The Other France

 

I am going to France.269

I take French in school and love to travel. I’m tired of my friends at home; I need something new. My biggest fear is failure; it’s time to take a risk. I love French in school, and what better way to improve than actually be immersed in the language all the time. And so, I’m going to Graveson, France, in La Valle de Baux of Provence. The map shows the town as being about half way between Avignon and the Mediterranean coast. The biggest tourist attraction is La Musee de Aromatic. The pictures online show a little town of stucco houses amidst trees and flowers, especially lavender. I’ve never been to France before, I know no one going, and I’m about to live with a family I’ve never spoken to. This is the biggest risk I’ve ever undertaken, it’s an experiment, and I’m scared to death.

I look at a picture of my French family.

The picture shows the family in a glam shot. I am extremely intimidated; sitting in a classroom in the middle of France and my mouth drops, my first words, “they’re going to eat me alive,” dribble out.

I wake up at 4:30 AM.

I put on my most “European” outfit, load my hair with gel and roll down my suitcase. I eat the last of my rationed Sour Patch Kids, the last bites of America. I have already been in France for two weeks; this moment though, marks the beginning of my experiment.

I step off the train.

I drag my colossal suitcase up the steps, the rubber of the wheels had broken off, so with each level comes a loud crash as my baggage bangs up the steps. I am positive my family hates me already. I see them up the steps, and it is as though my five years of French escape me, I barely remember how to ask “Comment ca va?”

I want to call home.

270This is not the France I thought it would be. The only “French” things I recognize are the gardens of Graveson. I even buy a postcard of the gardens to send to my parents, just to fool them into thinking I am still having the time of my life. All the books and movies paint the portrait of the “French family,” this idyllic unit of culture and tradition. Cecile, my French sister, is closer to her best friend, Vincent, than to her mom. Sarah, Cecile’s sister, sleeps where she works. Looking back, the Pichons represent the new French family, the one without baguettes every morning and five course meals every night. At the time though, I absolutely hate it. I miss English, I miss my bed, I miss my mom.

I read, a lot.

Every morning I wake up at 9:30. My French sister, feels no need to experience any AM sunlight. I get a lot of reading done those two weeks. I push open the window and sit outside on the balcony. The house is modest, as I’m living in a single- parent home, but it’s sweet, and very in the style of the town. My French mom leaves the house at 6 AM every single morning. She is a professor of floral design, a perfect profession considering everywhere I look there are fields of flowers. I have about two conversations with her, and I never address her by name. On the really lonely mornings I knock on Cecile’s door, in a desperate hope that she is awake. She never is.

I eat, in silence.

Dinner is late, and a quick affair. I expect the classic French meal - unlimited bread, a salad or soup, a meat, a delicious dessert and a fine glass of wine. Instead, we eat whatever is in the fridge and drink water. I can’t lie and say that at home I eat a nice sit down meal every night. However, I can safely say that my mom makes an effort to cook at least a few times a week, and family dinners occur on a semi-regular basis. Here though, when we actually sit down, I am too afraid to open my mouth for fear that my accent isn’t up to par. My experiment is failing.

I teach.

At this point, American music is perhaps the only thing we have in common. The radio station plays the biggest American hits from about two months before. Had this been my Subaru at home I would be shouting out the words, but in the tiny Smart Car, I only occasionally mutter along. Cecile realizes I know all the words to the song of summer ‘07, Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” She asks “Anna, est-ce que tu connais “Hum-ba-hella?” (Anna, do you know Umbrella?) I look at her with a red, blank face and respond, “Je suis desole, est-ce que tu pourrais repete, et doucement.” (Sorry, can you repeat slowly) She does, and finally I understand what she is talking about. In my broken baby French I manage to translate “Hum-ba-hella.” Cecile sings it to me in English, and adds an “h” before every vowel. I sing it back, “sans H” and her mistake becomes obvious. We both start laughing.

I discuss.

I’m finally comfortable, and rediscover my ability to speak French. My first genuine conversation centers around religion. I am Jewish, and apparently, the Pichons only know of Judiasm from some movie about a Rabbi and a Priest. They are Christian, but not at all religious. I explain my religion, and why I can’t eat pork, as best as I can. From what I can tell, Graveson, as well as the majority of the area, is solidly white, and solidly Christian. Whenever I hang out with Cecile’s friends, they are all white, and right in the town is a small, catholic elementary school. Avignon is close, and when we arrive at Le Palais des Papes, the influence of the church is very evident. I ask Cecile for a history of the building and the bridge. We find one around her house, and I read it, knowing that I just saw a piece of living history.

I make assumptions.

I make the cardinal mistake of comparing Graveson to Paris. One night, I witness a near brawl, as one of Cecile’s friends has a Parisian cousin visiting, and things almost get ugly. I get annoyed when people assume all Americans are the same, so logically, how can it be justified thinking that a person from Provence will fit the same mold as a person from Paris who will fit the same mold as a person from Lyon.

I open my eyes to Provence.

In Graveson, every house is adorable, the gardens are always in bloom, and yet it never seems to rain. Cecile knows everyone in the town, they say “salut” (hi) and smile when we walk by. All her friends try to make conversation. I say I’m from New York, and they always assume I mean the city. I try to clarify, but eventually, just give up and pretend to be from Manhattan. In Graveson the town square is constantly alive, never do I see it empty. The 14th of July is spent in this square. First comes the bull-run and then the bubble party for the whole town.

I am a French teenager.

It is amazing what two people who seemingly having nothing in common can find to talk about. The discussions turn from awkward one-sided conversations with me nodding my head affirmatively or negatively to genuine talks about everything from politics, to stereotypes to nail polish. Cecile explains that many people in France think American girls are easy, which I quickly deny. They also think that Americans are obese; she is shocked when I say I don’t really like McDonalds. I also learn about the difficulties of the French political system, as the battle between the more conservative mindset, and more socialist approach continues. I tell her how many Americans believe the French shower only on occasion, smoke until their lungs fall out, and hate America. She denies each of these. When political discussion runs dry, we move to talking about the future. Cecile is about to enter her final year of high school and take her big exams. She has been tracked for a certain path since her exams in middle school. Her family though doesn’t have the money to support her going to college right now, so instead she needs to work. Cecile though hopes to become an actress or comedian, but must give up education to support herself. This is truly foreign to me.

I look at a picture of my French family.

Somehow, I’m in the picture. In no stretch of my imagination do I ever picture myself comfortable with this motley crew of French-slang-speaking people I can now call family. I leave Graveson with tears streaming down my face and my hand waving good bye. I still have a week of France left, but my time being French is over.

Here I am, a Jewish girl from Long Island, New York. I have a mom, a dad, a little sister and four cats. I love my life, I love being who I am, but for those two weeks, I was somebody else. I was a guest in a single-parent household, I was the only one who cared enough to make my bed, I was the early riser. It was as though I stepped out of myself for just a few days. This trip is a testimony to the value of risk. I could have stayed home that summer, and been completely satisfied. Instead, I put myself out on the line, and ended up so much for the better. I was the experiment, and the result was a variation of me with a new appreciation of what I have, and what I have yet to discover.