In French class growing up, I remember so many lessons that started in a certain way. I'd look down at my ruled notebook, peppered with girly doodles and perfectly precise handwriting, and I would pore over "si clauses". Basically, the structure for, "If I could, then I would". Si je pouvais, je voudrais...if I could, I would like...and the possibilities always seemed bright, shining and endless. As a high schooler, didn't it seem like every situation seem like, "If I could, I would."
I was raised in a medium-sized town. As much as I feel suburbia is this mess of ideas that I don't quite subscribe to, there's a beauty in symmetry, a beauty in sameness; I would walk down the lanes of my quiet subdivision and marvel at the pretty leaves hanging over the neatly paved cement. Pretty girl, from a pretty nice family, full of love and laughter and all of the things that come along with it.
I picked up the phone to call someone, anyone, how does this journey even begin? I'm the dreamiest of the dreamers. Not really. But there are times where I feel my heart is about to leap out of my chest, and it gives me this hyperbolic sense of self. Growing up, my friends assumed a similar attribute. My two best friends, for as long as I can remember, were spouting ideals in the only way we knew how. We were cutie-pie philosophers, in our own way. There I was, the writer. The actress? I was always somewhere in between. There was Lucy, the constant writer; she had her moments, she had her issues, but we always managed to giggle and dream about owning book shops and traveling and fulfilling non-suburban fantasies. And there was Elizabeth. Liz and I are still very close. She's always been quiet, yet so unfailingly nice an so very smart. Nice girls. Pow-wowing about a life different than our own; that's a fair evaluation of my teenage years. That and chasing after theater department boys. And acting, writing, feeling way too much all of the feelings, but mostly? Feeling creative, feeling challenged, feeling lost...the cliche, embodied. In the best ways, the worst ways. Mediocre was I, but always with a little glimmer of something.
I stood on the stage and took a breath after my monologue. I felt good about it, you know when the heat rushes up to your cheeks becuae you know you've just impressed a room of people. I'm trying my best to feign shy, but I'm also readying myself for a critique. It was a crazy piece (Oh to call things "pieces"! How I miss acting so), a Neil Labute piece, with an affect far darker than anything I'd encountered in my life up to that point. About a woman so obsessed with a man that she took to electrocuting their love child, just to get his attention.
How horrifying? I postured in front of my teacher, Mr. Clark, swirled and twirled in my girly way as I sputtered through an explanation of my acting choices. Packed up my book bag, on I went. My friend Mike bumps into me in the hall. He utters words to me, words in passing that strike me to this today with brute force. "You know, you're incredibly overrated". He had flowing sandy blond hair, a striking feature at my run-of-the-mill Illinois high school. That hair and that face and those eyes; those words he said. Underrated? What does that mean? I could feel a little bit of anger rising, but I was overreacting.
The older I got, the more it became clear to me...when you're underrated, people don't know what's coming from you. Simple yes, but powerful, too. I've long been buried under a self-constructed pile of undermined potential. Not to say that I'm great shakes, but I've got a lot of...fight in me, a lot of ideas, too many ideas, that I keep at bay. Maybe I'm bored. Maybe I'm just underrated.
I glance across the table at the restaurant...it's just painful. Holding on to memories...letting things take their shape, not being in love anymore, being in love. It's hurtful, isn't it? To think that this person you once yearned for...isn't what you wanted? Talk about a heart shattering in a million pieces. I should think about the metaphor in a more creative way. A way that really...does it justice.
I knew I was done a long time ago. It's so hard to be sentimental about it. It's hard to be cute about it. I glance over at you. With the your wiry hair, and your small eyes, and your inattentive body language. Are you trying to break my heart? Are you trying to? Because I can only take being ignored so much.
Fast forward a few years. Past high school, past the daydreaming days. Past college, past the first real love of my life. It was a sweltering thing, something totally consuming....for me. I've written reams about Joe. I can start at the tip of him, move to the toe of him and wrap back around. It was the first moment I knew I loved someone else in that real way. Naked in his bed, just letting him wash over me...scared, but uncontrollably happy. Frightened he would ever let me go.
I could think about that embrace of his. His demeanor. He said the right things. He did the right things.
