I’m living in France and I’ve adopted a monastic existence. I live for the evening spaces between dreaming and reality, particularly now because my waking days frustrate me too much. I sit at the desk in my sparsely furnished room on the sixth floor, meditating on the depths of my single candle’s flame until I am inspired to write or read or drown my brain in Netflix. I’m trying to figure out why I am here. I fear mentally that I’m already leaving, fleeing the country yet again.
Purportedly I’m in France to help teach English at a vocational high school, but five minutes into my first day the lead teacher dismissed half of the class in rage. They hovered at the door, unsure if they wanted to fight this fight or just leave. Another English teacher insults the students to teach politeness. She teaches the students they are stupid, dogs, animals, beasts (these are direct translations). The blackest kid in the class is struggling to understand French, not to mention the English lesson. Without any clear reason, she separates him from the one student who can translate for him, and then tells him he is a filthy animal when he sneezes. No blessings here. The only time I’ve ever stood in front of a truly quiet and still class was when I taught English in Tanzania, and I attribute the Tanzanians’ warmth to colonial rule’s persisting violence. There, people masked their confusion and misunderstanding with welcoming subservience. Many French however dismiss you at best or arrogantly assume they know better. I too am guilty of assuming understanding in daily conversation just to avoid the embarrassment of my ignorance becoming known. The presumption of knowledge is a wonderful, futile privilege. It’s an escape from meaningful communication, from another’s pressing reality. The students are quick however to claim complete incomprehension. They avert their eyes and whisper jokes and stories to their neighbors. Anything else but English, to talk about anywhere else but here.
Many of the students’ parents are immigrants from Algeria, Senegal, Afghanistan, Italy, Syria, and Turkey. Some parents were fleeing war, and all wanted better jobs and opportunities for their kids. When I ask some of the students why their families immigrated to France, they look at me in confusion. I repeat the question in French, and they still look confused. It’s obvious. Their parents left for something better, for anything better. The only thing better they tell me is to leave to America.
A few weeks ago, I taught English at a local prison for an afternoon to see if it was any different from the high school. Turns out there were some alumni from the school I teach at. One inmate, a man from Nigeria, told me his dream of America, and requested that when I return to the prison that I write down the American national anthem for him to study. He dreams of democracy, of freedom. All the prisoners were frank about what their goal was – to leave. Many asked me if one can still get a tourist visa to the United States if you have a criminal record. I don’t know. Instead, I told them stories of the mountains and open ranges of Montana, and that afternoon between those cinder block walls we all dreamed of escaping to a better life.
I am in France because last time I fell in love with the art in the big cities and the bucolic coziness of its countryside. Singers and artists now long dead intoxicated me with dreams of French streets with music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air. In prose and poetry, France is a feast, a retreat into luxury and artistic musings. Back home in the states, I dreamed of coming to a town where no one knew me. I could take a craftsman’s job where I could work until the piece was done and then leave the workshop in silence. Away from my hometown, I can be a stranger. I can easily hold close the limits of other people’s perception of me. In French, “stranger” and “foreigner” is the same word; étranger. But now I am stoned sober by the industrial immigrant town where I am now employed. There are no workers in song, all the lovers have retreated from their balconies, and most village markets peddle plastic just like any department store. I feel only further from the land and what arts its people can teach me. My students’ numbed realities have confronted me with a different story I can’t dream of escaping to.
This next week I have to stand in front of my students and tell them I’m leaving. I’m breaking my contract and retreating to the American dream. I’m the lucky one. I wonder if the students feel like they’re achieving their parents’ French dream. I think they are much smarter than they are told they are, but I fear they will not escape France’s preconception of them. After class I chat with the students who come to me with dreams still in their eye, and I want to tell them that the world is here, right here, open to them. Embrace it and escape into it. When I return home, I hope I can tell myself the same.