My History with France

When I was in high school in Texas, I had a French teacher named Monsieur White. He was the golf coach. His hair was a greasy silver mess over a hopelessly flaky scalp. M. White wore leisure suits and had some sort of an ear, nose, throat problem that forced him to spit out the window into the courtyard. There was a dead little patch of brown grass were he spit. Gross.

M. White had a lousy French accent and shouted French phrases at us like we were on his golf team. When someone would struggle with a “Je suis le” something or other, he would stretch out his red, wrinkled, flaky neck as if to hope this would finally be a hole in one. More often than not, it was a linguistic sand trap. As the semester wore on, he cared less and less about teaching us the French words of vegetables we would never order in a café we would never visit. He would retreat into his desk, prop up his feet and read the want ads.

By the second semester, M. White had said Au Revoir and taken an early retirement. He was replaced by Madame Harris. When we first laid eyes on her, she didn’t seem that much older than us. Her hair was long and thin with little straggly curls at the end. She wore matching barrettes on each side of her face—the cheap tin ones you get at Eckerd’s in a plastic bag. And she had bangs. Wispy little uneven bangs that covered her pimply round forehead.

Madame Harris wore blouses. Not shirts. Not sweaters. But old lady blouses in shades of pale peach, pale ivory, pale blue and pale pink. She wore full skirts in unusually happy patterns and colors. Sometimes a cheery pink plaid, or blue daisies or a weird shade of yellow. The kind of skirts you made with your Mom from broadsheet fabrics on sale at Walmart in order to learn how to sew. She had two pairs of shoes. Tan flats and black sandals.

Madame Harris was very organized, and very precise in her cheerfulness. We started learning a French song in class, which I felt was far beyond our capabilities. But she believed in us… or didn’t know any better. She spoke French like a severe little nanny—every syllable exacting an immense purpose. Every day we learned a new line to our song. The next day we would add the old line to the ones we learned the previous days. At the end of two weeks, we knew a song.

Papa, j’suis content… Maman me comprend…Ah, parfois si j’pose la bonne questionC’est oui, oui,.. J’n’ai plus les bluesAh, parfois si j’pose la bonne questionC’est oui, oui,.. Fini les non non blues…One day after class, Madame Harris asked to see me. I wasn’t worried. I never said or did anything in class that brought attention to myself. I always turned in my homework, took decent notes and pretended to listen. I actually kind of dug French. So why did she want to speak to me?“Jennifer. You seem… sad.”Sad? What? I’m not sad. Why do you say that?”“Oh. I’ve just been noticing that you don’t really engage with the other students very much. Is anything wrong?”

Um. No. I just don’t, I don’t know, like people very much. That’s all.”

“How would you like to come to my house on Wed. night for supper? Just you and a couple of other students. Just talk about France and speak some French. We need to set up the French club. Maybe you’d like to be an officer?”

An officer?”“Yes. Here are the directions and my phone number. I hope you can make it.”I guess I was kind of flattered. I didn’t really know how to take Madame Harris’ comments, but I went. The idea of being an officer sounded like something I should be doing. Yeah, I was pretty good at French. I was going to Paris someday. That was my dream.When I got there I discovered she was a hard core born again Christian and that, to my surprise, I was tres lost.” After an hour and a half, I got the Catholic kicked right outta me and my lifelong relationship with migraines suddenly began. Hmmph. I got the hell out of there. By the end of that semester, after the complaints starting rolling in from other lost children, she was, as they say, histoire.I’m not sure why I took French in high school. Most people took Spanish because it was considered a safe bet that one day you could actually use it. Maybe in business, or maybe on your trip to the border for Spring Break where you would, if you were a complete jackass, barter with poor people to get that stupid sombrero for 2 dollars less. I started thinking more and more about France and how I would rather go there than just about anywhere else. I was jealous of my sister Marisa who was born in France. It just didn’t seem fair. Sure, she would fit in there. She looked like a model and knew everything about make-up and clothes and boys. But I was the one who was interested in American literary expatriates in Paris– Hemingway, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I was born in San Antonio. Sigh.My mother and father moved to France right after their wedding. My father got a job teaching English on a military base and my mother kept a small country house and had my sister in 1965. It was so cold in the winter, she told me, that they moved the mattress into the kitchen where the stove was, and they kept the meat and milk in the living room to keep. When my mother told me about this time in her life, it could not have sounded more romantic. They even had a favorite café and hotel across the street from Notre Dame. My mother loved Paris. She studied the impressionists and was quite a talented painter herself. She felt happy and free being in a place that didn’t really care that she was Mexican and my father was Anglo. No one cared. Weekend trips to Germany, however, were a whole different story.So when I decided to take French, it was met, in my family, with different reactions. Of course grandmother was confused. “Why don’t you learn to speak our own language? You need to learn.” But my mother was proud. She knew I had a dream to go to Paris one day, like her.By the time I went to college in Boston, my vision of Paris had somewhat faded. I was concentrating, for the first time, on my own language. Boston supplied me with a reasonable amount of art, eccentricity and architecture to hold me until I could get out. By my junior year, I was determined to study abroad. Until I met someone. Isn’t that always the way it is? Here I am, ready to go and take the leap, and I fall in love. I rationalized not going to Europe by convincing myself that falling in love like this was what I would be searching for anyway. I missed my shot.

