French Lesson

The Diverse Arts Project, Summer 2015

Waiting in a line, I stood in close proximity to a woman with unwashed hair. A musty odor, like dirty wool kept too long in a trunk, it grabbed me, seeking attention. Suddenly I was back in Annecy, France, my freshman year of college, living with the Roberts. I was in Madame Robert’s tiny kitchen; skiing on steep slopes with her unhappy daughters; and face to face with Monsieur Robert’s mistress. I found myself back in painful and all too familiar terrain.

By the time I was eighteen, I had already lived in Massachusetts, New York, Texas, California, and Pennsylvania and had spent eight years in Europe, four in Italy and four in Germany. I had attended eight different schools and lived in eight different houses. There were many advantages of this lifestyle: we enjoyed great food; summer vacations in Spain, Turkey, Greece; and winter ski trips to the Italian and French Alps. But there were also as many disadvantages. I made lots of friends and lost just as many each time we had to leave. The picking up and putting down every four years was hard but hardest on my mother. Each time she had to start out with a new house and help my sister and me get adjusted while my father – the colonel, the surgeon, the hospital CEO - carried on in his determined military way. When we returned to the States in 1971, we all thought happily that this time it would be for good. My parents bought a beautiful farm house in Pennsylvania near the hospital where my father worked. Like before, my mother set herself in motion to make it hers. My sister enrolled in a private school. And I went off to college in Pittsburgh.

I eagerly anticipated the January semester in France. My mother had sworn that we would never move again. Over her dead body, she said. So I wanted very much to go since it might be a long time before I got a chance to return.

Annecy is as picturesque as any town I remembered and loved from my travels. Sitting at the foot of the sparkling white Alps, the town has medieval buildings, charming canals, and cobblestone streets. But it is close quarters with the Roberts: Madame, Monsieur, and their three children, Sophie, age 16; Nicole, 14; and Christophe, 13, who reside in a very small apartment. The good news is that the lycée, where I will be taking classes, is within walking distance, and the Roberts have a condo in Courcheval, one of the largest ski resorts in Europe. It is an hour-and-a-half drive from town, and we will all go there on weekends.

I arrive at the Mont Blanc airport on a Friday morning. Monsieur Robert is there waiting for me with a woman I assume is Madame Robert, but I am introduced instead to a Madame X. Putting my skis and luggage in his Peugeot, he says we are going to stop for lunch before joining the family at the ski house for le weekend. In the restaurant, Monsieur Robert and Madame X sit close to one another and I sense, my neck getting hot, there is some activity involving hands and feet going on beneath the tablecloth. The conversation is awkwardly polite; there is no explanation who this woman is or why we are having lunch together. We hurry through the meal, hop back in the car. Monsieur Robert explains we have to drive Madame X back to her apartment.

He tells me to wait in the car, that he’ll be back tout suite. A good twenty minutes later, he returns as if all is normale, as if I have no idea what must have just transpired. Off we go to the mountains. Monsieur Robert talks most of the way and I listen, nodding my head, smiling, but with a deep sense of foreboding.

At the chalet the family’s greeting is reserved, but they are solicitous of my well-being, offering me wine and dinner. I’m actually relieved to mask my discomfort in the guise of being jet-lagged. They seem curious to learn about me not so much because I am American, but more trying to gauge how smart I am. It doesn’t take long for Madame and the girls to figure out that I know that they know that I know. Christophe seems clueless, or pretends to be. That night, with the girls and me sleeping nearby, I hear Christophe jerking off without restraint. And I think he must take after his father.

The following week we go through the motions of getting me settled, however, it is beginning to feel more like a bad comédie. I’m staying in Christophe’s room, which gives me total privacy except when he knocks on my door and asks if he can visit. He tells me he misses his room and then says, Dieu, comme je suis dur. I give him a blank stare, as if I don’t understand he’s telling me he’s got a hard-on. I say I really need to get back to my studies. He skulks away, rubbing his you-know-what. I am pretty disgusted. I feel very alone, like I am one kind of animal and the Roberts are another and we are being forced to cohabitate for no good reason at all.

My classes at the lycée are more challenging than I expected. The teachers and students speak at a rapid-fire pace and I have a hard time keeping up at first, but then it gets easier. The students look at me skeptically, as if it might not be possible for an American to understand the complexities of classical literature and philosophy, compulsory subjects for the Classe de Terminale, the equivalent to our high school seniors. Most of them are getting ready for their baccalauréat, a prerequisite for college admittance, and are very serious about their studies. The teachers seem impressed that my French is pretty good and even more surprised that I have read Camus, Dumas, Hugo, and Voltaire, as well as Sartre and Hume, philosophers and writers included in their curriculum. My guess is that they do not hold any education other than the French in very high esteem. It is a long day, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., but we have a nearly two-hour lunch period every day and Wednesday afternoons free. Vive la France.

