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Once in a Lifetime
by Ariel Tachna

Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: Offered a yearlong medical research fellowship in France, Shane Johnson has many hopes for the experience: a chance to improve his French, an opportunity to hone his research skills before starting his PhD at Baylor, and the freedom to live life as an openly gay man for the first time. He'll chronicle his year abroad with its challenges, victories, and setbacks as he struggles to balance his faith with his sexuality. As he navigates the shoals of a first kiss, a first relationship, and perhaps even lasting love, Shane will have to balance his newfound emotions with his long-term plans, and he'll face the decision of how his once-in-a-lifetime experience will fit into the life he wants to lead.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: August 2011


9 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [268 KB]
Words: 67328
Reading time: 192-269 min.

Friday, June 21

I probably should have written that in French. I probably should be writing all of this in French, but this is still my personal journal, and English is still my native language, even if I've worked my butt off over the past year to get my French to a level that will let me live and work in Grenoble for a year.

It's really here. I'm having a little trouble believing it, to tell the truth. When Dr. Kasinski first mentioned his collaboration with Dr. Besson and how he hoped to send one of his students to France, I never thought I'd be the one selected. I worked for it, but I didn't really think it would pay off. I mean, I'm a bio major, not a French student, despite the six semesters I've taken, but it turns out Dr. Besson was impressed enough with my resume that he accepted me even with my less-than-perfect linguistic skills.

He did, though, and he's done more than I could have imagined to make everything come together. The paperwork went through in record time, I have a place to live for the year with a nice family who has a son close to my age at the local university, he got a hotel room for me in Paris for tomorrow night so I can sleep before I have to take the train, and I have the train ticket in my bag. I'm almost afraid to meet the man in person because I'll end up babbling my gratitude until he fires me to get me to shut up.

At least I know I won't miss my flight. Mom thinks I'm crazy, getting here three hours early, but I'd rather sit in the airport than risk missing my flight. I've got about an hour left until we start boarding. I thought about going to the bar and getting something to drink, just because I can, but I don't like beer, I don't know anything about wine (the French are going to think I'm such an ignorant American, but there's nothing I can do about it since alcohol was strictly prohibited on campus and drinking off campus was a violation of the Honor Code), and mixed drinks give me a headache, so I'll just have to sit here and write in this journal.

Here, where I can be honest with myself because no one else will ever see it, I can admit to being scared to death. I'm a small-town kid from East Texas who went to a conservative Christian college. I'm a barely out of the closet gay man with no idea what to do about it. I'm so out of my league here. Everyone keeps telling me this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they're right. They're so right. It's why I'm sitting here in the Dallas airport despite the churning in my stomach. I just wish we'd start boarding so I could feel like I was doing something. Yes, I know, I said I'd rather be here early than miss my flight, but that doesn't mean I like waiting.

I am totally rambling here, which I guess is okay since the idea is to record my thoughts about this whole year as it happens, but I think maybe I'll go for a walk around the airport. It's a long flight to Paris. Stretching my legs now is a probably a good idea.

* * * *

I'm back. Not sure my nerves are any better, but at least I got some exercise. I'll be glad of that when we're halfway across the Atlantic. The other really cool thing? I heard a boarding announcement for a flight to Montreal in French and then in English, and I understood the French announcement even without hearing the English one! Maybe I won't be as hopeless when I get over there as I thought I would be.

I know I won't fool anyone into thinking I'm French, but on a flight to Paris, the stewardesses should speak French, so maybe I'll try out my skills on them too. Sort of get my feet wet slowly before I get thrown in the deep end. You hear these stories, you know? About how the French all speak English, but they refuse to admit it because they don't like Americans. My French professors told me that's a pile of shit (well, not in those words, since cursing was as forbidden on campus as alcohol), that if I was polite and made an effort, people would respond even if I made mistakes, but I can't help being nervous.

