Studying Abroad, Claiming Homes
June 1, 2014
Simbarashe Runyowa ’15
I went to Paris in January, when the weather was the harshest it gets in the city of lights. Still, this did not distract from the wideness of the boulevards and the regal charm of its architecture. When I first arrived in my neighborhood, it overwhelmed me. Strasbourg Saint Denis, where my studio apartment was located, is a different world than the PARIS that had been etched into my dreams, the Paris after which I had lusted. The Paris in which I arrived on a blisteringly cold January afternoon was by no means the Paris of St Germain des Pres with its streets buffed to a meticulous, bourgeois gloss by the giant fiscal brushes of the French elite. The Paris I first encountered was the Paris of the immigrant, its streets cavernous with potholes and its wide boulevards nonetheless lined with informal traders---Africans and Turks and Indians, selling everything from chestnuts to mini statues of the Eiffel tower. This here was not the Paris of steak tartare and crème caramel, but of yassa poulet and groundnut soup, cous cous and KFC, Turkish kebab and chicken tandoori.
Yet I quickly grew to love this Paris the most. Even more than St Germain des Pres, where my university, Sciences Po, was located. I grew to love the charming cafes that never seemed to close, and the thick throngs of young and hip French natives who filled them late into Friday and Saturday nights. I grew to time my shopping so that I could find the brioche still fresh and soft at my local boulangerie. I grew used to hunting for essentials at the Monoprix around the corner, and nursed an addiction for the perfectly salted French fries to be found at the corner of my street, Rue Du Faubourg St Martin.
I grew to enjoy my bi weekly haircut at a shabby barbershop just across from my apartment building, which was always filled with West Africans and the rambunctious laughter that follows them everywhere. My barber grew to know me, as Mugabe--a logical reference to my country of origin, a shortcut he used to show he remembered me but not my name. We exchanged stories of immigration and of our leaving Africa--me, Zimbabwe for America, he, Lagos for Paris.He was a full-bellied middle aged man, his own hair always hidden under a cap. He overflowed with stories and anecdotes, jokes and serious tales of struggles of his time in the city. He wanted to know--is it easy to "make it" in America? I told him I wouldn't know. I endearingly tipped him generously each time. He became as familiar as the house I grew up in.
I grew also to acquaint myself with the rhythm of the city. I memorized the outlay of the metro systems, and whizzed easily between my apartment and school, and everywhere I cared to go. On weekends I met friends by the Seine for wine drinking and laughter. I met them in Bastille for beers at happy hour, in Rue Mouffetard to tackle the best falafel in Paris, at a South African restaurant on the edges of Paris for my birthday. I lounged in friends' studios in Chatelet, took day trips to historic Versailles, peering inquisitively into Marie-Antoinette's bedroom, wondering why her bed had been that small, and more importantly, why it was shaped like a cube and not a rectangular prism? How could she have possibly fit on it?
I picnicked endlessly by the gardens at the Eiffel Tower, and walked frequently past the Notre Dame as though it meant nothing. I braved the rollercoasters at Disneyland Paris, growing nauseous to the point of almost vomiting after being shaken to an unworldly dizziness on one notoriously curly machine. I grew to love certain bars more than others, certain neighbourhoods more than others. I coached my palate to enjoy cow stomach and snails in garlic butter, and deciphered the nuances of distinguishing fine French wine from even finer French wine. After my Friday lessons, a specific friend and I would escape to Reaumur Sebastopol and stuff ourselves with the trappings from a Korean buffet while also taking the time to provide comment on the fashion choices of passers-by. On other weekends I took the velib, Paris' public bike system, and zipped from Canal St Martin to the hip neighborhood of Oberkampf to seek out cheap eats and to think life through. I learned to ask for directions in immaculate French, and frequently got lost, and frequently did not care because I always ended up somewhere beautiful. I visited every landmark I had heard about--Pompidou and Hotel de Ville, the Champs Elysee and the Arc de Triomphe, the Sorbonne and the Musee d'Orsay, Sacre Coeur and Montmartre. I spent my last day at the Louvre, making sure not to leave the vast museum until I caught a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, which was tinier than I could have ever imagined.
At school, we conversed about international security and development policy and currency manipulation and the Arab Spring with students from Brazil and Macao, Canada and Sweden, Kenya and Cameroon, America and Madagascar. I saw world famous economists, listened to lectures by Presidents and advisors of governments. I grew to be comfortable, to be in love, to be at HOME. I became a part of the ecosystem, my foreignness gradually erased. My fluency in French was clumsy at first, and only blossomed towards the end of my stay. It grew to stun me when one day, while hanging out with my American friend, I managed to successfully order a pizza and give precise directions to the delivery guy in polished française.
