If you asked my sister to tell you what I was like as a child, she’d say I was a chicken. My default response to anything unfamiliar or slightly scary was to hide my face in my mother’s skirt – quite literally at times. I didn’t enjoy being afraid of everything and I can’t tell you why I was. My sister and brother were the adventurous ones. I was the baby and they usually left me behind because I wasn’t much fun.
So, I read a lot as a kid; I still do. Don’t you find books to be a safe place to go on all kinds of adventures?! One of my favorite literary characters was Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and another was Pippi Longstocking. One helped kids kick bad habits and the other thumbed her nose at convention. I think I longed to be a rebel but I was, at heart, a rule follower… and a chicken. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s appeal was how she “cured” bad habits by overexposing the kids to the offending behavior so that they were forced to see it and work themselves out of it.
So, what would Mrs. Piggle Wiggle prescribe for a painfully shy, apprehensive teenager? How about this: to board a plane and land in a place where she knows no one, barely speaks the language and will have virtually no contact with home for an entire summer? Yes! That sounds like the perfect Mrs. Piggle Wiggle “Afraid of Everything” cure! So, that’s what I did.
You’ll recall that I come from a home that welcomed many exchange students, so the concept was familiar to me. I was studying French which made France an obvious choice, and my parents were agreeable as long as I ponied up half the cost of the program. Decision made. Thank goodness I didn’t let my fears take hold until it was too late!
I waited expectantly through that spring to hear where in France I would be going and who my host family would be. I waited and waited and waited… By the time my departure date arrived, I had worked myself up into a nice ball of nerves. I don’t know how my parents did it, but they put me on a plane to France without knowing where I was going to end up. Back in 1983 we didn’t have the ability to instantly connect like we do today. They had to wait for me to arrive. I sent a telegram, if I remember correctly. Yes. A telegram.
I flew to NY and met up with some other exchange students, which made me feel a little less afraid. We were all in the same boat! Arriving in Paris, we were met by local area reps and driven to the program offices where our host families were waiting for us. My host mom and host dad were there – they had kind eyes and friendly faces. And they spoke French! My brain froze. I couldn’t utter a single mot en français. We did a lot of smiling and gesturing, made our way to the train station; grabbing a sandwich au jambon on the way to my new home!
I spent that summer in the Loir-et-Cher region of the Loire Valley – a beautiful agricultural region with oh, so many castles. My host parents owned a working farm with grain fields, chickens, rabbits and a large family garden. I was so excited to find out I would have a little brother! I am the baby in my family and always wanted a little brother or sister. I also gained two new sisters, one younger and one older than I. My host father was gregarious and charming. He communicated with me through teasing and laughter. My host mom was kind and hard-working. I rarely saw her sitting except at meals and at the very end of the day. My oldest host sister spoke very good English. She was preparing for her departure to the US for an exchange year.
I relied heavily on my older host sister to translate. It was nice to have her help but I learned so much more, and was better able to enjoy my host family, when I stopped relying on that crutch. Some of my best memories are of sitting with my host mom snapping beans or otherwise helping her in the kitchen or while hanging laundry on the line. I know, chores don’t sound terribly fun, but those were the times when we would talk, when I really felt like I belonged. And right, kids help out with chores in France, too, just like at home. My little brother was another great teacher. We spent countless hours playing outside, playing foosball in the garage when it rained and reading his books. His books were right at my level of understanding of the French language and his young vocabulary was much easier for me to grasp as well.
I kept a journal that summer and I will tell you it wasn’t all sunshine and roses. The food was different. The rules were different. There was one very unfortunate incident that involved me, my host brother, some ill-fated baby rabbits and a very angry host mom! I promise, we meant no harm. I’m not a farm girl and I don’t pretend to understand rabbits. I’m still a little haunted by that day…
Despite all that family bonding and rabbit tragedy, I remained a chicken. I still had a hard time talking to strangers, especially in French. There were many friends and family in the area, though, and they were all very interested in meeting me. I was “la petite américaine”. And several of them had very definite ideas of what an American was. Some of those stereotypes weren’t terribly flattering. What could I do but try to change their minds, right? So, I put a smile on my face and put my best American foot forward. I think it helped. I know it helped me.
My host family showed me some of the best things about their country; hard working, kind people who were open-minded and generous, with a familiar family dynamic. While I was with them they also shared their culture and customs. We visited le Chateau de Blois – pictured above, one of many castles in the Loire Valley. I’ve since seen several more, and I will never say, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” because they are all so very different and have such interesting histories.
The French equivalent of our Independence Day is July 14, Bastille Day. On that day we attended a small town celebration. Talk about charming! The village was filled with locals. There was a small parade, led by a slightly off-key marching band, that grew bigger as we all joined in. It wound its way to a local hall for a large party afterward. There was food, wine (always wine!), music and even some dancing! That day alone fulfilled most of my romantic notions of what France would be.
Toward the end of the summer we went on a family camping trip to Ile D’Oléron. The island sits in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of France. Camping, it turns out, is pretty much the same on an island in France as it is in northern Michigan. Campers, tents, lots of sand, public bathrooms, campfires, beaches. One thing that shocked my innocent eyes were all the topless women on the beach – including my host mom! My host father got a really good chuckle out of that. I will never forget that summer and I will always hold that family close to my heart. I’ve been back to visit them, now, twice, but I will save those stories for another day.
So, you see, I did leave my chicken in the Loire Valley. Without realizing it, I had come home a little braver and more open and I’d gained a fair amount of self-confidence. My comfort zone had begun to expand, too. Mind you, I’m still no devil-may-care, throw-caution-to-the-wind kind of gal. I prefer to have a plan when I head out on an adventure, but I’m willing to go off-book, too. I don’t know about you, but I have found that those can be some of the best times.