La Première Semaine, et Les Premières Amies

My first week in Clermont went about as well as could be expected. Well, not at first.

I got here on a Sunday evening. The woman who checked me in to my dorm room spoke incredibly fast, and once again I was reminded that I was a stranger in a strange land. She asked me a question several times, and I was only able to pick out three or four relevant words—not enough to answer the question, just enough to feel horribly incompetent and hope that she wasn’t getting too frustrated with me as I asked her to repeat herself several times. As it turns out, she was just asking me if I’d had a pleasant trip.

We arrived at my dorm room, on the fifth floor of Building C. She unlocked the door and showed me what was basically a hallway with a bed in it. The woman kept rambling, showing me all the features. I basically just nodded and said “oui, oui, d’accord” (Yes, yes, okay) over and over until she left. Then I was alone, able to inspect my surroundings.

It’s a nice room, recently renovated, according to one of the phrases I was able to pull from the endless stream of rapid-fire words my dorm manager hurled at me. Everything is light-colored, pale wooden floors with dark wooden accents, white textured walls and lime-green cabinet doors. The smallest mini-fridge I’ve ever seen sits on the floor by the door, underneath a few shelves and a cabinet. The bathroom? A closet. I have enough room to turn around, and not much else. If you’ve ever been in a bathroom on a train or an airplane, picture that, except with a shower wedged into one corner. If I was any bigger, I genuinely don’t think I’d be able to fit. And yet, there is a surprising amount of storage. I’d taken the advice of the study abroad advisors and brought a single, enormous suitcase. All of my clothes could probably fit in the shallow built-in chest of drawers opposite the twin bed. A desk is also built-in, against the far wall between the little dresser and the bed, underneath a window. There are still more shelves and cabinets screwed into the wall above the bed. I unpacked what I had and sat down on the thin mattress.

I just sat there, for at least ten minutes, thinking “This is home for the next six months.” I think I was too tired to be excited or thrilled. I forced myself up and began to make the bed with the sheets I’d brought in my duffel bag, desperate for a nap. Then I realized I didn’t have a pillow, or a heavy enough blanket for someone who gets as cold as I do at night. In the end, I curled up with my travel pillow and my little travel blanket and closed my eyes.

When I woke up, it was night, and my stomach was growling. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that practically everything in France is closed on Sunday (including the restaurant in the dormitory), and that there is no such thing as “Open 24-hours,” either. I didn’t have the WiFi passcode or anything, so I send a text to my parents to apologize for the phone bill and turned on my data, looking for something that was open. As soon as I found a restaurant, I got cold feet. How could I go wandering around, at night, in this strange city? I just sort of looked around my room until my eyes fell on a little cake that the flight attendant on my last flight had given to me, but that I didn’t eat because I was half-asleep and also because I didn’t recognize the brand. I figured something is better than nothing, so I ate it, and turns out, it was pretty good.

With no internet and no means of getting anything more substantial, I put on my thickest pajamas, some fuzzy socks, and a long-sleeved shirt, and laid back down on my travel pillow to sleep my hunger away.

After shivering through the night, I woke up with a crick in my neck and hunger pangs. A friend of a friend, named Salomé, was going to show me around the city. My friend Leo, who is an exchange student from Bordeaux that I met last semester, gave her my information. She was coming at 1 pm (or 13 h, since people use the 24-hour timescale here). Despite how cold I was and how my back ached, I was drawn to the window in my room, and took a photo of the view—my first morning in Clermont. Then I took the worst shower of my life in the little bathroom.

It’s currently my sixth day in Clermont, so now I know better, but the first time I could not understand for the life of me why the shower kept going off. Now I know the water only stays on for about 30 seconds—something about water conservation. I’m all for the environment, but it’s easier to be that way when I can choose to conserve water, instead of it being forced upon me by some unfamiliar plumbing system.

I got dressed, went downstairs to meet Salomé and her friend, but not before poorly communicating at which entrance I was waiting. Salomé had told me that her English wasn’t very good, but her friend Amé (spelling is questionable) spoke very good English. They introduced themselves, and tried to perform le bis, the well-known French greeting of kissing each cheek, which I had forgotten about until they tried and I panicked, wondering what the hell they thought they were doing. They laughed, because apparently, we Americans are known for not being very tactile, and I felt embarrassed. Then they asked if I was hungry.

