French for Beginners
1. WINNER - GAGNANT
I would like to say i never win anything, but the truth is that for someone so unfortunate, I am very lucky.
or maybe it’s because i’m unfortunate that people take pity on me and offer me these opportunities.
(Oh god, I’m questioning a lot of things right now and should push on.)
a twenty-four year old, who had never been anywhere but had watched a lot of television, I had ideas of what this trip would be, i would be put up in a hotel, travel paris and the south of france, i would look sophisticated, i would take stunning photos and maybe fall in love.
at twenty-four, I am self-aware enough to know that I’m an idiot.
At the airport, waiting FOR THE Trip Facilitator from the consulate, A MAN approaches and ASKS IF HE CAN DRIVE ME SOMEWHERE, I SAY NO, THANK YOU.
weeks LATER MY MOTHER asks ME to WATCH A MOVIE HER NURSE GAVE HER.
After a few minutes i get the sense this is a passive aggressive movie night.
LIFE IS NOT LIKE TAKEN, I WASN’T GOING TO BE SOLD INTO WHITE SLAVERY
YOU DON’T KNOW THAT
I DON’T THINK I’D BE WORTH VERY MUCH.
She doesn’t argue.
Rita, the facilitator, arrives two hours late to pick me up from the airport.
After a tense metro ride during which she makes it clear she’s annoyed by my existence, we’re at the hostel and I’m introduced to the other award winners from around the world.
there are five other canadians.
Irina from russia asks if we know each other. we don’t. canada is a big place.
one of the canadians asks me if i know his friend jordan.
canada is a small place.
during this brief, awkward gathering, the canadians inform me that we’re the only photographers, that the others won for other reasons, but only photographers will get credentials for the photojournalism festival, everyone else will just attend the exhibitions and screenings.
I tell them I’m not that kind of photographer.
well then you’re shit outta luck.
I think maybe my kind of luck is of the monkey’s paw variety. there’s always a catch.
We leave from the hostel, taking the metro to a famous park for a picnic.
the sun is too bright and hot and I feel like I’m dying. I need to get to a bed.
After convincing everyone i could take care of myself, I make my way on the metro to the hostel after only having been there once, for five minutes. I have an eidetic memory that is useful in this one specific circumstance
and pretty much never again,
I crawl up the stairs of the hostel and land on my knees in the first stall of the common washroom
I vomit sour airplane orange juice and oxycodone into the toilet
I haven’t had to take that many since i tore a muscle in my back. I should have remembered the result—my memory is selectively vivid.
It’s four in the afternoon, I shower and try to pull myself together but my teeth are chattering.
I crawl up to the top of the bunk bed and, with my face a disconcerting distance from the ceiling, I pass out.
The next morning we are given THE assignment for the duration of the trip TO create a work that reflects our time in France, to be shown to a cultural committee in perpignan.
for our last day in paris We set out sightseeing.
as we wait on a metro platform for the train to come, a drunk man approaches us, angry, he grabs one of the canadians by the neck and swings him around.
I step in front of ivana, a serbian translator who is much smaller than I am, and i sandwich her against the wall, I instinctively protect tiny people, which is extremely condescending of me.
rita steps between the canadian and the drunk and diffuses the situation in french. The train pulls up and he enters another car. this incident is never spoken of again.
as is my method, I am shooting everything and anything hoping something will come together in the end.
I am heavy with books from the Pompidou. my camera wrapped in a sweater, placed in a nylon shopping bag.
WE’re told we have four hours of FREE TIME TO WANDER THE CITY ALONE OR IN GROUPS.
I CHOOSE ALONE. OR ALONE chooses me. Even now it’s difficult to tell the difference.
3. YOUR PANT’S WHAT?
We split up in the financial district and i stay there in search of earphones to replace the ones i crushed while my head was in sweaty congress with a toilet. I also need a towel, because hostels don’t have towels.
judging by the welts on my arms, what they do have are bed bugs.
i see a clothing store whose sign reads My pant’s.