I'm taking a huge risk, deferring admission to Baylor's PhD program for a year to work in France. It's a calculated risk. The experience I'll get with Dr. Besson should give me a leg up on the work I'll have to do as a grad student and eventually as a researcher myself, but if I don't get some good results out of it, enough to get a good recommendation anyway, I could lose my place at Baylor. I guess if that happens, I can apply somewhere less prestigious, but it wouldn't be the same. Not when I've had my heart set on Baylor since I decided I wanted to do basic science research. I mean, I'd be crazy to pass up the chance to study with the likes of Huda Zoghbi or Hugo Bellen. Then again, speaking French might be an advantage with Dr. Bellen, since he's from Belgium.

Okay, I'm rambling again. Or maybe not so much rambling as avoiding the subject. I mean, it's one thing to worry now about the risk, but I've already decided to take it, and it's way too late to second-guess myself. I get on the plane in about twenty minutes. I've already shipped my books and a box of winter clothes. The Moreaus are expecting me the day after tomorrow, and Dr. Besson expects me at work on Wednesday. It's easier to worry about the long-term risk than it is to think about what tomorrow or next week might bring, to think about what I've promised myself for this year.

No more hiding. No more burying myself in work so I don't have to search for an excuse to get out of this event or that date where everyone will expect me to be as interested in the girls as all the other guys. I'm not interested in girls. Period. End of discussion. This year is my gift to myself. My chance to figure out who I am and what that means. Next year I'll buckle down and get on with the rest of my life. This year is for me. A year to be me, whatever I decide that means.

Now if I only had some idea how to go about that. How exactly does one go about being open about being gay without being a drag queen or a complete fairy or any of the other stereotypes that aren't me at all?

I have no idea how to answer that question, but I'm hoping I can figure it out. Otherwise there's not a whole lot of point in going somewhere so far away for a year.

They're calling my flight. Time to pack this up for now. I'm sure I'll write more on the plane.

* * * *

How cool is this? I'm sitting next to this older French lady. She speaks about ten words of English, from what I can tell, but she's totally willing to talk to me. Even better, she can understand me! I mean, I've seen her smile a few times like something I said was quaint or reminded her of her kids when they were first learning to talk, but she can understand me. I'm talking to a random French person and she can understand me. If we weren't stuck on the plane, I'd be doing the Snoopy dance for sure.

She started simply by greeting me, easy enough. So I replied and asked her how she was doing. She looked charmed, so I didn't pull my journal back out right away or put my headphones on or do any of the things I usually do on a plane to guarantee my seatmate leaves me alone. She asked if I was going to France for business or pleasure. I told her both. She looked like she wasn't sure I'd really understood her question, so I explained about the job and Grenoble and living in France for a year. I was surprised by how much I could say. I mean, I've studied technical terms to be able to talk to the other lab techs and to Dr. Besson, but I was actually able to explain that I would be doing research in a lab for a doctor who studies sickle-cell anemia. I didn't get into the technical stuff because some of it is confidential, but I could at least give her the general idea. It turns out she's from Annecy, which isn't all that far from Grenoble, so she told me all about the region and things to do and try. I won't remember them all, I'm sure, but I can remember she said I should give Lyon a try (but not the andouillette sausage) and that for skiing, I should skip Chamonix and go straight to Courchevel, but for the beaches, I should avoid Provence altogether and go west of the Rhone to Languedoc.

God, I can't believe how much we were able to discuss! And the stewardess came by with drinks while we were talking and didn't bat an eye when I ordered in French. Maybe I'm not as hopeless as I was afraid I'd be.

Maybe I really can do this. And if I can handle the language barrier this easily, maybe the rest won't be as hard as I thought it would either.

* * * *

Saturday, June 22

I don't think I've ever been so tired in my life. It's only noon here in Paris, but that's five a.m. at home and on next to no sleep. I couldn't get comfortable on the plane even though the seats were better than a lot of planes I've been on. The hotel in Paris let me leave my bags with the concierge, but I can't actually get in the room until after three. I'd kill for a nap right now, but instead I'm sitting in a sidewalk cafe across from the hotel hoping the caffeine in this coffee will keep me upright until three.

The coffee is amazing. I mean, I thought I knew something about coffee, having survived college, but this... "plain" black coffee has never tasted so good. It's rich and strong without being thick or bitter. I don't know if it's this cafe or if it's French coffee in general, but I may never look at Starbucks the same again.

