I didn’t feel anything before I left. Everyone kept asking me if I was excited or nervous, and I knew that I was. But I didn’t feel it.
My parents woke me up on January 13, and I just opened my eyes and looked at them. I’d gone home for Christmas break, and they had been nearly insufferable about me leaving. My mom kept saying “One last hug,” nearly a month before I even started packing. My dad was full of advice that was either intuitive or repetitive. My sister was playfully angry at me for leaving her for six months, even though I’ve lived an entire state away for nearly three years now. My brother seemed indifferent, though not so indifferent that he wouldn’t make jokes about mimes and baguettes.
Right from the beginning this trip seemed both inauspicious and promising. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t believe things will go wrong, even when all evidence should lead me to the opposite conclusion. Sometimes this gets me into trouble. Sometimes it’s the only thing that gets me through something so monumental. To escape my parents’ wailing and lecturing, I checked my phone and saw that my original flight had been delayed, then cancelled. My mom was convinced that this was going to be a huge stumbling block; my dad was full of extreme backup plans. I told them to just take me to the airport at the original time and it would all work out.
And it all worked out. I got a new flight and it actually went much quicker than my original flight plan, not that this would actually help me out or ruin me, as it turns out. But I’ll get to that.
Originally, I was supposed to fly from DFW airport to JFK in New York, then to Charles de Gaulle, in Paris, then to Clermont-Ferrand. Instead, I ended up on a flight from DFW to ATL—Atlanta. But the rest of my trip was unchanged. The flight from Dallas to Atlanta was uneventful, and I just kept contemplating why I felt so neutral about something that’s so important to me. Even though this is normal for me, not getting nervous until after the big event—whatever it might be. I still thought that something as big as my first trip out of the country, with four different flights and all the potential for sabotage that came with them, would elicit some sort of response equal to the size of the adventure I was on. But it didn’t matter. I got to ATL with more than an hour to spare, and so I had a terrific lunch and took my neutral emotion onto the flight.
The flight to Paris was long, about seven hours, and I’ve never had to sit in such a cramped space for so long. My mom gave me some special socks to keep my legs from going to sleep, but once I was on the plane, I was too self-conscious to put them on.
I kept looking around and listening to the other passengers, some of who were Americans going to Europe, and some of who were Europeans leaving America. Not just French people—though they were certainly the majority of the non-Americans. I heard Italian, Spanish, something that sounded vaguely Eastern European from a crotchety couple near the lavatory. That’s when it hit me—well, it didn’t hit me. More like a thought that you’re aware of in the back of your mind, but for some reason you can’t bring yourself to focus on it too hard. The fact is: I am going to a foreign country, I don’t speak nearly enough of the language to feel totally competent, and that’s something that I’m not used to at all. One of the few skills I know I have is clear and precise communication, and suddenly I felt truly aware of just how narrow the purview of that skill really is. After all, I’m only a competent communicator in English. But now I’m about to go to France and probably sound like a child, or an idiot. And it’s too late and too impossible to simply pick up a language.
All this was a whisper in my head, not a shout or even an alarm. I don’t even think my expression changed when it occurred to me. It’s just a fact, not even really a hurdle I have to jump. More like a condition I will have to cope with, until exposure to the very thing causing this underwhelming anxiety cures it.
My seat mate came at that very moment; he was an older guy, tall and gangly and tan. I knew he was French, by his accent and the fact that when he came upon me he said, “Pardonez-moi,” and indicated that his eat was next to mine. I got up to let him in—I had an aisle seat—and I was immediately struck with a bad smell. The very first thing that I thought was: “Way to confirm that stereotype about French people smelling weird,” and then I immediately felt guilty. The last thing I want is to encourage negative generalizations, especially since as a woman of color, I encounter them often. But the smell was seriously heinous, like old pond water and mold and rust.
I had a conversation with him, partially in French and partially in English. We were equally matched—his English was as bad as my French. But I learned that he’s literally been travelling all over the world for nearly a month now. Anyone would be a little rank by then, after all, how often can you really launder your clothes if you only spend a few days in a country before moving on? He was kind and encouraging, and it only made me feel worse about judging him for the smell (right up until he took off his shoes midflight and it literally made my eyes water). I told him that I get nervous speaking French to people who are actually French, and he laughed. He told me that I would speak excellent French by the time I came home. I hope he’s right.