Paris became mine. Just to touch, but not to keep.
At the end of the semester I decided on a short vacation to a place I have always wanted to go. I took a plane from Paris to Rome, connecting through Brussels. I took a shuttle bus to the chaotic Termini Station in the heart of the city, and arranged to meet my friend from Paris at my hostel, Hotel Alessandro Downtown. I was too tired to join him for a night out, choosing instead to retire early and gather energy for the day ahead. The following day we explored the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, St Peter's Basilica. In the basement you could see the caskets of the dead popes. We inhaled gelato in between every site visit. Rome was alive with history and spiritualism. At the Colosseum, the gladiators were almost palpable. I could imagine the emperor watching with glee as the slaves ripped each other to death in the arena. The ruins reminded me of a powerful epoch whose essence had remained preserved. Rome was a place were time had been frozen. It was surreal and beautiful, but I did not feel I could claim it, did not wish I lived there, only wished it would stay as it were forever. Italian words clattered discordantly around me and refused even the slightest interpretation. I was alien here in a way that held no promise of ever being incorporated. The energy of the place could not tie with me. It felt foreign in a way I could never tame and coax into obedience in the way I had done Paris. It was not mine.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Harare International Airport was that it was uncharacteristically dark for an airport. The lights were being used utterly sparingly--the country has energy problems, the first in a long menu of catastrophes. Around the baggage claim area, workers paraded around listlessly, inventing random duties to pass the time. There is not much work for them, ours was the only plane that had arrived that day, the local airline is shut down, a symptom of the ongoing economic crisis.
The signs in the airport have now been translated into Mandarin, a signal of the strengthening presence of Chinese investors in Zimbabwe and Africa generally. The government has anointed them the kings and queens of the Orient: except instead of frankincense and myrrh, they come bearing gifts called "South-South co-operation" and "bi-lateral trade and investment."
As we drive out of the airport in the blistering heat, the city looks tired and dilapidated. It used to be an immaculate, well-groomed city, but now it has lost its glow. Where it was once plump it now appears sullen. Potholes have invaded the streets and sometimes entirely swallowed the tarmac. Buildings lie in various states of decay, street lights no longer work, grass which used to be trimmed neatly now grows wildly out of control. In my neighborhood, many changes have occurred. The amiable Greek family store that used to sell all manner of odds and ends has disappeared. In its place, a fast food chain, the ubiquitous Chicken Inn (still not funny) has emerged. The supermarket has been replaced by a technology store. Happily, I notice that the local market women have remained where they have always been. Before I left, the city council had given notice that their vegetable stalls were to be razed to the ground to "neaten up" the local shopping centre. They spend their days coaxing penniless loiterers towards their tomatoes and oranges and kale, spraying the produce occasionally with water to create the illusion of freshness.
In my own house, much change has taken place. My room has been stripped of any signs of my existence. It has been converted into a generic guestroom, when I arrive, the cupboards are empty, the walls relieved of posters, my desk unadorned. I do not recognize it. Have I been gone that long? It's only been 3 years that I have been in college.
My friends too have moved on. Some have long been married and some have borne a child or two. I cannot relate. New forms of slang have sprouted. I cannot easily follow conversation. It is as though I am starting over. In a place where I know the language, in a city I know inside and out, in a place that is really mine. At home.
Politics dominates life here. Corruption is rife. Every day a new scandal emerges--millions of dollars disappear without a trace. In the midst of unbeatable poverty, some officials pocket a quarter million United States dollars per month. The economy is now in deflation, which is a sign that it has practically shut down. State media insists it has not, that things are doing well, that their new economic plan will work.
In the meantime, unemployment stays stubbornly above 80%. Things are indeed falling apart, the center truly cannot hold. Hopelessness is palpable, but nobody complains much. By now most have realized this is both wasteful and pointless. They march on silently, smiles affixed to their faces, calmness reigning over their bodies. "It is what it is" is the mantra we live by. Some say, "God will make a way."
Zimbabwe is my home, but it has grown and moved on without me. What I knew of it, as my home, is now a vague, faded mirage in the hazy departments of my memory. It cannot be recouped. This new place is someplace I cannot totally claim because I was not part of its making. Studying abroad taught me that perhaps I can claim other homes, that I can make a home anywhere. That I can seize another culture and tailor it to fit the proportions of my ambitions. I realize I am tied to this place, to any place really, only by nostalgia.
What is home?
I have no clue. It is probably the next place I will go.
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