By Alessandro Romero
It didn’t hit me when I got out of bed this morning to toss a couple of ground coffee mini- mountains into my French press, or when I looked out the window to see yet another cloud-filled 10 a.m., or when 10 a.m. turned to noon, which sooner became afternoon and inevitably, dusk. It’s natural, I think, to lose sight of which day is which when every day is, put glibly, a prolongation of every-day. Consecutive days have more or less followed the same humdrum routines, and amidst makeshift time-killers, yoga tutorials, Duolingo reminders, series binging, and downright existentialism, I find myself prancing along a thin, rope-tight line of unequivocal uncertainty and unfastened hope. It didn’t hit me until I searched through the TV guide and saw that it was April 30, 2019––the date my teaching contract with the Teaching Assistance Program in France (colloquially TAPIF) was originally set to end.
After I finished college, I moved to France for TAPIF, a program jointly administered by the French Ministry of Education and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy that recruits young Americans to work as language assistants by providing linguistic support to elementary and secondary schools throughout France. However, following President Emmanuel Macron’s closure of the French school system in mid-March, swarms of TAPIF participants spread all throughout France would abruptly return to their homes in the U.S. I personally caught a last- minute flight from Charles de Gaulle to JFK, boarding on a near-empty plane fueled equally by kerosene and anxiety. The whole thing still seems fresh, like I’ve just awoken from some sped- up, opaque and cold-sweat nightmare, but as I take note of the bottom right corner of my TV screen that reads April 30, 2019, I realize that everything that occurred was very much real, and that the reality that creeps just above these hazy, grim skies cannot be seen––only glimpsed at via rumination and nostalgia.
I’ll admit that when I first decided to apply to TAPIF as a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, it greatly had to do with my direction. First being that I lacked it, and second being that I pined to be en route to some uncharted hedonist adventure. My French was still decent after studying abroad and living with a host family in Paris, and I was graduating with a degree from one of the most notoriously priced colleges in the nation (and an intimidating heap of student loans that I didn’t have the courage to touch just yet.) To say it bluntly, I wanted to stall, to postpone adulting and the prospect of graduate school for a bit. I envisioned a year where I would indulge in Rhône wine, steak au poivre, and Comté cheese and backpack through Europe with my very own Pierre. But really, there was no epic blow-out getaway with Pierre (or a Pierre at all for the matter.) I was broke, my stipend mostly went to rent, transportation, and groceries, and I could only afford wine, cheese and meat occasionally. Most nights were pasta, canned vegetables, and 1-euro baguettes, and the odds of getting laid were as reliable as the next bus: never.
Right now, I’m quarantined with my family in New York in response to the turbo-spread of the novel coronavirus (I hail from a Filipino immigrant family made up of healthcare and frontline workers based in Queens, the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic.) But a month ago, I was Professeur Alex to some several public school classrooms throughout Saint-Brieuc, a tiny seaside commune in northwestern France’s Brittany region. It’s a modest and quaint Beauty and the Beast-like town that doesn’t have a spotlight like Paris, and doesn’t ask for one either. At first, I couldn’t even fathom how life bound together in Saint-Brieuc: everything (except for pubs – vive la Bretagne) closed before dinner time, nature outnumbered people and boats outnumbered cars. I could swear that even the seagulls were hollering at me, mocking me, as if to say that I was conspicuous, that even they could nimbly spot the perplexed outsider treading on their territory. “What does anyone even do around here,” I exclaimed, “and how do people get places?” I was a 21-year-old jaded New Yorker whose sole experience behind the wheel was Mario Kart. I was longing for my friends, my family and their cooking, bodegas, the subway, Uber, Seamless, and civilization past 6 in the evening. It dawned on me that the heft of my spirit and my go-getter demeanor was mainly bolstered by my trivial and quotidian quests as a New Yorker, coupled with my privilege as an American. I wasn’t in New York anymore, but it didn’t take me long to figure out where exactly I had ended up: in my place.
My staff and students had never met an American until they met me; my features were rare in these parts, as were my native tongue and Netflix-esque accent (my students would often tell me I sound “just like their TV.”) I recall clearly my first day on the job when I met my términale students, or French students in their final year of high school. This section was particularly large: there were about 30-35 pupils in the room, all observing me like some new, wild animal they hadn’t seen before at the zoo. I suspected that I would be different in just about every way, everyday. For another thing, boys at school wore full beards, while I was hardly capable of growing peach fuzz. “How could I be stern with a bearded student who literally towers me!?” I thought. The class’ English was still emerging, as was my French, but they were 17 and 18 years old, while I 21. So if all verbal communication were to plummet, I figured at the very least, I was still somewhat fluent in teenager. I introduced myself in English, and as each audibly American- accented word left my mouth, the larger their smiles grew.
