Category Archives: college days

I Went to France and All I Kissed Was an Englishman

Party at the London Pub

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:

Part Un

Part Deux

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Saint Peter, a Priest, and a College Student are in a Boat. . .

One summer during college, I went on a retreat with my Catholic youth group. And not just any retreat, but a canoeing retreat. It took place at Canada’s stunningly beautiful Algonquin Provincial Park and I regretted it from the moment I realized I’d have to row a canoe and occasionally even carry that canoe, plus my worldly belongings, over my own head.

It was hot, there were swarms of bees, and you couldn’t even catch a break when we stopped to rest because that was scripture reading time. The campground, when we reached it, wasn’t so much a campground as a small secluded island with no plumbing or electrical outlets to plug your curling iron in. We cooked by fire, put iodine tablets in the river water to cleanse it, and slept on the forest floor in tents.

Despite all that, Algonquin was pretty impressive. I was with my closest friends, had my eye on a handsome Quebecois, and was appreciating the beauty of creation despite myself. You can’t help but feel closer to God when you paddle by a single moose standing in shallow waters with mountains and the setting sun as backdrop. Or when you’re kicking back by the fire with a brewski and some chips.

On the last day of the retreat, after we’d packed up the campsite and put out the fires, we had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of confession. The prospect of dragging out your sins without the benefit of a confessional window to hide behind was daunting to say the least, but our chaplain – Father Sunshine – was a stand-up priest who had good rapport with young people and was always quick with a kind word or joke. Besides, after three days in the woods, we felt humble and changed. One by one, we took the plunge.

I was the last to go and when my turn came, I went to town. There was no end to my transgressions, no sin left behind. Big ones, small ones, I lifted each one individually and cast it off like refuse into the abyss. In the past I’d questioned the necessity of confession as a sacrament, believing that no mediator was needed between me and God. But there is something about laying your faults bare, about lifting them up and giving them away, that is spectacularly liberating. At least, it was very good for me.

Afterward I felt like a new person. My backpack was suddenly lighter, there was a bounce in my step. But even more importantly, I knew that in just six short hours, I’d be showering and sleeping in a real bed. What I didn’t know was that while I was going through my litany, everyone else in the group had paired up. One by one, the canoes and their occupants set off towards home base as the wind picked up and a steady rain began to pour.

Father Sunshine and I were the only two left.

He looked at me, I looked at him.

“I guess we’re buddies” he said.

Next thing you know, I’m in a boat with my confessor. It’s driving rain and I’m doing my best to keep the canoe moving forward in a straight line. Father Sunshine is patient and gives gentle advice, but in his heart of hearts I know he’s marveling at my sins. It’s a predicament to say the least, only made worse by the fact that we’re drifting farther away from the other canoes in the middle of a storm.

The only redeeming thing about the situation is that I’m about to die a saint.

After awhile, even father Sunshine starts looking worried and suggests we ask Saint Peter to keep an eye on us and give us faith. Saint Peter, of course, is the apostle who with God’s help rowed his boat safely ashore in the raging sea of Gallilee while Jesus slept.

Even in my terror, I couldn’t help but notice the poetry of the situation. Especially when, after dispensing his advice, Father Sunshine put down his oars and lit up a Marlboro Light.

“Keep rowing,” he told me, “I have faith in you.”

I don’t know how we made it out alive, but it was the best penance I ever did.

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Age of Ignorance: The Enviable Heathens

This post is the second installment of my half-baked series about the year my best friend and I spent living in Tours, France. In case you missed it, you can read the first part here.

Becky and Assorted Exchange Students with Water, Coke, and Wine

Good Catholic girls that we were, Becky and I had been warned that France was morally bankrupt, but it wasn’t until we moved in with our host family on Rue Victor Hugo that we were able to witness it firsthand.

The first thing we discovered was that you could drink wine every night with your dinner and nobody batted an eye. The family we boarded with hosted a motley crew of exchange students year round and each night when we gathered at the large dining room table for our main meal, we were offered water, wine, or Coke.  After a brief period of false virtue, I picked wine every time. It would have been a crime not to, and I didn’t want to offend.

Le vin worked like a charm to loosen up my tongue so I could yammer on with greater facility about how embarrassing my countrymen were. Though I wasn’t 100% sold on the French yet, I felt it necessary to differentiate myself from the loud, obnoxious, sweatpants wearing breed of American at any cost. Of course, I learned more French sipping Rhone red at that dinner table than I ever did from any book, and it remains in my mind’s eye the lasting image of my junior year abroad.

One evening shortly after our arrival, a striking blonde joined the family for dinner and was introduced to us as Sophie, our host “brother’s” girlfriend.  Arnold (“Arghhh-No“) was only our host “brother” in name.  He was our age – about twenty – but had been a disappointment from the very start with his awkward appearance and pointed indifference toward us. He didn’t like Americans – that much was clear – and probably wasn’t crazy about sharing his home with a gaggle of over eager exchange students who butchered his mother tongue and imposed their cheap neophyte culture on his ancient Gallic roots. Becky and I had crossed him off of our potential boyfriend list as soon as we’d arrived.

Me, trying desperately to look all frenchy-french-french. Too bad I never got the memo about NOT TUCKING YOUR SWEATER INTO YOUR PANTS.