After two weeks, it is business as usual: Sophie, Nicole, Christophe, and I go to school, Monsieur Robert goes to work, and Madame Robert goes food shopping. We come home, have dinner, and go to our rooms to study. Monsieur Robert’s presence sucks the air out of the room. A big man with reddish hair, he issues commands to anyone nearby to bring him this and that. There is TV watching in the evenings, but it is usually just Monsieur Robert, alone, occupying a large space on the sofa, as if the boss had come into the room and all the workers have cleared out. He’s on the phone a lot and largely uncommunicative with his family unless there is something funny on and he invites us all to come share a laugh. We never do.

Sophie and Nicole are not as good actors as their mother, but for the most part when it is just the three of us, we forget about their father’s behavior with chitchat and laughs. Sophie has a round face and dark, curly hair. She is mostly serious; I can’t tell if that is her personality or if the situation weighs her down. She doesn’t say but looks like she’s about to cry most of the time. The younger Nicole has bright eyes and a ready smile and giggles a lot. Neither seems to be particularly interested in fashion but want to know what life is like in America. The one thing we do shop for together is makeup. They love that I use French cosmetics. After school the girls and I have fun walking through the wintry streets, arm in arm, looking in brightly lit shop windows still decorated for Christmas. I am always ready to get back to the apartment, though, and spend time with Madame Robert. It feels like she is my only real friend.

Madame is fair-complexioned, with auburn hair styled teased on top and falling to her shoulders in a soft flip. Her movements are quick and efficient, a required skill in such a small abode, but she is particularly deft in the charming, matchbox-sized kitchen. Every inch of space is used: the cooking equipment is neatly organized on shelves, a table functions for eating and as a work space, and there is a big window with a large sill where she keeps little pots of herbs. After school I find myself there, offering to help. Out of everyone, she is the most sincere and kind. It is as if she made herself a safe haven here, amid the pots and pans, in a space that is hers alone, a place to breathe. My heart aches for her. She is like a princess locked in a tower by a terrible ogre, a fate she seems to accept with calm resignation. It is what is expected of me, Louise, her eyes say in response to the look of woe I do my best to hide. This was the second time I felt the prickling at the back of my neck, my face getting hot. As the daughter of a military man, I understood all too well about expectations.

Madame is an excellent cook, no haute cuisine, just simply prepared vegetables and meats. My favorite dish is a vinaigrette—mustard, ground pepper, olive oil, and lemon—emulsified into a creamy dressing and then drizzled over cold, sliced Belgian endives. I eat kilos of them; I can’t get enough, which makes her laugh and smile, which makes me want to eat even more. She wears some combination of a four-piece, camel-colored wool suit every day. It is expensive-looking. She alternates between the pants and skirt but always the cream-colored silk blouse and pearls, always the same brown leather pumps, stockings, and soft brown leather bag. She seldom washes her hair, a European practice that is not unfamiliar to me. But the sour smell, accentuated by our proximity in the tiny kitchen, is both comforting and disturbing. The staleness exaggerates our confinement: things don’t change, pain doesn’t easily wash away; but at the same time, it is just who she is—no deception. There is no pretending in the kitchen; there is no place to hide. What started out as a comédie is now beginning to feel more like a tragédie. I no longer feel like an outsider watching this drama unfold. I have become one of the players.

At the end of my stay, we all go to Courcheval for one last ski. Sophie and Nicole confront me in the gondola going up the mountain. They sit on the bench facing me, our knees touching in the tiny lift. I am looking up at the slopes, averting their eyes. Our breath frosts the windows. Sophie speaks.We are ashamed, about what happened. Was it Madame X who met you at the airport with our father? Yes, I answer. And you went to lunch? Yes, I repeat. And did he take her home and you waited in the car? I shook my head yes, giving them the same look of woe I had given Madame. I wanted to close my eyes and make everything go away. I wanted to rewrite the past for them and for me.

At the top we get off the gondola. It is like the end of the world, all snow and mountain peaks unfolding as far as the eye can see. The sky is blue and endless over our heads. The girls tap their poles together and tell me to follow them; we are going off-piste, on unmarked trails. Allez, allez, Louise, they yell. I watch the two figures pitch forward and zig-zag down the slope. They zoom ahead of me, undaunted, unafraid, like they have done it a million times before. The run is terrifyingly steep, covered with ice, sharp as a razor’s edge. I am scared to death and have to side-step most of the way, but I make it down. If my suitcase had been there, I would have gladly skied all the back to Pennsylvania and that would have been the end of the story but it wasn’t.

The next summer my father announced we were moving back to Europe. My mother cried and cried. My sister shrugged her shoulders because she didn’t care anymore and I knew that we had no choice. Just like going down the mountain. That is what resurfaced that day in line, beneath the smell of unwashed hair. Like Sophie and Nicole, no matter how steep and dangerous, no matter how much it hurts, you have to make it safely to the bottom and keep going. It was a lesson they had learned, and so had I. 

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