Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

If only the tears would come


On Wednesday, I had a meeting with a French local. I was really happy to meet him. In an email he had shared he had built his 150+ member organization off of principles I had written about a while back. When we see each other face to face, I blunder through a sentence or two about why we should speak in English and not French but even this very simple sentence comes out all wrong. I know it proved my point. I know I should get over how embarrassing it is. But after this many weeks of trying to learn and doing drills and studying with private instructors, I can’t say even one sentence.

The next day is Thanksgiving and I’ve arranged to have lunch and church service with a friend. We end up at church only to find all the doors closed. She realizes the service is actually across town, at the American Cathedral not the American Church. We think about giving up, but decide to persevere. Persevere.

Enjoying this American friend’s company so much that what starts out as lunch goes all rest of the day. I blow off the work I need to do. I’m behind on this work. And really it’s one of the few things I get satisfaction from lately. So, I don’t mean to. It has its own regrets. But, it just feel so good to not be alone, to have a friend. To pray together. To say Thanks. Turns out her daughter has baked a pecan pie and a pumpkin pie. They pack me up pieces for home. Like a doggie bag. So American. It feels like it’s going to be okay. Even though it is dark outside, I am filled again. I’m practically skipping with joy. Right before we go, we find a little chocolatier shop that sells pavés. Pavé is the type of stones that makes up the sidewalks of Paris, and named the same, these little chocolates are tiny little squares, uneven and yet fitting together. 

As I leave this neighborhood, one I know like the back of my hand, some men stop and ask me questions. I can tell they are asking directions. I can’t figure out how to talk. I can’t figure out why I can’t say anything. These are really simple words. Words I know. But I can’t say anything coherent. All the good feelings of earlier that day escape. I feel the darkness of doubt and loneliness encroach. With just not being able to give directions. I know this place, I think. I do. I really do. I know the metros, and the buses, I know the streets. I know so many things. I wish I could be of help, I think. But all that comes out is small little fragments of jibberish. Neither one language, or the other.

We part.

Then, once again, I get lost out of the metro station as I go to pick up kiddo. I get lost nearly every time. EVERY. DARN. TIME. I’ve gone to this train station from all different spots in the city and each time, I manage to get out the wrong exit. Sometimes this costs me 5 minutes, and sometimes 30, depending on how badly I get turned around. Yesterday, I thought I was doing great only to end up kitty-korner-opposite of where I need to be (this after 10 minutes underground in the smelly urine-filled halls). I basically couldn’t have gotten further away from my end point destination. But I hustle and keep going. I deal with the cat-calling guy who almost always sees me on that corner. I step over the dog poop. I keep my hand on my bag opening so my phone or wallet is not picked again.

Then, I see him. But he’s not where he normally is. He’s leaving the building without me. And with two friends. I am excited to see him, and maybe even meet his friends. Mostly, I’m happy I’ve finally gotten to him. But he makes a face, turns away from his friends without an introduction, talks to me in so much French that I can’t understand a word. Not a word. At some point, I will cry, I think. I will. But there is no one to cry to. Curt is gone on yet another trip. And if I share with him what keeps happening, he will only try and problem solve to help me remember the sortie exit # to look for. Not that I can’t look it up. I do. But then I can’t remember it. I don’t know why I can’t remember it. Same reason why I can’t conjugate the two foundational verbs: etre and avoir. I feel infantile. He will not understand why I keep getting lost even when I am coming from the same spot.

If I mention to Kiddo about the 100% all french so fast I can’t understand, he’ll feel bad as if he’s done something wrong, when he has done only goodness. How do I get what I need when it has nothing to do with him. He’s struggling to keep up in school. And so he doesn’t want to slow down to help me. He has to go faster to catch up to these kids he’s with. He has his own race he’s running.

