international girls

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Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. 

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Camille was one of those international girls.  She acted as if anywhere she could carry her backpack to may as well have been her home, and convincing she was, others believed so as well.  She was not a tourist, but a traveler.  

The international girl always packs light.  She doesn’t like to depend on anyone to hoist a clunky suitcase up a flight of stairs, although making foreign friends is always encouraged.  Another reason for this is that she does not enjoy being weighed down by too much baggage.  Perhaps the most important quality of the international girl is her exorbitant curiosity and endless capacity for friendly conversation with a stranger.

“I need to find a pair of shoes to give my friend for her birthday,” says Camille, “But I’ve only met her once. I’m not sure what her style is.”

Hunting around the sale section, she settled on a brown leather ankle boot, on sale for forty percent off.  Classic and plain enough that nearly anyone would look good in them. 

“I really like Camille,” said Lillie, “She always asks about you.  Always includes you in the conversation.  You never feel left out around her.” Lillie had said after she first met Camille.  

Collecting friends everywhere she went, Camille was nonjudgmental in her ways, conversing with anyone with whom she crossed paths.  The reason Camille was so like-able was due to the fact that she was the rare person who listened to what people had to say.  She had the charming effect of making you feel that whatever you were going on about was the most captivating thing she had heard all year. One would never catch her staring over your shoulder while she was with you; she was always firmly rooted in the present, as if nothing could be more significant.

“Do you speak any other languages?” says Patricia.

“Well, French and English, of course. I speak fluent Spanish. My family is Spanish, and a little bit of Italian too.” says Camille. 

Patricia, a German teacher, was a bit unconventional, both in her appearance and in her personality. She had reddish, frizzy hair and wore artsy clothes reminiscent of hippies. Camille referred to her style as eclectic.

Another one of Camille’s delightful habits was how she would offhandedly throw compliments to you. These would go something like: “Wow, you speak really good English, how did you learn?,”  or “Your jewelry is absolutely adorable, where did you get it?.”  She was gifted in weaving these intimate tokens so seamlessly into speech and one barely had a chance to say “thank you” to her.  This manner of speaking always made her look sincere, as if her behavior was effortless and she was a naturally amiable person with plenty of pleasant prose to throw around.

Camille never acted desperate though, like she was in dire need of friends.  This was part of her charm too.  She did not care what people thought of her. Unlike many people who appeared to or pretended to possess this trait, it was not an act for her.  She really didn’t care.  One night, they had met some young men at a pub. The next day at breakfast, one could picture any given group of girls analyzing and dissecting the pauses between each word exchanged, but the conversation between Camille and her comrades went like this:

“Did you hear from that guy?” says Patricia

“No, actually.  He didn’t ask for my number,” says Camille. Nonchalant.

“Maybe you could try to find him on the internet,” says Patricia.  This immediately seemed like a horrible, stalker-ish suggestion.

“Nah. He can find me if he wants.”  In fact, Camille abhorred the modern ways of stalking people on the internet and abstained from such practices.

There were other international girls like Camille, girls who lived abroad and worked in hostels, or studied on the “erasmus” exchange programs.  Some were not genuinely adventurous and clinging to the back of a leather-clad European guy on his motorcycle was a representative example of her cultural experience.  It was easy to confuse courageous individuals with the small-minded and fearful who still somehow managed outside of their elements.  The latter usually survived in foreign settings by grasping onto the hood of the person with the most blatant display of confidence.  Perhaps it wasn’t easy to tell a real international girl from a phony one at first or second or even third glance. 

The original, authentic international girl, like Camille, wasn’t afraid to go places alone.  This, in fact, was normal.  To her, it was requisite to talk to the locals about their politics or their culture. She spoke French to locals who waited on her at coffee shops and restaurants, wandered through the maze of Parisian boulevards in drizzle or smog, always somehow finding her way back to where she had begun. However independent Camille and these wanderers of the world were, they did sometimes travel in packs, like an unofficial sorority which was miraculously devoid of jealousy and drama.  These girls wouldn’t yell at each other for stealing one anothers’ boyfriends or call each other “slut” or “bitch” in that half-endearing, half-serious tone of voice.  They were too busy exploring and their semantics were much more sophisticated.

Camille, being a popular girl in high demand, seemed to always be accompanied by at least one fellow backpacking barbie, who also collected stamps in her passport like it was a rewards card for a coffee shop.  They would talk about what city they planned to visit next, unknown hole-in-the-wall type restaurants they had discovered, favorite museum exhibitions, and interesting acquaintances and lovers encountered.  They never seemed to tire of these good-natured travel anecdotes, as one could never really see everything or visit everywhere.

Julie admired the international girls. She was drawn to them because they sat at the opposite end of the spectrum in relation to the girls to whom she was accustomed.  Such girls could be considered “boring” because they wanted to settle down, play house and entertain, probably sooner rather than later. Rather than viewing the world as something continually learned and discovered, they wanted things to be “figured out.” The international girl did not think very often or in great depth of such prescribed rituals of “settling down”. Possibly she did late at night in that state between sleep and wakefulness, but consciously she eschewed these goals.

Julie had first met Camille in a pub on a group tour of Brussels. Over Belgian hot chocolates, Julie had overheard Camille say that she lived in France and taught. Julie had smiled and made eye contact with her, establishing herself as a fellow friendly traveler, while waiting for a pause to insert into the conversation.

“Oh I’m actually in that program too,” she said shyly, trying to gauge some sort of read on the girl, “Where do you work?”

“I work in Hirson. It’s a very small town in the North West.” Camille said.

“My village is really tiny too. Does it ever get depressing?”

“I teach école maternelle. The kids think I’m Mary Poppins, so it’s difficult to get too lonely,” she laughed.

It was these kinds of encounters which made one believe that the world is small, and when one became friends with such a passing acquaintance, it seemed to shrink even more.

The thing about international girls, and boys was the issue of what happened to all of their contacts collected during their jet-setting and eurrail-ing sprees.  It was unlikely that one would remain good friends with each acquaintance they had encountered. Despite the wide array of destinations frequented by these travelers, perhaps they ended up with few friends and a surplus of acquaintances.

Julie sat on the crowded Paris metro next to Camille and Lillie. They were all clutching shopping bags from the February sales which had been soaked from a freak downpour. As they spoke in French, their thick American accents brightly shown through, attracting looks from fellow commuters. Maybe the looks were just in their heads, as there were far more bizarre scenes unfolding on the metro. Homeless people, tourists who were carrying a month’s worth of luggage, overly affectionate and touchy couples, people who looked and smelled like they should shower; one soon became immune to the weirdness.

The cheery voice of the automated announcer at each stop chirped to “mind the gap” in French, English then in German.  It was easy to forget one was in the capital city of France in such instances.  Rather, they were at the juncture of cultures instead of a society of its own.  The melange of languages hummed and droned together into some incomprehensible tongue.

As Lillie and Julie parted ways with Camille to return to their village, it began raining again.  They stood on sidewalk outside of Gare de Lyon as pellets of rain plunked down on the sidewalk and their heads.

“Here, take my umbrella. We’re catching the train, and you’ll need it now,” said Lillie.

“Are you sure?” said Camille, “I can’t keep it.”

“You can give it back to me soon. I’ll be in Paris again next weekend.”

“Thank you.  That’s so nice.”

Would they stay in touch with any of their contacts, Julie wondered, or would these travel companions become dinner party anecdotes? Tales to be reminisced upon as part of the good ‘ole days but which were no longer relevant to the present. But the delicious moments of the past and friends encountered would always come back to anyone who believed that they would and who made the effort. The world was not as grand as it often seemed.

 
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