Wednesday, October 12, 2011

War Stories

After spending a week exploring Germany I arrived in Metz, France at 6:15am on a Friday morning. It was pitch black and pouring rain, and I was carrying a backpack that, with my newly acquired souvenirs jammed into every free pouch, had increased to the point of unruliness. My very dear friend, Claire, who teaches English in a small town outside of Metz couldn’t meet me until 1:00pm, and so I had seven hours to kill… and I did not want to do it with an overweight elephant on my back.

After nearly an hour of running around the train station I had established two things: No one in the entire place spoke English or German, and there did not seem to be any lockers available to rent (so, if you want to get technical, I had established one thing and deduced another, but who wants to be technical at 7:00am after having spent the night attempting to sleep in a six-person train berth the size of a shoebox?).

Not knowing what else to do, I bought a muffin and sat down to think. And, low and behold, from my bench I could see a sign for a hotel and I had the vague notion that hotels sometimes store luggage for a small fee. Rejuvenated, I gathered my things and set off through the rain.

Three hotels later I had established one more thing: French hotels do not store luggage.

The last receptionist, who spoke more English than the rest, suggested that I try the local tobacco shop. I was fairly certain this was some sort of weird English-French miscommunication, but I was desperate and so I wandered into the small shop that smelled like foreign cigars. A perfectly coiffed French woman stood behind the counter, taking in my rain-soaked, sleep-deprived appearance in the way only someone who has never ventured outside without mascara and high heels can do.

We quickly established the fact that this woman did not speak English or German and, quite frankly, did not care to attempt anything other than French. And so, desperate to get rid of the anchor-like luggage that was cutting into my shoulders with every breath, I reverted to the international language of pantomime.

“I have a VERY big bag,” I said slowly, gesturing to the pack on my back. “And I want to leave it here.” I pointed behind the counter with a pathetic look on my face that I hoped wouldn’t be mistaken for constipation.

For a split second the French woman didn’t move. She just stared disdainfully. But then, when I was about to turn and go, she motioned for me to come around the counter where she stapled a piece of paper to my bag and made me pay 10 Euros. I left the tobacco shop sans luggage (and a little bit of dignity).

French Dinner at Claire's French Apartment
When Claire finally arrived at one o’clock and helped me to reclaim my baggage (and cart it back to her apartment) I was honestly able to tell her that I had never been happier to see her in my life… and considering the fact that she and I have been friends for more than a decade, that’s really saying something.

But it was true. Living life in a foreign country had taken more of a toll on me that I had expected or realized and I was in desperate need of an old friend. And so, that night over dinner and the next day over coffee with another American friend also living in France, we swapped war stories…

Claire told me how she lost it when she discovered that the “laundry mat” where she could wash her clothes was in fact a single washing machine outside of a gas station. Bre (our other American friend) shared a story about being berated in the middle of a French grocery store for buying lettuce incorrectly. I let them in on the fact that I can never again visit a certain bakery in town after making a terrible fool of myself trying to buy bread.

It is one thing to visit a foreign country and play tourist for a few days, pointing at menu items and smiling with lots of teeth. It is another thing entirely to attempt to build a life in a place where you cannot grocery shop without exerting more mental energy that most college freshman do on their final exams. You make desperate attempts to fit in, all the while terrified that someone will call you out on your foreignness. You spend every day on a see-saw of ups and downs: Today I successfully bought stamps but when I went to the bank the teller treated me like I was five (and I STILL didn’t understand). Did I have a good day or not? I really can’t tell.

These are our battles. These are our war stories.

Talking them over does not change the fact that tomorrow we have to get up, don our armor, and face it all again. But it does make life seem a little less lonely, a little less overwhelming. And when I am able to laugh hysterically over something that made me cry only a few days earlier, I feel that I have made progress. I feel like, in the end, things might just end up in my favor.

 Of course, when Claire and I headed back to her apartment after a day of what seemed a bit like group therapy for those afflicted with Wanderlust, only to discover that her apartment keys were missing, my joyful feelings all but vanished. Desperate, we dumped the contents of her purse onto the sidewalk, digging through the now empty bag to no avail. We retraced our steps and even called Bre. Nothing.

Sitting down on the cement, I sent a silent, desperate prayer Heavenward. Dear God, please let us find those keys. Neither one of us is capable of dealing with a French locksmith right now. Please, God, I am begging you.

Not five seconds after I had completed my prayer, Claire looked in her purse again and there, sitting in a zippered pouch we had both checked repeatedly, sat two shiny silver keys. A little miracle for two Americans who were already sporting plenty of battle scars. 


  1. Oh my dear Christina, surely there is a purple heart award awaiting you at the end of this venture. You will certainly return a seasoned veteran of all sorts. I am glad God answered your prayer so quickly and keeps you safe.
    Love you lots,

  2. I am relieved to know that your guardian angels, (I have known you have more than one since you were very small) were there to guide and guard your path.
    I love you

  3. Absolutely an A+ for hanging in there, and for sharing so openly with us. We love you, are proud of you, and we are your grateful students. You are so good at helping us to see what your life is like right now....your trials....your victories. Sending love!You are accomplishing what many people would be too fearful to in a foreign country, and traversing it solo. Kudos!

  4. When I read the title of this post, I was truly expecting you as a history buff, to be sharing more details of the past of the places you visited. But au contraire. This is yet another very true story. Every day is a battle. We come out with scars, but the best thing to do is laugh at ourselves :) I'm so glad we could share our stories together. A few of my favorite lines you've written.

    "'I have a VERY big bag,' I said slowly, gesturing to the pack on my back. 'And I want to leave it here.'I pointed behind the counter with a pathetic look on my face that I hoped wouldn’t be mistaken for constipation." (I was laughing so loud right now, picturing you re-enacting this at the cafe!)

    "And when I am able to laugh hysterically over something that made me cry only a few days earlier, I feel that I have made progress." (This just plain old touched my heart.)

    Thanks for sharing your great adventure!