I read The Secret Life of Bees for the majority of the flight, great book. It’s quite sad though, and uplifting too, in that way that makes you cry the whole way through it. My seatmate kept looking at me worriedly until I showed him my Kindle and told him “Cet livre est triste.”
They turned off all the lights halfway through the flight, and I guess I was supposed to go to sleep like everyone else. I had my travel pillow and my blanket all ready, too, but I was so cramped and could neither lean toward the aisle (because of the lack of support) nor toward my temporary travel companion (for reasons I think I’ve well covered). Instead I sat up and got a twinge in my back and read until my Kindle died, then gave in and paid for the in-flight WiFi (which was irritatingly spotty for something so expensive) and fiddled around with my phone until the battery got uncomfortably low. It was only then that I felt like I had nothing else to do, so I pulled my beanie over my eyes and tried to sleep. I only got to that weird no man’s land where you’re not quite asleep but you might as well be, for all the thinking and moving you’re doing, before they turned on the lights and served me breakfast.
We landed shortly after, and even though the giant “Bienvenue! Paris vous aime!” sign told me that I had, in fact, arrived on the other side of the world, I still felt no immediate excitement or nervous jitters. For me, getting to Clermont-Ferrand seems like a mission; I don’t have the ability to focus on anything else but getting there.
In the airport, I had to put all my things into the bins and through the scanners, which was fine. The French-version-of-the-TSA agent spoke English and was kind, but efficient. I had to throw out a full water bottle and take off all my jewelry, which was a hassle (everyone knows how frustrating it is to try to put on a lobster-claw bracelet on with no help), but I made it through the first security check and caught the shuttle to my gate just in time. My bag did get “randomly” searched, though, and I tried to ignore the irritation that threatened to break through my single-minded neutrality.
It turns out that Charles de Gaulle is a huge airport, it took nearly 15 minutes to get to the correct boarding area by shuttle—which still has about 20 gates. It then took another 25 to 30 minutes to go through customs. My dad promised that it would take at least 2 hours, but all they did was stamp my visa and wave me through. It was actually in the “Border Patrol” line that I inevitably made my first international faux-pas. A Chinese man behind me in line must have a cold or something, because he sneezed about 12 times. I turned and said, “Bless you,” mostly out of habit, and he just stared at me like I’d grown three heads. It occurred to me that he might not speak English, or maybe he just wasn’t used to being blessed for sneezing. Either way, the look on his face made me turn back around in embarrassment and resolutely stare straight ahead as he sneezed another 5 times. Some half-hearted vengeful malice in me made me think “He better not have gotten me sick.”
I got through the line and went to yet another waiting area, glad to see “Clermont-Ferrand” on the switchboard, as it made me confident that I was in the right place. But, since my flight was switched, I arrived here in Paris nearly five hours before my flight to Clermont. I used the restroom and looked around for a way to kill time. I finished The Secret Life of Bees and decided I might as well write a journal entry while everything is fresh.
This airport is almost more a mall than an airport. There’s a bar (which, even though I know I’m of age here, I’m still too nervous to go near—plus it’s 5 am), a newsstand selling books, coffee, and cigarettes, and a giant store named “BUY PARIS DUTY FREE.” Oh, yes, it’s in all caps. I did go in and look around. There’s lots of American candy, but some from other places too. You can apparently buy anything you could want there: perfume (Chanel, Dior, and the like), makeup (lots of L’oreal Paris, obviously), candy and snacks, liquor, cheese, wine to go with the cheese, and fancy tobacco (I have witnessed at least four people roll their own cigarettes). There’s a coffee kiosk also selling baguettes, funny enough, though their coffees look so small it can’t be worth the bother. There’s a little smoking room full of business men. There’s even a clothing store—with negligées you can buy.
If I were to be stranded in Paris—which I am, for the next hour and a half—this is where I’d want to be. Only thing is these chairs are rough on my already creaking back.
My flight to Clermont doesn’t leave until 9:25, and they don’t tell me the gate to go to until 30 minutes before the flight, for some reason, so at 9 o’clock, I have to just be ready to sprint in one of these directions. The sun is starting to rise now—it hasn’t quite broken over the horizon, but the sky is fading from the midnight blue it was when I arrived to hazy cerulean. More and more people are starting to arrive, and they all look so awake that I’m realizing how tired I really am—still with a flight and a cab to catch before I can collapse in my dorm. Maybe it would be worth it to buy a cup of coffee, not matter how tiny it is.