My feet dangle over his bed, I kiss his shoulder, I never want to leave this moment I'm swimming in.
30 years old. Light brown hair. Light eyes, smiling eyes. Looks about 21.
I met you the night of your 30th birthday. 30th birthday! Imagine that. And imagine you, simple and cool, a random American sitting on the floor of my friend Ben’s apartment. I say random American because I’d met all of the Anglophone assistants and we tend to flock together. I knew I liked you immediately, your style, the way you conducted yourself. So…easy. Anyway, I liked your baseball cap, sat down next to you, and talked for a while.
32 Years Old. Dark hair, jet black, questionable amount of gel. French. Beautiful. Incomprehensible English.
I met you outside of my apartment, after I signed the lease, prior to moving in. I picked up some little things from the 8 a Huit on Lakanal…laundry detergent, tea. And there I am, fretting with the ancient skeleton key, maybe the third time ever I opened the door at 10 Rue du Lieutenant Chanaron. And there you were. There I was. We locked eyes and you asked me for a drink.
30 years old. Kebab shop employee. Getting his Masters in French as a Second Language. Forbidden Love, but not quite.
I met you a little outside of the setting in which I came to know you best. I walked by your kebab shop every single day, multiple times a day, but the first time we talked was when I made a Coca Cola run at the late-night grocery store.
31 years old. Found on JDate. Montreal-born. Jet-set. Short, stocky, a little funky. Captivating.
You are probably the least significant individual included in this list. But, to not include the inspiration for this story would be a grave injustice.
And so this account begins. The twists and turns it will take I’m not entirely sure, because there’s a great deal I intend to fictionalize. But I am determined to spin an interesting yarn, for better, for worse, for anything.
I’m Ashley. 25 years old, forever enraptured with a fantasy life I can never quite claim as my own. It’s the curse of a girl who likes to read books, I’m absolutely convinced. I grew up wanting a Rochester, dreaming of an Atticus Finch, wanting literary figures to come to life and fill my world with their bright colors. I dreamt that Antoine St. Exhupery wasn’t lost in a plane crash and that someone with that sort of vivid imagination was part of my life. And just to be honest, I’m half writing this because my 24-year-old ex-boyfriend just found a new girlfriend is prettier and smarter than me and I’m trying to process it. How is that for honest? A total schmuck breaks up with me 9 months ago and every five minutes a wave comes over me that’s so nauseating it turns me to writing this...inspiration comes in many forms.
So, shall we talk about him? There’s not that much to talk about, really. I wasn’t sure about him at first. But then I was swept up in the whole “I have a BOYFRIEND” of it all, then I really started falling for him and then I started losing faith in myself. Keeping my shit together is a constant battle. And he was a casualty of some things I could have controlled better. Before I met him, I lived in France for the better part of a year. I let France define my happiness. I let my new friends define my happiness. I let everyone define my happiness except for me. So here I am, hoping that this nice guy with a good heart, as inexperienced as me in relationships, gets the weight that I equate happiness with a very tightly adjusted set of parameters. It wasn’t fair. But not everything needs to be fair.
So France. I guess I can start there. France is it’s own love affair. It’s hard and soft, lovely and disgusting, easy and incomprehensible. Loving France is complicated. But it is always, always possible. Some memories stay forever, settling cozily in a sweet little place in my heart. My first France memory, I hold it close. Landing on the tarmac in Marseille, surrounded by the deep blue of Provencal mountains. It’s a perfect photograph.
France has its moments, too. Moments where I can’t stand it or myself, moments where I would give anything to be back in my America and surrounded by everything I know and understand. But there’s a mutual respect between France and I. A mutual notion that we love each other, even though we’re not necessarily a perfect match.
“How do you do keep doing this without killing your parents? Like, really, really hurting them?” The words spill out a little less delicately than planned. I’ve commandeered my friend David’s 2 euro sangria, and honesty is the order of the evening. My long brown hair is matted to my pale face, I’m sweaty and I’m not making any attempts to hide it. This party is bizarre and I can’t get enough of it. It’s April and the weather’s been great for a few months now in this little mountain town we share. Grenoble.
