For the end-of-the-year party, I made a carrot cake because most of the French people I had talked to hadn’t heard of this quintessentially American dessert. Is it sweet or savory? my colleagues asked, tentatively. Sweet, I replied. You’ll like it, I reassured them. French cakes usually aren’t two layers, so when I brought a dessert that was big enough to feed the whole party twice, out came the cell phone cameras. Which, if you aren’t familiar with French cuisine and its perfect presentation, is quite the compliment. They tried it (It doesn’t taste too strongly of carrots!) and liked it, layering praise. Then, Alice pronounced: Sabrina, you are ready to be married, now! I laughed—this was the second declaration of its kind that week.
During my last month in France, when I finally figured out that my visa couldn’t be extended, and when my departure became imminent, my friends’ plans for extending my stay became more far-fetched by the day. Gone were job ideas and visa advice. What we need is a nice, young man, my pastor’s wife said, then you wouldn’t leave. I told her that she could totally go for it—she had a fortnight—but the quest turned up fruitless.
What I didn’t tell my colleagues or my pastor’s wife was that I had mastered the art of keeping French boys at bay. It had happened at a cheap club. I was out with the Spanish assistant and a few of her friends. The night was warm, the club warmer, and my eyes were swollen from allergies. Tu as des très beaux yeux,  a guy sidled up after the crowd had separated me from my friends. Obviously he hadn’t bothered to peer behind my glasses. Sorry? I replied. My English took him aback. He swore in French and then asked, You not understand? I shook my head and let him struggle to piece together a sentence. I want talk you ze ‘ole night, but…euh…English…euh…not very good, he excused himself and staggered away.
Later that night, a mec asked me whether he or his friend was more handsome. His English was good, and I was afraid he might be Anglophone. Do you speak a lot of English? he asked with a grin, up for the challenge. It depends on who I’m talking to, I said. He didn’t get it, and I realized that my safeguard remained intact. He talked—too closely—and I waited, poised for the attack. He criticized his friend, He don’t know a lot of English, and revealed the hole in his armor. He doesn’t, I corrected. What? He wasn’t sure if he had heard right. He doesn’t, I dug my grammar deeper, not, ‘he don’t.’ That sobered up my antagonist, and he left me in peace.
(Ok ok. It is not right; it is not good when knowledge is used as a weapon. But, I have learned my lesson, and I’m not too keen on talking to strangers who get too near.)
So my last weeks in France were mostly romantically uneventful, which was fine—no foreign fling but no heartbreak either. This makes leaving easier, my banker said. (My banker! Since when do bankers ask about their clients’ love lives?!) Still, the night before I left, my friend Jeanne began envisioning all the moments when Prince Charming could swoop in and help me haul my heavy luggage/find my seat for me on the train/sit next to me for eight glorious, high-altitude hours. Sabrina, do you realize that you could meet THE ONE tomorrow? she asked excitedly, making me promise to invite her to the wedding.
The next day I kept my eyes open for Prince Charming, but my day of departure was no fairy tale. I struggled alone with my luggage through three train stations. I stressed over my connecting trains and planes. I didn’t talk to my fellow passengers, and they didn’t talk to me. When I went to check in at the airport, my suitcase weighed a couple of kilos over the limit. Mais, qu’est-ce que je peux faire? I asked the baggage man. Nothing. It’s okay, he replied, ripping a receipt in two and lowering his voice so I had to lean across the counter. It took me, sleep-deprived, distressed, and generally pathetic, a moment to understand. Then, I blushed and spouted thank yous, hardly as discrete as the baggage man would have liked. As he handed me my boarding pass, I whispered that he was an angel, and he, the last French man I talked to, dismissed my accolade and waved me on to my gate.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.