I know I ought to go for a walk, see part of the city or something, but my legs feel like lead. I'll order lunch in a few minutes and hope that helps wake me up. I don't know what's going on today, but the street here is blocked like they're going to have a parade or a demonstration or something. I just hope it doesn't last very long, although as tired as I am, I could probably sleep through the noise. Maybe the waiter will know what's going on. I'll ask him when he brings my lunch. Steak-frites. I'm such a tourist, but I needed something more substantial than a sandwich after the croissant they called breakfast on the plane. Another one of those things I know I'll have to get used to. No full American breakfast around here, just a couple of croissants or a baguette and jelly, or if I'm lucky, a bowl of cereal. Once I get to Grenoble and start working, I can always buy my own box of cereal if the Moreaus go the more traditional route for breakfast, but until that first paycheck is in the bank, I'm hoarding every penny I can. Dr. Besson warned me to bring enough money for two months on the off chance there was a problem with my paperwork. I hope it won't come to that, but if it does, I don't intend to be caught short. I have to pay the Moreaus for room and board, I have to be able to pay for either the tramway or the bus to get to work (still have to figure that one out, but I'm hoping I can do that tomorrow when I get to town), and I have to get lunch for myself. That doesn't sound like a lot, but I'd rather not go hungry, so I'll pinch pennies until then. At least I won't have to worry about a car, though. And here's lunch.

* * * *

Oh my God! You'll never believe what the waiter just told me when I asked about the blocked streets. He said today is Paris's Gay Pride parade, and that it will pass through here in a couple of hours. I want to see it, but a part of me is screaming at me to run away and hide in my hotel room. I won't do that, though. I won't let myself be that person any more. Granted, I didn't expect it to happen this fast, but I came to France with the idea of finding myself as a gay man, and suddenly here's my chance to start. I'll watch the parade, maybe see if there are fliers for clubs or something. Not that I'll be living in Paris, but there's nothing to stop me from coming up for a weekend once I get settled in. It's a three-hour train ride if I take the TGV direct, and not all that much more if I have to change trains in Lyon.

I'm eating as I write, and I can't believe how good the food is. It's a steak with french fries. This is not supposed to be "rock my world" food. One of my professors told me I hadn't eaten until I'd been to France, but I didn't believe her. Maybe I should have listened a little more carefully. I wonder what else she told me that I discounted too soon. I suppose I'll find out. I've got half an hour until the Pride parade is supposed to start, so I'd better eat quickly. I'm nervous, yes, but I don't want to miss a second of it. I'm afraid if I do, I'll lose my nerve.

* * * *

Sunday, June 23

You know how I said yesterday that I'd never been so tired in my life? Yeah, well, I lied. Now I've never been so tired in my life. I'm on the train to Grenoble with all my bags, trying to make myself stay awake. Not that I think anyone is going to rifle through my suitcases if I sleep, but I have to get this down before I lose all my impressions.

The Gay Pride parade yesterday was unlike anything I've ever seen before. There were thousands of people there. Hundreds of thousands for all I know, although that's probably an exaggeration. The streets were packed, people climbing on top of bus stops and newspaper stands so they could see, all up in the trees and on lamp posts. And these were just the people who'd come out to see the parade. The people actually in the parade were even more unbelievable, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The parade passed in front of my hotel, but it didn't actually start there, so I had a little longer to eat lunch than I'd thought I would (which was good because the food was too amazing to rush, and the dessert was even better. Creme caramel... I think I'm in love). When I finished eating, I went outside to see what was going on or what I could see. The parade hadn't reached us yet (it starts down in Montparnasse, the people around me said), but the party had already started. I've never seen anything like it. Yes, I know, I already said that, but it bears repeating. All around me, people were holding hands and kissing. Not making out, but leaning over and kissing their boyfriends or girlfriends like it was the most normal thing in the world. I guess for them it is. They're out and in a relationship with someone they care about. For them, it's no different than the straight couples I knew in college who didn't think anything of kissing each other goodbye or hello. This is just the first time I've seen gay couples do it.

The first time, I caught myself looking away, like there was something shameful in what they were doing. I hate that reaction in myself. The only difference between them and me is that they got up the courage to come out some time ago, and I'm just doing it now. Then I noticed something. Nobody else looked away. Nobody else cared. Even the straight couples in the crowd. There wasn't anything shameful in those kisses or the clasped hands. Not here.

