Reflecting on an object from my treasure box
Carte “TaM” (Transports de l’agglomération de Montpellier) 2002
Most of my picture IDs from my time in France (including my passport) were either stolen or tossed in the river. But this one remains. I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because it was the only one that bore my image but not my name. Maybe I just didn’t bother to carry it with me the day I left Montpellier because all the places I thought I needed to go could be reached easily enough on foot.
The picture was taken in September of that year, I think – or maybe at the start of October, just before the Fall term commenced. It was part of a series taken from an automatic photo booth near the train station. When I posed for them, I tried some with a soft, close-mouthed smile and some with no smile at all, remembering how a European, maybe even one of the French students I’d met in the US, looked at my passport photo from taken two years prior and couldn’t understand why on earth I’d smiled for it. It didn’t even seem like a natural smile because my teeth were showing as though as though the photographer had asked me to say “cheese.” Then she told me how in her country, they weren’t supposed to smile for ID photos because smiles weren’t natural and might make a person more difficult to identify.
When I first heard this theory about the not smiling for ID photos, I thought it sounded ridiculous. But when it was my turn to go to France as a student, I wanted nothing more than to blend in with the culture. I didn’t even hesitate to follow the no-smile rule for my public transport pass.
The card itself came in a blue, vinyl cardholder with user instructions printed in French opposite my actual ID: Validate your card at each boarding; no need to take it out each time, just pass it in front of the machine to validate; to reload your subscription, recharge your card at the regular sales points; If lost, stolen, or damaged, contact the agency “TaM” right away.
The card itself is thicker than an American drivers license or credit card simply because it’s all one, powerful magnet. Because of that, it often didn’t even need to be removed from my purse to validate. I just had to hold it close enough for the machine to register it, that was all.
I don’t remember how much I paid for this card but I paid for an entire year and I know I waited until I had my student ID to purchase it so as to get the student price.
My apartment was conveniently close to the “Albert 1er” tram stop. From there I could take a tram directly to the university where I studied: Université Paul Valéry III.
Whether sitting or standing, I loved sharing the tram with other students and locals! It always seemed to lift me out of my loneliness, whether running into classmates, chatting with strangers, or just eavesdropping on the French conversations I’d only recently begun to understand.
Other times I preferred to walk to and from class, even though (and sometimes precisely because) it took longer. I never felt hurried on the days I chose to walk (unlike some of the other Americans, who often complained about the slower pace of the French natives). In fact, learning to slow down became a truly enjoyable part of my experience abroad. Sadly, I couldn’t maintain it after I returned to the United States.
In France, I not only learned to walk slower but to eat slower, never feeling pressured to hurry back to my empty apartment. A time or two I even accepted invitations for coffee with strangers. Of course, I wasn’t so naive to realize that these strangers were usually men who mistook my smile for flirtation and expected me to exchange more than words with them. But whether by pure luck or by simply knowing intuitively when to walk away, I managed to never use our time together for anything more than French chat and an invitation to platonic friendship. True, after these men realized they weren’t going to get much more than talk from me, they rarely, if ever, invited me back. This never surprised me but I so longed for interaction with other people that I’d have accept almost anything, even if it was superficial in nature.
Back then I craved conversation, especially French conversation. And even though my level of fluency in French would never match that of my mother tongue, I tried so very hard to make it my dominant language. I pushed my mind with such fervor that, as many of you already know, it eventually broke.
A key part of my language-learning strategy was my avoidance of most Americans. This wasn’t out of contempt for others from my country. It was simply my way of forcing the experience so many international students I’d met the year before had. There were some even who were the sole representatives of their country on campus and had no one there with whom they could speak their native tongue. I wanted so much to know what that was like!
My approach, therefore, became a self-destructive attempt at total French immersion.
Keep in mind, total immersion is a difficult feat, especially when your mother tongue is the language most commonly spoken throughout the world.
It was bad enough I had to constantly remind French people not to try and “help me” by speaking English. Much of my stubborn conviction also came from observing my own compatriots (as well those from non-English-speaking countries) naturally falling back into their native tongues whenever they were in the company of their fellow countrymen (and women). So I decided my only hope at becoming fluent in French was to not cultivate relationships with the other Americans in France. Even so, a few Americans still managed to break through my barriers and befriend me.
Admittedly, my learning approach was measurably beneficial for my French language acquisition, albeit severely damaging to my psych as it caused me to become isolated and, had I spent more time cultivating community with others like me, I might very well have avoided my traumatic expulsion from France. But we’ll never know for sure.