French Lessons

Summer at the end of the earth

The postcard is faded and curling at the edges, the waters of the bay more gray than the brilliant blue I remember. The Chateau du Taureau looks as forbidding as it did 40-something years ago when I arrived, jet-lagged and terrified, in a small town on the northwest coast of France. I found the card tucked in the back of a battered French dictionary, along with another relic of the period: a handwritten note explaining what to tell the conductor if I got lost on the train from Paris.

In the summer of my 18th year, I went to live in a part of Brittany called Nord Finistere. Finistere means "end of the earth," and that seemed accurate to me. The farthest I had ever traveled from my New York home was Florida. Now, on an overcast June day, I had fetched up at a railway station on the Channel shore with a suitcase full of Bermuda shorts and a purse full of travelers checks. The imposing woman in gold-rimmed spectacles advancing towards me on the platform was Madame S., my hostess. Ten years of classroom French evaporated in the face of her rapid-fire greeting. I managed a feeble bonjour.

Back in the olden days, international home stays were less common than they are now. The world was a bigger place, where distance could be daunting and transatlantic communication meant air mail letters, cables, or ruinously expensive, static-ridden phone calls. There wasn't much handholding for the innocents abroad; it was sink or swim. And so, on that long ago June afternoon, I took a deep breath and vowed to stay afloat.

The family spoke no English. My French surname had given them high expectations about my fluency, but these were quickly dashed. I watched them exchange puzzled glances as I murdered the subjunctive and struggled with idioms that never appeared in any of my textbooks.

The daughter of the house was a stunning brunette with a secret ambition: She wanted to be an Air France stewardess, a dream I was forbidden to mention in front of her parents. Marianne and her boyfriend, Jean Louis, wheeled me around the coastal villages in his tiny Fiat and took me to seaside bars where we drank warm beer and danced to 10-year-old rock and roll. They asked me if all Americans had swimming pools and if I knew Little Richard. Between my halting French and lack of celebrity connections, I felt like a dismal failure.

But then one day in mid-July, I woke up and looked out the window at the fields of artichokes stretching down to the water and the rocky bastion of the chateau in the middle of the blue bay and felt a little shiver of happiness. The night before, I had sat at dinner with Madame and Monsieur and replied to their questions in tidy, grammatically correct sentences. I had eaten unidentifiable sea creatures with gusto. I had washed the dishes with Marianne, who told me she would take me shopping for a summer wardrobe better suited to the Breton climate than my madras Bermudas. We would wander the narrow streets of Morlaix and trade my travelers checks for chic trousers and neat little sweaters and the black Wellington boots that were the hot look for French girls that season.

By August, I had gone native. I ate crepes and drank the local cider and sailed with Marianne and Jean Louis and their friends. I learned to eat periwinkles with a pin and to make the vinaigrette for the artichokes. I walked arm in arm with Madame through the town in the evenings, and she told me about the German occupation, the mined beaches, the heavy-booted soldiers. One early September day, I stood again on the railway station platform. Madame embraced me, tears shining behind her gold-rimmed glasses. I boarded the train for Paris, but I didn't need instructions. I was an American with a French name who had come to the end of the earth and found that it was not, after all, very far.