Forty years ago today, I boarded an Air France flight at Orly to return from France to the U.S. It had been a magical summer. My first time ever in France. A life-changer.
That June I had graduated from high school and had gone on a three-week whirlwind tour of Romania with my school glee club. In anticipation of the flight's stopover in Paris, earlier that spring I had begged my parents to see if they knew anyone in France with whom I might spend some or all of the summer.
Hooray! As it turned out, there was a family. Friends of friends had lived in Paris working for Time-Life; eight years before, in 1965 when they were leaving Paris, they had brought along a lovely young Parisian, Marie-Noelle, to Connecticut as an au pair so that their children could keep up their French.
Fast forward to 1973: Marie-Noelle was now in her late 20s, in Paris, married with a baby of her own. Her extended family (grandmother, parents, and sisters and their families) spent the summer on Ile de Ré. They would be delighted to have me as an au pair for the summer.
Back then, a fille au pair was not hired help, not a euphemism for a nanny. Au pair meant on a par. (In fact, I was never paid a cent. In retrospect, I should have paid them.) From the beginning I was treated as a younger sister or cousin, completely part of the family, who earned my keep by lending a hand with the children and household duties, mostly with the assistance of Mamita, the grandmother.
For eight weeks I was immersed, submerged in French family vacation life. Upon my arrival, they asked if I would rather speak in English or French. "En francais!" I blurted rather vehemently. Oh-so-politely, not another word of English was spoken to me all summer. (Except most evenings when Marie-Noelle's husband Jacques would re-re-fill my wineglass at dinner, joking, "Just a leeeetle drop, Pollee?")
It was a summer of transformation. Twelve years of classroom French, filled with Moliere and Sartre and verb conjugations, rapidly transformed into must-use everyday French. Who the heck knew what a biberon was? Une couche? I thought une couche was a layer. Baby bottle and diaper. Got it. But in short order the learning curve became so fast I didn't have time to translate: I just had to figure it out.
Example: I knew the word for floor was le plancher. But when someone said "Tu peux mettre cela par terre," I had to do some quick mental leaps to figure out that it meant "Put that down (on the ground)." Finally the mental leaps were arriving at such locomotive speed that I put away my mental French-English dictionary and just went with it. And French food and cooking lingo deserve their own chapter...
I had to keep up daily with spoken French on all levels: toddler and pre-school age; vivacious sophisticated Parisian 20-somethings with their large entourage, with full-on colloquialisms, at dinner or dancing at island nightclubs or sailing; kind and worldly grandparents whose English far surpassed my faltering French; and the clear-speaking but cryptic Loma, the ancient, tiny, widowed great-grandmother swaddled in black. To me, it seemed Loma parsed out wisdom in 19th-century French haiku.
But it was far more than just a language-learning experience. For 8 weeks, every minute, every hour was an awakening. This life is what I was meant to know, I thought. This is where I belong. French beach picnics -- feasts, not just sandwiches! -- boat outings, everyday summer dinners, daily shopping, meal preparation, everything about French lifestyle was both eye-opening and instantly right. The pace of life and the focus. I found my true sense of self.
I was eighteen.
Reality check: 1973: no cell phones, no internet, no TV on the summer island; and a long-distance call was prohibitively expensive, ergo was for emergencies only. Thus my only communication with American family and friends for eight weeks was via postcard or aerogramme. Bless my mother, who saved all my letters home. By mid-summer my English syntax was down the drain, and the vocab was slipping: "We go every day to the plage with the children," I wrote. I wasn't putting on airs, I was losing myself in French and France.
And that is how I really learned French. I lost my American self in the French world.
I think I never fully returned.
Oh, I physically returned to America on that Air France flight 40 years ago. I had flown from La Rochelle airport to Le Bourget (I think). I know I took a connecting bus to Orly. Gilles, my handsome summer-unrequited-crush who had spent many July and August weekends as a guest with the family, was waiting for my bus as it pulled in to the bus lane at Orly (he worked for Air France, as had his uncle, Antoine de St. Exupery). Belmondo-esque, he stood at the entrance, one leg perched on the barrier, leaning and smoking a Gauloise. My heart fluttered.
I attempted to haul my embarrassing, oversized, orange, too-American Tourister suitcase from the luggage compartment of the coach.
"Laches," he asserted gently, grabbing the handle.
Lâche raced through my brain, seeking quick processing. Lâche, poltron, couard, peureux went the brain scan in a nanosecond from senior-year Advanced French language class when we had to memorize synonyms. Why was he calling me a coward? My heart pounded.
"Laches," chided Gilles, tugging more firmly. I finally released the handle to him (which was what he was in fact saying: "Let go"), banking on the body language, still unsure why I was a coward. Did he think I was grasping so tightly because I was embarrassed at the weight of my suitcase?
He bought me an Orangina, got me checked in with his svelte, perfectly perfumed young French colleagues at the desk, and finagled as much VIP treatment as a junior Air France worker could finagle. After some final chit-chat, address exchanges and "Oh yes, we'll keep in touch" banalities, he accompanied me to the gate. A total gentleman, truly and genuinely so.
It didn't register -- actually at that point, I couldn't really fathom what it meant -- that I was leaving France and returning to the States. A seven-hour flight was not enough time to adjust, linguistically, emotionally, or culturally.
I had become a different person. I was still Polly, but who was she?
Three days later I was sitting in a freshman "French class" in college in Connecticut: nothing French about it, at all, really.
A la plage