I'm not naive. Well, not that naive. I know there will still be people who might not approve, but this isn't East Texas. I don't have to hide who I am here. If I learned one thing yesterday (and I learned a whole lot more than one thing!), it was that. It really is okay to be myself and to be gay.

There's something incredibly freeing about writing those words. It's okay to be myself and to be gay. Maybe I'll write them a few more times until I'm sure they've completely sunk in.

It's okay to be gay.

So anyway, there's this huge party atmosphere already, music playing from somewhere, maybe one of the cafes, maybe someone had a radio. I couldn't ever decide where it was coming from at that point. Later, once we got to place de la Bastille, it was from the soundstage, of course, but that was different. This wasn't anything organized as far as I could tell, more a matter of the giddiness spilling out of everyone. People were dancing, right there on the sidewalks, as they waited for the parade to arrive.

When it did, it was a revelation. I saw drag queens and leather guys. I saw people of every ethnicity in traditional dress, sometimes cross-dressing, sometimes not. And the colors! Everything was so bright. I swear, the sun shone brighter as the parade approached. How could it not? It was such a celebration of life and love and diversity. I can't even imagine what my friends from college would think, but I'm done with that. It doesn't matter what they would think because I know what I think. I think what I saw yesterday in the streets of Paris is the way life should be. Not the parade or the party, although that was fantastic. The celebration of diversity in all the senses of the word. That's the way life should be. That's the way my life will be.

Because for every drag queen or leather guy I saw, I saw fifty, no, a hundred people just like me. People in street clothes, celebrating their right to be different. I saw a soccer team that had as their motto "gay and straight, the team that defends diversity." I can't even begin to imagine something like that at home. In San Francisco, maybe, but I don't live in San Francisco. I got so caught up in the joie de vivre that I forgot all about being tired. I followed the parade through half of Paris, it felt like, until we reached place de la Bastille and the dance party. My legs felt like rubber by the time I got there, but the energy in the air was catching. I feel it today, though!

The music wasn't anything I was familiar with, but it didn't matter. Everyone was so caught up in it, dancing right there in the place, which was completely blocked off. I don't think I've ever danced so much or with so many people before. Every time I'd stop to catch my breath, someone else would grab my hand and pull me back into the dancing. Men, women, it didn't matter. Somehow I don't think my friends at home had this in mind when they talked about the once-in-a-lifetime experience. Then again, maybe it won't be once in a lifetime. Maybe I'll make this my annual pilgrimage. I'll come to Paris every year for Pride and dance in the streets until I'm too old to dance.

At some point the party spilled out of place de la Bastille into the Marais, which I learned is very queer friendly, although yesterday, at least, all of Paris seemed queer friendly. It does give me an idea of where to hang out if I come back for a weekend, though, so I made a mental note of it last night and I'm writing it down now. I ate dinner at some point last night, although by then I was so exhausted I couldn't tell you what I ate, but I couldn't tear myself away from the joyousness of the evening either: the dancing, the music, the everything that made the entire day so unique. The minute I came out of the restaurant, I got pulled back into the crowd again.

When I finally stumbled back to the hotel a little before midnight, I barely got my shoes off before collapsing onto the bed and falling asleep. Fortunately my train didn't leave until almost two today or I'd have missed it for sure. By four thirty, I'll be in Grenoble. Madame Moreau said she'd meet me at the train station. I feel kind of bad making her come get me, but honestly, as tired as I am, I don't think I'd trust myself to navigate the bus system today. I have Monday and Tuesday to take care of stuff like setting up a bank account and taking my passport to the prefecture to get the temporary work visa replaced with the official one. I can figure out the buses and trams then.

