It’s been a little over a week since landing in Marseille, and I've been hesitant to record much of anything for public consumption. I'd like to thank the Boston University MFA program administrators and faculty, Leslie Epstein, Ha Jin, Sigrid Nunez, as well as Robert Hildreth for making this fellowship possible.
But I must warn you to read on at your own risk.
In Marseille, I spend much of my time envious of a beautiful, mean-looking cat who lives in the bookstore down the street. She lounges there in silence every day next to volumes of Nabokov and Matisse-littered art books and translations of Sally Rooney. The cat doesn’t need to speak this language—one I have studied for years, yet still feel insecure uttering to any true Parisienne—and I desperately wish I were her. She is French down to her very essence, this cat. She lifts one judgmental eyebrow and I'm second-guessing my outfit. How divine it must feel.
She is not a thing that is undergoing change.
France is your best friend from high school who lost her virginity and didn’t tell you about it. France is the coolest girl you know, the day she smokes a cigarette and launches herself out of your social class entirely, leaving you sad and pathetic in the dust. France is the thinnest, daintiest pair of sunglasses, that shape that looks good on Bella Hadid and nobody else, and honestly, good for her.
I have romanticized the notion of visiting this country since I was ten years old, and there’s something prophetic in there about meeting your heroes, I’m sure. En route, I sat in the airport reading a blurb from Ling Ma on LitHub. Her writing process, she claims, contains a crucial element of wish fulfillment. “When you attempt to inhabit some fantasy it usually turns nightmarish.” God, I thought, now I’ve done it. We’d just stepped on the plane from London to Marseille. Classical music played over the loudspeakers, but the cabin smelled like gym socks. Designer socks, Z said. I shook my head and scrunched up my nose, anxiety sinking talons in my throat. I’d been cramping all day and I needed to sleep, and my clothes were starting to feel the kind of wrong that comes with a panic attack. Enthusiasm was hard to come by. In the ladies' room at Heathrow, a duty-free Khiel's employee saw my soured face and asked me if I was okay. I nodded yes, but I’m a great liar.
Mostly, I have cried and eaten soft cheese and rewritten the same thousand words on this book that’s coming out of me like days-long labor. I’ve cried in the bathtub, at the café, in bed, and on the phone. I’ve cried against the wall and on the floor, and at how much I want to stop crying. I cried on a ledge at Fort Saint-Jean, overlooking the sea, massive schools of fish below, because the ocean was not resonating in the way I thought it should have. I was numb to it all, even though it was beautiful. Even though I had nothing better to do, nowhere I would have rather been. I was numb. Back in our own arrondissement, I slept for twelve hours and then cried some more.
I don't tell you this because I want you to know it, or because I want advice on traveling. They can prepare for you what you'll see, but nothing on Pinterest can prepare you for the emotional weight of living abroad for the first time. Rather, I'm telling you this because anything else would be a falsehood. And I'm telling you this because the best thing a writer can do is work her way back into the self.
The work is slow business but it's never felt better, and this, of course, is the point. I thought I would need to painfully carve out time to write, time away from the romance of it all. Pencil it into my busy tourist's schedule of Seeing and Learning. Becoming. Buying Vintage Trench Coats. All of those things are happening, sure, but the work is what I return to. The work is what makes this trip as valuable as it is. Many people who know I'm on this trip think it's a vacation, and under a certain light, I suppose it is. I mainly drink espresso and eat chocolate croissants. I mainly worry about how to say 'bonjour' and 'can I have some pastis' in the proper accent. But the work is what makes every day better than the last, writing is what forces my mind back to the land of the living. And the work, as it should be, is thriving. How divine, I think to myself, resurfacing from dissociation. How divine to live with these words.