Day 47 (Embry)

April 26

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!

6 thoughts on “Day 47 (Embry)

  1. I remember France of the ’50s too! My oldest (i.e.longest standing) friend is Michel with whom I was at school 1952-54 and I was Best Man at his wedding in Paris. We have remained friends and in 4 weeks he and Nicole will be staying a night or two with me here i Strasbourg.

    So thanks Embry for stirring some very happy memories or a country we both love.


    1. You are welcome! I am in the Apple Store right now in an effort replace my stolen iPhone, which I now believe was stolen on the bus in Paris, not by the toddler.

    2. Remembrances… Yes, we’ll dress alike, go to the same chain stores, either in the States or in France but still there is something very caracteristic of each culture. What l am amazed by, are names coming from these oriental countries we were not use to 15 years ago and that any one can today locate and pronounce almost well today. Well Joe is calling us for diner.

  2. Our mothers believed in tough love before it was a concept – developing independent offspring (at least daughters) was a goal and they went at it. My aha French experience was a foreign study trip in 1962 – thought not nearly as dramatic as yours. Juxtaposing our little town – where there was one way of life and it was the Presbyterian way – with post-war France was a shock. Bohemian students scarfing food from plates left on café tables, French kissing (what else??) in public, the Garnier opera house, one bath a week and that sometimes at a public bath house, discovering French bread, cheese, yogurt and wine, learning to negotiate the “territory” occupied by the local streetwalker in Tours, a feisty woman in black who chased me with an umbrella shouting “allez, allez, allez!” every time I set foot on “her” block – which I had to do to get to class every day. I learned so much, starting with the realization there is more than one way of life and that we have choices. So hats off to Louise and Mary Lu – they set us on a path we still travel, meandering across continents eager to experience yet another new way of life. Keep up the good comments.

  3. my sentence was interrupted
    people ate lobster, crab, abalone every day, as did their irish cousins who are now tired of these delicacies which remind them of their days of poverty…

  4. 1) You may like to know that it is in that same house in Montmorency that your son-in-law convinced your daughter to marry him (eventually)

    2) How interesting that my students who arrived in this country last summer are not yet speaking English. I have many who have been here since birth who still struggle with English.

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