As far as I could tell, my French host family owned one phone, a rotary, and it held court on a small console table in their lace-curtained parlor. The table stood all alone next to the doorway, so we had to take our phone calls like fugitives, standing up.
When my parents rang, I’d speak to my mother first and strive to provide the kind of details she might expect to hear about a daughter’s life in France. One day I might tell her about the majesty of the chestnut trees I’d seen during a stroll through the Parc Honoré de Balzac, (where is the Parc Honoré de Balzac?), another day about the pain au chocolat I’d purchased still warm from the local patisserie.
My father used the telephone first to confirm that I was still alive, and second that his tuition dollars were being well spent.
“Are you fluent yet?” he’d ask two minutes into our conversation, and I’d shift my weight from one foot to the other on the tattered 18th century rug. “I’m getting there,” is what I’d say.
And I was getting there, but slowly. That’s because instead of hanging out with French people, I was spending my evenings slinging back Guinness with a lot of drunken Englishmen at a place called “The London Pub.” Finding French students seeking American friendships was proving hard to do at the international language school where I was taking classes.
There were no French people enrolled there who wanted to learn French.
But the Institute was packed to the gills with Englishmen, who, with their Monty Python accents and scruffy Doc Martens, were very enticing, indeed. The Brits had a sense of humor foreign to their French counterparts and a penchant for American girls. More importantly, they spoke English, and you’d have been hard pressed to find one walking down the street with a poodle sticking out of his bag. Cleaving to the Brits in France was like opting for a comfortable, yet stylish pair of jeans instead of attempting to mold oneself into a sleek pair of glamorous leather pants. It was the natural thing to do.
The London Pub was a little bar in Place Plumereau owned by a man we called “Phildo.” People with names like “Simon,” “Nigel” and “David” convened there, Bass and Guinness flowed on tap, and the Smiths were always playing in the background. Here I met Ian, a student from the University of Bristol. And I quickly discovered that a crisp English accent was more compelling than a shallow complement from a serpentine Frenchman. The few that I’d met so far were physiquement attractive, I’ll give them that, but there was something about them that didn’t sit quite right with me. Their language and mannerisms were too dramatic, too cliché to be sincere.
Ian didn’t just find the French mildly annoying, he despised them. They were “wankers, the whole fucking lot,” and he wished he’d never set foot inside their pisspot of a country. If Ian stepped in a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk, it was because the French were filthy buggers. When he left his wallet sitting out on the bar after a few pints, it was stolen through no fault of his own, but because the country was morally bankrupt. And when Ian scraped the side of his rental car while pulling through a narrow parking lot gate, it was only because France didn’t know its head from its arsehole.
One thing led to another, and soon I found myself kissing him in a cobblestone alley behind the London Pub. My study abroad year was starting to look up. It was exactly the kind of scene I’d been envisioning since I’d set my sights on France, except that my Frenchman turned out to be a bookish Brit who kept a bottle of blue label Johnny Walker in his own personal locker at the London Pub.
If I couldn’t join the impenetrable French, I would team up with their archenemy and mock them gently over whiskey and Coke.
To be continued . . . maybe . . . one of these days.
This is Part Trois of my uber compelling series about the totally unique and in no way whatsoever cliche junior year I spent studying in France. You can read the first two parts here:Subscribe to the blog. (It's free!)