Arghhh-No largely ignored us and, when directly addressed, would purposely answer in slurred street language to ensure we didn’t understand a word he’d said. Sophie, on the other hand, spoke to us in a friendly, lark-like tone of voice. She wasn’t interested in us as individuals, per se, but at least she treated us as diversions instead of lepers, like Arghh-No. That night after the evening meal, Sophie horrified and profoundly impressed us by pulling a pack of peach Gauloise cigarettes out of her pocket and while Becky and I stared with mouths agape, proceeded to light one up in plain sight.

Scandale!

It was clear that Sophie had a death wish, because everyone knew cigarettes were something you smoked secretly, behind your boyfriend’s parents’ backs. And yet here here she was, sipping wine and blowing smoke rings right under our noses like a young Catherine Deneuve.  I waited in gleeful anticipation for la merde to hit the fan, but the only thing that happened was Monsiour Host Father got up and brought her an ashtray.

Sophie was a total badass and I decided I’d do anything to become her friend.

The next morning while Becky and I we were eating our meager French breakfast of black coffee and a single slice of toast with jam, the enigmatic and unabashedly bed-headed Sophie descended from Arghhh-No’s bedroom in pajamas and sat down at the table like a person without mortal sin upon her head. It was inconceivable! Had she actually spent the night? And if she had, didn’t she have the good sense to make a run for it before the rest of the family woke up?

France was clearly a country full of sex-crazed heathens and therefore glamorous beyond compare.

My Adorable Host Parents, and Hadid, our Kuwaiti Housemate

Not only did Sophie continue to sleep in Arghhh-No’s socialist lair for the next three nights, she also wore the same outfit for the remainder of the week and, by my hawk-like calculations, only showered once during that entire time.  Becky and I, who made it a point to rotate our limited wardrobe of quintessentially French blazers, jeans, and scarves daily and who would have rather died than worn the same shirt twice in one week, were totally aghast. Not only were the French godless alcoholics, they really didn’t bathe.

Naturally, we began to alternate between homesickness and an intense desire to become one of them.

(To be continued . . . )

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Age of Ignorance – Part One

It was fun and games on the flight from Detroit to Paris. In the early nineties, you couldn’t get lung cancer or give other people emphysema on a Trans Atlantic flight, so as soon as our plane took off, Beck and I whipped out our heretofore illicit pack of Camel lights and ordered adult beverages. Then we donned our Sony Walkmen and began scribbling furiously in our respective diaries. Important, sophisticated things were about to happen to us, and it was imperative that we write them down in progress.

We were twenty years old, best friends, and on our way to study abroad in France. We were going to fall in love with devastatingly handsome men, spend our days reading Camus in sidewalk cafes, and become all-around glamorous. I was planning on staying there for life and raising Gallic children in a chateau on the banks of the Loire, but I hadn’t yet broken it to my parents. They were footing the bill.

When we exited the passenger walkway at Charles de Gaulle in our Doc Martens and black turtlenecks, France knocked the air out of our lungs and then proceeded to ignore us. I noticed immediately that the travel outfit I had carefully selected from The Gap was no match for Paris street fashion and scrambled to unroll my pegged jeans. How could I make my hair look worldly in that sloppy French way? Why was everyone wearing the same ugly plaid scarf, and where could I get one?* Why didn’t I look less like Punky Brewster, more like Julie Binoche?

After locating our luggage, Becky and I stood in the terminal like deer in headlights. Ou est la gare de train? Suddenly it struck us with perfect clarity that we were two dowdy specks with Berlitz accents standing in a sea of indifferent humanity, and that knowing how to say, “The weather pleases me today” with perfect diction wasn’t going to get us to our youth hostel in one piece.

Becky was the first to brave the SNCF counter, where she accidentally bought two train tickets instead of just one. I stepped up to the window next, and after complementing the maleficent government employee on her beautiful blue eggs, managed to buy two tickets of my own.  It was only through dumb luck and the grace of God that Becky and I made it, three hours later, to our hostel in the Latin Quarter.

After only a few days of living our dream, we were depressed. We had the wrong shoes and even ????Pepe Le Pew spoke better French than us. The rest of our study abroad group, who had arrived several weeks before, had already closed their circle and sealed it shut. We spent a lot of time writing in our diaries.

One afternoon as we were despairing in the fifth floor loft bedroom of our host family’s home, Becky picked up a station playing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. on her Walkman. At home, we wouldn’t have touched the Boss with a ten foot pole. We were tortured souls who preferred Morrissey’s self-absorbed navel gazing over a bumpkin like Bruce.  But all of a sudden, Bruce Springsteen was speaking directly to our hearts. By God, we were born in the U.S.A.! We liked malls and Big Gulps with ice, dammit! Why had we ever thought living in a country where people ate frog legs and horsemeat would be fun? We cranked up the volume and danced on our beds.

France was exactly the way I had always pictured it: sophisticated, slightly rude, and grungy with a glossy veneer. The problem was that it I was less of an adventurer than I’d previously thought. I happened to notice also that I was the the same person across the pond as I had been in America. I wasn’t smarter, more glamorous, more fashionable or more interesting.  Living abroad, I suddenly realized, wasn’t going to magically transform me into a bohemian swan. If anything, it had stripped me down to my very essence, and all of my personality traits – both good and bad – were having an unauthorized dance party dangerously close to the surface. Standing unmoored in the middle of Europe was making me more myself than ever, and I had plenty of time to contemplate it.

(to be continued . . . )

* Burberry.

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