Photograph by Carsten Schertzer
Yesterday I visited the local lavarie, my Kobo fully-charged with a book waiting to be finished.
But I didn’t get a chance to read much.
Shortly after I arrived, a young woman shuffled in with several grocery bags overflowing with laundry, a rosy hijab masking her hair. She walked back and forth between the laundry machines and the pay terminal, clearly confused, before asking for my help. I somehow managed to respond in my broken French with directions. I muttered to myself in English, trying to figure out how to phrase what I wanted to say without sounding stupid.
I probably looked like I was constipated or something, but she just smiled and waited patiently.
Afterwards, we sat down next to each other.
She turned to me and introduced herself*, in almost-perfect English. After I told her my name, she asked me if I was from England (I’ve been asked that a few times – my accent is not American, she said).
I told her I was Canadian and was living in Paris for a month already, with another month to go, with my husband. She told me she was an English teacher at one of the local schools.
“How do you like France?” she asked curiously. “Is it better than Canada?” She seemed eager for me to say that, yes, France is better than Canada. (PS: I love France, but I would choose to live in Canada without hesitation over France: it’s home.)
I shared with her all that I love about France: the food, the weather, the people, the art and architecture, the culture.
Before I knew it, I also found myself admitting all that I’d struggled with since arriving.
You can’t really have deep conversations with people when you can only speak in the present tense, and know only a number of useful phrases and words. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. Other times you’re so frustrated, you get disheartened. Sometimes you feel like a child who is just learning to talk. You choke on your words a lot. And sometimes you’re lonely.
“I was born in France, and grew up here, but my family is from Algeria. I moved there when I was 9, but moved back to France after I got married. Even though all my family is there, I never felt at home. It was … lonely, as you say.” She talked about her difficulties in Algeria, and her reasons for moving back to France. She had a hard time making friends, and though she spoke Arabic, her first language was French. She talked about how she felt lonely there, too, with only her husband and her family.
“Even though we all spoke the same language, there was a deeper disconnect.” But since moving to France with her husband and children, they had found contentment. They had friends, a mosque, and felt that they “fit.” The way in which she spoke about France, and her feelings for it, made me miss Canada. But it also made me appreciate France a little more. France to her is what Canada is for me.
I told her about moving to Toronto from Newfoundland, and how David and I had made many friends and had career paths we both loved. I also told her a little bit about our church and how, though it took a long time to find, it had become an important part of our lives.
She looked at me oddly. I’m still not sure of her expression, but I thought she seemed surprised.
We started talking about our families, our relationships. She, like me, got engaged in her mid-to-late teens. Unlike me, though, her marriage was an arranged one. Her father told her it was arranged with her best interests at heart – not for money or family connections, but in pursuit of a good husband for her. Someone that would provide for her, and be kind to her.
She did not originally like the idea, but she and her future husband agreed to meet. He proposed to her at the end of their time together.
She did accept, but said that she did not know him well enough to marry him. Both her father and her future husband told her that she would choose the wedding day, if there should be one. If not, it was also up to her to break off the engagement, as he had already fallen in love with her. He would wait for her to decide, and respect whatever decision she made. After a four-year engagement (she really kept him waiting!), they got married. They now have two children.
Perhaps different than our North American ideals, but a lovely story all the same.
I told her about how I met David, and the progression of our relationship. She seemed completely taken aback that we married so shortly after being engaged (we got married after a year-long engagement), like it was somewhat scandalous. Isn’t it interesting how cultures have different perspectives on what’s acceptable? I thought her reaction was kind of fascinating, especially when I considered her four-year engagement to be kind of agonizing.
I talked a lot about David and our relationship (as anyone who knows me knows I like to do…), and she listened attentively, asking a question here and there. She seemed to love my story, just as much as I’d loved hearing about hers.
Suddenly the dryer started beeping. My laundry was finished!
We were quiet for a time as I folded my clothes.
Her husband called. She told me after she hung up that he’d tried reaching her five times, but we were so into our conversation she hadn’t heard her phone ring!
As I was preparing to leave, my laundry shoved rather clumsily into my bag, she smiled at me, almost tearfully. And for some reason, I felt the same way. Outside of my conversations with David, this was the first time I’d talked to someone about something deeper than the weather. And she listened and understood with a compassion I had not expected.
“I feel as though we were meant to meet.” She hesitated before saying, “It was good for me that we met. I will re-think my opinion of Christians.”
I was kind of shocked. I didn’t actually do anything but talk and listen (and I’ll talk until my face is blue, if you let me). But I realized that our conversation also got me thinking. Wearing a hijab is such an outward expression of faith that, without knowing or thinking, an observer may draw conclusions about that someone without ever having spoken to them. I certainly had not expected us to “click” so easily.
After a moment, she stepped forward and embraced me, giving me a soft but long kiss on my cheek.
“We may never meet again, but I wish you and your family a happy and fulfilling life” I said.
She nodded and stared after me as I left. An odd feeling struck me as I walked down the sidewalk, pulling my wheeled bag noisily behind me.
Despite being from two very different parts of the world, we weren’t very different people.
*For the purposes of privacy, I’ve not included her name.