Love, American Style
Posted on August 29, 2009
We are in the final moments of packing up our things chez nous. Our suitcases are out and opened, our clothes are in neat piles, our kid entertainment is too. Near these mountains of stuff is a present for my old roommate, who we’ll see on Monday night. She requested dried cranberries for some reason (there is a dearth of them in France?) and I bought her a couple of packages today.
But I felt my exodus to the land of escargot would not be complete without delving back into old journals for tales of how young and foolish I was when I visited France some 16 years ago. This post is about l’amour…well, sort of. It’s more about that twisted, confusing-yet-wonderful kind of romance you can only have with the likes of certain Frenchmen. This post is for everyone who has ever been in love, whether for a fleeting instant or for much, much longer than that. This post is also for Jesaka, who wondered how a bookworm like me could get embroiled in something like you’re about to read.
It began the way all great romances began, with a young French man and a young American woman telling each other they have no earthly idea what they’re talking about.
The young French man in this case was a 20-year-old Parisian podiatry student who was vacationing in Florida with his friends. The young American woman was me, who had just returned to Florida after completing my freshman year in college. We met on the beach one day and talked for three hours. The journal entry from this meeting, dated 8-18-92, describes the experience in a way Graham Greene never could: “Hubba-hubba.”
What do you want? I was 19 years old at the time.
The young man in question, I’ll call him F., had a quiet charm and easy smile. “He’s so nice, he probably has a girlfriend back home,” I wrote in my journal. “That sucks, but when he goes home in a couple of days, maybe he’ll be my pen pal or something.”
We exchanged addresses just before he left the country and began writing to each other shortly afterward. The sick and twisted deal of it all was this: I was rather proud of my seven years of French class and he was rather proud of his 11 million years of English (being the sophisticated Frenchman and all that), but we could always stand to improve ourselves, non?
And so, for months we sent letters back and forth: He would correct my French (“Sacre bleu, this sentence is for merde.”) and then soften the blow by letting me know in English how he was doing, what part of the foot he was studying, what his Parisian suburb was like. I would respond in kind, saying “Silly Frenchman, this is how you spell this word and what do you mean in the third sentence of this paragraph? By the way, here is what is going on with me.” We got to know each other through those letters and eventually he said his family would be happy to host me in their home for the summer.
I replied, “Oh my God, yes! I am so there.”
Here’s how this sat with my overprotective mother: “You mean to tell me that you met this person on the beach, spent a few days hanging out with him, several months writing him and now you think you’re going to go spend a summer with his family? These people are complete strangers! Are you out of your mind?”
So I spent the summer in Paris, touring museums, looking at art that I had only known from slideshow presentations in class, learning to speak French like a pro, making new friends, eating foods that I used to find repulsive and arguing with F. about every topic under the sun.
And then he kissed me. Profoundly inexperienced in the romance department, I came to find out that all those arguments we had been having were what you call “le sexual tension.”
The day after the night of much kissing (and that’s all it ever was, folks), we headed for a small town in the South of France where his family camps every year. It was during that ride that he filled me with notions of what our love could be – leave my family behind, come be with him in France. And right at the point when I began to swoon and think “Maybe just maybe I don’t need to be a Cajun Christiane Amanpour. Maybe it will be okay to be a French doctor’s wife, turning a blind eye to my ambitions and to all his mistresses and such. Maybe this is my future,” he said “So…when we are in this town you will meet the love of my life and so it will be complicated.”
Screeeeech, went my brain.
I met her and her family over a bouillabaisse feast. And she made no secret of her disdain for the American girl. He was quiet through it all. I was mad and then quite drunk.
He liked that I was mad.
Which, of course, infuriated me more.
Ultimately, we did not stay angry with each other. But I also did not stay in France with him, leaving my crazed journalistic ambitions behind. Catherine Deneuve-style romance aside, I felt I had too much to learn and see and experience still. Leave-it-all-behind-and-be-with-me-style commitment felt too large a burden to bear.
Months after I returned to the States to begin my junior year at LSU, he had found a serious girlfriend. He called me to ask whether I was jealous. And I told him no, I was happy for him because he was a good man who deserved someone who could give him more than I ever could. We haven’t spoken since, but I did Google him and know that he’s got his own private podiatry practice now, in a charming Parisian suburb close to where he grew up. Do I wonder what might have been? No. For all the closeness and charm of his family and for all that I love about France, I am glad I decided to go out and see what else was out there in the world instead.
And what I found back here in America — a dear friend who became my husband, and then a daughter who became the apple of my eye — was tres magnifique.
So that, my friends, is the story about how my head would not let part of my heart die. This is my tale about how I passed on the chance to be a French doctor’s wife.