Without batting an eyelash, “I don’t know. I go back, I live with them for a few months. It’s how I stay close with them. It’s how I feel close to them”.
“But then you move away”. I look down, trying to veil the sadness in my eyes.. Because it is sad. Sad how attractive the transient lifestyle is to each attendant at this party, sad how unrealistic this lifestyle is for Americans, sad how it really does tear you apart from everything you’ve ever known.
“I think I finally understand it”.
It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon and we’ve left a movie. Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere and truthfully I didn’t get it either. Normally, I like to indulge Sofia and give her the benefit of the doubt, seeing as she’s married to the singer of my favorite band and is generally someone I admire, but this one…it meandered, it pandered, it didn’t really amount to anything. It’s a terribly self-aware style of film-making…fully informed to the fact that it’s supposed to drip with cool. Stephen Dorff as a star that faded out, Elle Fanning as the pre-ingenue ingénue. I don’t understand what exactly there is to understand.
In his funny little Arabic/French lilt, he coos, “It was the driving. Driving in a circle, seemingly going nowhere, but going…somewhere”.
Hit the nail on the head. It was this odd metaphor the film, this funny motif it kept returning to. A smoldering scene of Stephen Dorff, hair defying gravity, doing donuts in the desert with his impossibly cool car. We’re all going nowhere, but we all end up somewhere. How poetic.
“I have five sisters and two brothers,” he speaks as he scoops the pate-topped cracker into his mouth. His mother lives at town south of here called Vif. She just baked the brownies I’m gnawing on gingerly.
“Wow,” it’s all I can muster, looking in his dark eyes.
He’s the first guy since moving to Grenoble that I really wanted to take a chance on. I’ve encountered a few special gents, all of them competing with my father in age. There was that time on the 33 bus, coming back from a questionable part of town, where the Sicilian grandpa hit on me in front of his wife. I’m a total sucker for all old people. One time I saw him sitting on a bench in Place Victor Hugo, the square that I saw on the tour my host brother took me on; that was the moment when I knew I would like in Grenoble. In the pouring rain, I knew everything was going to be ok. In spite of every crazy emotion I was feeling, the fountain, this little plot of land lined with trees gave me a sign.
Anyway, there Grandpa was, sitting in Place Victor Hugo and my friendly nature got the better of me. “Do you want to take a walk?” “Yes” “Do you want to walk for a little longer” “Sure” “Do you want to get a café a McDonald’s” “Why not?”…all ending in an awkward moment in the basement of McDo, a moment where I’m still not quite sure what the very elderly man was bargaining for. Sigh.
The amount of time it takes you to choose a wine bottle turns my cheeks a shade of rosy red. Seriously? How long does it take, how many tastings must you make the poor waitress parade out, until you find something bitter enough? You look at me with your oddly endearing eyes, and declare, “You’re the expert”.
A funny sort of pride eeks out my pores and I’m into this. I look at your face, and I wonder, perhaps aloud as a rather unpleasant side effect of the wine, if you’re into this, too.
You are a glorious representation of the Ashley dream man. Short and stocky, yes, but a foreigner (of Montreal, of all places), jet-set and painfully independent. These days I’m learning that my go-with-the-flow attitude isn’t so much that, as it is a languorous, nasty laziness. It’s unappealing. Because when I found out that Tom’s girlfriend has this gorgeously prolific resume, it just kills me, I swear it does. And she works at investment banks and theatre companies and it’s all I can do not to throw up.
Ashley. 25 years old. Feels sorry for herself a lot. Making her way through a transition. Always making her way through a transition. Runs away. Sometimes. Pretty. Naïve. Wishes she were prettier. Wishes she were a lot of things. Has a lot to learn about life. And love.
I could write a novel about being unemployed. I thought about it. Because being unemployed…was so much scarier than I thought it was going to be. Age 24, for the most part, was my year of magical thinking. That’s such a horrible allusion, considering the content of the Joan Didion classic, but I’m invoking creative license and going with the literal sense. It begins a year after college ends, at the tail end of a job that did a little more harm than good, a year that I viewed as a lost one, a year that I now take for granted. As you’ll read, you might pick up that some things are taken for granted. Don’t hate me for it, I’m allowed to grow and change. I’m 25 after all. It starts where work ends and a seven-month long journey to France begins.
