I Lost My Chicken in the Loire Valley

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.

Venturing

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. – Mark Twain

Do you agree with Mr. Twain? Why or why not? I so look forward to this; the beginning of a conversation with you. I’ll start by sharing why I believe travel and cultural exchange can open our hearts to the humanity in every corner of the world.

Growing up in small town Michigan, USA between the late ‘60’s and early 80’s didn’t offer much in the way of diversity. World travel wasn’t an option for our family at that time either. Instead, my parents invited the world into our home via my father’s involvement with the Rotary Club. Rotary has an international exchange program for high school students as well as business people. My childhood home played host to many young people from all over the world as a result. Beginning when I was about 5 years old and continuing, on and off, until after my sister, brother and I had grown and left home, my parents welcomed a diverse group of people into their home. We were introduced to India, Belgium, Brazil, Sweden, Japan, Zimbabwe and other countries and cultures along the way. 

As a result of my parents’ openness and hospitality, our family grew. Many of our international visitors wriggled their way into our hearts and have become integral members of our family. 50 years on, and these people are as much my true siblings as my natural brother and sister. Our family continues to grow as each of us marries and has children. And so, my parents’ willingness to open our home so many years ago has continued to have a ripple effect around the world and through generations. I promise to share more about my international family in the coming months.

The world is so much smaller these days, with technology and the ease of travel. You guessed right if you assumed that my family has finally been able to travel the world – visiting our extended international family in their home countries and experiencing their cultures firsthand. Our cultural exchange continues to expand as our family grows. I’ll be introducing you to each of my international siblings in some of my future posts!

My international family at a gathering in Florida in 2016

My parents’ actions opened up a world to me that I might not otherwise have experienced. I chose to become an exchange student in high school, not only because I was studying French at the time, but because I had had such wonderful experiences with international exchange in my own home. My desire to experience new cultures and meet people who are different from me is just as keen now as it was then. As a result, I have followed in my parents’ footsteps and hosted students as well. The one thing I’ve learned is that people are people no matter where they live, who or what they worship, what they eat or what language they speak. Our differences make life so much more interesting!

I look forward to exchanging ideas and opinions with you; discovering new places to see and hearing your stories, too. 

Mr. Twain finished his thoughts with these words:

“Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Let’s, you and I, go beyond our little corners!