* * * *

I fell asleep on the train, pen in hand. Fortunately the TGV is a direct train with just the one stop, so I didn't have to deal with the embarrassment of sleeping through my stop. I found Mme Moreau waiting for me on the platform as promised. She couldn't have been more gracious about my obviously sleep-deprived conversation or the amount of luggage I have. It's not like I'm coming for a weekend. I'm here for the full year. Anyway, she drove me home. And what a home! I had the address, but I was lazy and hadn't bothered to look it up on a map. It's practically on the Esplanade! I look out one window and see the mountains and out the other and see the river. It's freaking unbelievable. And the house itself... First of all, it's a house, which isn't always the case. A lot of families live in apartments rather than free-standing houses, but the Moreaus have a house, and a really nice one too. It's probably a couple hundred years old (even as I write that, my mind boggles) with thick walls and big windows with shutters that actually work. They call them volets apparently. And they close them all every night and open them all again every morning. How cool is that!

Anyway, the Moreaus have three kids, but only two of them live at home full time. Elodie and Serge are both in high school and seem fun. I don't know how much time I'll spend with them, given their school schedule and my work schedule, but they'll be someone to talk to at the dinner table if nothing else. They both seemed excited about having someone to practice their English with, so I agreed to help them with their schoolwork in the fall, as long as they promised to help me with my French. They just finished school for the summer. So did Pierre, the oldest son, but he wasn't here tonight. He has one year left in college, so I'm hoping he'll be willing to show me around a little this summer before classes start back for him, since he's the closest to my age and so the one most likely to know the kinds of places I'd enjoy meeting people.

What else? Oh, my room... it's not anything fancy, but it's nice in its simplicity. It's sort of a loft room, or maybe a converted attic, although the conversion isn't recent. You can see the beams of the roof. These old, heavy wooden... logs. I mean, they've been shaped and all, but they're huge. Like full tree trunks supporting the roof. I've got a bed, a desk, a closet, and my own toilet and sink. I have to go downstairs to shower, but if I have to get up in the middle of the night to take a leak, I don't have to worry about stumbling down the stairs or waking anyone else up. And one whole wall is lined with bookshelves. I haven't looked at any of the books yet, but at least if I get bored, I'll have something to read. Even if they're the classics instead of contemporary fiction, it'll be good for my French.

Mme Moreau gave me a key, which makes sense because I'll need to come and go for work and stuff, but that was it. No reminder of what time I needed to be in. Just a key and a request that if I come in late, to be quiet so I don't wake the family up. As if I'd be that disrespectful, but she doesn't really know me yet, so it's a reasonable request. I'm not quite sure what to do with myself with no curfew. I went from living with my parents and having a ten o'clock curfew on weeknights and midnight on the weekends, to college where curfew ranged from eleven to one thirty. Even when I was home in the summers, my parents expected me home at midnight. During the week, I'm sure I'll be home far earlier than that here too since I'll have to work the next day, but in theory, I could stumble in at four or five in the morning, or, if I met someone I wanted to spend time with, simply not come home one night. I'm not sure if that's liberating or frightening. I never had to worry in college about needing an excuse to leave if a situation got uncomfortable. Even if I wasn't on campus, the local kids knew all about our curfews, so I'd tell them I had to be back for dorm check and that got me out of anything I needed out of. I won't have that here. It sounds like a funny thing to miss when I was just talking about the freedom, but it means I have to make those decisions for myself now instead of having them made for me. One more step into adulthood.

I'm starting to babble again, I know, but I've reached that point beyond exhaustion where sleep is difficult. I was hoping writing some would help me settle for the night, but it hasn't yet. My mind is racing with everything I have to get done tomorrow and on Tuesday, and my stomach is churning because I haven't the slightest idea how to do it. I asked M. Moreau about the bank and he recommended one that has lots of ATMs and no fees, so that much is done. Now I just have to hope my French is up to the process of opening the account. My success on the plane and in Paris notwithstanding, that will be a very different kind of conversation.

This is ridiculous. I'm putting down my pen and going to bed. Otherwise I really won't be able to get everything done tomorrow that I need to do.

* * * *

Tuesday, June 25

I was bad and didn't write yesterday, but really, there wasn't a whole lot interesting in spending the day doing paperwork. Paperwork at the bank, paperwork at the prefecture, paperwork at CAF. The good news is I have a bank account, I have a work visa (no delays in getting my salary processed! Woohoo!), and I might actually get a subsidy on my rent. Another one of those things I had no idea about. Because the CNRS is a government-funded agency, I'm technically a government employee, and so I'm covered by health insurance and eligible for certain social benefits. I could get to like it over here.