It’s a curious thing, moving to a new country. You take yourself, you pack a few carefully selected belongings, book a plane ticket. You go through the motions. It’s quite simple, really. You make a choice. You commit yourself. For better, for worse, for mediocre. Your old life was somewhere else and your current life is here. Not your new life. Your current life. This is an important distinction.
I don’t even like to travel, in particular. Logistics frighten me. Spending copious amounts money unnerves me. But I find the idea of relocation terribly romantic. I envy the backpackers, the travel-alone bunch; they’ve got a gene I simply don’t. What I am good at, you could say, is the big move, the settle-in. I like new scenery and I like to set up shop. One plane ride, one apartment, one routine filled with its knotty kinks and sudden surprises. I’m addicted to the new. But moving gradually. I can’t stress how important that is. Moving gradually.
I’m no different than anyone else.
But right now I am selfish and this has a lot to do with “me”. But I’m not very different, one sort of girl fresh from the cookie cutter. In college, there are certain kinds of girls you will meet. I am the “one who wants to go abroad”. It’s a type. A girl who reads plenty, smart, outgoing, not terribly popular with the boys, but knowing she’ll get her man because she’s just so…special? Not unique. Just so very special. More interested in books and alone time than constant companionship, more interested in friends than slutting around, too reverent of boys to know how to play it cool when they actually show interest, learning and blooming in the only way she knows how. Quiet but loud, endlessly fascinating to herself. Kind, friendly, rarely forthcoming. One of a type, you see.
This certain mold flies away to their European country of choice and comes back “never being the same” in the way that everything is exactly the same. So I went to France and it was overwhelmingly special and different. The sidewalks were cobblestone! Everyone ate cheese with dinner! It was charming. It remains charming. There is a spark you feel within when you are that far away…that you are worth it, life is worth it, you are getting it, you are whole, you are flawed and imperfect and that is what makes you even better than you previously thought. It is a wicked feeling. It’s addicting. I remember my first hit. I woke up one morning, made my way to my favorite literature class. A class of 6 kids, discussing the finer points of novels made famous by French women writers. Women who are everything I hope to be…fiercely academic, unforgiving with words, who lead outlandish lives, be they reclusive like Marguerite Duras or excessive like Francoise Sagan. They write about French men. Fathers, sons, husbands. They write of little monsters ruining the lives of all around them, cementing themselves in the literary canon. In France, remorse doesn’t exist. You tell the truth or you lie, and it’s this fantastic, explosive package of French drama. It’s not a lame setup of game playing. French men love the chase, they love the girl. Or they hate her with the venom reserved for such instances.
But anyway. The addiction begins. I wake up, I go to class, we read aloud from the text; an accordion plays in the background. My teacher fumes in her tiny French way, saying the tune of the accordion throws off the rhythm of the literature. That comment turns me inward. Do I pay attention to what throws off the rhythm of literature, to be a complete asshole about it, my metaphorical literature, at home? Certainly not. That’s what keeps me coming back to France. It’s completely and utterly unnecessary. But it keeps me in tune.
That’s where it began. Follow up with soaking in the beauty of a beautiful country and an invitation to exploring my most artistic self. I was sold. But home! Home is home. I think it’s fair to say that everyone is a composition of who they love. I’m no different. I am my mother and father and brother and sister and more and when I’m with them, I’m me. Coming home is very easy. As much as my mother frets, once I make the decision when to come home, everything will be just fine. Wanting to go away, that’s when the midnight coronaries begin.
Assimilation. Re-integrating. You feel like a brat for REALLY wanting to leave in the first place, but you are back and everyone tolerates you again. Sorry, everyone loves you again. Everyone forgets you went away. Your heightened view of your experience and yourself starts to shrink, for the better. It’s important to remember that the choices you make are yours and yours alone. Your dream is not anyone else’s. My friends, they are all doing, for the most part, what they want to be doing. They are as accomplished as one can be at 23. They don’t even think about moving away. Well, some do. We are all great in our own way. We are a privileged bunch and taking advantage of our opportunities. Making good and doing well. You can’t ask for more.
