and German dubstep at full volume, muffling her sobs with Wagnerian dance music.
She longed for escape, to get out of Paris, like many Parisians do. How do you spot a non-Parisian in Paris? When they like living there. Almost every native citydweller I met told me that they hated Paris and would rather live anywhere else, but for her, anywhere else wasn’t anywhere. It had a name: London. Although she had been saving up to move there, she slowly realized over the course of my stay that she wouldn’t be able to leave, that she would never leave. She became increasingly depressed, but then just suddenly left one morning. She came back from London two days later, still drunk, unable to recount much of her trip, except for the part where she’d been arrested. She told me that one of her roommates had to pay for her trip back — because she never bought a return ticket.
Although Marie wanted to escape her failed relationship, she also left to escape our other unstable roommate: her brother. His name is Jacques, and he’s an alcoholic. And a drug addict. He threatened to kill himself once every few days, and we expected him to take himself up on it rather soon. Once, he disappeared all night, and we all thought he had gone through with it. It turned out that he was trapped on the balcony, just locked out; he had thought about jumping and decided against it. When he wasn’t thinking about killing himself, he would secretly plot to kill our dumbest roommate, Nolwenn, and often doodled pictures of himself shooting her. He would leave them around the apartment. One night, he wrote me a letter that said, “Kill her” about two hundred times. He thought it was funny. I did not.
Marie has been taking care of Jacques most of her life and felt that these things weren’t a problem. This was just Jacques, a career lunatic. He worked for the government, a social worker, and his co-workers called him Inspector Vodka. I called him “Gregor Samsa” — because he reminded me of a Kafka novel. He thought it was funny. I did not.
A week after I moved in, Jacques broke his clavicle while trying to stab someone and got six weeks off from work as a reward. Marie was putting her life together and couldn’t take care of him, and so I spent my days tying his shoes and taking him to appointments. He couldn’t leave the house, and so I had to stay home with him most days, which I usually spent on the computer, talking to a boy I barely knew. He became my confidant, the only one I could tell about Jacques, about everything.
I got a non-paying job in a bookshop on the Seine to get out of the apartment, to be away from Jacques, but there was no being away from him. He had a way of haunting your thoughts, like a private holocaust you hoped your children would be able to forget someday.
On my penultimate day in Paris, after weeks of sitting at home with Jacques and watching him drink, I finally got him out of the house. We went to Montparnasse Cemetery to see Baudelaire’s grave. Baudelaire is my favorite poet, and I needed to see him, or what was left of him, before I went away. His grave was like a large opened book and it was covered in letters and poems and cigarettes. I cried, and I didn’t hide my tears, because I was crying for so much more.
Afterwards, Jacques and I went to see the Montparnasse Towers next door to the cemetery, which promised me that I could see all of Paris, even the parts I’d missed out on, the city I still had so much of to discover. But it was closed for the night so we went down to use the restroom. And while I stood at the urinal, the man at the next stall was staring at me intently, rubbing his hand up and down the shaft of his penis. Although at first I thought he really enjoyed peeing, I then realized that he just really enjoyed me. I put my dick in pants and ran away, I ran as far as I could, I ran for what felt like forever.
I caught a plane the next day and realized that the city was still as much a stranger to me as it was when I arrived. In Paris, I had hoped to reconnect with someone I once loved, to find myself anew in a foreign culture. I hoped that Paris would heal me, not realizing that I needed to heal myself or that in running away from my problems, I was just creating new ones. I could blame all my problems on Paris, but it was my fault for expecting the city to fix them. Paris didn’t need to be held accountable: I did.
When I landed at O’Hare, the boy I barely knew picked me up, and after I stepped off the plane, he held me so tight. He held me like I had needed to be held for so long. I would get held a lot in the next couple weeks, by family, by friends and by people I didn’t even know missed me.
Paris might always stay a stranger to me, but when I got back to Chicago, I found the connection I needed. I found home again, where people at least have the decency to masturbate to you on the train.
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