25 February 2010

Unexpected Obstacles

I've been blindsided by something I should have seen coming for over a month.  The only way to properly tell this story is to backtrack to the beginning of January, when I had just returned from my Christmas vacation in the states... 

Cue the flashback music and fog...

Hélène and I were preparing for a night out with her friends, when someone sounded the doorbell.  Thinking it was our friend, Yannick, who we'd been expecting to pick us up, I buzzed him up.  I opened the door to face Stéfan, her boyfriend, suitcase in hand.  He was trembling a bit. "Elle est toute nue," was all I could come up with, pointing to the bathroom door.  In my surprise to see him, I had just told Stéfan that Hélène was barenaked in the bathroom.  He stepped inside, closed the door, and they spoke in excited, hushed voices. When they exited the bathroom, I went in to finish my makeup.  Lying on the counter was his wedding ring. Now I understood, the ring, the suitcase.  He'd finally left his wife.  Transfixed, I stared at it, that simple gold band became the saddest thing I'd ever seen.  I imagined a wife tucking in her two daughters, holding back tears as she explained that Papa wouldn't be living at home any longer.

It had taken me awhile to understand the... intricacies... of their relationship.  I had asked too many questions, like "Why do you only see each other Friday afternoons? Why doesn't Stéfan go on your holiday to Tunisia with you? You're not planning to spend Christmas with him? Would you like to have a double date when Jim comes to visit me?"  Fed up with my naïve questions, Hélène finally revealed the truth, she had met the love of her life too young, and when they finally found one another again, he was married with two kids.  I supposed I was always programmed to automatically detest the "other woman," yet here I was living with her. I was her friend. I felt for her.  My perspective changed.  How could someone who had had the heart to take me in, who had shown me such kindness, truly be... bad? Not to say I agreed with her choices, but I was a supportive ear to her throughout, and did not judge.

Just as she had taken me into her home without a second thought, she prepared space in her closet for Stéfan's belongings.  In the space of three months, her household had grown from two to four inhabitants.  When she told me he'd be moving in with us, I had a sinking feeling inside. She asked me if it would bother me, and I assured her that it was fine, but within, I knew that the entire dynamic in the apartment was about to change. And change it did.  Nicolas's behavior plummeted, and Stéfan made no attempt to mask his disdain for his presence.  Hélène became a stranger to me. She was constantly occupied with Stéfan, whether it was arguing, cuddling, or discussing their new lives together.  The three started taking meals together.  I felt like an outsider.  I withdrew to my room often, because I felt uncomfortable, as though I was intruding on their new "family."  

I developed severe resentment toward Stéfan.  Now I had to wake up even earlier to have a prayer of getting into the bathroom before him.  I'd avert my eyes quickly if our paths crossed when he walked around in boxers, afraid he'd think I was checking him out.  Arrogant ass, he probably thought so anyway. He constantly mocked my accent whenever I spoke, causing me to become nearly mute in his presence.  He strode around with an air of entitlement, helped himself to my shelf in the fridge, walking into my room uninvited to check out the view of the cathedral.  He also took it upon himself to lecture Nicolas about his 'unacceptable behavior.'

Hélène seemed more anxious than ever.  She clearly would have preferred to have been able to openly date Stéfan as a normal couple after having to keep their relationship clandestine for over two years.  To go from hardly seeing him to living with him in a snap was taking its toll on her.  On our trip to the covered market, for the first time since knowing her, I watched Hélène purchase a gigantic slab of beef.  A self proclaimed disaster in the kitchen, Hélène normally only prepared very simple meals, but now Stéfan was here, and he demanded MEAT.  He did not help with the preparation or the cleanup of the meals, nor did he compliment the chef.

I digress. I could go on for hours about the discomfort of the past two months, but it simply doesn't matter.  The fact is, I was hiding inside my own home.  I was an outsider. Still, could I complain about the great location, cheap rent, and unlimited exposure to French language? Plus, the fact that she asked if I was okay with Stéfan's moving in implied that I was safe... right?


Fast forward to last week.  One of my best friends and I were three days into a two week whirlwind tour of five European countries. It was a dream trip we had been planning for years.  We had just enjoyed a fantastic day in Bruges when a text message from Hélène popped up.  "Hello Jamie, sorry to have to tell you this now, but you'll have to find a new place to live.  I need to recover your room as soon as possible. The sooner the better. Thank you. Have a nice vacation despite all."

I was already on an expensive trip I couldn't afford with tons of unforeseen expenses. I burst into tears.  I would never find another place with such affordable rent, and with the bulk of the trip ahead of me, I wondered if I should cancel and go back.  What really struck me was the cold tone of the text message. Why notify me by text, and why tell me when I'm on vacation, powerless to do something about it?  Trembling, I called her immediately, despite the obscene charges on my cell phone. I began in French, but after a few shaky sentences, I had to switch to English.  Over and over again, I asked her what I did wrong and apologized for whatever it was.

