The Green Grass of Home

Themba Lewis

Two years ago I was standing, exhausted, at 4am on a roadside in the wasteland of shuttered warehouse stores and box hotels just far enough from Charles de Gaulle airport as to require some form of transport. The busses did not run this early, and the hotel staff were asleep. I waited on the front landing in the cold early morning air. My heavy bags were at my side.

Things had been hard in Bordeaux. It had been some months of depression and darkness, and I had been without the social structures I needed to thrive. I had been through an aborted engagement, a break up, a rocky re-kindling, tenuous remote employment, dangerous temptations, and the trials of existence in a foreign place, with a foreign language.

I had lived in stasis, dependent on fleeting permissions and unknowable bureaucracies for every aspect of my life: my ability to make a home, to make a living, to invest myself in my fledgling social circles, and to predict my future, even if just days in advance. Visas dictated my life and processes were inscrutable, undefined, and strict.

I had learned the streets in my neighbourhood and knew Manu, the barman at l’Avant Scene, who hung Sonic Youth and Creedence and Black Sabbath records above his station. I knew the lady at Le Zebre, who always gave me peanuts when I went in and loved so fondly – maybe too fondly – Glwadys.

One night I had watched from the small first floor balcony as a belligerent and rowdy drunk made his way from bar to bar. He shouted and picked fights as he went, obnoxiously provoking dogs and yelling at proprietors as they removed him, one after the next, from their establishments. When he reached Le Zebre, outcast at the end of the strip, he had stumbled and swayed, berating the patrons sitting at one of the two small tables in front.

The peanut lady emerged from her bar and stood facing him. She was smaller by a head, even with her curls, and listened while he yelled. When he stopped she said something to him that I could not hear. Then she just held him. He stood, with her arms around him, and she stood too, for what seemed like a long time. When she released him she turned and walked back into the bar. The patrons sat. He stood. After a moment he rested himself on a parked car, waiting just a moment or two, and then stood again. He turned and quietly made his way down the sidewalk towards the far end of the street, towards the houses and apartment blocks.

In my kitchen I had learned to cook with the local ingredients and hardly thought of chipotle and masa and staples I was so used to back in the States. Instead I had shifted my palate to remind me of a different home, to those foods in the Tunisian and Turkish markets. I made baba ganoosh and labneh and zaatar, which we ate with fresh baguettes. I snacked on spicy olives, pitching the pits out the window and down onto Cours de l’Yser, gambling with each that I wouldn’t hit an unseen passing car full of people looking for a fight. This street was always looking for a fight.

But I had lived overwhelmingly alone. Not that I had not had company and the intimacy of love – I had. But I learned the value of language in those days. The subtleties of phrase that mean everything in one linguistic universe might mean nothing in another. Language is our whole world.

Sometimes our worlds are different. We are, sometimes, alien.

But the preceding days had lifted that alienation. The prospect of departure had softened my emotions for where I was. Packing had highlighted how much I had, in fact, become a part of this place. The departure party, on Pauline’s rooftop terrace, had reminded me that I did have connections here. I had people who would wonder, in the coming months, where I might be, or what I might be doing. I had people who would be glad when I returned.

The morning of departure I had worked with Seamus – before he had shifted his identity to the mysterious and sexually liberated Langi Ro, killing off his past and reinventing himself – to enjoy, together, a good deal of Tullamore Dew whiskey. He had brought it from his liquor cabinet – a collection of items he had pilfered from his bar job or picked up in his extensive travels: individual shots in poorly printed plastic bags, whiskeys from East Africa with names like ‘COCK’ and ‘ROYAL’, and unknown and potentially dangerous distillations from questionable producers in back rooms and factories further-flung.

But we trusted the Tullamore Dew and sat on Pauline’s rooftop drinking it at 10am, after I had been up much of the night preparing, steeling myself for my long journey. It was a journey in which I knew I would be in transit, and probably awake, for at least two full days. Mathieu and Mathilde discussed their impending baby. Aurel juggled her infant and balanced him on her pregnant belly. Pauline Trequesser and Maxime flirted and sparred. Pauline Veteau went in and out, bringing more breakfast quiche or removing a wine bottle. The sun was hot.

Soon the time had come for me to catch my train. Glwadys and I rolled my heavy bags to Gare Cornavin, and she sent me off, waiting for the train to pull out as I watched from the window. She would go back to the party, she had told me, and try to celebrate. Really she just wanted to be around people. It was fun over there.

The train was insufferable; hot and too crowded to sit. I balanced myself in the café car, watching the south of France pass by, backwards, at 150 miles an hour. I felt ill and tired. Each high-speed turn churned my stomach and the heat of the window easily outmatched the bland air conditioning rising weakly through the vents. I wanted only to sleep. I wanted to rest in a way that didn’t demand some level of physical vigilance. I felt the deep exhaustion of departure.

