By Vala Schriefer
There is a rather fascinating romance flavoring the confusion of arrival. Everything I imagined, all the scenes I set up were right in front of me. The world, however, was tilted, the rooms smaller, more square, the colors a shade off. The images of France I had carefully assembled months ago seemed to have gone through a washing machine. “A large part of the magic and suspendedness of arrivals comes, I think, from the fact that they play havoc with the senses,” writes British essayist and novelist Pico Iyer in his essay The Shock of Arrival. Back home, the safety of routine fed my addiction for control, making suspendedness a foreign feeling. The books I had devoured and the movies I had studied had merely dipped my mind into French culture. Entering the country, I was submerged in the waters of an alien world and I suddenly realized I didn’t know how to swim. Pico Iyer writes that “arrivals are the time when we are at our most responsive and most vulnerable.” I stepped off the plane, attempted to place my feet firmly on new ground, and found myself floating between the comfort of my old world and the mystery of the new. I had traced the thin silhouette of France in my mind, placed my finger on top of a small city called Rennes, and charted the anatomy of my new life. None of that mattered now. In the moment of arrival I was simply unprepared to be French.
I was not ready to be greeted with two kisses, one on each cheek, was not ready for the tiny car I crammed all my belongings into, was not ready to hear my name pronounced in a new rhythm. Still in the midst of reprogramming my mind into the pace of France, I was thrown to my new family. My mouth failed me. It was as if each word I attempted to communicate belonged to someone else, felt crooked and sour in my mouth. I found a new appreciation for nodding and discovered there are a million ways to say “oui.” I imitated the smiling face of some marble statue, a plaster expression assuring my new family that my silence did not imply dissatisfaction. Here I discovered people take traffic laws as suggestions; I was not ready for the bumpy ride. That first night I learned how to properly remove the spine from a fish, and to always fold the napkin vertically. The chaos of arrival began to subside when I dropped my anchor in this foreign place and labeled it “home.” As I found the form of this new life, developing a tangible figure and casting a cool shadow, the tilted world became fixed into place. I had graduated from the phase of physical arrival and now floated away towards my communicative destination. I would have to learn to speak all over again.
I arrived with one large suitcase stuffed with clothes, two backpacks full of books, one violin, one purse, two empty pockets, two pulsing wrists. Pico Iyer explores the waiting involved in reaching a destination; sometimes we never retrieve all of our belongings, sometimes things get lost. “I’d never arrived, in some sense,” he says about a trip he took to Suriname. One piece of my life will not appear for a few months; language. There is something so terrifying about being misunderstood, tasting the bitter tangle of um’s and uh’s. A month before I arrived in France, I wrote in my journal “Everything is about to be new and foreign and exciting. I always planned to throw myself into something extraordinary and frightening. In this case being scared means not understanding. Now I am almost there.” Parts of me are still arriving, floating in limbo, still entering that awkward metamorphosis of American to French, of English to Français. It is much colder in Rennes than I expected it to be. I asked my mother to send me a wool sweater and a scarf, the ones she said I should pack, the ones I didn’t. Every day I walk past a stack of cardboard boxes and letters adorned with stamps and tattooed with the four line poems of home addresses. I am looking for a box with my name, written in familiar handwriting, containing a brown wool sweater, a black scarf, and my French voice. Until it arrives, I am going to have to embrace the suspendedness and learn how to float.