En route from Brittany to Paris
We are returning from our wonderful visit to Brittany visiting our French sister-in-law, Martine. Joe thought you might be interested in my observations about French life and how it might have changed over the years.
I believe you have read that I have a rather unique perspective. I counted up and I have been to France on 10 separate occasions, spanning over 50 years; and since three of the visits were quite long, I have spent about a year in France. While this is only 1/70 of my entire lifetime, the effect of this country on who I am and how I view the world is much, much greater. While it is impossible to say, I would guess that the proportion of its effect on “who I am” is at least 1/7. So I guess this proves that time is a very relative thing, and I believe Einstein has proven that!
I think the effect of France on me is so great because about half my time here was spent when I was an adolescent. Is it perhaps true that our experiences in this period of our lives have the most profound effect on our sense of ourselves, and particularly our sense of independence and self-worth? I’m sure a study has been done on that.
The first time I came I was only 12 years old. I came on May 1 and went home on August 31, missing one month of school. I was invited by Mireille Dardel (now de Mun) to stay with her family in Montmorency (just outside Paris) and attend the lycee of which her father was the Director (Lycee Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous writer who had lived nearby). At that point I had never left the South, and rarely my little Southern town of 2,000 people. The whole town thought my mother was crazy to send me, and looking back on it I think she was a bit crazy too! But I was asked whether I would like to go to Paris, and I said “yes”, not knowing what I was getting into!
I arrived in my little cotton dresses to a Paris that was “tout frois” (very cold). The family (mother and daughters) quickly knitted me a heavy grey sweater, which I wore over my cotton dresses for two months until it warmed up. I attended the lycee (although I could not understand a word that was spoken except in English class, in which I excelled). Eventually I learned how to ride the bus to school and go on the train into Paris; go to the boulangerie and bring home the family’s bread; grind the coffee each day for the after-dinner-coffee; and in general make my way as a young French girl.
In 1958, France was still recovering from the war, with shortages of certain things (such as bed sheets) and no refrigeration in the typical house. This was strange to me, along with the little cars. They seemed very, very small. I had never played soccer; I had never heard of soccer. If you would like an image of what it was like then, see the movie (or read the book), “The Red Balloon.” Little boys of my age still wore short pants most of the time (except to church). It was a big deal to be able to wear long pants once you got to a certain age.
This I did without speaking a word of French when I arrived (other than a few words from the lessons of Mireille, which had taught me only how to request pieces of candy of a particular color, which was not very useful in making my way around). The first month I was essentially a deaf-mute. (Most of the family could speak some English, but refused to speak with me in English, only French 100%.) I could not understand a word and I could not say a word. The second month I began to understand things. The third month I understood almost everything, and could say a few things. By the end of August, I was essentially fluent in French with a good accent. This experience is what has convinced me that the immersion method is the only way to go in terms of language instruction. I am proud to say that our two children had the same experience (although a bit later in their teenage years) and are fluent in French (plus some other languages they picked up later, having had the experience of learning French early on).
How has France changed (my perceptions)? In some ways a lot, and in some ways not at all.
I think the ways it has changed are perhaps more superficial than the ways it has not changed. There are more tourists in Paris, and they take up more space. I suppose I should not resent this, because I am here as a tourist this time. But there is something inside me that is screaming (a silent scream): “Get out of here; this Paris belongs to me!” There are also all these chain stores, mostly American. My inner voice screams, “Get out; I want those cute boutiques back!” The way people dress is not so different from Americans anymore; we all wear things from Gap, etc. Finally, there is much more diversity. When I was here 50 years ago, France was “all white.” Today, all the colors of the “human rainbow” are evident, especially in Paris.
However, the heart of France has not changed at all. The French people are so proud of their country (but still resentful of American power and influence, perhaps more so); so in love with literature, art and beauty in all its forms (including good food and wine!); so warm to those they know and love (but—to Americans—often seem standoffish to strangers); and so proud of their basic values, especially the right of each individual to freely express an opinion (a value which, of course, we share). Vive la France!