Missing Whitman in France

by Emma Wood 

Hello—I miss you. I miss you when I read the student listserves: Core books for sale; sex talk with Sharon Osborn. I miss you when I tell people I’m from Walla Walla and they make me repeat it three times fast.

I write to you from the coast of France, a small town called Brest. Eighty American students fill the top floor at the “Hotel Centre”; and each day, after croissants and coffee and cheese (How can they do it? No Atkins in France!), the bus wafts us away to some crumbling cathedral or an island with all-day bicycle rentals, beaches and tiny stone cottages with bright blue windows and doors. It’s exactly like my middle school orchestra trips, but instead of malls, we’re stopping at castles; and the bus driver speaks only French. Yes, everything is in French now—shampoo bottles, tennis games, billboards. On the plane into Amsterdam, they weren’t so trusting: all the announcements ran in Dutch and English, and flight attendants backed down the aisles chanting “Coffee, sir? Coffee, ma’am? … Coffee?” in the manner of smartly-dressed parrots. Five days later, I was the parrot, conjuring long-forgotten phrases like “Ou est la toilette?” searching for the phantom restrooms in the rush of the Brussels train station. It’s not easy for the clueless Americans. “Ou est la damn toilette!?” Once one reaches the damn toilette, one needs also .30 Euro for the privilege of using it. We wait as if at a movie theatre, toilets the long-awaited attraction, and I have my first taste of small-talk in French. “Long line, eh?” took on sudden importance.

I’m reading a book called “Wind, Sand and Stars,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and I want you all to read it. This man understands what it is to travel—to begin to know a land and its people. He worked as a mail pilot in the early days of commercial flying, each day skirting the Alps and crossing fields in Spain to deliver the post. He writes of the evening before his first flight, and how he grilled his friend, a more seasoned pilot, for precise topological descriptions. “Don’t worry about the maps,” his friend says, and bit by bit describes the land using scattered landmarks: fields of sheep (“careful, you’ll have them in your wheels!”), a Spanish couple who wait up and watch for pilots in trouble.

It’s like this that I’m getting to know the country. It’s not thorough or orderly, just a handful people and places; a great unknown peppered with the familiar—beacons, as Saint-Exupery calls them. Little by little and place by place, more and more lights start to glow.

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