Saying goodbye to the people you love doesn’t get any easier with frequency (I add in retrospect).
Yesterday, Sunday, I woke at ten to empty silence – strange but very relaxing – and met Mum again at the end of the road for our final morning tea. I took a caramel one again; Mum had the forest fruit flavour with the daily croissant. There was a crowd gathering in front of the mairie – I asked what was happening and it was a service for Armistice. So whilst Mum and I drank our fourth cup, we watched a small marching band go past, followed by the firemen and veterans with flags. After the last liquid evaporated from our mugs, we wandered over to the square, watching them lay wreaths and lower the flags in commemoration. I’d been missing the natural British progression of dates that herald the oncoming of Christmas: Bonfire Night, Remembrance, then the arrangement of festive decorations that always defines the time of year.
At about half two, we donned jackets and curled towards the Jardin in the winter sunshine. It was a crisp day, even as the afternoon began to slip away, and Mum stabbed the shutter on her archaic Samsung camera. We had a long chat sitting at the fountain. The sun eventually dipped behind a tree at about four and it began to cool down, so we stood up and crunched out the park.
We came back through the lycée gates just as dusk was beginning to fall, then broke out the bread and cheese in the tranquillity of the apartment. As the black thickened outside, I started making risotto – the same recipe C and I had made two weeks previously. It was going well, until I left the rice toasting whilst looking up a recipe online – and then some of the grains began smoking. I thought I’d ruined it, but Mum said, “It’s fine! You won’t even taste the burnt bits! Just keep going, you’re doing fine!” So I kept at it, adding lemon juice and parmesan and crossing everything near the hob that could be crossed for luck.
Selecting a steaming plate, sitting down and talking: everything spilled out. Until then, I think I’d managed to convince Mum that my mood was fairly stable, and although I wasn’t ecstatic, I was okay. Now, realising she was leaving imminently, I was unable to stop emotions from escaping: how I really felt about teaching – a sometimes fruitless profession; how as an assistant I was lower than a prof but still expected to lead a class of fifteen. How my location affected me – not what a year abroad town promised; a place in which we sat twirling our thumbs, excited for weekend freedom but unable to find anything apart from the internet as a viable activity. How life in the flat was, how I woke up feeling alone, even with the company of two other girls. And then there was everyone at home – how hard it is being away from Glasgow, but mostly my family and C. The whole ideal of the perfect life in France that I held so close when I was younger had dissolved into the harsh reality of culture shock, language barriers, and distance from the most important people in my life.
Mum sat quietly while I spoke. When I finished, I added, “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to think that I’m so depressed and can’t hack being here any more. Most of the time, it’s not that bad, it’s just difficult. When one little thing goes wrong and it ruins the rest of your day, it’s just horrible. And when the people that understand you are miles away, Skype just isn’t the same. It’s so, so hard.”
Her eyes were watery. “I knew you weren’t exactly happy here. This is what you’ve always wanted to do and I feel you’re disappointed. It is so hard though. But you could always come home [I shook my head vigorously at this]. You just have to try and make the most of every day. Take happiness from the little things.” I couldn’t come home because that would be failure, but simultaneously, if I could have taken the easy option and jumped on a British flight, I probably would have done a while ago. I have no idea what I imagined from this placement, but it wasn’t to have my heart sinking at regular intervals.
At about ten o’clock, I walked Mum to the lycée gate, embracing her tightly goodnight, and turned back to the flat in the dark. A lycéen was hugging his parents goodbye, obviously a boarder, with his suitcase adjacent on the ground. I felt like I should show some sort of solidarity with him. But I just walked on.
Morning. Out the flat, past the kids, by the stadium and towards the pool. At the end of the road, I could see the tiny grey speck with a lump on its back that was my Mum and her rucksack. She waved, like every other day we’d met there. I can’t remember what we spoke about as we walked down to the boulangerie to buy a croissant, then down the steep hill to the station. Mum had already purchased her ticket, so there wasn’t anything to do but wait. The half an hour passed quickly, and I managed to stay calm. Mum’s eyes were watery though, and soon enough the receptionist went outside and as we got on the platform, the three carriages pulled up.
“Bye Laura. Be safe. It was so lovely. I love you.” I repeated my identical emotions. The train doors opened and Mum embarked with her rucksack and presumably crushed croissant. She waved, I waved, and I narrowly avoided having tears fall down my cheeks. Like I’d done with C’s train, I sat and watched it get smaller and then turn round the corner. That was Mum, already five minutes away from me and getting further every second.
I walked back up the hill. Repetitions, reminders, all predetermined. I thought, “Maybe it gets effortless the more I say goodbye? I haven’t cried properly yet. Seize the moment or something.” I reached centre-ville and my feet stood in the shadows of Mum’s steps, breathing the air she’d left days ago. Does it get easier? I don’t know.