This week, I started crying in front of a stranger. Several strangers, actually. Not something I’m proud of, but there it is.
It was silly really: I misread the conditions of the train ticket I bought, I tried to use it to get home, and I was refused. They let me get on the train, but made me buy a second ticket on top of the first—at an exorbitant price, I may add. Annoying, but not a big deal, right?
To be fair, I had had a very long day. I’m living in France, and I was in Toulouse for a mandatory doctor’s appointment in order to keep my French working visa. I also had a terrible cold. To get to my 2 p.m. appointment, I had woken up at 5 a.m., walked a half hour to the bus station, taken the hour-long bus from my small town to a slightly less small town, waited in a cold train station for another hour, taken an hour-long train to the city, and then spent several hours waiting for 2 p.m. to roll around, trying my best to sightsee when all I wanted to do was sleep and be warm. It was not warm.
I’m pretty sure that if I had not have been fluish and sleep-deprived, I would have brushed it off and walked out of that train fresh-faced. But I have to admit to myself that there was more going on than my cold. After all, this wasn’t the first time I had cried on a train.
I’m learning something new about myself: I don’t break down often, but when I do it’s on public transit.
A month ago, I had forgotten to stamp my ticket before getting on the train, and this resulted in a very condescending/scornful/disapproving look from the control officer, who threatened me with a 20 euro fine for the missing stamp. He also scolded me for putting my feet on the seat in front of me. I didn’t have to pay, but when he left I sunk into my chair in shame and—yes—started tearing up.
I don’t cry too easily, and just so you know I’m not the kind of person who cries in front of police officers to get out of speeding tickets. So why do these relatively insignificant brushes with train control officers bother me so. dang. much?
A few days after my trip to Toulouse and back, I experienced what could only be called a therapy moment. I was both the therapist and the patient, and I had been having this conversation sporadically, in my head, over the course of a few days. It started when I was sitting in the cold train station and listening to a podcast called Fun Therapy (go figure), in which host Mike Foster holds a therapy session with a different artist/writer/public figure each episode. This particular talk (season 1, episode 8) was with a woman named Annie F. Downs, a best-selling author and public speaker.
Downs came to a point in this session where she realized, for the first time, that she had decided to become the very thing she had always been insecure about. She had always felt like people thought she was too much, too big, too loud. Today, she has a job that requires her to be “a lot.” “Give me the microphone,” she says, “put me as the only person on the stage and I will fill it…I’ll be exactly who you think I am.”
This stuck with me, though I wasn’t sure why until my inner therapist brought it out of me, two days later. She made me stop skirting around the question that had been hazily coming together in my mind, made me look it square in the face.
What if that’s what I’m doing here?
Before moving to France, I realized that I was less scared of moving abroad than I was of moving somewhere alone in the US. I tried to explain this to a few people, but didn’t really understand it myself. It’s starting to make more sense.
Here’s the thing: I’m afraid of not belonging.
I’ve stood in the middle of too many crowds of people—at parties, at gatherings, in the halls of high school—and felt absolutely invisible. And I’ve hated that feeling. Ironically, I very recently reflected—completely sincerely—that I love the feeling of wandering around in big, foreign cities alone because you get to feel completely anonymous. Invisible.
How can I reconcile this dichotomy? It seems strange that I would move to a place where I obviously don’t belong, but maybe that’s just it. In moving here, I’m the one who gets to decide that I’m an outsider, that I’m a stranger, that I don’t belong. Here, I can easily explain to myself and to others why I don’t fit neatly into this community: I’m literally from the other side of the world. If I were still in the US, I wouldn’t have that excuse.
So here’s my question now: Is this bad? Is it a bad thing to reclaim our pain and our insecurities, to own and embrace and transform them? I don’t think so, but I’m not letting myself off the hook so easily. I think that I can continue in my dream of being a solo traveller (seriously, is there anything more outside than that?) but I have to make sure that I’m not closing myself off to connection by clinging to a false narrative.
I’ve subconsciously tried to sidestep this fear of not belonging, but have I really done so? Maybe it takes a bad day, a sinus headache, and a rap on the knuckles to bring it out in me, but the fear is still there. I don’t know exactly what to do with it, but I’m acknowledging its presence now, and that’s the first step. Eventually you have to look these fears in the face, and you have to sit with the things, both true and false, that you believe about yourself. Sometimes it takes crying on a train to get you to that point, but I promise you it’s worth it.
Jenna Griffin loves foreign music, old cookbooks, public transportation, and sunsets in new places. After graduating with degrees in writing and French, she is spending her first post-grad year as an English teaching assistant in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France.