This is the last photo i take before a sudden turn in my project.
MY PANT’s Haunts me.
LET LOOSE IN PARIS On a sunday, at four pm. i feel like i’m blending in with my ruffled blouse and pencil skirt.
that morning when i came down to the common room, rita remarked that i looked like a flight attendant.
i’m going to take that as a compliment
i shouldn’t have.
4. STAND ON GUARD
i am walking back to my abandoned sandals along the empty metro station platform when a train pulls up and a group of four teenagers see me barefoot, crying and approach me.
They are from Belgium. sophie is the only one who introduces herself, but they all accompany me to the nearest police station. MY NYLON SHOPPING BAG RESTS AGAINST MY SHIN, CAMERA SAFELY CONTAINED. I ALWAYS FOUND THE GEAR PACKS MOST PHOTOGRAPHERS TRAVEL WITH TO BE A GLARING steal-me temptation and here i feel vindicated.
As we ride the subway, i stand quietly in shock, and sophie tries to keep me talking
where are you from?
oh! I have a cousin in canada, maybe you know her?!
in that moment, I really want to know sophie’s cousin. I want there to be some astronomically unlikely event that would make all of this fated and in no way my own responsibility.
I don’t know sophie’s cousin.
THIS IS ALL MY FAULT.
in preparing for my exciting first trip anywhere ever, i make two purchases i think will make me look as if i am a sophisticated traveller: a pair of flat coach sandals that are a little loose but were 70% off at winners, and a fancy leather bag that will fit my second camera and all of the things i insist on carrying with me every day but have nowhere else to put because i never wear pants and so don’t have access to a pant’s pockets.
the purse has a large flap, easy to lift for instant access to my camera.
or, if i’m being slammed repeatedly into a wall, my wallet.
6. WHAT ARE THINGS, AFTER ALL, OTHER THAN STUFF YOU MIGHT NEED
The policewoman asks me to describe him, prompting me further with what translates to
How dark was he?
He was white
i see. why, if I may ask, did you have so much money on you? what were you planning to buy?
you must have many friends.
in addition to the casual racism of the on a scale of brown to black skin tone swatching, this is weirdly intrusive and i don’t answer. I do have a lot of friends.
I have an amazing personality.
he hit you, are you badly hurt?
I say no in this moment, buT beyond the bruises on my back I will later discover in the shower, i don’t yet know
that having chased barefoot after the THIEF, I will slowly develop an infection from a small cut that
moves deep into the tissues of my foot and just as i leave france, will hit my bloodstream.
spending the flight passed out on strangers, shivering and burning, when i land in toronto i will immediately
go to the hospital.
in the days leading up to this, I will attempt to turn the robbery into a lesson about material attachment.
i try to get super zen about it all.
but i don’t think there was a lesson.
no one respects flight attendants anymore.
[AN INTERLUDE OF CANADIAN ON CANADIAN VIOLENCE]
HE SAYS, YOU keep saying I’m sorry
you should stop SAYING You’re SORRY
I am trying to be normal. you will notice how normal i am. look, i am eating, i am smiling. Normal.
are you crying into your cereal?
(I am crying into my cereal.)
It’s okay, breakfast makes me sad too.
i’m just more of a yogurt person.
Ivana looks at me very seriously.
Everything is going to be better when we get to the south, you’ll see.
SNAP, CRACKLE, POP.
7. MY GREAT FORTUNES ARE MY GREAT MISFORTUNES
obviously traumatized, when we reach the south of france and our accommodations in perpignan, A TRAILER PARK CALLED CALIFORNIA, i am given the only single room.
I accept the pity room only because during the last night in paris, i slept so badly that i fell off the top bunk, nearly taking out yael, the fashion blogger below me. Had I crushed her, she never would have taught me that filling in my Light, sparse eyebrows would transform my entire face.
