Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Brief Moment of Heimweh

I just got home from my little kids class I teach at an association in La Ciotat, and I have a new perspective on life than I did just an hour ago.

I'd like to say it's the little kids that jump-started my brain, but it was actually a couple of winos outside the Lidl in the center of town. It started when I was talking to Christine, my "boss" at the association. We were talking in English about my mom coming to visit (she'll be here April 18) and this bum overheard us. I feel bad even calling him a bum, since I talked to him for over an hour...but was he a...gentleman? A homeless dude? A shelter-disabled individual? Linguistic nuance and political correctness is probably not particularly important to anyone but me.

Anyway, the reason we started talking is because he was German. He asked us, in German, if we were holidaymakers and I responded, "No, we aren't. We live here." He was drunk, I think, or in some sort of stupor that alcoholics get into when they're constantly drinking. His name was Stefan. He was difficult to understand because of that. He thought I was Swiss. I explained I wasn't, but he forgot halfway through our conversation. He had a rolling monologue of mantra, philosophy, confusion. He quoted the Bible. He sang Alpine folk songs. He asked me about myself.

I told him I had lived in Vienna...his friend was from Vienna! His friend--Fritz--came over and quizzed me on Vienna. (I think I passed.) He told me about his life. He was a legionnaire. He was honorably discharged, has a son and did have a girlfriend, but she kicked him out, and now he's homeless. Same with Stefan. They've been living on the streets for 17  and 19 years, respectively.

The rain came down in faint sprinkles and the longer we talked, the worse I felt for them. Other Lidl customers came to give them money or talk to them. Stefan's French is not so good, but Fritz has a good command of the language, albeit in a thick Viennese accent. Fritz told me about how the doctors want to operate on his leg, but he doesn't want any of it. He said it wouldn't do any good. Today, tomorrow, ten years from now, he was going to die anyway. He asked Stefan to pass the wine.

What amazed me most--and why I think I talked to them for so long--was that my German came back to me really fast. The words just rolled off my tongue. If they had been completely sober, I think my non-native German-ness would have been quite obvious. However, it didn't seem like they noticed at all.  It was a profound and bizarre feeling; and, even after living in France for six months, speaking French still feels sometimes like setting my mouth up in a wrestling match against marbles.

Stefan told me I have eyes like Cleopatra. He made a dirty joke. I figured that was my cue to leave, but then he said something profound. "Always think positively," he started. "God is in everything, after all." My horoscope said something today about meeting new people who would greatly impact the way I think. Chalk one up to astrology? Or coincidence.

Then Fritz said living in France, it wasn't like Vienna. The people were stranger, antiquated, bureaucratic and unfriendly. They didn't see the humanity in others--what was all this about the French being so Cartesian, so adept at philosophy and deciphering human nature? Perhaps all that logic made them unfeeling. The mayor of La Ciotat would rather get them off the street to bring in more tourism than to see Fritz and Stefan working, in a home, in rehab. There's no humanity, just dollar signs down here. "And it's useless," he continued, "because La Ciotat is never going to be able to compete with Saint Tropez. He's defeated before he's started, and we're the ones who suffer."

Fritz continued, "Ich habe Heimweh. Du auch?" (I'm homesick, aren't you?) I nodded. It's strange to think, in my own foreign-ness, last year in Austria, I would have described Vienna the same way Fritz described La Ciotat. It's amazing what a change of perspective can do.

Suddenly, there was a row on the street, because someone was double parked, and seeing as this is France, the owner of the double-parked car threw a hissy fit along with his wife, who threw a bigger hissy fit, since being double parked was his fault. Obviously.

I said my goodbyes to Stefan and Fritz, who both replied: "Man trifft sich immer zweimal im Leben."

You always meet twice in life. There's always an opportunity for a second chance.

1 comment:

  1. Vanessa, you are a wonderful writer with a gift for dialogue. I wish I could have your brevity and (get ready for cliché) wit. I hope you're doing well between here and Paris.