An extract from Sara Katschka’s memoir-in-progress, Avoir Faim.
Avoir faim (vi+adj)- to be hungry
The front doors of the train station part to let me stumble through. The first thing I see of Evreux is a Domino’s Pizza across the road. Of fucking course. Leave the US one day only to run right back into it. I shift my weight from one foot to the other. My money belt, still slightly damp from the effort of dragging my entire life up and down the stairs of the Paris métro, digs into my thigh. There are no more planes to take, no more trains to catch. This is it.
“Sara?” Unfolding herself from a small silver car is my AirBnb hostess. She’s tall, thin, wearing a black blazer and slacks.
Once we’ve wrestled my suitcases into the trunk, she gestures to the passenger seat.
As she turns onto a narrow, one-way street, she talks and gestures. This is where you go to get a bus pass. This is the Carrefour City where you can buy food. This is the cathedral. This is this and that is that. I don’t know whether to focus on the words or the buildings. It feels like I have to choose between one or the other. French words are filling the space of the car like air and the car is not big enough for them. I doanddon’t understand what she’s saying.
After I’ve been given a comprehensive review of “vocabulary of the house” from French II, my AirBnb hostess hurries back to work and I am alone in the bedroom that belongs to me for the next week. I decide that my need for a shower is even more pressing than my need to climb into a soft bed. The bathroom is filled with light. A small plant fills the windowsill. A dryer is tucked in the corner, the door slightly ajar. I spread my toiletries across the clean counter. The deodorant I applied in the St. Lazare train station did not work. I smell sour. I turn my gaze to the wall as I push the shirt up over my stomach and then my head.
When I wake up from my nap, the sun is gone. Someone is banging around somewhere in the apartment. I force myself to pad towards le salon. I take a seat in front of a TV adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel. The living room carpet is a grainy color, stiff beneath my socked feet. It’s mostly hidden beneath oriental rugs that fray at the edges. An upright piano sits against the wall next to the large glass windows, the top of it covered in plants and decorative bowls. Sarah, as my Airbnb host insists I call her, pushes a bowl of leafy green salad into my hands, insisting I must be hungry. A piece of lettuce tickles the corner of my thumb. I don’t feel hungry for once. I don’t feel full. I make myself eat anyway. As I chew, Other Sarah asks me questions. Who am I? What do I do? What am I doing here in France? This is not my first time in France, but somehow it feels like the entirety of my nine years of French education has been leading up to this moment. My speech is clumsy. It stutters to a slow stop between sentences, trips over grammar. Somewhere along the way I give her the impression that I’m a French teacher in the States. And once it’s said, it feels too late to correct her. Later I fall into bed, and wonder if I’ll still be in France when I wake up.
The next morning, I venture out into the streets of Evreux intent on finding a grocery store. I can’t remember the landmarks that Other Sarah told me about yesterday, but I’ll find something. My Airbnb is in the shadow of the town’s grand Romanesque cathedral. A Wikipedia search tells me that the cathedral is from the 12th century. The downtown area itself is not very big, yet I still feel disoriented. I pass three or four boulangeries, their display cases full of eclairs, round tartes, and pastries whose names I don’t yet know. Baguettes sit huddled together in baskets on the wall behind the counter. Outside of a boucherie, the glass display case spills out partially onto the sidewalk, lines of pink, uncooked meat stretching to the back of the store. People lean over the case, gesturing to men in white aprons. In a box on the sidewalk a chicken rotates, the price of it written on the glass. No one looks as I walk past them with one headphone tucked into my right ear. I take pictures of the cathedral, the town hall, the belfry tower which looks just medieval enough to excite me. I turn right through an archway between buildings, and I stumble upon a small closed off square, filled with tents and stands and the sound of people talking over one another. A Saturday morning market. The smell of fish is overpowering. In the back of the square is a Carrefour City. Success. By the door, fresh fruits and vegetables are displayed. I walk in circles around them and the rest of the store just to read food labels. Le fromage, le yaourt, le couscous, le beurre, le jambon. I return back to the apartment with some sliced bread with the crust curiously missing, thin slices of ham, and some fruits. Next time, I tell myself, I’ll get some real food to make. Some pasta or something.
La première fois (2007)
My parents rented a car to drive to Normandy. A light gray Peugeot.
The flow of traffic heading out of Paris was steady. Start and stop in places. The sky was the color of the road. The windshield wipers were flipped on and off as needed. If it weren’t for the radio, the rapid-fire French spoken by the radio hosts, in one ear and out the other, I could almost forget that I was in France.
Our destination was a museum dedicated to the invasion of Normandy.
While preparing for this two-and-a-half-week tour of Europe, where we were planning on visiting France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Denmark, my parents had asked my older brother and I one thing we wanted to do in each of the places we were visiting. For France, I had chosen the Eiffel Tower. That seemed like the obvious choice. My brother chose the D-Day beaches.
The museum was a long, rectangular building. The exterior was a sandy color, that looked almost white in the sun. Out front there were large, white flag poles. I recognized some of the flags. United States. United Kingdom. France. Germany.
