My English teaching assistant program has ended, but I’m not sure where I will be next month. Even though I let the grad school application deadlines slip by, it’s not like I’ve refused to think about next year. Since before Christmas, I’ve been trying to find a way to stay in France. First, I worked on job applications—to universities, to hotels, to restaurants. Now I’m wrestling with the expiration date of my work visa, which is proving to be much stronger than the numerous visits that a few teachers, my landlord, and I have paid to the Préfecture. So, after all these months of incertitude, I’m getting antsy. I look up plane tickets to Chicago. I imagine the arrival gate at O’Hare International Airport. I tell my friends that if I’m home for summer solstice, we’ll celebrate with a glass or two of wine. I also look around my studio apartment and wonder how on earth I’m going to pack.
Besides food, post cards, and school supplies, I haven’t bought much here. But, generous people have given me generous gifts, and my library has grown. Among novels, a book of essays, and an anthology of French poetry, it now includes the largest dictionary I own, a translation dictionary—between Italian and French. This beast of a book weighs over six pounds (yes, I’ve already weighed it) and is too big for me to carry in one hand. It’s the kind of book that takes up half of your book shelf and that you could use as a makeshift booster seat to prop a toddler up to the grownup’s table. And, it’s a traveller’s nightmare: do I try to fit it into my checked luggage? Or take it as a carry on? Should I ship it home?
Because I’m not going to let this dictionary go. It was a birthday present from my friend Jeanne, who once heard me wish for a French-Italian dictionary. At the time, I had meant a pocket dictionary, something small like my English-French or English-Italian dictionaries. Something I could throw into a backpack or slip into a (large) purse. But Jeanne, always trying to do the best, gave me a dictionary more thorough than I had ever imagined buying for myself. Now it stands solitary on a bookshelf, in the colors of the Italian flag with Robert & Signorelli scrawled over its spine, fat enough to support its own weight without the aid of a bookend or a pile of books, daring me to figure out how to haul it home.
These days I’ve begun to wish for a magical bag like Hermione’s or Mary Poppins’s. It’s not the first time. When I moved over here, I had to whittle down the stack of books I wanted to take several times. It felt strange going somewhere indefinitely without at least a small portion of my library, almost like going out without a purse or teaching without a watch (there aren’t any clocks in my high school’s classrooms). A few people have suggested a solution, flashing their Kindles or iPads whose virtual bookshelves dwarf the library I’ve stuffed underneath my (short) twin bed back home. I must admit those gadgets are attractive now in ways they never had been before—I mean, who wouldn’t want to always have Flannery O’Connor along in case the public transportation system strikes and “perturbs” the bus schedules or in case there’s a free hour in between classes?
While I was at Calvin, I could hardly bear to read off a screen and, as a result, went over my printing quota almost every semester by printing off pdfs and essays, but this past winter break I broke down and, for the first time, read a book online from scroll-bar-arrow to scroll-bar-arrow—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. (There were even pictures!) I may slowly be becoming a convert.
But no way do I wish Jeanne had given me this dictionary on a USB flash drive. A digital format would have kept all of the information and lost all of the meaning. Sure, I would have been able to look up words—perhaps more quickly, not getting sidetracked by other words or losing my place in the alphabet—sure, I would have been able to take it with me wherever I went, but it would not have been the same dictionary left over from Jeanne’s mother’s days in the publishing business. You see, this dictionary is as much about the life and untimely death of a friend’s mother as it is about language. Even as it is full of words, it also bears witness to a silent hole, which gnaws on Jeanne’s heart daily. When I heave this dictionary, I hold a piece of a dearly beloved woman whom I have never met, whose absence weighs continually on her family. And I will carry home what has been bequeathed to me, beast though it may be.
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.