I’m a proud person, and I would literally rather die than embarrass myself or be seen as incompetent, so had they not asked I probably would have starved another day. I told them I hadn’t eaten the day before and they took me to a kebab. I learned that a kebab does not, in fact, have to sell kebabs at all. Kebabs are what we call “greasy spoons,” little shops that sell whatever kind of food the owner knows how to make. I had the best sandwich of my life at this particular kebab, though perhaps it was because I was so hungry. I told them that I desperately needed a pillow and a blanket, and they took me to the Centre au Jaude, which is basically a plaza between two big malls that share a name. They’d bought me some tickets for the tram, though the locals usually don’t pay to ride, money is kind of loose around here.

They ended up taking me all around town before we made it back to the mall to buy my pillow and blanket. I saw the church, called Notre Dame—big, Gothic, and black from years of car fumes and cigarette smoke. They showed the different university buildings, scattered around town, as is a necessity for a university in an urban setting I guess. Then we waited for Amé’s boyfriend to get out of class at the local high school, or lycée. As it turns out, both girls are eighteen, younger than me by two years. Then they took me to a brasserie, or bar. Even though it was 2 pm, there were lots of people there. They ordered a Monaco for me, which is a beer with strawberry syrup. Naturally, I was a little apprehensive, because I’m for the US, where you have to wait till you’re twenty-one to drink and even then, you get carded. But the waiter just took our order and walked away. I was honestly shocked at how simple it was. After that, Amé’s boyfriend Victor left, and they took me back to the mall. We bought a pillow and a duvet from a pushy saleswoman who spoke far too quickly for me, and I was suddenly grateful for Salomé and Amé being there. Knowing myself, had I gone alone, I’d have been so flustered that I would have left without buying anything and simply froze another night.

Then we went grocery shopping, because I needed cleaning supplies for my dorm (thanks, Mom, for teaching me to be neurotic about cleaning living spaces that aren’t my own home), and because Salomé and Amé were going to make dinner for me that night and she needed food. The grocery store, it turns out, isn’t far from my dorm at all, and I bought some bleach wipes, toilet paper, and trash bags. Despite having called my bank before I left, my card still didn’t work, probably because I was using overseas, so I had to pay for a four-euro purchase with a 50-euro bill. The cashier was not amused.

They took me back to my dorm, marveled at how tiny my room was and gave me the time and address for dinner. I slipped my new pillow into the pillow case, wrestled my duvet into the duvet cover I’d bought, and wiped down everything in the bathroom with the bleach wipes. Then I realized I still needed hand soap, some dishes, a rug, school supplies, and food. Deciding that I would deal with that another day, I went downstairs and waited ages at the office for the Wi-Fi passcode. Despite the fact that there were three secretaries, they were all helping one boy at the same time—he apparently was looking for a job. When he left, one of the secretaries waved me over and I tripped over my words as I tried to spell my own name with the French alphabet and ask for the Wi-Fi code. Successful, I went back to my room and connected all my devices. I was determined not to fall asleep so that I could get on the right time zone, so I watched Netflix until it was time for dinner.

I found my way to Salomé’s apartment all by myself, a feat which I was irrationally proud of, and had a diner of crêpes full of potatoes and cheese. It was pretty good. Then we listened to music, which was shockingly, mostly in English. In fact, Amé, who was controlling the music, is a big fan of Motown artists and old Black funk groups—which I thought was hilarious. All the songs were familiar to me, I just never thought I’d hear Earth, Wind, and Fire in a millennial’s apartment on the other side of the world. We traded stories about our family’s and hometowns as best we could, and I honestly had a great time. After a while though, I couldn’t ignore how tired I was.

I bid them good night, and they told me to text them if I had any questions or if I wanted to go somewhere and needed some company. I promised I would, and made my way into the night, feeling a little more confident—and not just about wandering around at night.

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