That's the boring stuff. Tonight was much more interesting. Pierre--the Moreaus' oldest son--came home for dinner. I'd been thinking of him as being a year younger than me, but he's really not. His birthday is tomorrow--he'll be twenty-two too--and he invited me to the party on Saturday. Not the family party, but the one afterward with all his friends from the university. I mean, he invited me to the family party too, but that one isn't nearly as interesting to me as the other one. A chance to meet Pierre's friends, people more or less my age who might become my friends.

I'm kind of hesitant to admit it, even here in my journal where no one else will see it, but Pierre is kinda cute. Who am I kidding? He's really cute. That's silly and pointless because even if he's single (and I don't know that he is), he's probably straight. And supposing I got lucky and he was gay, there's no chance he'd be interested in me. I mean, I'm just here for a year, and then I'm going home. Not a whole lot of future in that for either of us. It didn't stop me from looking, though. He's got sandy brown hair that curls all over the place, and these gorgeous brown eyes that danced with excitement the whole time we talked about the party on Saturday. The family one is a late lunch, probably a huge meal if what everyone told me is true, and then the one with his friends is in a club later that evening. L'Absolu, I think he said the name was. He said we could go together from the family party to the other one, so I don't actually have to worry about finding it myself.

He also said, to his mother, not to me, that since classes were out for the summer, he'd probably be home for dinner a lot more often. Maybe... maybe I can get some other invitations to parties and stuff with him around. I want to make friends, to have a life while I'm here, and I think Pierre and I could be friends. We have a lot of things in common, we discovered at dinner. We like a lot of the same movies and music, although he mentioned some French artists I'm not familiar with. He said he'd lend me some CDs so I can give them a try. I was a little embarrassed, honestly. He knows so much about American music, and I know so little about French music, but that didn't seem to bother him.

Is this what a crush feels like? That's a stupid question, I know, but I never let myself even think about it in college. Besides being strictly forbidden, I wasn't ready to admit who I was. Not there, anyway. I had fantasy guys, actors and stuff I thought were cute, but that's not the same thing. Pierre's a real person. I mean, he's someone I actually know and can hang out with as opposed to some publicist's creation who I ever only see in staged interviews or on the big screen.

My stomach is all tied in knots and my mind keeps replaying our conversation from dinner. Pierre actually complimented my French. I couldn't believe it. He said he didn't have any trouble understanding me. I got an intellectual thrill when I could talk to the lady on the plane and the guy at the bank, but this was a thrill on a different level. That's what makes me think this is a crush.

Oh, here's Pierre with the CDs.

* * * *

How do you know if a guy is flirting with you?

Pierre came up to my room after dinner, while I was writing earlier, and brought a whole stack of CDs. That was already pretty cool, but then he stayed to chat, perched on the edge of my bed while I sat at my desk, my closed journal on my knees like some kind of stupid security blanket. He went through all the CDs with me, telling me who all the artists were again and why he liked different songs and styles. It was interesting and fun and I'm glad he came upstairs, but I got this feeling he was looking for something more. He didn't say anything, obviously, or I wouldn't be asking the question, but it seemed like he met my eyes constantly and that he sat just a little more splay-legged than comfortable, like he wanted me to look at him, and then he'd lean forward whenever I said anything (which wasn't often because I was afraid I'd say the wrong thing once the thought popped into my head that he might be flirting), like he was hanging on every word I said.

He didn't agree with everything I said when I did manage to say something. He still doesn't like Keith Urban, but I guess country music is an acquired taste if you don't grow up with it like I did. Dad doesn't think much of him either, despite having grown up in the country.

If we were at home and if Pierre were a girl, or I were, I'd be pretty sure he was flirting at least lightly, but everything is so different here that I'm afraid to judge anything by what I knew at home. Maybe everything tonight was perfectly normal for him and another French guy (or girl) wouldn't have thought anything of it. I guess that's the first drawback of trying to figure out how to be gay in a culture other than my own. I don't know the mores here well enough yet to know what's French and what's gay.

