Retour en France
A bit of Jessica’s history:
When I was 15, I left West Texas to spend part of a summer with a family in France. At the time, probably no one would have predicted that the trip would turn into semesters, summers, months, and years spent in France and a lifetime of friendships. Apart from a few footsteps across the Texas-Mexico border (it was easy to cross in those days) at El Paso, I had never been out of the country. Although I was a seasoned traveler within the US, moving frequently between the mountains of New Mexico, West Texas, Minnesota, and upstate New York, it was a big deal for me to leave the country. West Texas was not a cosmopolitan place, and my ideas about the world included a bumper sticker that I proudly displayed on my science notebook: “Hungry? Out of Work? Eat an Environmentalist!”
France, with its high taxes and government-provided healthcare, seemed impossibly far from the libertarian ethos that pervaded my childhood. I think I actually had some vague idea that I would find people there physically suffering from a lack of democracy, maybe in bread lines or in secret meeting halls plotting revolution.
But even though I was still mostly thinking like a Wild-West Texan, something in me was stirring that could no longer be ignored. I had never quite fit in: a curiosity bigger than Texas made me restless and hungry for new experiences.
My parents knew this, and at least one other person did, too: my high-school French teacher, Mr Catania. I was lucky he was there; he was actually from France, and he was the person who had inspired me to study French in the first place. Not only did I learn excellent French from him, but he was openly agnostic, a rarity in my religious city. He also taught us about French existentialism and showed us cool foreign movies that we watched at another student’s house since the films were a little too racy for my otherwise-awesome Episcopalian school.
Mr. Catania could see I loved speaking French and that I was darn good at it. So, when a friend of his family wrote to him from the suburbs of Paris, asking about hosting an American near her daughter’s age, he recommended me.
The woman who wrote was Blandine, and her daughter, one of three children, was Marine. Against all odds, seeing as we had exactly nothing in common, Marine and I got along exceptionally. Thanks to my wonderful parents, who saw how much I needed this and let me go, I ended up spending a semester of my senior year at Marine’s public high school in Villebon-sur-Yvette, a suburb of Paris. All of my classes, from physics to philosophy, were in French, and I was determined not to speak any English, anyway. My trip was so unusual that it was featured in the local newspaper in Texas.
It was the beginning of the rest of my life: I could see that people lived with totally different ideas about religion, love, government, and it wasn’t a disaster. The kids were alright. Plus, I felt so free in France, and not just physically – I could take the train into Paris whenever I wanted and wander freely in the woods around Villebon – but also mentally: free from the constraints of my old certainties about life, I could be open to listen, watch, learn, and try on new ways of being (once, this included ordering a vodka-orange juice in a cafe at lunchtime on a schoolday, just because I could!). I started to be able to empathize with those who were different, instead of condemning. Somehow I had failed to learn this in church; I had to live it to learn it.
I became obsessed with the idea that it was something about the language that gave me this mental freedom. I felt I re-invented myself when I used another language. I would go on to explore this idea in linguistics classes at my university.
Marine came to the States with me many times – New York, California, New Mexico, West Texas, upstate New York – and I have been going back to France ever since, including spending a year working in Toulouse. I have kept in touch with the entire family, especially Blandine, my “French mom”, who became a friend, too, once I grew up.
Although I eventually pursued science as a career, French still pervades my life. All of my devices – my phone, my music player, my e-reader, my Gmail account – are in French. When I use an ATM machine, I select “French” as the language. To this day, nothing makes me happier than speaking French.
On our current trip, there was no question that we would go to France. I have been fortunate to make many French friends over the years, and we went to see as many people as we could, in Lyon, Montpelier, Toulouse, and Nice, with a few days to ourselves exploring Van Gogh’s old haunts in St.-Rémy-de-Provence and Arles.
After six months in SE Asia and a couple weeks in Turkey, France was the first time we were squarely in the Western world again.
The first few days were the strangest – I could understand everything everyone was saying on the street! Everyone was speaking French! I was ecstatic. And also disoriented – I was used to being in places where not many people would understand when I spoke French, so I kept speaking loudly and with abandon about our trip, forgetting that everyone could overhear and understand.
It was unsettling to be in the West again, although France is so cute, with its cobblestone streets, soaring churches, and tranquil green-hill countryside, that we also felt relieved. We had been in many places (Myanmar, Nepal) with harsh, gritty environments; France is simply a beautiful country. It was also our first time back in Christendom, and the familiarity of the culture was, in some ways, soothing. However, after all our travels, it was clear to me that, although France will always have a piece of my heart, my interests have shifted. What was once so exotic to my West-Texan imagination had become too familiar.
What matters now is not so much the country itself, but the people I know there. While it’s an extra bonus to get to indulge in wrapping myself in the French language, I would hope to visit Céline, Marine, Damien, and Blandine wherever they were in the world.
Our trip began in Lyon, where we visited Céline, a French psychotherapist I had met in San Francisco via Craigslist. She had been in Paris with us the last time we were in France, in 2010, the day after Jacob and I got engaged.
Among Lyon’s famous former residents are the Lumière brothers, who invented the cinematograph and became the world’s first filmmakers in 1894. We had to see a film while in Lyon, so we picked Gerontophilia, a light-hearted exploration of same-sex intergenerational love. C’était génial!
In Montpelier, we saw my high-school friend, Marine, who is now a jazz musician and sings and plays upright bass in a kick-ass all-girl jug band (among other things) called Banan’n Jug. Although years pass between each time we see each other, in many ways it’s like no time has gone by, and we fall into our old rapport. Marine will always be my French sister who showed me the ropes in my first foreign country.
Also, in the center of town, true to French style, we found a random art installation in the courtyards of old buildings.
I held a job in Toulouse, my beloved “ville rose,” for a year after college, and there I met Damien, who lived in the same apartment building. I used to see him sitting on his window ledge, reading, and one day I just decided we should be friends and knocked on his door. He’s an English teacher with an impeccable accent and a stunning knowledge of music, art, and movies. Although Toulouse is a smaller provincial French city, I find it particularly beautiful and fun. More than a decade later, I still adore it. And this time, we even got to be there for Pride.
Leaving Toulouse, we hung out in the castle city of Carcassonne for a few hours – we had played the board game, and I loved showing Jacob it was an actual place.
After a couple days in St.-Rémy-de-Provence and Arles (which will be for another post), we met Blandine and her partner, Michel, in Nice. We spent a little while in Nice, Cannes, and Sainte Maxime, and then headed deeper into Provence to the family’s summer house in the small, remote village of Claviers (which will also have its own post), where I hadn’t been since my first visit in 1996.