In a couple of spots near my apartment in Lille, there are stone alcoves carved into the upper facades of brick buildings. They are old, and reveal the age of the buildings they inhabit, which have otherwise been renovated and reinforced, propped up by generations of determined tradesfolk. The alcoves likely once contained statues of saints or the Virgin, but now they are untenanted. Either the statues got damaged or else fell victim to the general (though by no means ubiquitous) secularization of post-Revolutionary France. No one has replaced them, either with saints or secular heroes, but they have taken pains to preserve the spaces they once occupied. Empty alcoves, like baroque frames containing paintings of nothing.
I’ve been living in Lille a month now, and as I predicted, I’ve learned much more about myself than about France. There’s something about an unfamiliar environment that prompts introspection in me – although who am I kidding, everything prompts introspection in me. It’s early days here, still, and yet first impressions count for a lot. My first impressions of me in France are a lot like an upper-story alcove lacking a resident saint.
I am generally averse to binary systems of human classification – rich or poor, male or female, winner or loser, Star Wars or Star Trek fan – along with the internet’s current favourite, introvert or extrovert. I resist the labels; I want to be more complicated than that. If I were a pure introvert, how could I get up in front of a class, or enter from stage right wearing star-spangled pantaloons? But then, if I’m an extrovert, why do I prefer staying home to going out and schmoozing? Why do other people’s public speaking efforts make me cringe? I must be in the centre of a spectrum – a semivert.
Or else it’s circumstantial. In a comfortable environment, with some sort of script or a set of expectations, I can be outgoing and confident. When I love the script, I withdraw. Or when I lose the power to deliver the script in my own language – because for this writer, it all comes down to words. Lille has reinforced my introvert tendencies, and I blame the language barrier.
I can get by in French. Hell, S. can get by in French, with half the vocabulary I possess. In situations where the script is reasonably predictable – restaurants, doctors’ offices, markets – I feel confident, if not exactly empowered. But even then, I know that my trademark Sharplin wit will not be in evidence. French humour is subtle and extremely language-dependent; my sense of humour, largely based on puns and deliberate misunderstandings, doesn’t translate. I just come across as a bumbling Anglophone, a role I can play just fine without attempts at humour.
Without my linguistic panache, I am an introvert through and through. I enjoy exploring Lille, as much as my health has allowed, but they tend to be solo jaunts, scouting missions, and the discoveries all happen in my head. I would never stop and ask someone about those empty alcoves, even though I burn with curiosity. Easier by far to invent my own explanation (“1851 was the year all the statues came to life…”).
But introversion will keep me from engaging with French culture, and right now that feels like a failure. Why spend a year here, if I’m not going to live like a Frenchman? But just like language acquisition, I know that enculturation doesn’t work without immersion. New immigrants who cluster together, isolated from their new nation, are understandably seeking comfort and familiarity, but they’re also making their transition harder on themselves in the long run. Right?
Maybe that’s a false analogy, since I have no intention of staying in France, and I don’t want to become French, even for a year. Yet I want to become something new, if only because it’s becoming increasingly apparent that I shan’t be able to return to exactly the same circumstances in Cape Breton. I conceived this as a spiritual retreat, but so far, my meditative focus has not been a Buddha or a Christ; it’s just that darned empty alcove, an image of what I’m not but can’t yet envision in order to become.
For me, transformation is always tied up with writing. I came here with a short, varied list of potential writing projects, but none of them were really charging me up, urgently demanding to get written. I had a pipe dream about finding inspiration in Paris, but then I got sick. And friends, as hard as it may be to kick myself out the door and engage with Lille, it was way harder to sit propped up in a bed for two weeks while Lille was passing me by. None the less, my convalescence gave me lots of time to daydream about writing.
It has long been on my bucket list to write a novel in France. I tried, back in 1993 when I was studying French in Reims. I’d like to try now (well – do or do not, Scott), yet I’m holding back because of that introversion thing. I mean, how much more introverted can you get? Novel-writing is an intensely private process. Plus I won’t be writing it in French, and I may not even write about France. I’d be erecting a totally incongruous statuette in someone else’s alcove. Is that a worthwhile labour, for the sake of the bucket list? Or am I on the fast-track to wasting France?
I love it here. I’m glad we came, even though it’s been hard on X, and expensive, and I miss my friends and Timbits and making waitresses smile with my wit. I hope France coaxes me out of my shell, yet I also hope I can hunker down in Lille’s finer cafés and write up a storm. I want it all – the statue and the absence to be filled – and that’s really how I’ve always been.