Below is an unedited email sent home from Talange, France, dated October 22, 2007. The story is regarding an incident which took place on October 21. This reprint is dedicated to the story’s four-year anniversary.
Winter has come to this area of France exactly three days after I realized that it was fall. On Tuesday, I accompanied a class on a field trip to eastern France (the region of Alsace), and it was then that I was surprised to see that the leaves were changing colors in the mountains. I was going to write to you and say that Talange is so industrial that I can’t even see the seasons, but today after several hours spent shivering in the cold in eastern France, I have a larger story to tell.
Sometime earlier this week, I became strong on the idea of hunting for what is really France. I realized I have been on a quest to capture what France is so that I can see it and taste it and consume it all, but when I scrolled through my photographs, I was not convinced that I was doing anything justice. My photos are basically focused on what everyone would expect to see from France: the stained glass of the cathedral in Metz, a florist’s face at a market, the arrival of a train at a station. I started wondering (since I do not have my German roommate yet, I spend most of my evenings wondering) if the whole perception of France that I am trying to give to others is off-base. Not all French cities are picturesque and cobblestoned with restaurant menus in fancy script. France can be surprisingly dirty; the high-rises are cheap and thin-walled and colorless; and the Talange skyline is one of smoke stacks and electric lines. Am I really no better than the tourists the come, take pictures, and leave only trash on the city squares?
I was in Strasbourg this weekend, the capital city of France’s easternmost region called Alsace, to visit an American friend named Hillary. Alsace is the easternmost sliver of France that has been heavily fought over between the Germans and the French, so Alsace carries with it the Germanic charm of wood-timbered houses, red blossoms in flowerboxes, and good beer. Hillary and I spent the afternoon exploring a nearby village called Colmar, eating tarte flambés and drinking coffee to keep warm. I was loving it until I saw tourists with cameras glued to their faces and then I couldn’t stop wondering if the buildings were timbered just to please the people who pay to see it. At that point, I started looking for an Alsace behind the Alsace that everybody sees—a France behind the France, as if there was a secret nation that lies behind the tourism and the money, only accessible to the foreigners if you really merit being part of it.
Sunday, I went into the city alone to explore before taking my train back to Talange. Strasbourg is beautiful—home to the European Parliament, the Heiniken brewery, and also the most gorgeous cathedral and city centre that I have found yet. Built out of rose-colored stone, it soars at a breathtaking height over a central square. I leaned against a lamppost on the square in the shadow of cathedral, holding a bag of hot roasted nuts and watching the crowd thicken and thin. An accordionist and bass violinist tightened their scarves against the cold and played traditional songs in the corner of the square. Cigarette smoke curled up and disappeared into the winter sky. I looked at the tourists and tried to divide them into the half of Europe that I was trying to know, the daily life Europe that hides within Europe, and to separate them from the Europe of the tourists with a painted exterior.
Suddenly, through the crowd, I spotted a woman, begging for money. She was definitely not French, wearing a scarf around her head, and she had no gloves despite the cold. She stood out sharply against the wealth of the tourists, the beauty of Strasbourg, and the magic of a chilly day. I wondered if she was experiencing Europe with a non-painted exterior—the type of life that does not make a good photograph or a good story. As if she knew I was thinking of her, she came over to my lamppost. I handed her a banana and a tin of tuna, which was my lunch. She did not leave immediately, so I asked her if she was okay. She was not beautiful, and her French was broken and halting, but she answered me, told me about her children. Her passport was Romanian. Her name was Romina. She smiled when she heard the accent of my name.
She asked me again for money, but I stood and gathered up my bags and told her that we were going to a supermarket. I had ten euros and I was willing to buy her some groceries. We left the square together, and she told me that her oldest daughter’s name was Andrea, like my younger sister. I told her too that I was a foreigner. I told her that I was homesick and scared sometimes but that I had work and enough to eat. In a moment of silence, I realized that the night before, I had slept on a line of chairs in Hillary’s apartment since my luggage had accidentally gotten locked in the train station, so maybe I understand poverty more than I let on. I noted to myself also that I still do my laundry in my bathtub to save money, and that I really need to get over the urge to horde every scrap of paper that I gain just so that I can say that I own something. Romina and I were halfway to the supermarket when I reached for my purse to explain something to her, and I realized that my purse was gone.
“Romina!” I cried. “Quick, back to the square!” We were several blocks away, so we hurried through the cold, Romina moaned and asking worried questions the entire way there. When we returned to the square and looked to where I had been sitting, of course the purse was gone. I glanced sidewise at her. Had she taken it? Certainly not. She knew that I was going to buy her food. I had trusted her, but I had held my purse to my side my entire time. I had listened to her story because I listen to other people’s stories. I noticed a felt a lump in my jacket and realized that it was my cell phone. “Look!” I cried to Romina. I started dialing the United States to cancel my credit cards, but then as soon as I turned around, Romina was gone.
Her sudden disappearance melted my confusion into anger. Of course it had been her, a part of me said. She wouldn’t have left you otherwise. How could you be so stupid? You are never supposed to talk like people like that. Another part of me echoed back: Don’t you dare say people like that. It couldn’t have been her. You had been cautious. Then something in me screamed, “Sylvia, think about your PURSE! You have NOTHING!”
And it was true. I had no idea where the police station was. I had no money to buy a train ticket back to Talange. I had a limited number of minutes on my cell phone and a limited number of battery power, and when both of those ran out, I had no way of buying more, but I needed to cancel my credit cards before I lost all power on my phone. I had given my food to Romina, so I had not had breakfast or lunch. My luggage—including my passport—was locked in the train station, but I did not have the proper paperwork to retrieve it. When I hung up the phone with my father, I had paced so quickly away from the square that I no longer had any idea where in the city I was. Alone in a foreign city with growing cold, the cell phone in the palm of my hand was the only thing that I had.
A taxi driver heard me out and gave me a tram ticket for free to get back to the train station. A young girl explained which tram to take and when. When my brother called me back with the numbers of who to call to report theft, I ran up to complete strangers on the sidewalk to use their pens to copy down the digits on scraps of paper. I managed to call Hillary and ask her to bring me twenty euros. I spoke with my French credit card company and blocked my credit card, just before the power died out on my phone. Hillary’s money got me a one-way ticket to Hagondange; I filed a report with the police which took a lot longer than it merited. While waiting in the office, shivering, blowing on my hands to keep them warm, the thought suddenly shot through my head: is this France, unpainted? The sheer randomness of it all, the interaction with so many various people, the telephone calls across the globe—all of that mingled in with the roasted nuts on the square. I felt raw, humiliated, almost violated. How could I have searched to understand something larger but in the end, had it only made me no less than a vulnerable foreigner, a tourist, a target?
“Madame?” said the officer behind the counter.
“Oui?” I said to him, and it hit me that we had been speaking French the entire time.
“Sign here, please,” said the officer, and I took the pen from him, punctuating my signature with a strong, angry, triumphant, sick flourish. I will not know if it was Romina, I don’t know exactly if I have concluded anything about a real France or stereotypes or poverty, I am still sick and angry and disappointed and hoping that whoever took my money really needs it. I am safely back in Talange, getting new keys made for the apartment and trying to be at peace for having lost my American driver’s license, but I realized that in the panic of the moment, it was French that had come from my mouth and not English to the Strasbourg police, the French bank, the taxi driver.
Ironically, after everything, I had forgotten how to be scared of French. It had been a flawless French day.