Our train is super full as it almost always is on this direction. We crowd on. One guy has his thing pressed up against me. It’s clear he’s trying to press up against me. But it’s super duper crowded and I can’t figure out what to do. Plus I don’t want to let kiddo know. Who, by the way, is speaking French super fast to me right at this moment unaware of my concerns. Then two stops later, the train stops and holds. After about five minutes, a message (in French) says thanks for the patience. I know word Patience in French. I should be grateful for that but I’m not. Another five minutes, the train is unloaded. We simply follow the crowd.  I understand every fifth word of this next message, but the gist is clear. Then we wait. During this time, Kiddo keeps asking if I know what’s going on. At one point I say, I have no idea in English. But after a second, I figure out the sentence in French and say. “J’ai ne aucune idée”. Kiddo corrects me. But not the words, only the accent. I’m crazy mad inside but I don’t show it. I just say, hey, isn’t it great that I got the words right. I want some recognition for trying and for the few times where I get it right, to be acknowledged for it. He looks at me, and I look off to hide my sadness. After several more moments of confusion and uncomfortable silence between us, another train comes.

I think of what food we have for dinner since I’m single-parenting… again. I look in the fridge. Cheese, lots of cheese. 8 kinds. Kiddo doesn’t like cheese. I offer the pies. He claims the pumpkin one, and tries to eat it as fast as he can so I can’t. I will hate myself in the morning, I think if I eat this all as my meal. But I inhale the pecan pie anyways. And then I think, oh, we should eat something healthier. We’re both hungry for non-sugary food. So we order take out instead of cooking. He wants a night off from homework, he says, so we agree to take-out and the movie. But kiddo seems uninterested in watching the movie even though he chose it. He keeps going to his own room, until I call him. It’s not a movie I especially like. We are in the space but alone, together. Alone, together. My friend Sherry Turkle wrote that book. But it would make a perfect title for what it is like to be here. Alone, together.

At the end of the movie, kiddo tries to convince me to watch another movie. He chokes me during a lopsided hug. He almost never hugs me unless he wants something. It’s his last resort. But his choking me wasn’t intentional. Even though I realize he doesn’t mean to hurt me, I just want to cry. But it’s silly to cry over a mistake. I know I’m really just sad. It’s not him. I will have to buck up to face another day. To deal with getting lost, with not knowing. And then the French language tutor is coming on Friday afternoon. I need to get ready for that.

Maybe, on another day, I can cry.

Author: nilofermerchant

Strategist. Passionate about igniting cultures of innovation. HBR Writer, O'Reilly Author (published January 2010) of The New How, and former CEO of Rubicon.

6 thoughts on “If only the tears would come

  1. Beautiful writing through a challenging time Nilofer!

    I had similar issues while living in Pakistan – but I was eighteen and twenty-three , without kids , no husband, not trying to work and I had a fabulous organization (Canada World Youth) and an amazing network of friends and host families to see me through. Still, I had paralyzing culture shock, brain numbing struggle with the language and issues with infantilization, economic and gender disparities. I talked like a baby and acted inappropriately surely more than I know. Still it was all character building and I look back at it as a hard won gift for which I am truly grateful.

    You are stronger and more competent than I was (which may in the end make all this harder for you) but I know you are giving yourself this same gift of living beyond yourself – which cannot be earned without growing pains.

    xo, Marie

  2. Not much I can say to make it better, but sending virtual hugs. I think writing about it, just expressing the frustration and loneliness, helps. After bad days come better days, and I firmly believe they will come for you!

    Plus, you can always text me if you are feeling particularly low and need a baby picture to boost the spirits. Isn’t a baby picture the antidote to subway groping? 🙂

  3. Sending you lots of hugs. I remember first getting to the US when I was 16, and finding everything and everyone just bewildering and a little infuriating. And that was with all the Americans trying to be NICE to me. Which the French just won’t do. By the way, not sure if this will make you feel better – but when I got back to Germany after the year in the US it was way harder. At least while you’re abroad you can blame it on the culture why you feel strange. But nobody prepares you for the culture shock that happens when you come back to your ‘own’ country.

    • ah yes I saw that when I went back to give a talk at Walmart — wrote about it yesterday. We will see things anew. And while we all say we want change, changing ourselves means everything around us changes, too. For good and bad, I suppose.

  4. Pingback: What You See Anew | Chez Soi

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