Thursday, July 30, 2009

Au revoir.

Amynah's institute

Today is my final full day in Strasbourg. Tomorrow morning, Amynah and I will rise early, have an early breakfast at Christian, and then be driven to the airport to catch out flight to Paris, Rekjavik, and points beyond.

This is therefore my final post as Strasmark – well, at least my final post in which the Strasmark name makes any sense. “View of the marching fishes” never made any sense outside of my head. I intend to keep blogging – I’m sure Los Angeles will have plenty to offer in terms of stories, even if it isn’t quite as picturesque. Failing that, I’m sure the 9,000 km drive to get there will yield a tale or two, assuming I’ve not descending into gibbering madness by the end of it.

In the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time blogging about Strasbourg’s history and tourism highlights. Sometimes I've written about the people we’ve encountered here, but I think overall I’ve left the impression that our only social contact is with those who we have commercial dealings, and supplemented by friends we temporarily import from Canada.

When we first arrived in Strasbourg three years ago, we had almost no idea what we getting into. It was an adventure, and we romanticized what life would be life here; our expectations were unreasonably high. I didn’t really think I’d spend my days penning op-eds on the proceedings of the European Parliament while sipping a café au lait in a riverside terrace while sporting a beret, but… well, I kind of did.

Of course it didn’t work out that way.

The very first phone call I made in France, while in search of an apartment, ended with the woman on the other end telling me “to call back when I could speak French” and hanging up on me. I quickly realized that I was going to need far, far more language facility that I had on reserve to survive in this country.

Worse, I had expected that I’d be able to return to freelancing easily. Of course, after years of working in an office, I had become accustomed to having colleagues with whom I could take coffee breaks, bounce ideas off of, and occasionally socialize with. All of that was gone, and because we knew no one else in the city, I had no replacement.

The first six months – and beyond – were miserable. Going to the store to perform even the simplest errands required a 15-minute pep talk: what if I had to ask where the green peppers were? What if someone asked me the time? Slowly, I retreated within myself, avoiding the outdoors and dreading social contact. Amynah would come home in the evening, and I would talk her ear off non-stop about… well, who knows what the heck I had to talk about. Complaining about the accordionists, probably. But I had to talk to someone or lose my mind. She was foolish enough to marry me, so she had to put up with my blatherings.

I tried taking French lessons that the University of Strasbourg offered to foreign students and their spouses, but my fellow students were unapproachable, and the teacher not terribly pleasant or flexible: due to an early Hallowe’en-themed article I wrote that I mentioned in class, she was convinced that I was some sort of occultist. No amount of explanation could change her mind.

Just because I hang around graveyards taking pictures of haunted towers doesn't make me an occultist

In my more despairing moments, I felt like I had been sentenced to solitary confinement: the three years stretched out in front of me like a desert. I couldn’t wait until it was over: I hated France, I hated the incomprehensible French, and I loathed their needlessly opaque language that served as an impenetrable barrier between me and happiness.

Of course, things were better than they seemed. Even during those first few months, there were plenty of people that reached out to us. Amynah started in the lab at the same time as another post-doc who came to Strasbourg from Bordeaux via England. With Julie and her boyfriend Sebastien, we made our first forays into the countryside, and were introduced to French customs such as mushroom hunting, viewing duck as dinner, rather than pond decorations, and cheering on Les bleus “football” team at the Stade de Meinau.

Julie and Sebastien, on our first visit to Mont St Odile. Natasha was just a glimmer in their eye at this point

It was Sebastien who introduced me to his coworker Caner, the first of my language-exchange partners. The language exchanges proved to be fairly ineffective: Caner and I got on too well to bother correcting each other's language faults, and thus spent most of our “exchanges” speaking in whatever tongue was most effective for shooting the breeze.

There were others in Amynah’s labs who also made the effort to make us feel welcome – Audrey, one of the technicians, would always make a point of speaking to me, despite my near-total lack of French. Others invited us to dinners, movies, hiking and picnics, afternoons in her boss’s pool, voyages to pottery country, evenings of video-kareoke. But these were always “Amynah’s friends” – I was always welcome, but never quite au courant with the lab gossip and science talk.

