Arrivals, bookings and culture shock
The green lights
Since returning from Caen, I’ve been Skyping rather a lot. During these lengthy conversations with both C and my family, tickets have been reserved and excitement for impending visits has amplified. All is arranged: Mum is travelling solo across the Channel to stay with me for 5 days during the Toussaint holidays; my Christmas flight ‘direction Glasgow’ is booked for the 21st, landing 1815 – just enough time to dump my holdall and head out for a festive meal with C.
Between C’s imminent arrival and Mum’s mid-November holiday, the Paris plans have been vetoed. The capital is halfway(ish) for me to meet my oldest schoolfriend J, and for K to rendezvous with university friends. We’ll arrive at Saint Lazare at midday, take a leisurely lunch with J and spend the following days exploring the city.
The day of C’s arrival couldn’t come quick enough. It was an early 0800 start again, the last day before the Toussaint holidays. It didn’t take much to be happy, and the outcome of the classes reflected my mindset. The students sang Amy MacDonald, skipping over the quick syllables; I stuck post-it notes on troisiemes heads featuring different public figures that they guessed and giggled; I played noughts and crosses with the twelve-year-olds and taught them a few Halloween words: pumpkin, witch, cobweb. I bristled as my phone beeped: “I am on the train! Well, it’s a train!” and I was out the school like a shot.
I walked through the town centre, my bag bashing my leg, my shoes tapping in an accelerated rhythm. I literally couldn’t wait to get down that slope to the gare. The hill is so steep that I struggled not to run, but even so I made it down in minutes before the train had even arrived. I joined the waiting, static onlookers.
The locomotive rolled into the station, an old model, late as usual. In the second carriage, I was sure I clocked C’s cranium. Then, under the wheels, through the gap below the structure, the camel boots his mum had bought darted in the wrong direction, towards the north of the platform. The shoes returned, abashed; finally, between the two carriages, I saw his face.
We stared at each other for a long time while we waited for the train to pull away. The girl standing immediately in front of C must have thought I was nuts. The carriages moved, the passengers crossed the tracks. Then there was only us.
The proximity was strange at first, an indication of the time we’d been apart. He surprised me – his look, the style of his grey hoody and vintage denim jacket, little quirks in demeanour that I’d forgotten. His shoulders prevailed, his manner so gentle, his eyes like loch water. They screamed home to me, home and love and Scotland and where I should be.
The following morning, Saturday, we clattered down the pavement to the boulangerie for our journey’s breakfast. There were only four others on the bus, so we claimed the high back seat there and back. After 30 minutes of traversing French fields and houses, we could spot the rising rock of Mont St Michel jumping from the shoreline in a background of bright blue sky. “Ici, 1715, d’accord?” the bus driver threw; C answered in the affirmative (as he always did in French) and we stepped off the vehicle.
The skies were deceiving: we were accosted with a bitterly cold October wind. C’s arms provided heating as we stared at the ancient abbey, a wonder, a sight, a past being somehow existing in modernity. Deserting the noises and smells of the medieval-esque high street, we entered the peaceful abbey. Quaint gardens surrounded by pillars, refectories, crypts: the monastic lifestyle was oozing from the timeless, eerie silence. We came outside at one stage to discover ourselves high on the rock, looking out over the Baie, and it was stunning. We stared, awe-struck, over the foreign flatness of the French countryside.
Monday morning. I packed up my rucksack with my handbag and all the clothes I’d worn over the weekend. C put his stuff in his red backpack and dressed. As if I was young again, I said “bye room!” then au revoir to the receptionist. Then we walked down the steep hill to the train station. How quickly the time passed; only 3 days before I had been running down there to pick C up. When time should go so slowly to allow appreciation, it always ticks too fast.
I asked for a student ticket; 12.50 I think it was. Then we sat in the waiting room, not saying much, knowing that he had to leave and nothing spoken would make it better. The man at the desk donned his fluorescent jacket and led a squeaking of passengers behind him to the platform. Late. We stood. Abruptly the barriers descended, lights flashing, carriages arriving. C turned towards me and squeezed my hands, hugged me. He mounted the train, installed himself at the window. The whistle blew, the engine moaned, the lump of metal budged. C was taken down the track. I watched the three carriages recede, into the distance and around the bend, the noise getting quieter. All that remained was a light breeze. The man from the station regarded my damp face for an instant and went inside. I stood for a few more seconds, sniffed, and left.
After a fruitless search for my bank card at the locked la Poste depot, I texted Mum. From my tone, she could sense my anger; a mother’s sensitivity to sentiment. “Are you unhappy?” she asked. I had to think about that for a second. Am I? I’d been reading about culture shock, the differences between France and Britain, and musing: how am I ever meant to adapt?
At that instant, I was wandering the empty streets, accompanied solely by the chill of an impending frost, the herald of winter. A sudden illumination arrived: this would be my first winter in another country. I wouldn’t be spending the dark nights snuggled on the sofa in front of ‘Come Dine With Me’; I wouldn’t be walking home in the dusk; I wouldn’t be anticipating the run-up to Christmas with my family. No festive shopping with Mum, no decorations or trees to sell in the farm shop. How would it feel the same? How would I enjoy it, so far from Scotland?
After C left, I struggled up the ascent from the gare, passing dilapidated cottages and tumbling ivy. A dirty white van passed on the road, and on the grime of its back door was a heart. A heart had been scraped in the muck, and I thought to myself: there is always love in the midst of the shit stuff. Someone always loves you. I’m lucky.
And in the boîte aux lettres… A large brown parcel taking up the entire floor space. The envelope had Gran’s scrawl on it and was unmistakably the shape of a book. Peeping inside, the front cover revealed an image of Delia Smith and the words ‘One is Fun’ – a 1985 cookery book for those who find themselves completely alone (in a foreign country) and without the faintest idea of how to cook. Perfect.