My oldest child is in a French immersion school. We get asked a lot why we chose French since neither my husband nor I speak French. There were a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that we felt it was important that he understand that there are other languages and cultures besides our own, and that he have some exposure to that.
Someone asked me about this again today, and it got me thinking about my own exposure to the French culture. When I was in middle school, I had the opportunity to go to France with our middle school honor choir. There are two pretty amazing things about this. The most obvious to those who don’t know me: that a bunch of public middle schoolers were given the opportunity to go to France. The most obvious to those who know me: that I got accepted into an honor choir. (I charitably describe my singing style as talking loudly and on key.)
I never went to sleep-away camp, so this was my first experience spending a prolonged period of time away from home. For most of the time, we stayed in a girls’ dorm at a private school with our French counterparts. I don’t remember too much about our stay at the dorms. I remember it being Madeline-esque, with rows and rows of the same beds. I also remember that they were oddly reluctant to serve fruit in the dining hall, and, when they finally served an apple, eating it down to the core. Oh, and there was a dog who, er, took a liking to me. In an awkward way. I actually couldn’t go into the courtyard without him affixing himself to my leg.
What I remember very vividly, however, is the weekend I stayed with my host family. My host sister’s name was Astrid, and she was a full-on fashion model beauty. Six feet tall, perfect bone structure. Also as sweet as could be. Her family was hospitable. I took Spanish in middle school, and other than a few phrases we were all taught before we left (my name is…, how are you, and where is the W.C. – not bathroom, W.C.), I was clueless as to the language. They were forgiving of this, and tried to engage me to the extent they could. Other than everything in their bathroom being labeled as “douche,” I thought they seemed like a pretty normal family.
And then, my friends, Saturday rolled around. The day started normally enough. Then around 4, Astrid told me we were going to be going to a party in Paris. Well, that sounded exciting. She asked me expectantly if I had brought my hippie clothes. I thought I had misunderstood her. Did she mean yuppy clothes? Cause yeah, I had those in spades. But no, she meant hippie clothes.
“No,” I replied. “I didn’t know I was supposed to bring hippie clothes.” (Is this a thing? How could no one have told me this is a thing?)
“Oh, you didn’t bring your hippie clothes?” she asked, crestfallen. I felt awful – how had I not managed to bring hippie clothes? But then she rallied. “Don’t worry. You can borrow some of my hippie clothes.”
Did I mention she was six feet tall? And also that her shoe size corresponded to her height?
“Er, okay!” I said, trying not to embarrass myself further.
It probably goes without saying, but further embarrass myself I did. I blocked out what the outfit was. I remember it being very large and possibly brown, but that’s about it. I do, however, vividly remember the shoes. They were red high heels. They were at least four sizes too big for me. I kept them on by squishing my toes under my feet and having my feet fit in the top part of the shoes, leaving the toes completely empty.
On a good day, I am not what one would call graceful. I did musical theater through high school. I was a good actor, passable singer (again with the speaking loudly on key thing) and a terrible dancer. For one show, I was cast as Evillene in The Wiz and rather than having me dance the song, the dance number was choreographed so that I just pointed to people who would dance for me. Anyway, point being – had I been given high heels that actually fit I would be tottering around. Wearing them like I was one of Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to cram on the glass slipper was infinitely worse. Add the cobblestoned streets of Paris and I was pretty much ready to go home before we got to the party.
We walked up at least three flights of stairs and made it to the party. The party was packed. The room was small, and all the furniture had been pushed to the side. Almost everyone was in the center dancing. Because my feet hurt, I tried to find shelter on one of the few couches. A persistent man kept asking me to dance, and finally, I agreed.
I won’t generalize as to the whole of France in 1991, but the way that this group of French people danced was to spin the woman. Constantly. It was like a frickin’ music box ballerina. And the other thing – when the song ended, they didn’t do that awkward American thing of breaking apart and saying “Thanks for the dance,” or whatever. They kept right on dancing. One song turned to two turned to three. I was so dizzy and my feet were entering Geisha-states of pain.
Finally at the fourth song, the Conga started. Normally this would not be a cause for rejoicing. But in my panicked mind I thought “At last! I can stop spinning and we can just walk around the room holding onto each other’s shoulders!” But no. The spinning continued. Finally, breaking out one of my three phrases I exclaimed “Ou est le w.c.?!”
Because NOBODY says w.c. (they say toilet); and because my French accent was then, as it is now, nothing to write home about; and because I was so dizzy I was probably looking at the wrong person when I said it, it took a few tries. But eventually, I was escorted to the w.c., where I hid out for as long as seemed appropriate, and then for maybe five more minutes after that.
I don’t have any memory of how we got home. I do, however, remember getting back to the dorm and learning that – in fact – no one else was expected to bring hippie clothes with them. And also that, even after everything that happened, that dog still thought I was pretty great.
After an experience like that, wouldn’t you want your child to be enrolled in a French immersion school?