“If you were to cut my life in half, you could read it by the rings it would contain. You contain them too: who you used to be is enclosed in who you are. Your old heart is not erased. It’s encased in another heart, another axon-dendrite shell stacked, shellacked atop the old. We are a wasps’ nest of selves, each embedded in the next.”
“Everything’s Rings” in Letter to a Future Lover by Ander Monson
Back during Easter week, 2014, one of my best friends K and I went to London during my year abroad in Aalborg, Denmark. I remember one afternoon while we were walking along Regent’s Canal, we found a giant chalkboard asking people what they wanted to do before they died and, during the brief visit where I found myself falling deeply in love with this city in England, I, for whatever reason, wrote that I wanted to live in France.
It is rather amusing, then, that this next time in London was part of my current job where I, incidentally, get to live in France.
The trip was through the high school’s English classes; I went in order to fill in for a teacher who got sick at the last minute. The group was me, one of the English teachers I work with, a philosophy teacher who didn’t speak English, a history teacher who didn’t speak English, forty-nine varying-levels-of-obnoxious French teenagers, and Jaques, the world’s funniest bus driver. We left on a Sunday and, after hours of broken bus catastrophes, highways, ferries, and bathroom breaks where teachers lit their students’ cigarettes (God France is weird), we made it to London to see Big Ben,
the bridges, the Globe Theatre, and the TATE Modern where I exhausted-cried at a Monet while the students all napped in a dark corner of the showing of an artsy film. For lodging, we stayed with British host families which, for me, meant Mr. (a silent man) and Mrs. Pope (a Brexit supporter, subtle racist, and all around charming old woman) with Jaques and the philosophy teacher, all of whom I got to try my hand at translation for the first time with (before the next morning where I got to do the same on a slightly more passionate scale concerning a problem between some of the teens and their host family; I was the only English/French speaker present and got to get yelled at in multiple languages). The next day we went to the Imperial War Museum (which is incredibly important and I cannot recommend it enough), the Natural History Museum, Borrough Market, and Camden Market (where I failed to convince the other teachers to pierce their noses like me). The third day, we went to The British Museum (aka, England showing the world “look at what we got to steal back when we ‘owned’ the world”), Covent Garden, and The National Gallery. There was a train strike going on during the whole time, so we spent hours and hours and hours on the bus otherwise. And then we came home.
Despite England and France, traditionally, having a reputation of inhabiting a dichotometic sphere, what I will take away from this trip is actually its hand in validating my homing sentiment for my current French life. Surrounded by the French, I ended up speaking more French on this trip than I have in my entire time in France thus far, and, for the first time, I was able to understand French humor across the hurdle of the language barrier. I even acted as a translator (many times), which I still don’t entirely believe are within my capabilities. I was reminded that French is not just a hastle getting in the way of my day, as it so often feels here, but a language that I LOVE speaking. I got to really get to know some of the students at Lycee Jean Moulin (they invited me to eat lunch with them at Burrough Market and told me about their hopes for adulthood; they taught me how to skateboard outside The National Gallery; they argued with me about if I was cool or not for an hour while waiting for the ferry from England to France (I am, it turns out, not cool);
they took turns singing to the whole bus on its microphone while we drove around London), and grew to see them as more than just the blank stares that make my job, from time to time, a bit miserable. I got welcomed into a kind of “teacher’s club” over misery-drinking and student-complaining at the end of some rough days in a way that I don’t entirely feel that I am gruff-and-hardened-enough for yet, but that validated the fact that I am, indeed, a teacher now. Above everything, I even had a few brief moments of homesickness for my life in Pézenas: the things I do here, the people I know here, the day-to-day that I pass here. Like the impressionist paintings I got to see in the beautiful London museums, I got to see the beautiful painting that the loose brushstrokes that my close-up life in France come together to make from the distance of England.
It is strange to look at everything that has happened between that 2013 visit and this one to the same city, especially in terms of the (weirdly unglamorous) filling in of the gap between aspiration and achievement. London has not only reminded me that, before I died, I got to pass some time in France, but that I really, truly am getting to live here as well.