But I was gone. I had left and it had not been my choice to do so. I had spoken to the Mairie and written the Prefecture, asking to extend. They had refused. I had moved to Istanbul, waiting out mandatory exclusion periods, just to return and throw myself back into to the slow machinations of process, each step providing another in order to finally be able to stay. But the processes were unending, and I was now on a train to Paris, looking back at 150 miles an hour, as if I was being sucked out.

From Paris I took a bus to Charles de Gaulle. It was dark now, and the florescent lights in the carriage cast reflections on the windows that made it nearly impossible to see out. If you cupped your hands to the pane you might be able see the highway, or a bridge lit for aircraft warning, but the rest was darkness. It was 11pm when I reached the terminal. From here I was to find another bus in another terminal, a shuttle to a cut-rate hotel for what I hoped might be four hours of sleep. At the very least it would be a shower and bed.

The lines were long and the clerk was weary. When I made it to my room and lay with the reading light on I noticed how much better the room looked under very low light. The hairline cracks in the walls and stains on the carpets faded into what could be any bedroom anywhere. It had served as such for many.

The alarm sounded quickly – a black travel clock with a regular beep that I trusted more than my phone or a wake up call. A travel clock as close to the one my Dad had when we were kids as I could find. It ticked lightly at night and had so infuriated Clare, at one point in the London flat, that she had thrown it with impressive velocity against the wall in the middle of the night, sending plastic shattering across the room. ‘I’m done with fucking Big Ben’, she muttered in her Yorkshire accent, and rolled over and went back to sleep. I replaced it. I still use it.

I passed over the room one last time, with all the lights on, and checked to be sure my passport and ticket were where I could find them. I shut the heavy door and rolled my bags down the hallway, towards the lobby, where I’d asked for a taxi to be called only some hours earlier, and a wake up call that had never come. There was no one there. I passed and continued outside and stood in the cold air. I could hear the first birds beginning to chirp, even with the sunrise some hours away. The road was quiet. The airport, in the distance, was still.

I worried that the taxi had been forgotten, and that if it did not arrive I would have no way to summon one, and that even if I could locate a staff member at this hour, my exhausted mind wouldn’t be able to formulate the French I would need to get myself to Terminal 3 in the next 20 minutes.

My body ached from the exertions of travel – uncomfortable seating, long periods of nothing, heavy and unwieldy luggage, poor food, constant vigilant waiting. And here, again, I was. Waiting.

The taxi, if it was coming, was late. I had measured my minutes for maximum hotel time, and hadn’t left much for unpredictabilities. But finally, around a bend and through the light morning mist that precedes a warming sunrise, I saw headlights.

A small European station wagon pulled to a stop by my bags, which I had left at the curb. I summoned my energy and greeted the driver in French, hoping he wouldn’t be keen to continue talking since I was too tired to scale and descend the high walls of translation between chipper early morning French and too-many-hours without sleep English.

‘Bonjour,’ he started, ‘comment ça va?’ He had energy. I sat in the back, listening faintly to the radio, broadcasting a French early morning talk show. He waited a moment then began in English. He must’ve heard my accent, I thought. I wasn’t surprised. It was taking energy to summon words, let alone pronounce them like I had been saying them all my life. ‘Where are you from?’

America, I told him, the US, and that was where I was going now. Before he continued I asked him the same. He was from Vietnam, and had lived in France for some years, driving the taxi in the middle of the night. He was used to the hours by now, and we discussed Vietnam, a country I had never seen. We talked about food and family, and he told me he had not been back for many years, but that he did long for it, despite being happy in France.

‘But you’ he said, ‘You are from America.’ Now he was talking about a country he had never seen. ‘I love America.’ It was a response I often heard when I told people I was American, whether they actually loved it or not. But this taxi driver seemed to believe it. ‘You know why I love America?’ he continued, ‘Kris Kristofferson.’

He reached for his phone and scrolled with practiced fingers, one hand on the wheel one on the device, to a playlist and turned up the volume. He sang along and I smiled. ‘Wait!’ he said, as we crossed an overpass and began towards the airport grounds, do you know what is the best? The very best?’ I stopped shy of even attempting to guess where he might be heading next with his enthusiasm for American crooners of the 1980s. ‘Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton is the best. You know the song she sings with Tom Jones?’ I sat. ‘Wait.’

He scrolled again and rolled down his window so the night air started blowing through the taxi. It was invigorating. I felt awake. I felt alive. We descended towards the terminal. The music was loud and he sang along until we got to the departures door and I slid out of the back seat, another step of this long journey finished. I grinned at him and thanked him. I was genuinely pleased. I gave him all the Euros I had left – I wouldn’t need them.

As I walked away I could still hear The Green Green Grass of Home, and it had never sounded so good.

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