Time Abroad: Fall 2007 - Spring 2008
Major: English, French
"Cross the border, into the big bad world, where it takes you 'bout an hour just to cross the road, just to stumble across another poor old soul. (...)These streets have too many names for me..." -Paolo Nutini, These Streets
I spent an academic year studying abroad in Avignon, France, and returned with enough memorable experiences to write a novel, but I'm having trouble choosing the one that best portrays my time in France. So without writing an in-depth story, I'll attempt to share a moment definitely deserving of an in-depth story.
It all started one day as I was walking into town, on my way to Gate St. Michel, my normal entrance in Avignon's well preserved ramparts. I had left early that morning for some unexplainable reason, and was in no particular hurry for another unexplainable reason. My walk to the university usually found me scurrying over cobblestones and wildly weaving through the morning foot traffic. So I was strolling down the sidewalk, listening to "These Streets" by Paolo Nutini, a song introduced to me by a friend I met while in Avignon, minding my own business as pedestrians should do in France, almost passing for a Frenchman, easily a European with my shoulder length hair, short trimmed beard, capris and a button up collar shirt, when the epitome of a little old woman caught my attention with a focused look in my direction and a wave of her little old hand. I walked up to her, pausing my music and yanking out my ear-bud headphones.
"Do you speak French young man?" she asked me in French.
'I'm in France aren't I,' I thought to myself, 'I sure hope I speak French.'
I held my thoughts and said, "Oui."
"Can you help me to the bus station?"
"Of course I can. My pleasure," I said.
I picked up her paper bag and gave her my arm. She told me that the handle was weak and would probably break. After about 20 little old lady steps at the speed of a 21 year old guy being slowed by an old lady, she stopped to catch her breath. The handle broke. I tied it back together. She looked at me and smiled.
"Can you slow down?" she asked.
I nodded and we started down the sidewalk again, this time at her speed, this time with me ignoring the fact that this pace would make me late for class. We walked to the first bus stop. She told me where she was headed and I realized that this adventure would not soon come to an end. Her bus stop was past the next one, across the street and a down a ways. I buckled down and hoped to God that I would get the chance to walk her across the street. We walked up to the next bus stop so she could sit down and catch her breath. She told everybody where she was headed and who I was. They all started up a conversation about how the only bus that would take you into the city was across the street and how ridiculous it was. I just smiled and listened, content to be understanding everything that was being said.
We continued towards the intersection. My heart beat faster with each step that we took and the anticipation of completing one of my lifetime goals. She stopped just before the crosswalk, turned around and said,
"I'm going to get some breakfast here. I'll catch the bus a little later. Come in so I can buy you something. What do you want? A coffee? A croissant? Get a coffee and a croissant..."
I said goodbye to the intersection and helped her to her chair. She told me more of her life story, continuing what she had started from the moment that she put her arm through mine and let me carry her weight as we walked. I think that the elderly walk slower because, besides the obvious reason, they have more to tell, more to share with whoever will listen, whoever will take the time to slow down and match their slow and strained steps. It turns out that she was American, born in Chicago. She met a French man and moved out to France when she was 20 and hadn't been back since. She barely said anything in English. It was as if she had forgotten how to speak it, or had no desire. Her friends had all passed away, her husband as well. She spoke quickly and without stopping for air. She spoke as if she hadn't spoken to anybody in days and probably wouldn't find anybody to listen for days to come. The entire conversation occurred in French.
She told me her name and I remember it. She told me her story too. It reminded me to slow down, to look up at the ramparts as I walked by, to see life not as an obligation but an opportunity; to make the most of my 10 months in France. I returned to the café after class as I told her I would and walked her across the street. The motorists sat impatiently in their cars as we finished crossing after the light had changed.