Strangers, Strange Land
My first solo voyage came at the age of 16, when I decided to set off on a five-month exchange to France.
To save for my big trip, I laboured my soul away in a uniform shop, and kept myself sane by imagining what La France had in store for me. Rolling hills and small provincial towns, fields of lavender in the south, or perhaps la belle Parii? Endless hours were spent daydreaming of the postcard, picturesque France awaiting me.
What really awaited me was Cholet. Never heard of it? Funnily enough, most French people haven’t either. My host sister once asked for help with her English homework. She couldn’t understand what the word “forsaken” meant. My skills were already limited, and, even in English, forsaken is a pretty hard word to pitch. As I wildly gesticulated and made throat sounds to try and sound more French, I found myself thinking of Cholet itself. A perfect representation of forsaken.
A small, industrial town that residents describe (somewhat affectionately?) as “toilet bowl-shaped” (couldn’t they have just said bowl-shaped?). To get to school, I had to ride past an abattoir, and if I was lucky, I might hear some screaming pigs on my way. The smell wasn’t too bad either.
It was the type of place where my history teacher asked if I was Aboriginal. And when I said no, he asked whether I still lived off the land because I am black. The kids in my class then asked me why Australians were so racist. “I’m not racist!” I countered. “Of course you’re not, you’re black!” Well.
So people were standoffish at best, and plain rude and racist at worst. On one occasion, I decided to check out the only beautiful landmark in Cholet – a gothic-era Church. On the way home from mass, I was followed by an old man in an even older car, asking me most politely to “get in” so he could show me a good time (I didn’t get in, and wrote off church visits indefinitely).
One lonely afternoon, I found myself outside the old train station after a long walk in town. It had become dark more quickly than I expected.
I climbed the steps gingerly as rain started to fall. How perfect. Suddenly I heard heavy footsteps behind me, clashing with the soft patter of rain. A tall hulking man was running – after me, it seemed.
“Madame! Madame!” he yelled. My first reaction was to turn around and yell something back at him. Something to the effect of, “What the fuck man, I’m totally a Mademoiselle – I’m not nearly old enough to be a Madame! Jeesh!” But then the panic set in and I didn’t have time to correct him.
I raced up the concrete stairs, which seemed to double in front of me, never-ending as my poor bakery goods-filled body struggled to scale the slippery slope ahead. The rain seemed to be coming on faster, and I could feel him rounding up the stairs behind me.
I was close to the top when I slipped and banged my knee hard against the cool, wet concrete.
Before I knew it, he was towering over me. His oversized hands reached out and I slid back, arms flailing, ready to fight my last.
It was then I looked up at him. Behind his imposing figure was a small, boyish face. Big, sad, empty eyes stared back at me.
He helped me to my feet, all the while apologising profusely in broken French.
“Who are you?” I asked finally. His clothes were oversized and old, his hands were a patchwork of scars.
“I’ve seen you around town.” He smiled. “You are Indian?”
“No,” I apologised. It seemed like I was apologising for my race quite a bit.
“Oh.” His eyes were doleful and seemed to almost seep sorrow.
“Why?” I said.
It turned out Ahmed didn’t speak very good French. He was fluent in a plethora of other languages though, one of them being Hindi, and he had hoped we would be able to converse. He desperately missed home.
“Where’s home?” I asked. We sat on the wet, concrete stairs. The rain had subsided for a rare moment, and the cold air was crisp and biting.
“Afghanistan,” he replied.
We conversed in English, and it made me realise how much I missed my mother tongue. Surrounded, day in and day out, by people throwing word darts and expecting you to catch them, was isolating, lonely and even after Google translating the shit out of what I wanted to say, the meaning always felt a little lost.
“You speak English good,” I said, in what can only be described as not-good English.
I asked Ahmed if he’d come with his family. He replied quickly, saying no, that he was living with a host family here in France. They were nice enough, but they didn’t talk to him, and he missed the food back home.
The rain then started up again. It had just hit 5pm and yet the sky had already fallen to a heavy black.
I wondered how this boy had come to be alone in this country, in this small, rather racist town. But he didn’t want to talk of war, nor his past, with this complete stranger. Instead we laughed at the quirks of the average Frenchman, from their inability to laugh at themselves to their slightly over-the-top patriotism.
I spoke of my travels – the small list of places I’d been. His eyes grew wide as he relished in my pedestrian tales and laughed at my tired stories.
“You must miss your family,” he asked finally. I laughed. Not really. Yeah I suppose a bit, maybe. At times I did quite miss them, I guess.
It was then I realised how cruel I’d been. Ahmed’s family were gone. They’d joined the unfathomable toll of war deaths in his homeland. He’d escaped, come to a new life in the promise land of France. And somehow, he’d wound out in the forsaken town of Cholet.
It was late, and I had to head back. Ahmed insisted on walking me, but I refused. I left him on the steps of the train station, and as I looked back he stayed, swaying in the pale rain.
I told him I’d see him again, and we’d chat, and we could speak English and I’d tell him more pointless stories. He smiled but he and I both knew that we’d never see each other again. I’d go back to the thrill of travel, then back home, to my waiting family, whilst he would traipse through his days in this soulless town, so far away from everything he once knew.
Three years later, I returned to the industrial hole of a town that is Cholet. Why I came back, I have no idea. It was of no surprise that nothing had changed: people were still having sex behind the train station, the bakery lady was still a racist bitch, the same people still sat idly in the streets, wasting away their empty hours. There will always be a certain charm about an unchanging place. A stubborn constant in our ever-moving world.
On my last day, I was running through the concrete town, getting last minute cheap key rings and pencils to pass off as a poor excuse for gifts back home.
It is a rare thing in life – and even more so in travels, where the fates align. Where life completes a revolution, a perfect circle, bringing you back to a rainy afternoon, three years before. Where life affords you one last chance at goodbye.
I saw Ahmed first, though he looked completely different. His hollow face had filled out and his eyes were no longer vacant pools of sadness.
We had two minutes to talk, as he was booked in for his driver’s test. He wasn’t nervous though, his chest had puffed out with the arrogant pride only French people can pull off. His French was perfect too, and he laughed guiltily saying he’d forgotten most of the other languages he spoke.
We parted, a kiss on each cheek. I took his hand in mine and felt the scars, now faded reminders of a past life.
I told him I’d see him again. We both smiled, knowing that one day, if the fates allowed it, we might do just that. Perhaps beyond the ramparts of this dismal town. Until then, I wish for him the very best of life.