When we were juniors in high school, my best friend Julie and I went on a summer exchange program to Belgium and had so much fun that we vowed we would do it again our junior year of college. So we found a program that both of our universities fed in to et voilà, there we were in France.
The family I stayed with in Belgium was wealthy and cultured so I thought our family in France would be similar. I mean they were French for god’s sake, wasn’t being fabulous their birthright?
We waited patiently at the train station in Avignon, a gorgeous old walled city in the south of France, for our host family to arrive. Julie was secretly dreaming of the family’s vacation house by the sea and I was dreaming of becoming more beloved than the mother’s own daughter and inheriting an old chest of Hermes scarves.
After all the other host families had come and gone, whisking their students away with smiles and arms around the shoulders—some of the more nurturing mothers even bearing pastries for the weary travelers—the Toussaints drove up in a dusty green Citroen. Madame Toussaint was a short, stout woman in a brown housecoat, the kind of thing my Mom might dye her hair in at home. She got out of the car and I saw she wore matching brown house slippers. I knew right then there would be no weekend cottage in Cap d’Antibes or chest of vintage Hermes scarves to inherit.
Monsieur Toussaint, a balding man in his sixties, never got out of the car. He smoked like someone who had done manual labor all his life and had to train himself to puff without using his hands; the cigarette dangled from his lower lip held expertly with just the right amount of moisture. Neither spoke a lick of English, so I got to practice my French right away.
“Hello,” she said, more as a command than a greeting.
“Hello! So good to meet you! I’m Christy.”
“And I’m Julie.”
“Yes,” she replied, looking us up and down.
“I hope you didn’t have trouble finding the school.” I said, thinking that maybe they had gotten lost on the way.
“Puh,” she answered, which is French for “You’re an idiot.” Then she turned around and waddled to the car saying, “My hands hurt, let’s go.”
Monsieur Toussaint popped the trunk from the driver’s seat, which he never left, and we packed up and got in.
It became clear to us that these people were professional hosts, in it for the money and not for the love of young American etudiants, when Madame Toussaint laid down the rules of the house: we were allowed to have room and board Sunday evening at 5:00 p.m. through Friday morning at 9:00 a.m. From Friday morning to Sunday evening, we were expected to be somewhere else; traveling, sleeping on the train station floor, whatever. And we were only allowed two showers each per week, which she would keep track of in a little blue book.
Our room was small and spare—it held two twin beds with a tiny side table between them, an armoire, and a rickety desk. There was one little window with old green shutters on the outside of it. Their latches had long been broken so the spring wind that blew hard for weeks, which they affectionately called the Mistral and we called a pain in the ass, made the shutters pound on the window like angry Clydesdales. Terra cotta tile covered the floor and went halfway up the walls of the room, presumably so that Madame Toussaint could hose the place out after each round of exchange students.
Dinner was served early because the Toussaints were French game show freaks. Total addicts. The lineup started at 6:30 and went until 10:00. The first few nights we tried to do the family thing and sit with them for their nightly TV fix, but these shows were unbearable even to serious TV junkies like us. My TV bar was so low that I didn’t even think I had a bar until I watched these shows. The level of goof—and there really is no other word for it—that the French are capable of would even make Soupy Sales and Charles Nelson Riley writhe. If you were an alien and landed in France for a couple of hours of game shows, you would think it utterly absurd that this is a culture that prides itself on subtlety, refinement, and good taste.
The second week we set a precedent: We said our studies were getting rigorous and we would have to retire to our room after dinner to study thenceforth. This was the only time I saw Madame Toussaint smile. “Oui, oui, bien sur!” she said as she made little scooting gestures with her hands.
This made for long nights. Our homework was not at all overwhelming and we usually finished it during the breaks between classes, so we had five hours a night to kill without access to TV, radio, or English-language books. A typical night’s conversation might start with Julie grabbing our alarm clock.
“Guess what time it is?”
“Six twenty five.”
“Six thirty two.”
“Six twenty seven.”
You get the picture.
We spent a lot of time working on the title to the book we were going to write about all of our riotous European adventures, which we figured we would start having once we nailed down a title. After whittling the list down, we were stuck between two: I envisioned the book as a Dorothy Parker-ish piece of work so I wanted a brusque, American title: Broads Abroad. Julie wanted more of an European feel so she stood firm on Deux Histoires de Voyage Pariel. She said non to mine, I said puh to hers. Had we agreed, we would surely have had a runaway best seller and I would probably be negotiating the movie rights with Mirimax at this very minute. But with the book on hold we relied heavily on sight gags; putting panty hose on our heads, gloves on our feet, pretending to brush our teeth in the bidet, pretending to wash our faces in the bidet, pretending to actually use the bidet—in fact, the bidet often served as the third comedienne. This wasn’t what we had hoped for.
One night after dinner Julie finally broke it to me that Madame Toussaint had taken her aside privately and asked her if I was a “special” student. I think she had used the French equivalent of “dim.” A few days earlier we'd had a field trip to the Vaucluse and I had excitedly retold the story of the mill on the river where they still made beautiful papers by hand. Apparently, nothing I said made sense, and she thought I was trying to tell her that they made paper using hands, like as an ingredient. I had also mentioned that we had stopped at an old cemetery on the way back and had taken some pictures of each other lying in a big sarcophagus. I guess she thought I exhumed a body or something to do this because she seemed outraged. I was not skilled enough to decipher her retorts so I just sort of smiled and complemented her pale, saltless soup. These two conversations led her to believe that I had been dropped on my head as a baby or something, so she had this talk with Julie, French conversationalist par excellence. Okay, I will admit my French was bad but is there no gap between speaking bad French and being mentally handicapped?
My confidence dropped even lower, and effectively made me a shut-in. Alors, there would be no nights at the local bar, sipping Pastis and smoking Gitanes as I had envisioned back in the states. No lazy morning café au lait and French crossword in the bistro. No foreign boyfriend coming to pick me up on his Vespa to go see a Jules et Jim revival.
Non, just more nights laying in bed, listening to the wind fight the shutters and trying to block out the whines of Madame Tousaint complaining constantly about her hands as she cleaned up after a meal of stewed horsemeat. She became more evil to me by the day but she made damn good peach jam, which, since she called me retarded, I had been eating with abandon and without regard for her dwindling supply.
ADDENDUM: I was looking for photos to scan for Facebook and came across this gem of Julie actually in her bed in our room in Avignon! Please, feast your eyes:
3 weeks ago