I went out this morning to take the kids to school and the air hit me. French air. A heavy grayFrench sky. The cusp between winter and spring – daffodils an imminent possibility, but snow still just as readily available.
I was sixteen with skinny gray jeans that zipped at the ankle and a hot pink canvas shirt from Esprit de Corps – god, how I lived for their catalogs. My hair was bobbed – bangs. No boyfriend. Just me and my best girlfriends and our entire French class, led by Madame. After we landed at Charles De Gaulle, the first place we stopped was a restaurant on the Interstate – a buffet with hard rolls and unexpected cold plates. It was underwhelming and confusing. On the chartered bus that would take us to our hotel – a narrow walk-up near the Gare du Nord – I succumbed to the exhaustion of having stayed up all night on the flight. It was my first time over the ocean. My first time away from home for an entire week. My first time in Europe.
I don’t remember if a friend jabbed me awake or if it was simply the oohs and ahhs of my friends that drug me to the surface, but I woke up underneath the Arc de Triomph. The bus was circling what seemed to my teenage self like an ancient relic. It wasn’t even 200 years old and it would be more than a decade later on a trip to Israel that I’d truly grasp ancient. But in that sleepy moment, I was waking to another time.
The next week was lost on me in so many ways. History was still a riddle – something to be studied and not lived. We visited the beaches at Normandy and I had but the faintest sense of where we were. Visited the Bayeux Tapestry – yawn. Standing in musty little museums in Tours with my host family, I mainly felt chilly.
What I remember most on that trip was shopping near the Pompidou Centre and finding the vintage one-strap petal-pink evening gown that I would wear to prom. It was from the late 50s and I reveled in its history, which would now be intertwined with my own. I remember the smells of urine in the street – pungent and startling. I remember the butter so intensely creamy and alive – as though I’d never really tasted butter before – and the furry black and white cows that we rolled past in Normandy. The blue windows in Chartres were just as startling as the town itself, completely closed down at two in the afternoon on a weekday or a mid-afternoon nap. There was the night that the most brazen member of our class went missing from the hotel. We never knew where she went, though she was back by morning. I was frightened by her ramble, but now part of me applauds her adventure.
France was a waking up. Waking up to the old. Waking up to the different – it seemed incredibly exotic at the time. My senses came online, France itself a tuning fork that called them to a higher pitch.
I walk out on this nearly March morning and there it was. Crusty bread. Cemeteries. Churches. Cheese. The dark-haired girl with clear blue eyes who would write me letters in her pointy, exacting script on aerogrammes for years to come. The entree into the fact of life’s enormity and how it rolls back beyond what the high school yearbook and geometry class ever suggest is possible.