But I never forgot about France. As my real life start to emerge, I found myself easing into this fantasy of leaving my job, my apartment, my family and friends with nothing but a suitcase and my passport. It’s a simple escape fantasy. A pretty popular one, too. But it was still mine. It began to feel like Paris was my node. My friend Genevieve said everyone has one place in the world —a spiritual node- that their spirit searches for. It’s usually a place like Taos or Mt. Everest or a rainforest. For me it was a rainy Spring day in Paris sitting in a beautifully appointed café drinking a hot café du whiskey, reading the International Herald Tribune and working on some article or writing project that would help me pay my rent and bills on a cozy, warm little flat on the Left Bank. That was my node– my lump.

I went to visit Marisa in Italy were she lived and worked on an army base. Once again I was painfully close to getting to Paris. We took a trip to Nice for New Year’s Eve. As we approached the Italian/French border, I couldn’t believe my excitement. Five miles out I began screaming Viva La France! Viva La France! I speeded through my English/French dictionary. I was ecstatic. My first attempt at French with an actual French person came when we stopped at a rental car place to ask directions.

Holiday Inn Nice Holiday Inn Nice

Ou est le Holiday Inn?” O.K… so it wasn’t Moliere. But it was something. And, by the way, I got us there. I ran out of money after going to Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo and Paris just wasn’t going to happen. I was so close. It always seemed that either (lack of) money or (surplus of) men kept me from Paris– my ultimate destination. So of course I got a job offer in the states– too good to pass up– and I had to go home.

When I finally fell in love with the man who would be my husband, it was no shock to me that he had a French surname… Robenault—but now Robenalt. When we decided to get married, we had a Bridal shower with a Parisian theme, complete with brie, French wines, Edith Piaf, even napkins with little Eiffel Towers and poodles on them. I went around around and mimmicked that kooky lady in the John Cusack classic “Better Off Dead.” French bread? French Fries? French Dressing? Oui. Oui.

Problem was that we had just declared war in Iraq, the French hated us and were ransacking defenseless McDonalds; we hated the French and some knuckleheads on Capitol Hill had just renamed Freedom Fries in the United States Congressional cafeteria; and people were actually pouring perfectly good French champagne down American gutters. Most importantly, at least to me, was that our own Paris honeymoon was up in the air. Quel tres terrible.

I called the American Embassy in Paris to get their take on traveling to the City of Lights. All they could say to me was that we should register with them as soon as we got there and could I bring our next of kin information as well? Hmmm. Then I called the hotel.

“Yes. Um. We have a reservation in a couple of weeks and I just wanted to ask if, you know, it’s a good time to come? I mean this is like my dream honeymoon and…”

The concierge was not happy at all. This was a disaster for the French tourism trade.

“But of course! So what if we do not like the George Bush. It does not matter. It is perfectly SAFE. Why do SAY this?”

“But what about the chemical attack thingy in the subway and.. I’m watching CNN right now and..”

“But you are from Texas, no? Cowboys and bang bang and the gangs and everything? This is Paris! You are riciculous… le blah le blah le blah”

After she stopped yelling at me, I cancelled the trip. I was devastated.

The Associated Press even did a story on us and how we ultimately opted for second best—the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. They took a picture of me in and my fiance‘ in front of a poster of the Eiffel Tower. I wore my pink sparkly French poodle necklace and a super-sad look on my face. My husband gazed at me comfortingly. The next day, you could find that picture in papers from Honolulu to Pittsburgh.

I’m not sure why I have this thing about getting to Paris. Perhaps because, like a long lost love, it has eluded me for so long. I realize that my greatest obstacle now is simply lack of time. Certainly, I could get a plane ticket, book a room and be off. But work, family, commitments of every sort always seem to provide a limitless supply of legitimate excuses.

I’ve been happy with my traveling experiences on the most part. I’ve had refreshing and adventurous “jaunts” to England and Italy. But I know that if I ever get to Paris, I may finally be with people of similar values and tastes. Of course I’m basing this on books and movies and all the mediums that make a fine living off of romanticizing an entire city. But I can’t help but believe that some of the mystique is true. I mean, wouldn’t I find their bitterness and their sense of self-importance about things that don’t really matter to the rest of the world just downright adorable? I seem to know somehow that the French are quite vocal about disliking entire countries, even though I can’t seem to pinpoint any major contributions they’ve made in the last, let’s say, 60 years? They are like the super-smart uncle who can make exotic dishes and criticizes television and likes weird art. But when he gets tipsy with his buddies, he appreciates Jerry Lewis, a smoke and techno music. Complex but simple. Oh, and their #1 cultural pastime is food.     


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