On Friday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning. By 5:30 I had taken a shower, put in contacts, vaguely brushed my hair, and put together a backpack. I hitched a ride from my father and arrived on the upper east side of Manhattan at 8:30. I ran into the French Institute, past a bored looking security guard and into the elevator. Five floors up I wandered small hallways until I asked one of the five people waiting around with French grammar books where the check-in was. No where, said the woman. I think we just wait here.
At 8:45 sharp we were allowed to enter the exam room, a cramped space with very small desks and smart board displaying a thirty minute audio file. We checked-in, and waited for the missing test taker. With five minutes to spare he arrived in a rush, floppy hair and untied boots. At 9:00 exactly we started the DALF exam, level C1. It began with listening comprehension, it continued with reading comprehension, and it ended with written expression in the form of two essays. At 12:30 I put a period on my concluding paragraph and I flipped through the booklet. I had answers for everything, I wasn’t interested in changing anything, and so I gave the test to the proctor who told me to return at 3:15 for my oral exam.
Five floors lower I stood on the sidewalk and called my father. I walked down Fifth avenue and sat on a chair by the Apple store facing Central Park. Sweaty, humid, tourists. New York City in the summer.
When he arrived we continued to sweat in the humidity and walked to 75th street or somewhere, to Candle Café. A totally upscale vegan restaurant with a fancy juice bar up front. We were seated in the back near the kitchen, with no palpable cool air hitting us. We ordered our lunch and I took advantage of a parent buying me food to order a fancy drink as well. The “Flu Fighter.” A ginger-lemon-carrot juice. It was very gingery, and very good. After stuffing my face and attempting to explain why Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the greatest TV shows, we took a slow walk back.
We made a stop at David’s Tea, a veritable Starbucks for tea. I took a sample of everything they had samples of, and waited around while my father purchased a fancy tea blend and chatted with the young and very talkative sales lady. With time running out, I walked-sprinted down Park avenue and to 60th street. I said goodbye to my father and entered the building, another disappointing lack of air conditioning.
The girl I spoke with at 8:30 that morning was also waiting on the fifth floor. We started talking, two language learning freaks with insatiable desires to travel. She, having traveled to more places and studied more languages than I have, gave me inspiration and hope that what I do is not insane or useless. I wish I had time to learn more but soon enough we were called into the preparation room. To pick a topic for our oral exam we had a choice of documents, all face down on the table. I ended up with the topic of happiness.
I sighed a deep and silent sigh, and almost wanted to laugh. I wanted to tell the proctor everything about myself in order to get out of this topic. But instead I sat down and got to work.
An hour later I presented my topic to the judges. The women looked friendly enough but I was more nervous than I realized. I was speaking very fast and anxiously. I decided to tell them about my worry and slow down a bit. With decent French I survived my exposition on happiness, vis-à-vis the documents I was given. Anxiety crept back up as they began to pose questions about what I had said.
The next fifteen minutes were, in my opinion, an actual disaster. I could be overreacting. But I ended to whole exam by saying, “Alors on n’existe que pour quatre-vingts ans, plus ou moins. Rien n’est permanent.”
I paused while the judges stared wide-eyed back at me.
“La vie est belle. Merci, au revoir!”
And I left the room like it was on fire.
What is happiness? Where does it come from? Do you need other people to be happy or can you experience true and meaningful joy alone?
I’ve got no answers, in English or in French. I’ve struggled with happiness for a long time. Is happiness a goal? Are we all looking or searching for happiness? Like it’s some kind of Easter egg hunt gone wrong. The Universe put happiness out there, you just haven’t looked underneath the right couch cushions yet.
(to be continued)