For the last two weeks, I’ve been taking an online course on writing creative nonfiction. The instructor, Josh Rivkin, has provided a steady stream of informative tips, interesting reading assignments, and inspiring prompts. My blog for this week features the beginning of a longer story about my trip to Montpellier, France several years ago. There, I was enrolled in a fantastic French immersion program through the Institut Linguistic Adenet.
I arrived in Montpellier at the start of a canicule, a many-day heatwave that appeared to have little effect on the bustling streets of the centuries-old college town. At 55 years of age, it was the first time I was on an adventure that was entirely my own. I’d come to the south of France for an intensive French class and had requested lodging with a host family, rather than living in a dorm where none of the residents would be native French speakers.
In the weeks preceding my trip, I was inundated with the events and projects that annually consumed our household as my 3 children’s school year came to a close. The night before their last day, having packed all of their duffle bags as well as my suitcase, I flew to Paris, leaving my husband to deposit my son and twin daughters in their respective summer camps where they would carve out their own adventures.
Complicating matters was a persistent virus that had descended upon our family. One of my daughters even developed pneumonia and I had worried that the many plans I’d put in place for our summer would be sabotaged by the pernicious bug. One by one, however, my kids recovered. Somehow, I’d managed to avoid getting sick—that is until the morning of my flight when I awoke with sore sinuses and a runny nose.
I dozed fitfully on the all-night flight to France, pinned between the porthole and a large woman who had politely asked if we could raise the armrest between us. Upon landing, I went straight to my AirBnB in the Marais. Traveling on a shoestring budget, my room lay in the back of a tiny, 1-bedroom apartment, occupied by a doctoral student who apparently slept at her kitchen table for the next two nights while I took the only bed. I had 2 days before I needed to board a train to Montpellier. Instead of taking in the sites of Paris, as I’d planned, I dedicated those 48 hours to rest and reflection, hoping for a speedy recovery.
By the time I boarded the high-speed TGV, however, my cold was worse and a persistent cough had settled in. Again, I slept. Oddly enough, I didn’t regret missing the captivating French countryside as it flew past my window. In my mind, I was on vacation. The freedom of having no one to take care of other than myself was exhilarating. I would be away from home for 5 weeks. These few uneventful days would provide a tranquil buffer between my chaotic life—looking after my husband, kids, and 87-year-old father—and near-total independence.
In anticipation of my trip, I had studied Google Maps and memorized the route from the train station to my host family’s apartment. “Host family” turns out to be a loosely defined term. In my case, I’d been assigned to live with a retired célibataire, an unmarried “woman of a certain age” as the French like to say. The 2-sentence bio the school had sent me mentioned that she’d spent her career working for France’s Ministry of Education. I imagined a business-like Coco Channel crossed with the charitable Old Lady from Babar.
As I dragged my oversized suitcase along the storied Rue de Magduelone, I was disappointed to discover that the normally lush and verdant palm trees that line the street looked close to death, their tops reduced to withered fronds the color of straw. Days above 95 degrees, as was the present temperature, had become all too common with the advent of global warming and the once tropical avenue looked in need of a deluge.
The oppressive heat bore down as I labored along. I attributed the slight wheeze that was now a fixture of my breathing to the dry and dusty atmosphere. I paused at intervals to rest along the route and eventually arrived at my desired address. Before me lay a door that I recognized from Google Streetview. Access, however, was blocked by a group of musicians who were setting up a large sound system on tables. I walked back and forth, trying to determine if there was another entrance. There wasn’t. And, I could now see that there were no apartment numbers to identify residents nor an intercom to obtain access into the building.
It was disheartening, to say the least, but could easily be remedied with a phone call. I’d be able to use my French and my host might possibly come to pick me up.
“Hello, this is Carol. [cough] I’m on my way but perhaps I have the wrong address. [cough]”
“Where are you?”
“I walked from the station to 28 Rue XXX, [cough] but there appears to be no way to get into the building. [cough] [cough]”
“Either you don’t read very carefully or the school gave you bad information. I live at 28 Blvd XXX”.
I paused, hoping that my delayed reply might convey a touch of vulnerability and provoke a bit of empathy from the scolding apparition on the other end of the line.
“You need to walk back to the station. Get on tram 3 and take it to stop #… From there, you’ll walk past a small park. My street is just beyond.”
So, after draining the rest of my water bottle, I trudged back to the station—arriving flushed and soaked with sweat—then found my way onto the heavenly, air-cooled, tram.
Now, gazing at the name plates next to the attractive apartment building’s intercom, my feeling of relief gave way to a growing awareness of fever and fatigue. I buzzed the flat for Mme Homard (not my host’s real name, rather an affectionate pseudonym that later I came to use).
The sound of staticky, rapid-fire French preceded the clicking unlock of the handsome entry door. “Je suis au cinquième étage, pas d’ascenseur.” The simple phrase hit like a hammer to the kneecaps as I realized I still needed to lug my suitcase up five flights of stairs to the 6th floor. I cursed myself, thinking back to the moment when days earlier I’d rejoiced that my overstuffed bag came in just under Air France’s 50 lb limit.
Once inside, I wasn’t surprised by the lack of air conditioning, a luxury that is far less prevalent in France than in the U.S. In fact, I was thankful for the cool terrazzo stairwell and the shelter it provided from the sun, a vertical refuge from the oppressive outdoor heat. Taking 2-3 steps at a time, I boosted my belongings up the stairs, alternating between bursts of energy and short coughing fits.
Already depleted, when I reached the 3rd-floor landing, I leaned against the cool wall to rest. There was no need to hurry, no deadline to meet. I closed my eyes and waited for my lungs to restore the oxygen that seemed thoughtlessly absent from my bloodstream.
Somewhere above me I heard a woman’s voice echoing. “What are you doing?” Perhaps a mother was talking to one of her kids, I thought. Then, “Carol… what are you doing?” I stepped to the railing and looked upward for my first face-to-face encounter with the perplexed and impatient Mme Homard.
“I’m sorry,” I explained in rudimentary French. “I caught a virus that is stealing my energy. No worries. I just need to go slow.”
“You packed too big of a suitcase,” came the reply.
Luckily, the woman’s absurd lack of sensitivity only served to amuse me. Nothing and no one was going to ruin my trip. It was all good—part of a grand adventure that was finite so I might as well make the most of it.
The remainder of my ascent was peppered with observations, like “you shouldn’t expect elevators when traveling in France,” (I didn’t) and “the top floor is superior to all others since you’re shielded from noisy and inconsiderate neighbors” (whatever). I felt like I was summiting Everest with a pesky magpie circling my head.
At last on the 6th-floor landing, I greeted my host with a triumphant smile and thanked her for her patience. My decades as an entrepreneur had taught me that when you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. I say this jokingly because I wasn’t totally faking. My words expressed a genuine feeling of gratitude toward this total stranger who was willing to take me into her home as I pursued the frivolous goal of becoming fluent in French.
For a happier take on French immersion, see My Travels to Quebec, So Much More than a Vacation.