“Let ask you guys something,” I said, in attempt to obtain a better grasp of their level at the time, “what can you already say in English?” In unison, indistinct French chatter and snickering arose, until a girl in the back left side of the classroom shouted, “Hello! I love you!” her hand continuing to flail about with exhilaration, “do you have a girlfriend?”
“Well, umm, no! I don’t!” “Where you come from?”
“I’m from New York.” I could never tire of saying this.
“Ah! You are rich then! Take me with you! I am small, I fit in the bag!” The class, including the main teacher whom I worked under, erupted in laughter. I was chuffed and quickly transported to a familiar place. This was the sort of thing my relatives from the Philippines would tell me, even though the truth was that I worked as a barista and camp counselor during my college days, that I (like many unmarried 20-somethings of Filipino heritage) still lived with my family crammed at home like a dollhouse, and that I––in case my subconscious mind allowed me to forget––was in astronomical debt.
After class was finished, the main teacher informed me that the aforementioned girl was very much one of the “weaker” links of the class. “She never participates or does her work no matter how much I try,” she continued, “she just takes her seat, files her nails and gossips about boys all period long. I was starting to wonder if she knew any English at all.” Before the girl left the classroom, she handed me a disheveled piece of notepad paper with her full name, phone number, and Snapchat handle on it, written in purple gel pen. Add me! This student, whom I’ll call Julie, would make remarkable progress with her English––so much that she even began to triumph through rounds of Hedbanz and Hangman amongst other students.
As part of the job, I would lead conversation groups, hold tutoring sessions, and give presentations about my life in the United States. Up until the final weeks of school, success was not limited to Julie’s: I saw noticeable efforts and improvements in almost everyone. The weather in Saint-Brieuc was indelibly iffy: rain lasted either five minutes or five days; outside was frigid enough to make your teeth chatter, but humid enough to never bring forth snow. The sun would shimmy out of the clouds, as if to remind us that it was still there, only to rebury itself a few moments after. I somehow managed to only leave my home without an umbrella on the days it poured. There was one instance in which I was totally drenched, the same way my dog gets after her baths, and I asked the class, “You guys, what even is this weather?!” to which a student raised her hand and cheered, “It’s Brittany, bitch!” Later that week, another student recited an anecdotal Brittany phrase to me that would later become the through-line of my time spent there: “En Bretagne, il fait beau, plusieurs fois par jour.” (In Brittany, it’s beautiful outside, several times a day.)
Saint-Brieuc harbored an intense sense of community that I hadn’t known before, and I probably never will know again. The town even knew when it was my birthday. Students gifted me with a box of Madeleines with Breton butter and sung happy birthday, in English. And right when I thought the festivities were over, even my favorite bartender greeted me when I came in for happy hour. “Tiens,” he commanded before I left, as he reached over the counter to give me a handful of lollipops and a bottle of Heineken. “Steak is expensive, baguettes are cheap, but this is on me. Joyeux anniversaire.” On a phone call with my mother later that evening, she asked me how I’d celebrated, and if anyone remembered to wish me a happy birthday. “Are you kidding?” I continued, “I’m famous,” I said, with a Madeleine in one hand and a toffee lollipop in the other. Maybe Julie was right after all – I’m rich.
For each time I was harassed or hustled, for each time I would have to work with students whose homework sheets were close-to-blank; for each time I felt so far from home because I missed a family gathering or a housewarming party whenever a classmate from college moved to New York; for each time I didn’t have access to watch Timothée Chalamet’s hair glisten or Parasite win an award live at the Oscars earlier this year came a basketful of times I felt like my heart could explode with love, the same way my belly could with baguettes. As my plane began to prepare for landing, and the aerial view of New York City that I knew so well neared closer and closer, enlarging, I cried. As relieved as I was to be closer to my loved ones during such a challenging time, I also let a few tears out for Saint-Brieuc. For now, I’m unemployed and indebted to a humanities degree in the midst of an economic downturn and global crisis. What these next few months will entail, I don’t know, but when I asked myself if I had any regrets, I could not find a single one. Would I do this all over again? In a heartbeat. I don’t think I’ll ever truly feel satisfied, like I completed the job, but I do know that I gave it my all. A man I met on the subway once told me, “You’re going to spend the next several years waiting tables.”
I can’t wait.