I DON’T LIKE TO THINK WHERE I WOULD be now if it wasn’t for this advice.
i share the trailer with rita, who spends most nights passed out on the couch. I learn later that IT’S LIKELY the group of thirteen award recipients are living on questionable leftovers because Rita is pocketing the money meant for our care to purchase WINE AND heroiN.
Prior to this revelation, I just thought she was a deep sleeper.
in saying this to the group, they look at me like I am an especially naive child.
I like to think i know things, but the truth is i assume the best in everyone.
which is possibly why i thought screaming “please don’t, i’m canadian” to my attacker would accomplish something.
you can’t strand a tourist in a foreign country before cell phones, surely he would reconsider.
WHERE DID YOU GO
I DON'T KNOW, SOMETIMES I'M LIKE THIS, JUST A BIT ELSEWHERE
WELL, there is not much time left, i miss you when you go like this, BUBBLE
Ivana CALLS ME BUBBLE
she tells me she also has terrible luck travelling
I JOKE THAT we should both LIVE IN ONE
8. IT’S GONNA BE A GOOD NIGHT (IF WE SURVIVE)
EIGHT DAYS IN AND WE CAN’T ESCAPE I GOT A FEELING.
EVERYWHERE WE GO, THE RADIO IS PLAYING THe SONG.
We travel IN TWO SUSPICIOUSLY CULT-LIKE WHITE VANS THROUGH THE narrow winding roads of SOUTH OF FRANCE.
i warn myself that I SAW THIS ELLEN PAGE MOVIE AND IT DOES NOT END WELL.
WE DITCH OUR BACKUP FACILITATOR IN PARIS, AND GAINED A SECOND IN PERPIGNAN. HIS NAME IS MOHAMMED, HE DOESN’T DRINK OR DO DRUGS AND WHEN DETERMINING WHO IS RIDING IN WHICH VAN, some of us CALL DIBS ON HIM. wE SAY OUR GOODBYES TO THE RITA PASSENGERS AS IF IT WILL BE THE LAST WE SEE OF THEM. MOHAMMED TOLERATES LIGHT SHENANIGANS LIKE GROUP SINGALONGS, AND IS PROBABLY NOT Skimming OUR FOOD MONEY TO BLOW ON WINE AT THE BORDER TO SPAIN.
9. THIS IS MY BIOLOGICAL DEFENSE MECHANISM
We’re in the office space DOWNTOWN for the evening, WORKING ON OUR PROJECTS
i’m reading a book as joël, one of the canadians, tries to quietly photograph me, but i have a sixth sense for when a camera is pointed at me, and I will find any way to move out of frame or hide
frustrated with the book I have put up to block my entire face, he says
come on, it’s only fair, you’re in everyone’s face all the time
this is one of the first indications I’ve had that i’m annoying, but it’s not the last
i give in, but AS HE ANGLES Me IN THE LIGHT, i warn him that I do not photograph well, the lens WILL ALWAYS DISSOLVE ALL THE BONES OF MY FACE AND show my true form
after a few frames, he reviews his images, sighs
hE GIVES UP AND i RETURN TO MY BOOK.
10. DO YOU KNOW WHAT A LAMPREY IS?
I don’t live, i document. this is my role and i like the safety of it.
This night i submit to peer pressure of the canadian who speaks with authority and makes me feel small. so i find myself in the inky blackness of the ocean without horizon or sky, but lampreys and octopi, somewhere.
i see the other canadian staring at me as i stand in my bra and underwear, soaked by a wave, he is observing me with an expression that seems amused, and it makes me uncomfortable. Four years have left the many scars crossing my thighs and forearms a deep pink, and then there’s the rest of me, fleshy, nothing like them. I shoot in the dark, blindly following their voices with my camera, letting the flash suspend them in a fraction of time.
I have a theory about the dark and the way we tell the truth when we’re together in it.
Years later I can still find my body in this moment, and occupy it again, searching the dark for the sounds of laughter.
It only took me ten years to process the events of ten days in France.
Narrative work. Excerpt.