My belief system is to go with my gut. How does a personal philosophy evolve? Good question. I remember when a not-so-much-of-a-friend asked me a similar question. “What’s your philosophy?” Drunk, drunk, drunk, I replied: “I’m a flaneuse. I wander”. I might as well have answered, “I DON’T GIVE A SHIT. Ever”. But I was younger and even more naïve back then. I would still say that part of me is a flaneuse. I prefer to think that I give a fuck on a pretty regular basis. But is he a pragmatist? What a funny thing to proclaim oneself. Pulling from my very limited resources on pragmatism and Kant…if you lie, you don’t believe in Kant. Just saying. But he was a PRAGMATIST! Can anyone live like that, really? From my, again, very limited understanding, living like Kant is living by a set of maxims. DO NOT LIE. DO NOT STEAL. There is no middle road. There is right and there is wrong. Do I believe in this? Absolutely not. Do I believe a stupid pothead who feigns being “deep” who, goodness forbid, bruised my feelings many moons ago, could ever be a pragmatist? I don’t know. I don’t like denying people their beliefs. By my un-researched definition of being pragmatic: being careful. “How to proceed in this situation in a pragmatic fashion?” Measure the facts. Always measure the facts. I hate measuring the facts. Like I said…go with your gut. If he makes you smile on a consistent basis, he can’t be that bad. Teenage Girl Logic 101. Soit pragmatique. Look out for college boys. They want to steal your heart. But they’ll be all cute and wonderful while they do it. And you’ll love them and if you’re lucky, one will love you back.
Frustration pushes people in interesting directions. There are days I wish I could pierce and tattoo every inch of my body. There are days I wish I could just move away. Frustration is a catalyst. And frustration need not be nasty or the sign of something grossly unfulfilled. There’s a tipping point. Some people are more sensitive to their frustration than others. I can’t sit still. Metaphorically. Physically. My point being, my frustration manifests itself in fever dreams and in the novels I wish I could write. I moved to France because it’s my fever dream. It’s a seed. It’s the part of my brain I retreat to when other things aren’t working out. Working at a job that I can’t stand, but it is otherwise a perfectly normal job? FRANCE. Not sure which direction to move in, but it’s not that big of a deal if I don’t decide? FRANCE. When life is middling, I pick France. When I am unexcited, I pick France. It’s that simple. It’s that asinine?
Hesitation grips me. Like I said, the first year out of university was tough. Work was tougher than I ever thought it would be. It made me doubt myself in ways I didn’t know were possible. It indulged my sense of melodrama and stressed me out in ways it shouldn’t have. It wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. By any stretch of the imagination. But I am fortunate enough in my life that I can afford to assess whether or not a situation is right for me and adjust accordingly. How can I look at this past year objectively? I learned I can resist being tough, I can hold on to what makes me sweet. I can play dumb, I can play smart, I can play anything I want. I can try my absolute hardest and fuck everything up. I can put in minimal effort and everything will turn out just fine. This past year was a study in contradictions. Trying so hard to please, not really wanting to. An exercise in what honesty is, to me. Who gives a shit if one’s heart is in something? When there is a job to do, all that matters is that it gets done. Passion is for academics. Trudging through is for those who work. Whether I liked it or not, whether anyone likes it or not, in order to make it along in this world, you wake up at 7 in the morning and you go.
A brief introduction. So, I worked at a desk job I wasn’t wild about, I dreamed of going to France. And go to France I did. And so my collection of thirty-year-old men began.
“I’m from Pontiac, Michigan”.
We’re sitting next to each other now. I inch closer, drawn in by the eyes hiding under the red and blue baseball cap. The hardwood floor feels chilly under my feet. I’m surrounded by friends, new friends that quickly assembled together as family. There’s Ben, the American boy. He’s loud, entertaining, a great listener and a little ill at ease, yearning for what he left at home. There’s Katie, my room mate, another American who is a little piece at home from far away. The German Ingrid, who drives every boy crazy and has a very simple, sweet way about her. The two British boys round our little gathering, supremely immature, but so incredibly endearing it hurts. They’re my home.
