Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: Mon arrivée en famille

During my days in Nantes, I lived with a French family. I had breakfast at their house every day, and had at least two dinners a week with them. They spoke no English.

My French mom, Marie-Claire, was an Aries woman who was one of the most laid-back Aries women I have ever met. Many are aggressive—and not necessarily in a bad way—but she took everything in stride. She did her best to answer all my questions and teach me a lot without knowing she was doing so.

But Marie-Claire had a lot more to deal with than just me. She had three grown children, one of whom was still living with her by the time I left Nantes, but she also was a femme de foyer, or what we would call a foster mom. She had three foster children as well: Lény, 17, who lived away at cooking school and only came home for school vacations; as well as Christian, who was 16, and Jessica, who was 12. Marie-Claire’s husband, Gilbert, was a great guy, but he was studying in a German home; his company was paying for him to learn German, so at like 50 years old he was doing what I was doing at 20. So he wasn’t around much, but it was great when he was.

I remember that first day in Nantes. I traveled with one other student from the US, and as we got to the train station we picked up a few more people. Americans in France stick out, especially when they’re carrying luggage as big as they are. Once we got to Nantes, we went to the Institute where our families would come to pick us up. Of course, I was the last person picked up; Madame Rouchet, the dean of students, stayed late to wait for Marie-Claire.

My first evening with my French family was pretty fun. Christian thought he could give me a hard time but figured out really quick who he was dealing with. My extensive study of French slang served me well, and Marie-Claire was suitably impressed at how well I was able to dispatch Christian with not too much effort. It was two books, Merde! and Merde Encore!, that had formed a large part of my preparation. My linguistic “expertise” in this area served me well all year.

After dinner, Jessica gave me a short lecture on how to work my alarm clock. Luckily it wasn’t that hard; by that time I was so tired I was almost falling asleep. I promised that I would help her with English, which she was very happy about. After trying to watch a movie with Marck and Franck, two of Marie-Claire’s biological children, I collapsed into bed, my head still spinning.

The next morning, Marie-Claire drove me to the Institute, handed me the address of the house on a slip of paper, and said, “See you tonight. Find your way home!” I was nervous about finding my way back, but that was the easy part; public transit has always been a hobby of mine, so I managed it pretty easily.

Eventually, life at home settled into a routine. It took about three days to get used to having French all around me, and for the next four months I never left France except for four days in London in October. English was not a distant memory totally—I spoke some with my American friends outside the Institute—but it was most assuredly secondary.  You would be amazed at how much you would learn if you couldn’t speak English. Trust me on this one.

As I look back on it, each person in the house helped me learn different things. I never thought, for example, that I would learn how rugby is played, how to play or bet in roulette or poker, or how to tell someone I’d like to kill them in another language. But I did. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

Tune in tomorrow for more on Christian and his antics during my stay. A demain, chers lecteurs!

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