I learned the value of language in those days. The subtleties of phrase that mean nothing in one linguistic universe might mean everything in another. Language is our whole world.
I was gone. I had left and it had not been my choice to do so. I had spoken to the Mairie and written the Prefecture, asking to extend. They had refused. I had moved to Istanbul, waiting out mandatory exclusion periods, just to return and throw myself back into to the slow machinations of process, each step providing another in order to finally be able to stay. But the processes were unending, and I was now on a train to Paris, looking back at 150 miles an hour.
From Paris I took a bus to Charles de Gualle. It was dark now, and the florescent lights in the carriage cast reflections on the windows that made it nearly impossible to see out. If you cupped your hands to the pane you might see the highway, or a bridge lit for aircraft warning, but the rest was darkness. It was 11pm when I reached the terminal. From here I was to find another bus, a shuttle, in another terminal, to the cut-rate hotel for what I hoped might be four hours of sleep. At the very least it would be a shower and bed.
The lines were long and the clerk was weary. When I made it to my room and lay with the reading light on I noticed how much better the room looked under very low light. The hairline cracks in the walls and stains on the carpets faded into what could be any bedroom anywhere.
The alarm sounded quickly. It was a familiar alarm – a black travel clock with a regular beep that I trusted more than my phone or a wake up call. A travel clock as close to the one my Dad had when we were kids as I could find. It ticked lightly at night and had so infuriated Clare, at one point in the London flat, that she had thrown it with impressive force against the wall in the middle of the night, sending plastic shattering across the room. ‘I’m done with fucking Big Ben’, she exclaimed, and rolled over and went back to sleep. I replaced it. I still use it.
I passed over the room one last time, with all the lights on, and checked to be sure my passport and ticket were where I could find them. I shut the heavy door and rolled my bags down the hallway, towards the lobby, where I’d asked for a taxi to be called only some hours earlier, and a wake up call that had never come. There was no one there. I passed and continued outside and stood in the cold air. I could hear the first birds beginning to chirp, even with the sunrise some hours away. The road was quiet. The airport, in the distance, was still.
I worried that the taxi had been forgotten, and that if it did not arrive I would have no way to summon one, and that even if I could locate a staff member at this hour, my exhausted mind wouldn’t be able to formulate the French I would need to get myself to Terminal 3 in the next 20 minutes.
My body ached from the exertions of travel – uncomfortable seating, long periods of nothing, heavy and unwieldy luggage, constant vigilant waiting. And here, again, I was. Waiting.
The taxi, if it was coming, was late. I had measured my minutes for maximum hotel time, and hadn’t left much for unpredictabilities. But finally, around a bend and through the light morning mist that precedes a warm sunrise, I saw headlights.
The small European station wagon pulled to a stop by my bags, which I had left at the curb. I summoned my energy and greeted the driver in French, hoping he wouldn’t be keen to continue talking since I was too tired to scale and descend the high walls of translation between chipper early morning French and too-many-hours without sleep English.
‘Bonjour!’ he started, ‘ça va?’ He had energy. I sat in the back, listening faintly to the radio, broadcasting a French talk show. He waited a moment then began in English. He must’ve heard my accent, I thought. I wasn’t surprised. It was taking energy to summon words, let alone pronounce them like I had been saying them all my life. ‘Where are you from?’
America, I told him, the US, and that was where I was going now. Before he continued I asked him the same. He was from Vietnam, and had lived in France for some years now, driving the taxi in the middle of the night. He was used to the hours by now, and we discussed Vietnam – a country I’ve never seen. We talked about food and family, and he told me he had not been back for many years, but that he did long for it, despite being happy in France. His cheeriness was testimony to that.
‘But you’ he said, ‘You are from America!’ Now he was talking about a country he had never seen. ‘I love America!’ It was a response I often heard when I told people I was American, whether they actually loved it or not. But this taxi driver believed it. ‘You know why I love America?’ he continued, ‘Kris Kristofferson. Do you know Kris Kristofferson?’
He reached for his phone and scrolled, one hand on the wheel one on the device, to a play list and turned up the volume. He sang along and I smiled. ‘Wait!’ he said, as we crossed an overpass and began towards the airport grounds, do you know what is the best? The very best?’ I stopped shy of even attempting to guess where he might be heading next with his enthusiasm for American pop folk of decades past. ‘Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton is the best. You know the song she sings with Tom Jones?’ I sat. ‘Wait.’He scrolled again and rolled down his window so the night air started blowing through the taxi. We descended towards the terminal. He started singing along until we got to the door and I slid out of the back seat, another step of this long journey finished. I grinned at him and thanked him. I was genuinely pleased. I gave him all the Euros I had left – I wouldn’t need them.
It was the Green Green Grass of Home, and it had never sounded better.