She remained completely expressionless, and quietly replied that there were too many people in the apartment now, that she needed to focus on her new life, and that it was too much for her.  It was so unlike her to be so cold, so heartless, that I wonder if Stéfan might have been sitting beside her as she received my phone call.  She said that there was a chance that Stéfan's children would be staying in the apartment as well, and that the situation was too stressful.  

Needless to say, the prospect of not knowing where I would live and if I would have enough money cast a shadow over the rest of my trip with Genna.  Not only the physical problem of housing, but the emotional aspect of knowing that I would not be seeing my supposed best friend in France, her lovely parents, her friends, and most of all, her son, Nicolas, again. To just disappear out of their lives like this, made me feel so... divorced.   

Genna was clearly distressed by my reaction to this situation, which she had a right to be. After all, she had spent a great deal on this extravagant trip as well, and my tearful anxiety attack definitely put a damper on it for her, and probably sparked one of her own. But at the end of the trip, she knew where she'd be living, she had a reliable income, she would go back to the states where she had loved ones around her.  What would I be returning to?  I tried to keep the pain and panic inside, for fear of upsetting her more.  But she definitely noticed when I became quiet and withdrawn for extended periods of time, or when I snapped.  Overall, I resolved to make the trip as enjoyable as possible, and succeeded most of the time, but I cried into my pillow every night, yearning to be able to talk about it with someone.  Limited contact with Jim and my family made me feel that much more alone.  

Just a few days earlier, I had wanted desperately to renew my contract for another year, but suddenly I've lost the will to stay in France altogether.  I know the actions of one person don't represent the will of an entire country, but I feel as though France herself has rejected me.  

So much for my "Miracle in the Cathedral." I guess the circumstances of our meeting weren't miraculous at all.  Visions flash through my mind of our weekend with her parents in the countryside, our long walks, our movie nights, the Christmas markets in Germany, our intimate conversations over Belgian beer, our shopping trips... it's over, our little international family.  I'm confounded. I don't get it. 

I'm feeling more alone than ever.


  1. I'm really sorry, Jamie. The only thing I can think to say is, well, those amazing times you spent together were not false. They still existed, they still were wonderful, and you can continue to hold those close to your heart. I get what you mean about a conversation, an event, a situation changing your entire perspective of a country; exactly that happened to me last night as well (though mine is quite a bit more petty, revolving around the never-ending drama of former roommates in Rouen). I'm trying to take deep breathes through it and know that it will work itself out. Things usually happen for a reason, I guess, even though the reason maybe isn't apparent. You might end up in an even better situation, or... who knows what else? I'm so sorry that you're dealing with this, though, and I do hope things take a turn for the better, and fast. I'm sending positive energy your way. xoxo.

  2. Stay strong sweets, things will get better!! You're made of strong stuff. Remember your ancestors, and how they went to a strange and often hostile land to seek a better life. With no hope of ever returning "home" Their dream and passion life on in you. You will endure and you will thrive and you will excel and you will have your story to tell.

    Love, Dad
    p.s. I gotta ask, does Stefan use antlers in all of his decorating? :)

  3. Wow this was such a powerful blog post and I'm so so sorry to hear about such unfortunate circumstances but like the saying goes "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and I'm sure you can persevere through this. France is such a great place filled with wonder and a vibrancy that reverberates through the soul, don't let the actions of other people taint it for you. I hope you do consider renewing, I'm sure the second time around will be better especially now that you a learning so much from experiences such as these..... anyway i'm sorry to put in my two cents, i am but a stranger but i really was moved by your post. Bonne Chance and keep your head up.

  4. Just hang in there, baby. I know that you are going to make because you have a strong will. I know things seem dreary now, but after you've settled down in your new place, things can only get better. I love you.

  5. I'm so sorry to hear what a nightmare it's become. That's seriously something I'm not sure I could deal with. I'm with everyone else on this, hang in there. It's gotta get better. Just remember why you're there! It's France!

    I know this might seem weird from your sister's best friend, but I love reading your blog. It's been a huge inspiration for me to get off my butt and start working on my own international dreams. I know it's hard but I have to believe it's worth it, like your other entries have shown me. So hang on, hang tough and this too shall pass.

  6. Oh wow Jamie, I'm so sorry to hear about this. This is a terribly awkward and uncomfortable situation, one that you had absolutely no control over. That's the part that would rattle me the most - not having any say in this. I'm impressed at how mature and strong you were, even on the outside. Weaker people would have flown into a rage or said terribly nasty things. Good thing you're resourceful. I wish you the best in your last few weeks. Eat lots of Nutella :)


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