Thursday, November 25, 2010

Disparate Arrivals

Creative Commons, Phillip Capper
When I arrived at Marseille-Provence Airport to begin my immersive, year-long study abroad program, I had been in airports and on planes for something like 20 hours. I was tired from a sleepless Transatlantic flight and disoriented by the heat, since it hadn't occurred to me that, yes, the Mediterranean is rather warm in early September. I was reminding myself that this was it, I was in France and I'd signed a piece of paper saying I would speak French 100% of the time while I was there. (What's the word for 'luggage carousel?' I wondered as I stared at it, waiting for my bags. What about 'luggage cart?' I don't know anything!) And I was nervously repeating the introduction I'd rehearsed in my head, for after I had (hopefully) found my host mother, whose name and address I knew, but of whom I'd never seen a photo: Bonjour, je m'appelle Jessalyn. J'ai trop de bagages, je sais, je suis désolée. Because "Hello, my name is Jessalyn. I have too much luggage, I know, I'm sorry," is obviously the standard greeting for a stranger you're going to be living with for the best part of a year.

Fortunately, my host mom, Madame C., had been given a photo and spotted me as soon as I stepped out of the baggage claim area. I saw a thinly built, middle-aged redhead jumping up and down, waving a sign with my name on it and gulped as I made my way over, launching into my introduction. Madame C.'s first reaction, after greeting me with les bises (the traditional kiss on each cheek), was to exclaim at how well I spoke. Before I could protest that no, really, I was just a passable mimic with a good ear for accents, she had moved on to exclaiming about my luggage.

After a brief misunderstanding about how long I was staying and lots of internal panicking on my part, we were in the car and on our way, with me trying desperately to keep up with the historical facts about the area and tidbits of current events Madame C. tossed out. I fully understood maybe one sentence in three, but Madame C. seemed happy to relieve me of any need to speak during the drive, and I was grateful for the chance to gather my thoughts and look around.

I had half an hour or so to myself to unpack, and then it was time to tackle dinner. Madame C.'s cheerful questions about my background flustered me, but I did my best. Telling her that my dad was an engineer was easy enough, but explaining that my mom did both health and safety and development work for a national non-profit was a bit beyond the scope of my vocabulary. I settled for a convoluted explanation that her work helped support the doctors at a medical research facility in a roundabout way, and Madame C. happily took control of the conversation again while I tried to figure out how to swallow the plateful of tomates provençales in front of me, given that cooked tomatoes were high on my Foods I Do Not Eat Because They Make Me Gag list.

I fell into bed before nine o'clock, exhausted and faintly nauseated from forcing down three whole tomatoes.

Four months later, I couldn't keep a grin from spreading over my face as I power-walked through Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, heading from customs to the gate for the short flight to Marseille. That trip was closer to 30 hours than 20, thanks to a three-hour drive to the airport and a four-hour delay in Atlanta, but despite the exhaustion that made my arms feel like lead, saying Bonjour to the customs agent and hearing the PA system announcements in French felt like coming home.

I dashed out of the arrivals hall at Marseille-Provence just in time to catch the bus to Aix. Madame C. picked me up and we went to Sunday lunch at her daughter's house, where a spring semester American student had just arrived the day before. I recognized the dazed look on her face and the pauses in conversation as she tried to find the right words in her head. Don't worry; trust me, it gets easier, I told her as I took several tomates provençales, now one of my favorite dishes, from the platter being passed.

Arrivals in new places can be overwhelming, from struggles with the local language to disorientation from a long trip to cultural and culinary differences between you and the local people. But it's amazing, between an arrival and a departure or from one arrival to the next, how quickly a place where you thought you'd never fit in can start to feel like home.


Grace said...

I hope to be in France to study, too, sometime next year. Or the year after that. Enjoy yourself, and don't worry. Everything sounds lovely. (:

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thank you, Grace. :) Good luck with your studies, I hope you get to spend some time in France too!