There’s this boy I know, this boy named Josh. Josh is nowhere near 30, but the sort of strange, twisted, thorny love I have for him very much resembles the larger narrative of this…story. A few months after I got home from Grenoble, I got the call. You see, Josh and I see each other but once a year. It’s our non-thing, our silly attempt at a pseudo-relationship that means far more to me than it does to him. So, we’re sitting across from one another at a neighborhood haunt, his green eyes start to glow. I could talk to him forever. I feel myself become a wider-eyed version of myself, a strangely truer form of myself. Josh has this air about him that it’s like I can tell him anything, and he just gets it. It’s one of the best things about him. He gives good advice, advice that shows he’s both listening and really trying to reason it out. It’s a gift. He convinces people, or me at least, that he gets them.
I bite my lip. My hair’s gotten long, past my shoulders. I’m sitting in a little red booth, the same booth not too long ago I’d sat in with my boyfriend…well, ex-boyfriend. But anyway, I look him right in the eye, Josh. And I spill it out.
“There’s this mentality,” I go on, his green eyes manage to shine and look severe at the same time. Hard and soft.
“The friends you make, the guys you find, anyone who gets swept up in the whirlwind of living a life abroad, it’s like…it’s you guys against the world. Your little family against everyone else. It might be contrived, it might be silly, but it feels better than anything else.”
I stop. Breathe. Look for subtle signs of judgment. I don’t get any.
“I get it. That disconnect.”
He launches into some story about how the best sex of his life was completely unattached, with a girl he met while traveling in India. He knew he would never see her again and he just, enjoyed himself.
“I get it. I could never do it. But I certainly understand it,” I say, glancing off to the side, my lips start to curl into a smile. I’m rarely self-conscious around Josh (I don’t see him nearly enough), but I start to wish my eyes would glow blue, like his give off a green glare.
“It’s so beautiful, you know, the blue eyes, the dark hair,” he stumbles, more than says. I pick up my overpriced 3 euro Coke at the little café next to the cheese shop. He has dark eyes. Very dark eyes that that complement his dark hair. He has small features like most French guys. Small stature, too. But there’s something about him that suggests he has grit, he’s a salt-of-the-earth sort of person. I didn’t know that was a type in France. But it is, the “ouvrier”. He works.
“It’s normal, I guess,” I shrug, a bit bewildered by the situation.
I scan the street ahead of us. I doubt I’ll fall in love with Patrice, but this little corner of the world would be the place to do it. I see the 13 bus whiz by, heading south to Echirolles. The 32 heads north to La Tronche. These little communes swirl around Grenoble, all sitting atop one another, making up this big smattering of life in the middle of the Alps. After work in St. Martin d’Heres, just east of the city, I like to take the 41 bus as far as it goes. That’s to Domene, a tiny little place that feels like the end of civilization, before the towns recede and mountains come forth. I can walk to the edge of Domene, and look out at the mountains from there. I convinced myself it’s the furthest east I can go. Since moving to France, I’ve become obsessed with direction. It has a lot to do with my affinity for maps and public transportation. In the puzzle of my brain, being obsessed with heading as far in one direction makes perfect sense.
“You know, I’ve practiced English for 10 years,” he quips, he smiles. He’s ill at ease. He must really think I’m pretty. How flattering. How refreshing.
So why does one move to a foreign country? I find different answers to that question every day. One of the most painful but the most helpful is that it’s a complete confrontation with all of your strengths and faults. Every interaction is a little revelation. They are fewer and far between, they carry more weight. I’ve read a few times that personality is defined by language, which is an interesting argument. If I were born a French woman, maybe my life would be different. Linguistics, the tone, the timbre, the way one holds their hands, gesturing, it’s all colored in by the flavor of words chosen. Every personality is a different shade of a similar color. We wonder why French people are cold. I wonder, too. Their words are so warm, but the selection is much more precise, much more closed off than English. There is a perfect way to say something. There is a perfect way of doing things. France. Is. Precise. In so many ways. Even in their imperfections, they are precisely so. English is loose and free. It is fat, juicy, crazy expressive. English reaches, reaches, tries to impress with its antidisestablishmentarianism. English is exhaustive. There is endless filler, a million ways to make noise even when there is nothing to say. English is a ruddy, unself-conscious, fearless beast. French is far more manicured, more shy, more elegant and ornate. At the same time, French is dirty and romantic, cunning and calculating. They’re different.
