Strasbourg was utterly lovely and relaxing and restorative. I stayed with Jeanne for a week and a half, in the apartment she shares with two friends just outside the pretty town centre.
It was wonderful to be back, and to overwrite what were once painful memories with new, happy ones. Over the week, Jeanne and I explored the city, dining out at cafes and restaurants for lunch and dinner each day.
I found that my French, which I was so very proud of among the backpackers of Bordeaux, in reality remains gurningly inadequate. In Bordeaux I’d felt like a prince – the only backpacker in the group who spoke French, and thus the designated orderer of drinks and takeaways; the enquierer-in-chief. It felt good, and I felt competent. Five minutes listening to Jeanne and her friends converse, however, and I was reminded in no uncertain terms that I am a big no-nothing tit. They speak so damn fast.
It’s much easier, I’ve found, to speak French with people who only speak it as a second language, as opposed to natives. In Bordeaux I passed an evening speaking in French with an Algerian man who spoke fluent French but whose first language was Arabic. It was easy to understand him; he spoke slowly and clearly and he didn’t use slang, and he used grammar as the schoolbooks teach it. Native French people do none of that, and they chat at a thousand miles an hour, and I catch very little and get all confused and bashful.
Jeanne and I cycled to Germany one afternoon. Strasbourg is right on the border, so it wasn’t the odyssey it sounds – only 30 minutes by bike. I’m quite scared of cycling. I used to ride my bicycle every day in my early teens, but as I slowly grew more interested in girls, gigs and glasses of beer, my bicycle grew dusty in the garden shed, tyres deflating.
I had many grand adventures on my bike when I was young, and also a lot of accidents – fractured bones and bloodied elbows and dozens of road-riding near-misses. Time has blurred these memories and mashed them together into one simple thought: ‘SCARED!’ These days I’m unable to mount a bicycle without a succession of images flashing through my brain of my potential undoing: being sent hurtling through the summer air off the bonnet of a Fiat 500; having my legs sheared off by a speeding motorcycle; hitting an upturned flagstone and flying arse-over-tit into a canal; looking the wrong way while peddling and mowing down some old woman’s yapping little dog and having to apologetically help her carry the squashed remains back home in a blue Tesco carrier bag, mumbling all the way about how sorry I am. I overthink, alright. I overthink.
But anyway, I’m realising on this trip that I have been allowing my comfort zone to shrink for years. Because it does, if you don’t actively work to expand it. I’d done nothing that scared me for as long as I could remember. I got so used to just saying ‘no’ to everything I didn’t fancy that I spent a lot of my time back home just doing… well, nothing – and then complaining about how bland my life was. It’s good to be afraid – it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. That’s how you grow.
So, despite being a little jittery, I went on a bike ride through the city with Jeanne. And, of course, it was absolutely fine and tranquil and fulfilling and I felt fantastic when we arrived home in the evening. I’d forgotten how peaceful it is to zip along with the wind in my hair.
Jeanne has a new Nintendo Switch, and she showed me the game she’s been playing since she got it for her birthday last month – Pokémon. We spend a few lazy hours over the course of the week sitting side by side, with Jeanne making her little person run around catching Pokémon, and me giddily giving advice over her shoulder. It’s only a simple little memory, but a very happy one. It’s how we used to be all the time.
It was so pleasant to be back in Strasbourg with Jeanne. We visited parks, gardens, and little bohemian bars in warehouses outside the city. During my time in London, I kept a photo of the city’s cathedral in my drawer. I never looked at it – it hurt too much. It felt peaceful and restorative to stand in front of the gorgeous structure once again, in the flesh. I wasn’t sure whether I ever would. I’m not religious, so I’m never sure whether to direct my gratitude for such moments. I just sort of smile up at the sky.