I start work tomorrow (on a completely different note). I figured out the buses and the times today. As long as the buses run on time, I can make it in less than half an hour. For the summer, I might even see about finding a bike I could use, because given where the buses run, I bet I could get there as fast or faster on a bike. The road up to the house is steep, but the rest of the city is surprisingly flat for being so close to the Alps.

That's a problem for this weekend. I'm certainly not going to find a bike between tonight and tomorrow morning.

* * * *

Wednesday, June 26

I started work today. It's not going to be anything like working in Dr. Kasinski's lab. Not that the work he's doing isn't good work, because it is, but that's a college lab. This is... this is the big time.

Everyone was friendly, if a little reserved--which I think is typical of the French actually. They're polite but not effusive until you get to know them a little better. And they were very amused at my tie. *sigh* Another one of those things I'll have to get used to. I'm used to wearing a tie pretty much all the time. Not on weekends, but we had to wear them to class, to chapel, to lunch... if we were out of the dorm for anything other than Phys Ed before five in the evening, we pretty much had a tie on. That isn't the case here. Everyone was very professional in their behavior and their attitudes, but not in their dress. I asked Jean-Mathias, the tech at the bench next to mine, about it, and he said with all the chemicals we work with, it's easy to ruin clothes, and so people tend to go for comfortable rather than fancy at work.

I always wore a lab coat in Dr. Kasinski's lab to avoid that since I didn't have a choice. I'll have to rethink my clothing options for the rest of the year. I packed all my shirts and ties thinking I'd need them for work and not nearly as many of my T-shirts and sweatshirts thinking I'd only need them on the weekend. Maybe Mom would ship me some, and I can always buy a few here. Mme Moreau told me tonight at dinner that I should do laundry whenever I need to. She said she'd show me how for the first load, but after that, not to feel like she needed to be around. Fais comme chez toi has definitely been the motto since I got here. Make yourself at home would be the English equivalent, I guess, although the words don't match up. That's one of the things I love about language. The way different languages get across the same idea but with totally different words.

I'm digressing, although I guess if I'm allowed to digress anywhere, it's here.

So, work...

Today was mostly orientation. Figuring out where everything is, who everyone is, what my part in the big project will be, making sure I had all the paperwork filed with the CNRS so I can get paid on time. Dr. Besson said it looked like everything was in order and that my first paycheck should arrive on time at the end of July. He also said I should be covered by health insurance starting on July 1, which is just a couple of days away. That's a relief, because even though I'm still on my parents' insurance for a few more months, I'd hate to think of the complications of trying to get medical treatment approved all the way over here. Not that I expect to need it, but it's nice to know I'll have it in case I get sick.

The highlight of my day, though, was lunch with Jean-Mathias. (Is that bad?) He just finished his graduate work in biology and started working in Dr. Besson's lab about a year ago. I guess the American equivalent would be post-doc, but I don't think that translates here. He isn't studying or training, from what I could tell. This is his job now, the start of his career. If things go well for him in Dr. Besson's lab, he could apply for grants in a few years to start his own lab, or he could stay where he is and do bench work. He said he doesn't know which he'd prefer yet. I can understand that. If I had the choice of a real career, salary wise, without having to fight for grants, I'd take it. That's the one part of my future I'm not looking forward to.

I really enjoyed our conversation. Jean-Mathias is a couple of years older than me and a real sports enthusiast. He was talking about going biking up in the mountains this weekend. I think of myself as being in pretty good shape, but I'm not sure I'd want to tackle the mountains yet. But he also plays soccer and some basketball and mentioned swimming. I obviously can't make plans for this weekend since I have Pierre's parties on Saturday, but I'm hoping Jean-Mathias wouldn't mind me tagging along when he goes biking or whatever. After four years of having a Phys Ed class every semester, I've gotten used to being active. I don't want to lose that simply because there's no longer a professor checking my BMI at the end of the semester as part of my grade. I've seen what obesity does to people--my town isn't known for healthy eating--and I don't want that to happen to me.

It's kind of cool. I've been here less than a week, and I've already made two friends. Or at least I've met two people who could be my friends with a little time and effort. I have time and I'm willing to make the effort. This is going to be a good year.