The language barrier is a chameleon-like creature. On your best day, you feel fully integrated, part of the scene. On your best day, you can go with the flow. Like in your mother tongue. On your worst day, you feel as if you’ve been spun in a thousand circles and the destination is nowhere in sight. I’ll never forget how embarrassed I felt when I’d been continually asked by my host mother, the first time I lived in France, if I’d closed the shutters in my bedroom. I’d mistaken the word “shutters” for “steal”. Puzzled, I thought to myself, who could possibly steal something from my second-story window? And that’s the tip of the iceberg. In the fashion of cruel French irony, none of this is entirely clear until you sit down with someone who’s rudimentary English is similar to your rudimentary French.
His lips move seductively but the words are ridiculous. Patrice. French Patrice. A jumble of phrases and verbs linked in absurd ways. I would be lying if I didn’t think it was charming. His big lips, his big eyes, it’s a nice picture. Expressions, turns of phrase, forget about them. French expressions are too different from American ones. And his eyes just get bigger, and I try, my breathing measured and my patience draining, to piece together his silly stiched quilt of a speech.
We get up, my head swirling with possible repercussions of a date with a dashing young not-so-young gentleman at a café. It’s October. And I’m in love with this place more than words could ever express.
“I’ve always known what I wanted. I want to be my own boss. And I’ve worked hard to get there.”
The comment gives me pause, because he says it with crystal clear conviction. It’s his calling card. His elevator speech. A self-made man. But in this generation, I feel the term takes on a whole new meaning. I think of when I worked at a non-profit and the stories of men born into the “greatest generation” truly pulling themselves up from their bootstraps. Tired terminology aside, I think of modern-day, locally-based magnates who started shipping businesses, packaging plants and the like in the dust of Great Depression childhoods. That’s a different bird than this…start-up business. The idea that your special snowflake idea is so groundbreaking that you must work to unleash it on the world and/or it will never be the same. Does that reek of bitterness? I guess it does. I think the idea of start-ups are genuinely fantastic. Creativity, thoughtfulness, planning, drive…all are great qualities to possess, quite objectively. But thinking you are above the corporate hamster wheel, that’s just unkind. We’re all working toward something. Don’t devalue other’s work because you get to set your own hours. Be fair. Soit juste.
He swells with pride. Talks of wind turbines, of sustainable farming. Of life goals close and far away. As is customary, I can’t help but smile, nod my head. This isn’t the first time this particular pipe dream has been detailed in my presence, and I have a feeling it won’t be the last. Boy after boy, for whatever reason, seems wrapped up in this dream of saving the planet, be it through locking themselves in an isolated barn researching how to regenerate new limbs or finding new and interesting ways to grow crops. It’s romantic. To take on the life of 19th century person in the 21st. Everything looks better in hindsight. Everything pushes forward too quickly.
I look at my nail beds, look at the French appetizers sitting in the middle of the table. We ordered pork rillette; I’m easily impressed. Often I turn into this caricature of myself…if something is French, I’ll automatically like it. The language, the spirit, the little French things I’ve picked up along the way, I have a hard time letting them go. I mutter to myself in French, which I wasn’t totally cognizant of until I started doing it in front of other people at my new job. The good thing about it? I’m very easy to please. That’s what I couldn’t get about my last boyfriend. All I wanted was just a little bit of that part of me to be acknowledged. It wasn’t much to ask, especially after we met right after I got home from 7 months away.
My first “love” (we’ll call him), a boy far different from my post-France affair...it sent shivers down my spine when he told me that speaking French was my trump card, that there was nothing he could do that was sexier. Of course there was. With him, there always was. Infatuation works in funny way. Relationships work in even funnier ways. I’d give anything (eh, not anything) for a little more practice. It’s one thing to have your eye on someone, it’s quite another to make it happen.
“I don’t really know what it is that I want,” I say, glancing to the side, glancing at him a gloriously sunny day. I’m dressed in a typical French-Ashley outfit, skinny jeans that look tighter than they actua