Crossing the Atlantic changes lives. I was less than two days in Rennes and partly stunned at my renewed sense of understanding of the word ‘overseas’. I was literally over the seas, I had traveled over the Mediterranean to this new place where 9pm still looked like 3pm and where everyone smoked and spat on the street corners. The dogs were more than the people and everyone automatically made a gurgly distinct sound in their throats when they had to pronounce the letter R.
I was in a completely different world and surrounded by very different people, ideas, food, and experiences. Everyone spoke so fast and public transport was unbelievably reliable. I stared at people on the metro and looked away when they looked back at me. Some people preferred to sit in a hunched bird-like position, huddled over their bags in a desperate bid to catch the last bits of sleep they’d be denied. Others stayed wide awake reading a paper or staring out the window. I’d come to know the tram line so well. Three more stops before we get to the University. I’d jump off energetically lest the door ram shut! On this vast college campus, I’d sometimes meet people that I felt not all that mentally in tune with. Small talk would develop into conversations, and these conversations would slowly plateau into dismal pleasantries. Later, I’d start avoiding people entirely in a frantic attempt to dissociate. Other times, I found myself in the company of people I thought were perfect! We had the same thoughts and impressions on a myriad of topics, we loved the same music, we agreed on what outfits looked good and which looked tacky. We would sit for hours on end enjoying the silence of our shared experiences.
My class was full of Asians. I think I may have mastered the art of small talk at that point in my life. I ‘d ask the dumbest questions, like how did they make the chopstick not fall out of their grip and why they ate so many eggs. The White Americans in my class preferred to walk together in cliques. They drank wine with whatever little breaks we had in between class and maintained a close-knit group. They were here on a group travel sponsored by one of these organizations, AISEC or CIEE. My breaks were times where I had conversations with myself or someone from back home. I was lonely and mostly too cold to care for conversation or feel like I was missing out on the Asians out-of-the-world Tofu experience or the Americans’ wine drinking spree. I sat with my phone in hand on most days, close by the heater.
I had gloomy days for a while until I met Mandy. Mandy was American and she was in Université Rennes 2 through CIEE. She is originally from Kenya and full of life and laughter. She quickly became a representation of East Africa and opened my eyes to the possibilities of real life, real people, and experiences beyond the confines of Ghana. She had long black braids that came down to her waist. They were dyed scarlet at the edges and she was really tall; about six feet and two inches and unapologetic about towering over our heads. She wore heels all the time! Heels and really short mini jupes. She wanted to get married thrice because she was unsure of the possibility of being stuck with one man for life! She was an outlier, funny and the perfect friend. Mandy reinforced the importance of travel and the acceptance and acknowledgment of different perspectives. I was Ghanaian after all and had known everything Ghanaian up until that point so meeting her was truly refreshing and very different. We went out at night in zero-degree weather and came back near morning, half asleep and holding our shoes in our hands. She lived with a host family and loved the family’s daughter Carla but hated their dog with all her might. She said the dog got hair on all her fine clothes.
Eight years after Rennes, I am still in touch with Mandy.