Year Abroad Diaries: 3 December 2012

A week ago, Tuesday, I neglected writing until the shadows under the bed peered long and ominous. I had walked to the Tourist Office in centre-ville at three o’clock for my ‘chat in French’ with two older ladies. One woman waited outside the bureau and strode beside me through cold streets. A blank white door greeted us quizzically. An older lady with long, greying brown hair peered out. She ushered us in, took our jackets, and I found myself in an armchair between the two women.

We spoke in French for a good two hours. At first, the nerves rattled my speech, but I persevered and within twenty minutes we were blabbing about the UMP, language barriers, ‘mariage pour tous’ and the Nutella tax rise on palm oil… Controversial conversation.

A husband banged the door and illuminated the room, motioning us towards a table in the corner where tea was served (with milk for me, the Scottish girl). Adjacent was a raspberry tart, and I looked up at the three of us sitting in the V formation, me at the head. I felt like I was at an amicable afternoon tea with Gran’s friends.

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After returning home, I video called an old school friend, one of my best friends from Scotland. Her blurred image was challenging to attribute to the small, sweet girl of my usual sharp actualities. It really did feel like two months since we’d last spoken: about university, our respective men, my year abroad, and her family. After a chat, she said, “You know, I did not expect you to say that you never wanted to live in France. You used to go on about it so much.” It’s true. I always said that the vision, my ambition, was to reside on the francophone continent. Now I’m actually here, I know that living away from the people I love isn’t fun all the time.

The following weekend, the first few days of December, heralded the festive season and a joyous visit from C. I made the bad decision to head to the bank before the station, so after sprinting vertically down the gradient, I was irate at myself to see a group of people outside the building; the platform blank. I spotted a light-haired man in the distance. For the first hour, he seemed almost a stranger. It takes a while to get accustomed to seeing someone again after a month apart. Soon though, it feels like home, and you wish they were life and you didn’t have to let them go.

A crisp December morning greeted our awakening. On the bus, we ensconced the rear, eating fruit, talking, holding hands. It seemed he had already been to Granville with me; I almost forgot it was new to him. We caught the end of the market, sharing a sugar crêpe as we wandered towards the ocean promenade. The sea was blue, the tide out of reach; an outdoor pool built into the rocks. “Imagine this in summer! The warmth…” But it was December, and we were wrapped in thick jackets.

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Some stairs grasped shakily to the side of a crag, leading warily towards viewpoints and benches staring down on buildings. We sat in our two-person microcosm, the world reducing around us to siamese hearts. At about two, we moved from our comfortable spot in the sun, stopping at most of the town shops, chocolatiers and boulangeries, sweets and biscuits, shoes; finally the salon du thé, where I’d been with Mum a month before. It was so, so lovely. C took Earl Grey; I selected Thé de Noël, and to continue the Christmas theme, we got clementine and Christmas tea jam with our scones.

It was dark when we returned to my little town, and the lit decorations were on. The main streets had fairy lights from roof to roof. I flicked the switch in the apartment hall, and discovered three parcels attending me: two advent calendars, greetings cards, a heart photo frame. C offered green tea, a steel strainer and two packets of Rosy Noses (quintessential British marshmallows). “We have to be patient, we’ll get there.” I force myself to think, it’s not long now, not long and I’ll be home. It’s hard. It could be even harder being home when I realise how much I’ve missed it.

This morning, the train ticket lady watched me with watery eyes. Although I felt like I should break down into rivers and fall towards the dark abyss, I didn’t. There’s little point in tears now. I would be taking that same locomotive south in eighteen days; not long. So I calmly walked through the waiting room, sniffing a little, and headed up the hill into the clouds.

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