When I was 19 ½, I flew from Cleveland to New York (Idlewild, now JFK airport) and then from there to Paris. It was a monumental trip for me. Upon leaving, my mother said to me, “You’ll never last!” Actually, her words were not far from reality. I was a relatively sheltered, shy, reserved young man who had decided that his love of French and the French language should take him to France for the year. While there, I was a part of my university group which also included students from Ohio University (my school), its sister school Bowling Green of Ohio, a few students from Miami University and finally one from Toledo, I believe, and Ohio State University.
When the plane touched down in Paris, as I looked out the window, I felt a shiver go down my spine. To this day, each time I land in France or Europe (because it is a given if in Europe I shall go to France), the same thing occurs. There is something magical about the moment. France for me is something incredibly special, perhaps the bellwether for me and signaling my imminent departure from a person and background I needed to shed. Like the caterpillar that spins its cocoon, I emerged ever so different from the person before.
Upon arrival in Paris, I met up with the main portion of the group I would be spending the year with. I don’t remember many details other than we had a long bus trip which took us from Paris to Tours, southwest of the city. I recall with fondness Dr. Barnes and his beautiful French (Corsican) wife who were the leaders of the trip. Dr. Barnes was an amazing man, an African American with American Indian built in, who was a social studies professor at the University.
I do have some remembrance of finally arriving at destination, to the Le Saux’s family house in St. Cyr sur Loire, just north of the city of Tours. I remember being in a situation that was somewhat scary. Fatigued as all get out and in a situation which demanded my utmost attention as I needed to speak in French, a French which was nothing more than school French. The TV was on, blaring, in fact, and the family was asking many questions. It was difficult and I remember what welcome relief it was when I settled into my room (I had the single, my two American counterparts there had the double) and went off to a well needed sleep.
Yes, this momentous occasion in which I made sure to deny my mother the satisfaction of being right, was a moment in which I used to make positive changes in my life and to make certain that I knew which career I was headed into, the teaching of French. My roommates, housemates, whatever, and I made a very difficult pact to always speak in French to each other, and we kept it. I managed to stay the entire time from September until June when my mother arrived and I accompanied her and her friend to Paris, London, and Dublin. And my shy self bloomed as I went from my school French to a communicative one that I have been building my whole life, to the point that people do not ever think I am American, nor do I have an American accent.
I had the ultimate freedom while in France, even managing to grow a beard, something I had never before felt comfortable doing as my family was so ridiculously anti-facial hair! I ate up the atmosphere! The food was amazing; the classes were satisfactory, all in French from classroom to oral and written final exams. My French mom provided me with a daily class in adult French and my new friends and peers were amazing as well giving me the family I had left at home in Cleveland.
During this year I slimmed down, though I didn’t really need to, eating like a horse and yet walking like crazy. I learned to finally let loose a little and to finally smell and drink the coffee. I realized the importance of relaxation, of enjoying myself, and , I believe, how to put it all into perspective. And, thanks to Madame Galliéni and her little soirée at her house, I fell in love with Scotch. Not so much because I then liked it, I did my best to impress this beautiful Phonetics teacher into thinking I was cosmopolitan! I have loved it ever since!
The French were and are amazing. They taught me and still teach me so much. That isn’t to say they know everything but they do have a civilization that is quite old, successful, and still blossoming. They are so much like us and we love each other so much that we often cannot stand to be around each other. We are like siblings. I understand that and I have no issues whatsoever with them. I am more than tired of explaining to people how wonderful they are. I don’t even have enough negative experiences in France or with French people to count on my one hand, and trust me, I could go way beyond that count in my own back yard. To think of the countless ignorant people who say they don’t like the French. How can they say that? Most of them have not spent any time with anyone French. Many just stay with their stereotyped ideas and just don’t give anyone a chance. I figure that if my German Teacher wife can fall in love with them and my sometimes hard to please sons, then that says it all!
I learned how to enjoy a meal. I learned how to spend quality time with people discussing anything and everything and revel in the differences that we all bring to the table. Culturally, I learned so much and it has helped me in dealing with my students and with any ethnic group. I learned respect and tolerance.
I have been criticized by some, even In my own family, because I guess I might sometimes give off the impression that there is nothing in France that I don’t like and that I cannot criticize them at all. This is not true. My feeling is that we can all learn so much from each other.
To me, in the ideal world, I would be able to spend half the year in the U.S. and the other half in France.
Due to my involvement with the New Trier in France program, I have had many French people in my house and exposed my entire family to my experience. They would most certainly reiterate what I am saying here and they don’t all speak perfect French. Speaking perfect French in France is the ideal but the French, overall, are more than happy if we just try. The reality is that we often don’t even do that, we act like everyone should speak our language, we are proud of ours, but remember the French are proud of theirs as well. I have been embarrassed more than once in France by the actions of one of my fellow citizens and have apologized profusely to the French and tried to explain the problem.
One of my most interesting experiences was the year that Mary Kay and I were able to take all three boys and our then future daughter-in-law to France. We had been given a gift by a student’s family of a week in their home on an island (the île d’Oléron), off the western coast of France, not far from Bordeaux. I told my French friends that due to distance that we would probably just do Paris and then go west, not head east to the Alsace region near Germany. The reaction was that of great friends extremely disappointed and this reaction says it all. They made it very clear to me, that if we made that choice and didn’t hit Strasbourg, that “I was dead to them.” I took it to heart and we changed plans. That change was the most amazing thing to ever happen to me and my family. Our weekend in Alsace was, as Mary Kay has so aptly put, “St. Richard’s arrival in France.” They went crazy, housing us with them, the kids in the dormitory of the school our exchange was with and showering us with a huge potluck party with amazing gifts, dinner engagements, and they drove us to all the main scenic sites in the area. Missing that would have been a major mistake and it so reminded me that the French truly love us. They may not always agree with us, but they love, respect, and appreciate us.
So, each time I land, it is the most amazing feeling for me. The shiver goes down my spine and I thank my lucky stars that I had the good fortune to find my love and career and that it has continually blessed me and my family with experiences that would knock anyone’s socks off!