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Christina: Reality sets in

February 4, 2010

The Frenchman said he would not eat steak for dinner.

But would he like to go dancing later? Did his feet hurt? Did he dream about someone who hardly knew he existed? Was he rich and happy, or did he sometimes want to leave everything and live beneath the sea? When he woke up in the morning did he drink his coffee with secret relish, or were the grey winds making him miserable? And about that dinner—would he care to have soup, or salad, or potatoes instead?

That day the train employees decided to go on one of the ubiquitous French grèves (strikes), which meant the trains were running less often. The crowds piled up in front of the station and those sad workers sat at home with the desperate hope that their demonstration would be worth something. As it was, we were spun so tightly within the train that we were like little yarn balls tucked in a woven basket.

I was scrunched up next to the farthest wall, listening to the Frenchman who said that he simply would not eat steak that night. The frosted window I was leaning against was starting to burn cold air through my woolen coat. My feet were tottering in my fake leather boots and I was thinking about home.

The Frenchman insisted again that, no, he did not like steak and he could not eat it. My whole self hurt with the effort of trying to listen, right down to my teeth and my fingernails. Did he say that he had already eaten? Or perhaps he was talking to an old lover and would rather not eat with her at all? Never in my life had I wanted to understand something more.

Now the words spilling out of his mouth felt crude and ugly and horrible. They didn’t sound musical or delightful; they weren’t graceful or enticing. Instead, they were complete isolation in the very worst sense of the word.

I thought about how, when I first came here, every French person I met seemed like a celebrity in a box, something exotic and breathtaking, a mystery waiting to be unfurled. Now their mouths were flapping open and shut like envelopes, their hands were waving in front of their faces like paper fans, and they were just people. People whom I didn’t understand, couldn’t understand, maybe didn’t even want to understand.

Here I was: American girl masquerading as French cosmopolitan, inconspicuous as long as I didn’t open my mouth. I was lost and no one even knew it, which was the most awful thing of all.

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