It wasn’t until I signed up at the French course actually offered in Amynah’s lab that things truly opened up for me. The teacher, Danielle, was unbelievably welcoming. The day I met her was the day of her last class that semester: she accepted me as a student, and immediately invited Amynah and I to a housewarming party at her new flat across the Rhine.

Some of our friends here, from left: Guy who's name I don't remember, Qi, Sami, Chihiro, Hiroyasu, Amynah, Soraya, Mirna

It was through Danielle and her class that we tapped into another social network here in Strasbourg. Most of her students – some learning French, some learning English - were in the same boat as us, foreigners finding their feet in France. They came from the U.S., Argentina India, China, Japan, Spain, Finland, Syria, Lebanon and Hungary. Danielle, and her husband David adopted us all as their polyglot children: their house was a frequent meeting point for dinners, concerts in the park, and a launch pad for expeditions to the Germany’s Black Forest.

Danielle and David were great friends in their own right, but of course without them we never would have enjoyed Qi’s Chinese New Year’s dinners, or started my language exchanges with Mirna and Lama (both of whom, I am happy to say, are now considering post-docs in Canada).

Two of the sweetest people I know: Lama and Qi, queens of the mountain.

It was also through Danielle and David that had the opportunity to meet Sami the Finn with whom we enjoyed many disastrous outings into the countryside. And, without Sami, we would not have become friends with Belinda the Australian – not that Belinda was ever in need of anyone’s help in terms of making friends and settling in.

Once Danielle and David moved to England, we tried to fill their considerable shoes by welcoming newcomers like Belinda the way they had welcomed us, and so I made some ill-fated efforts to organize outings of internationals from Amynah’s institute into the surrounding countryside.

Finally, also through Danielle and David, Amynah and I have become good friends with Félicie and Yann, who have been so kind to us I can’t help but think there’s something wrong with them – surely we’re not so much fun that anyone would want to invite us on their weekend in Provence? My regular lunches with Félicie were a highlight of my week over this past year, and their relaxed good humour in all things - cleaning our apartment, last minute New Year's Dinners - made them a joy to hang out with.

Throughout it all, our friends and family kept coming for visits from Canada (and England, Germany, Ireland and the Congo). Because of them, I was motivated to get out into the country and explore - and as a side-effect, rarely felt homesick. Their patience with my grueling and didactic tour was appreciated: for a long time, knowing the city’s history was the only way that felt even somewhat at home here, and I appreciated the many opportunities I was given to show off my knowledge.

But as we prepare to leave, we’ve been shown an incredible amount of generosity from our friends here: dinners, gifts, even the occasional heartfelt note expressing sadness that we will be leaving. Almost everyone we know has offered to help with the considerable logistical difficulties involved in our move.

I’ve come a long way from the miserable, depressed hermit I was three years ago. Amynah’s lab, and For Amynah and I, the three years we have spent in Strasbourg have been the best time of our lives. There will always be a corner of our souls that will always be given over to this place, but it isn’t because of the bike trails and history.

The people we have met here are some of the best people we have ever known. I only regret that we did not spend more time with them all. I will miss them terribly.


Greg Hatchette said...

I will miss Strasmark...but i don't think that since you're leaving a piece of yourself there that you should abandon the mark (pun intended) it leaves on you. I think you're Strasmark from here on in.

thanks for the stories, i've enjoyed reading them. I wish i had the time to write my own for others to share.

good luck with your trip, and be sure to call if you're around DC.


JC Martin and the Goodbyists said...

Adieu et bon voyage.

Zack said...

Mark, I'm only sorry I didn't come to visit later in your sojourn, and that, when I did, I had been able to stay longer. You were still coming out of the hermit phase, I think. Still, your tour of the city and our visit to my grandfather's village are great memories for me. I look forward to seeing you again soon in Portland, only a few short days from now.