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  • Sophie Wilson

Driving on the right into the great unknown

Reflections on hazy summer memories, leaving the EU and learning a language in lockdown.


My mind keeps drifting back to a warm summer evening in 2019 when I was sat in an apartment in Nantes. I was surrounded by new friends speaking a language I only half-knew and Lana Del Rey's 'Doin' Time' was playing: summertime and the living's easy. It was one of those moments where you stop and think: "this is what living life is." Even though my mind was buzzing with the decision I had made to leave my au pair family that night, I could separate myself from that worry then. That night we tasted and ranked every French and Belgian beer (or at least every beer that my local friend could find around the city that day.) We laughed. We spoke French. We laughed at my French and their English. Then we went to the Irish pub where we knew all the bar staff and that had the most gorgeous view of the cathedral.


My journal from France.


It was the first time I had gone abroad on my own; a decision I made partly out of loneliness because I thought that feeling lonely in France would be much more poetic than feeling lonely at my parents' house. It turned out to be a decision I thought would change my life. The au pairing experience was pretty disastrous, as many au pairing experiences are, but at the end of each day after 10+ hours of looking after the kids, I would curl up on my sofa bed in their house and watch La Femme music videos. It was then that I decided to move to Paris.


I never thought it would be a music video that would prompt such a big life decision, but it was. I could see myself in Paris walking in the rain, buying flowers, wearing thrifted clothes that didn't quite fit. Moving there had always been in the back of my mind down to teenage obsessions with the Lost Generation, Coco Chanel and the poetry of Rimbaud. During my undergrad, every time I passed through St. Pancras on my way between Sheffield and Kent I would imagine just getting on the Eurostar instead and never coming back. At the time, being A Writer In Paris seemed like a noble pursuit in and of itself. It was only during that summer in Nantes, however, that it started to feel like a real possibility. I would return to the UK to finish my masters then if I didn't get a job at first I would move abroad for at least a year.


So, at the start of 2020, I had a goal: to move Paris. At the end, I looked on as the channel tunnel closed, COVID travel restrictions were reintroduced and the UK reached a horrendous Brexit deal. It's become a bit of a running joke that I had picked the worst possible year to decide to move to Europe.


Instead of spending the year learning French through conversations had while sipping wine and smoking Gauloises on a terrace somewhere in the Latin Quarter (hideously cliche, I know), I spent it learning French online. It's not been the worst time to learn a language. The hours I used to spend socialising or commuting are now spent grappling with the subjunctive or watching Eric Rohmer films.


Learning a new language as a writer is weird. Many of the writers I admire all slip between English and French or other languages with apparent ease. Learning another language and being a writer seem to go together. Perhaps that comes from a love for language and all its possibilities but my love for French feels very different from my love for English. Plus, whenever anyone talks about loving language I get flashbacks to the boredom I felt in my English Language AS class or to laboriously memorising grammatical structures. I'm not even sure I love language itself. It's limiting and confusing. I just like what language facilitates.


The more French I learn the more English I feel like I forget and after a day of writing in English, I sometimes find it hard to spend an hour talking in French. I spend so much time thinking about how to articulate something in a very specific way in English only to stumble through sentences in French with the only real goal being to make myself understood. It's a humbling experience.


I've always enjoyed languages but I don't think I'm particularly 'good' at them, whatever that means. I wouldn't say that conjugation or guttural 'r' sounds come naturally to me but then again to assume they do to anyone underestimates the hard work that polyglots put into learning languages. And it is hard work sometimes. I haven't really studied grammar for ages. I've reached the point where I mostly just watch films, read books and listen to music and hope that I will learn that way, which every non-native English speaker I know says is the best way to learn. I've been learning French in bursts since primary school. Considering this, I probably should be a lot more proficient now than I am (like I said, HUMBLING.)


But there have been moments of joy; in culture and in connection (albeit through a screen.) I've been following this language learning action plan since the start of lockdown. You can find the weekly plan in the video description. What I like about this plan is that most of the learning is done through culture. Last year I watched 70 French films (thanks Letterboxd for working out that stat for me.) Some of my favourites included Pauline à la Plage, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Water Lilies, Belle de Jour, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Orpheus, Army of Shadows and BPM. I also made this huge Spotify playlist of French music like La Femme, Christine and the Queens, Claire Laffut, Juniore and others. I've been really inconsistent with reading books in French but last year I reread L'Etranger and Illuminations and read a dual-language edition of Proust poems and I've nearly finished L'Âme du mal.


My French teacher, Anna, who I found on iTalki, has been invaluable in helping me learn a language without leaving the house. I finally got the courage to start online lessons a couple of months into lockdown. Like everyone else, I've reluctantly got used to Zoom calls now. I think if you can learn a language in conversations through a screen then it'll be easier once we can go out again and interpret gestures, context and body language in real life. Anna's Instagram is also really fun if you want to learn some French idioms and specific vocab.


Anna recently started a weekly speaking club. This week we talked about body positivity. Taking an active part in an interesting group conversation made me feel a tiny bit closer to being on a Parisian terrace rather than sitting at a desk in my teenage bedroom.


When this is all over I want to have more of those "this is what living life is" moments like I experienced that evening in Nantes, whether they happen in Paris or London or anywhere else in the world. It could be months or years until things really go back to normal depending on how optimistic you are and your definition of normal.


I have never feared growing older until now. If anything I've always looked forward to it. I think about the "thirty, flirty and thriving" refrain from 13 Going On 30 on a regular basis. A couple of years ago I couldn't wait for my twenties to be behind me, hoping that their messiness would give way to clarity. Now I want that messiness back. I only wanted to get older knowing that I had experienced my twenties in their entirety.


In that apartment in Nantes, everything seemed possible. I was broke, not fluent in the language and nothing about my trip was going to plan but still, everything seemed possible. Now, the world feels so much smaller. Everything seems impossible. In lockdown 3 I have stopped trying to live in the moment and started fantasising about all the things we can do once this is over; living in a new city, making friends with strangers, sharing bottles of beer. Back then, those things didn't feel spectacular. They just felt good.


The title of this post comes from Spector's Born in the EU, a song that speaks of a continent full of adventure and possibility released in 2016 the week of the referendum. It's full of pretentious lines that are a mouthful to say like "we sit and discuss the lack of romance in the smoke and mirrors of an electronic cigarette" but it maintains that romantic rhetoric that influenced so many remainers. I know I over-romanticise the EU, but then I over-romanticise nearly everything and one of the few times life has lived up to my chaotically romantic visions was that summer in France. After Nantes, I went to Paris and on the last night of a trip I had taken to evade loneliness I felt so lonely that I walked aimlessly around the city until I started to cry. When I realised I'd reached the Boulevard St Michel I was still crying. But it was beautiful and I was happy.


My plans for Paris are still on hold. I have no idea when they will stop being on hold. I don't think I will be rushing off as soon as I can anymore. I want to wait for things to settle with COVID and with Brexit and who knows when that will be? I am not the 21-year-old who went to Nantes anymore. The world is not the same either.


A couple of weeks ago, when sitting on a bench was still allowed, I sat with a friend and we started making lists of what we want to do when this is over. We started small then went onto bigger things. We talked about how life had been put on pause in March, but what if our lives had ended in March? What would we have regretted not doing? The next time I can go clubbing by the Loire or play darts in an Irish pub in mainland Europe I will be older, people will be more cautious and I might need a visa, but things like that will happen again. I want those moments of strange magic. I want the great unknown.

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