Oh, the other thing I did today was pick up an adapter for my laptop, so I'll have Internet access now. The Moreaus have a wireless connection and don't mind me using it, so maybe I'll search the 'net for a gay club or to see if Grenoble has a pride parade like the one in Paris. It would be fun to do another parade, but I'm far more interested in making the connection with other people in the community. If I'm going to explore that side of me, I have to find people who can guide me. I'll still do things with Pierre and Jean-Mathias, if they're willing, of course. There's more to me than being gay, and the last thing I want is to lose out on friendships. Obviously if I'm looking for a boyfriend, he has to be gay, but I can be friends with anyone.

Mme Moreau is calling everyone for dinner. I have no idea what we're having, but I've been smelling it since I got home, so I'm sure it will be delicious.

* * * *

Since today was Pierre's birthday, even though the party is on Saturday, Mme Moreau made all his favorite dishes for dinner. We had charcuterie as an appetizer, duck with cherries, and then salad, of course, and this melon that's sort of like a cantaloupe, only not quite, with port wine for dessert. And we had wine with dinner. I wasn't sure I'd like it. I've never developed a taste for beer or been exposed to much alcohol of any other variety, but it was really good. It was from M. Moreau's brother's vineyard. I didn't know they had a vintner in the family.

They asked me how I liked the wine, of course, and I had to confess my absolute ignorance, although I did assure them I really enjoyed what was in my glass. Pierre, Serge, and Elodie couldn't believe I'd never had wine before. I tried to explain that I went to a conservative Christian university, but while I know they understood my words, the concept is too foreign to them. Universities here are public institutions, and France's definition of the separation of church and state goes a lot farther than ours. For me, it means no state-defined religion. Here, it means no religion in any public domain. I keep bumping up against these differences that surprise me. I don't know that it will really change all that much in my daily life. I can go to church on Sunday. I can be involved in any church group I want to be. It's just a different attitude.

So anyway, I explained about the Honor Code to the best of my ability, and they promised to take me to their uncle's some weekend soon to expand my education. It's odd to think that these teenagers of fifteen and seventeen know more about wine than I do, but when I said that, they reminded me that France doesn't have a drinking age. A purchasing age, but not a drinking age. Kids here grow up drinking watered-down wine on special occasions, and as they get older, that becomes regular wine on special occasions. Plus, they hear their parents talk about it, so even when they don't taste the wine, they learn the vernacular. Pierre and his parents each had a couple of glasses, but Serge and Elodie only had one each, and it wasn't even a full glass, so it's not like they're out getting drunk.

It's a different mindset than what I'm used to, but I wonder, in a way, if it isn't a more responsible one. There's no mystery so there's no reason to run off to college (well, most colleges) and engage in the typical freshmen binges. Not that we had that, but I have friends from high school who came home after their first semester and all they could talk about were the parties and getting drunk all the time.

Speaking of drunk, I think the wine must have gone to my head even more than I realized because I'm having a hard time keeping this coherent. So, to try to finish my tale, the whole discussion led to me admitting I'd like to know more. I doubt I'll ever be a connoisseur, but I'd like to be conversant anyway. I'd like to know what to order with what so if I'm out with friends (or a date), I don't end up looking like an idiot. Pierre immediately offered to take me to some wine tastings in town and out to his uncle's house some weekend so I could have the grand tour. And so now I'm back to wondering if he's flirting with me again. Serge and Elodie are too young to go with us to a store because you pay for the wine tasting, which constitutes purchasing wine, but they immediately asked to come to their uncle's as well. Pierre didn't exactly say no, but it seemed like he didn't want them to join us. I don't mind if they come, honestly, but I kind of like the idea of spending the weekend alone with Pierre. Maybe if I plan a trip some weekend to visit some of the places the lady on the plane told me about, I can see if he'd like to come along.

Of course I'm probably wrong, and he's not flirting, and any trip, to his uncle's or otherwise, will just be a weekend as friends. I need to set up my computer and find out more about Grenoble's gay community. Then I can stop worrying about Pierre except as a friend.

That's what I'll do tomorrow as soon as I get home from work. I'll be awake enough (and sober enough) then to get everything working right. I'd be almost afraid to try tonight. I might break something. I'm not as recovered from the jet lag as I thought, and the wine didn't help. Time for bed.

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