‘Avignon, aller-retour’ my friend pronounced clearly as we got on the bus. She took her ticket and moved on. My turn.
‘Le même, s’il vous plait.’ I said quickly, ‘Same please’, without considering whether this lazy direct translation from English really worked in French.
The driver gave me a ticket and – even better - it was marginally less than I had expected.
And this, my friends, is how we found out that somewhere on the road between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon is a place that sounds very like ‘Le même’. I think it’s actually called Lamanon. Now, I’m sure it’s very lovely and everything, but where the bus stopped by a field and some trees, there was little evidence of human life. However, despite no sign of anyone wanting to get on or off, the driver pulled over and called out:
After a short silence, he tried again, a little louder, ‘LAMANON!’
Nobody stirred, least of all me – I was going to Avignon for goodness sake. I’d quite clearly asked for…
Oh no! What exactly had I asked for? Le même – meaning the same destination as my friend... but that’s clearly not how he’d heard it. Why didn’t I just say ‘Avignon’, or at least the more correct ‘La même chose’?
Blood rushed out of my face. For the first time, I looked properly at the ticket in my hand to see that, instead of the return to Avignon I thought I was holding, I had indeed bought a one-way passage to Lamanon. I explained in horrified whispers to my friend.
Wide eyed, we giggled nervously. As silently as we could.
The driver called out again. And waited. He knew, he was certain, someone had wanted to get off here.
I sat like a statue. Terrifying thoughts flashed through my head. What if he frogmarched me off the bus and forced me to spend all day there while my friend glided culturally around the Palais des Papes and admired the famous half bridge?
Thankfully, after a pause of about forever, he gave the signature French shrug and roared up the engines again. I breathed in relief but couldn’t fully relax until I stepped off the bus in Avignon.
Of course, now, with the experience and confidence of age, I would just fess up, explain to the driver, pay the extra and laugh about it. Looking back, it seems crazy that I didn’t... but at the time we were petrified of all bus-related service providers, having been shouted at by the ticket officer a few days beforehand when asking for information.
You see, as part of an apparently endless supply of foreign students clogging up the city, we felt like a bit of a nuisance. While we had some wonderful French friends with whom chatting and being understood was no problem, it seemed some shop assistants and other service providers weren’t so keen.
Ironically, we could swap life stories in French, discuss burning issues, faith, current affairs...but asking for something in a shop? That was another matter.
You would go in requesting something simple, feeling pretty confident that after two years of degree-level French and having lived there previously, your sentence was grammatically correct. They, however, would frown and squint at you with a short sharp ‘Eh?’
At that point you began to lose your nerve. And the more uncertain you got, the more tentative your French became, until stuttering you would just grab the nearest item and throw down a few francs. Fear changes our behaviour. After a few bad experiences, I went in expecting them not to understand me, which is exactly how these cycles viciously self-perpetuate.
In a way, I got it. Their beautiful historic city was overrun with outsiders. Maybe they’d had problems with foreign students? Maybe there were just too many of us? But still, it came as a shock.
So, already feeling like a mistrusted outsider, I was genuinely petrified this bus driver wouldn’t believe it was an honest mistake. What should have been a laughing matter, actually left me quaking. And this is when I get just the tiniest inkling of how others may feel in my country at times. That hideous fear of putting a foot wrong. The fear that genuine error will immediately be judged as dishonesty.
A year ago I went back to Aix with my daughter and braced myself for those same feelings and reactions, but everything was different. Not the place, which is beautifully timeless: we ambled down the Cours Mirabeau, stopping to cool off by the numerous fountains, breathing in the rosemary-fragrant air and popping into Monoprix. What had changed was the feeling of welcome. Everyone seemed to like us. No one squinted at my French. In fact, they went out of their way to help us, joking with us, smiling at us. It was as if the whole city had been on some kind of touchy-feely seminar about welcoming visitors. Had everyone else changed or was it me?
Maybe it was a bit of both. Maybe, as a young student I let a few (ok, quite a few) bad experiences change how I felt, setting in motion a downward spiral. It’s certainly true that there were some who rolled their eyes at the tidal wave of young foreign visitors who descended on their city each year, but there were others who welcomed us with kindness. It is in remembering the positive that we can shake off our fear of the negative.
And who knows, maybe next time I go, I’ll even stop in Lamanon.