When I was fifteen I spent a lonely summer month living with a French family in the Parisian suburb of Rueil-Malmaison. The family didn’t like me, and I kept giving them more and more reasons not to like me, without exactly realizing that was what was happening. Their dislike of me was something I merely suspected until the day we were at the mall, and Isabelle, the girl my age, explained my desire to return to a store we had already left, telling her mother animatedly, “Elle a trouvé une robe mille fois plus belle, et maintenant elle veut acheter cette robe-là!” [She found a dress a thousand times prettier, and now she wants to buy that one]. The way she rolled her eyes at the “mille fois plus belle,” obviously mocking me, was pretty clear. So now I couldn’t deny that when Nathalie, the younger one, had bought a pastry and offered to share with Isabelle, but pointedly not with me; when we had been at the pool and they had invented some game that involved jumping in together, but I was not invited to join; when we had been playing Battleship, and I realized that I had made a mistake when Nathalie asked for I-whatever, because I heard “E,” and she yelled “Tu peux gonfler d’orgueil!” [You can swell up with pride]—all of these moments were part of a settled dislike.
From a young age, I have had a remarkable ability to pretend that things are OK when they are not at all OK (an early memory: after dropping my father off at the airport, when he was going on a short trip to help my grandparents move, I was sniffling in the car, because he had left, and my mother asked if I was all right. “I think I’m catching a cold,” four-year-old me sniffed). During the first part of my visit, I had held to the American custom of changing clothes every day, but once I realized how much the family disliked me, I kept out two outfits, enough to get me to the end of my time there if I wore each outfit three or four days, and packed the rest of my belongings. It never occurred to me to ask the student exchange company to find me another family, and it never occurred to me to admit to my family and friends back home how miserable I had been. My parents had paid a lot of money for the trip; they would be disappointed to know how painful the experience had been.
I went home and told everyone I had had a wonderful time. Then, sometime later, my parents began asking more pointed questions. Eventually they let me know that the father of the family had written a letter to tell them how awful I was. He wrote in French, and the letter was two pages long, but the only phrase I remember distinctly is that the primary charge against me was that I hadn’t worked to “integrate” [se intégrer] myself into their family. This was true. I didn’t go to Mass with them on Sundays. On weekday mornings, the two daughters spent the entire morning studying. This did not strike me as a good use of my limited time in France, so I would go for walks. Sometimes I walked along Rue Napoleon Bonaparte to the centre-ville [downtown] and stopped in a stationery store and bought one of those little metal canisters of lozenge-type hard candies (the fact that I bought candy and didn’t share it made it into the letter from the father). More often, though, and more and more often the lonelier I became, I would walk along the main street until I came to a tiny side street called Rue Berthe Morisot, which cut over to the Seine River. There, on the riverbank, I would sit on this big rock and read or watch the water.
The next year, I would sit in math class and think about how I would go back, and how every time I would return to Paris, which would undoubtedly happen every few years for the rest of my life, I would visit my rock, and that place by the river off of Rue Berthe Morisot would be sacred to me. But then instead of becoming the free-spirited world traveler I dreamed of being, I became a scholar (and, later, a mother) instead, and I never had enough money or time . . . I didn’t return to Paris until 2012, when I tagged along with my bestie Ann when she was going to a conference.
She was busy with her conference during the days, and so I had the chance for some do-overs, starting with Notre Dame. When I went there with my French family, they explained to me that since it cost money to climb up to have the view, and they had all seen it, they were going to stay below, and I was to climb up alone. I don’t really blame them for hating me; I was as far as it was possible to be from the benign groupthink that constituted their family dynamic—once I had climbed up to where I could see not only all of Paris, but the gargoyles as well, I forgot about my French family completely. I don’t know how long I was up there (maybe half an hour? certainly not more), but by the time I came down to the ground, the whole family was ready to kill me. While I was in Paris in 2012, I climbed up to see the gargoyles with the delicious thought that no one knew or cared where I was and that I could stay up there as long as I damn well pleased. Which I did.
The trip to Rueil-Malmaison was a little bit complicated, involving a train that went outside the zone covered by my pass and getting dropped off a good way from the river and trying to find my way to it by heading west and hoping for the best. (It’s a difficult river to miss, so this was not a bad strategy.) The family had moved, which meant I didn’t have to decide if I was going to creep them out by knocking on their door. Rue Napoleon Bonaparte had had some major construction, which had me worried for a while that everything was entirely different, but eventually I found it: Rue Berthe Morisot.
The rock was gone, but the river itself was unchanged. I expect it will be the same the next time I visit my spot.
The night before we left, Ann and I went out for our one super-expensive fancy meal. One of the many entirely legitimate reasons my French family disliked me is that I was a picky eater. Even though it turned out that I was to receive only one free pass—I told them my first day that I didn’t eat tomatoes, and they made a big fuss about not making me eat tomatoes while somehow communicating to me that I didn’t get to have any other foods I wouldn’t eat—I’m sure they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice how little I relished the mushy eggplant in the ratatouille that was a family staple or my general tepidity regarding new foods, especially of the vegetable variety. They loathed me, they snubbed me, they wounded my shy and lonely pride, AND THEY TOLD MY PARENTS, but I have to give them credit—the next year, when visiting relatives, I ate the green beans they offered me entirely because of having survived green beans in France. During the course of my late teens and early twenties, I worked at overcoming my pickiness, and by the time of my super-expensive amazing French meal with my friend in 2012, I was able to enjoy my food this much:
So, thank you, I guess, Famille L_______–I was awful, and you were awful, but in this one way you made me a bit less of an antisocial gargoyle.