The museum was in a city named Caen.
I mumbled the word over and over to myself, trying to pronounce it exactly as Mom had.
My parents were hoping to get a bus tour from the museum out to the beaches, but we missed the last one. In the large, open lobby, a model of an old-timey airplane hung from the ceiling. From where I stood it was angled directly at me.
We hadn’t really covered World War II in elementary school or in sixth grade. I’d just heard and seen references to it here and there. There was so much information and I wanted to absorb it all.
Two days before, when we reached the front of the line for the elevator at the base of the Eiffel Tower, my brother announced that his iPod had been stolen. Security heard this and made a frantic search of everyone around us. Mom had panicked, been on high alert for the rest of the evening, only for the iPod to make a miraculous reappearance the next morning. It appeared to have been in his pocket the entire time. Now as we were about to leave the museum, Mom realized that she didn’t have her camera on her. We hurriedly went back in, retraced our steps until we found it lying on a bench.
We were staying in a château in the town of Bayeux. The building was apparently hundreds of years old. It was wide, painted a soft shade of yellow. There were many windows along the front. Tall and narrow.
We peeled off the gravel driveway into the grass and parked. The fact that we were staying in a château made me feel quite grand, made me feel like I was someone else. Which, at the time, was all I wanted to feel.
In the field, just beyond the fence, there were cows grazing. A milky white cow wandered up to the fence and stared at us. I took a picture of her.
Our rooms were in the château’s stables. For a moment, I wondered if there would be actual horses in the rooms we were staying in.
“Former stables,” Dad corrected.
The rooms were modern. The living room was on the ground floor. Couch. TV. Navy blue rug pinned under a glass coffee table. The double bed was located up a flight of stairs in a sort of loft. Mom and I were sharing the room that night. I recorded a video tour of the room on my camera just like I did with our room in Paris. Outside Dad took video of the grounds. There was a little pond where a few swans floated. A duck emerged from a small hut and made its way down into the water. I was reminded of visits to Cleveland as a small child, feeding handfuls of corn kernels to the ducks with Grandma and Grandpa.
We arrived in Bayeux too late to see the famous tapestry. According to my dad, the tapestry was very old and told the story of the Norman conquest, another invasion.
On the drive back to the château it rained so hard that it was nearly impossible to see the road. Dad pulled over and we waited five or so minutes for the worst of it to pass. Dad had said that Normandy was a lot like England in that it rained a lot. This seemed to confirm it.
The countryside was flat, not too many trees, but it was very green. Plots of land were divided sometimes by miles of hedgerows. These were also used in England. Hedgerows were important when it came to fighting, according to Dad. I pictured men crouched behind them, peeking over before quickly ducking back down to avoid a bullet. When my dad wondered out loud if there were still any ruins left in Normandy from the war, I pictured the shells of buildings, completely open and vulnerable. Floorboards hanging in mid-air. A building that was there but not there. Perhaps the home’s owner had fled. Perhaps there was no owner left. I felt a hollowness then. I drowned it out with the sound of Dad’s voice.
On Omaha beach my brother bent down and scooped up handfuls of white sand into a plastic blue water bottle to take back to his history teacher. I looked at the beach and tried to picture how chaotic and grotesque it must have looked during the actual invasion. But I couldn’t. All I could see was the living, spread out across the beach.
Later on, we visited the American cemetery.
It was beautifully landscaped. The grass was cut uniformly short and was a healthy green. There were flowers, pink, yellow, white, and trees planted along the paths. There were row after row of whitewhite crosses. You had to get close to read the individual names. The cemetery was so quiet despite the amount of people walking by. The sound of my pink crocs against the gravel of the path made me want to flinch.
Walking between the rows felt like an act of meditation. I felt the weight of these soldiers’ actions in the quietness of that morning. The calmness of the cemetery was an offering to the soldiers. A way of trying to erase or make up for the violence of their deaths.
There was heavy traffic on the way back into Paris. For over a half hour it was at a standstill. I watched as motorcycles weaved in and out of the line of cars.
We had a train to catch. An overnight train to Rome. We were running out of time.
Dad drove quickly and recklessly when we pulled off of our exit, earning the finger from another driver.
“They must know we’re Americans,” Mom replied. “The French use different gestures.”
We struggled to find the entrance to the parking garage where we needed to drop off the car. Everything was tucked and hidden away in Paris. I didn’t even know in which part of Paris we were. Far from the Louvre or the Eiffel tower.
Once we had parked, we wasted no time. Pulling our backpacks and suitcases from the trunk.
We ran through the streets of Paris, each of us with our backpacks, my dad and brother carrying the suitcases between them. Dad paused only to look very briefly at a map or ask directions. A few Parisians shouted at us as we rushed past them, but one doesn’t go to Paris to be liked by the Parisians.
We were going to one of the Gare du Lyon’s satellite stations. A place with only a few tracks.
“Why did it have to be at some obscure station?” Mom asked, voice breathy.
But find the station, we did.
The train pulled away right after we got on it.