(the misadventures of an expatriate corporate dropout)

Friday, June 20, 2008

my french connection. part deux.

Its been awhile, friends, but when we last left off ... my semi-foundling daughter had just been accepted into the bosom of bilingualism à la Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley.

Her first day at school was memorable. There I was, single working mother leading my already very independent daughter into the little school. Looking around at some of the other parents, we did stand out a bit. The American parents were mostly well heeled Berke-lonian types ... some academic and others looking every bit the corporate dad and trophy wives. Yes, one thing for certain was these parents were INVOLVED... both parents. So, no matter their wealthy backgrounds ... I will say that the large percentage were very present in their kids' lives.

The difference was the cost associated with that involvement. Not just the checks that would need to be written. But the days off to be in class, on class trips, at class functions, and fundraising. See, a whole lot of fundraising goes on in a private school. No matter how rich its student body. These costs were much higher for a parent like me ... but that is no different than thousands of other single moms throughout the land.

But anyway. When I went to gather my daughter at the end of the first day, she was quite upset.

"I kept asking where was the bathroom and no one would answer me!"

"Really?" I replied. "No one spoke to you?"

"Yes someone spoke to me Mommy", irritated. "But I couldn't understand them!"

You see, the Ecole Bilingue is an immersion school. During the first year, typically kindergarten, the children are fully immersed in French through play, songs, class activities. The children learn to read French before they learn to read English (assuming they haven't learned at home). As they progress in school, every subject is presented separately in French and in English. So there is French reading, grammar, spelling, etc. And French math, science, history. Exactly replicating school curriculae in France. Coupled with all of the same required courses in English. According to U.S. standards. Somehow they manage to fit it all in. Plus music and art and drama and physical education. It is really quite remarkable.

During the first few years, I became acquainted with the families of the kids in my daughter's class. When my son enrolled, this was the same for his class. Over the years, I became close with a few families who had sets matching mine (daugher and son, same age, same school). Some of these friendships remain until today.

During elementary school years, I didn't have any real connection with my own love of France except via my kid's education. Here and there, I took a French class. Or attended a function at the Alliance Française de Berkeley. But not much. Their language ability quickly surpassed my own. Finally, I paid them (!) to speak French with each other. Fifty cents an evening, we kept track on a sheet on the refrigerator ... and it would be added to their allowance if they managed 45 minutes or so!

Part of the EB experience is an exchange trip to France. During their 4th grade school year, the class corresponds with a class in France, near Paris. This culminates in an exchange trip, where a pack of 4th grade Frenchies arrive to stay with their correspondant ... and vice versa. Johnelle's trip took place right around the time the first Iraq war broke out. There was a huge degree of angst on the part of the parents, with several deciding at the last minute not to send their kid. Fear and misplaced paranoia overcame them.

Parents were encouraged to chaperone, but of course this wasn't an option for me ... still single parent with 2 kids in a school that required a king's ransom (or amazingly dexterous juggling of creditors) to support the experience.

But I could embrace the concept of hosting a French kid. Johnelle's correspondant was named Aude. A pretty, wispy girl with blonde hair and a sharp tongue. Johnelle and her were not a perfect match, but we made the most of the experience. And with that trip, my young 4th grade daughter was bitten by the travel bug.

This began a series of exchange hosting and our association with SWIFT. . I think it likely that I enjoyed the hosting more than my kids most times, although one visitor became a lifelong family friend and much like my 2nd daughter. My kids groused about having an extra kid around, having to attend the prerequisite get to know you picnics and several sightseeing trips while here. But I banked all of those visits towards the future. I became a go-to mom for the international exchange program. Something told me that my receptivity might pay off in the future.

When the time rolled around three years later, my son also had his exchange experience. I still had not set foot on French soil! My time would not come until much, much later.

My chance to cash in my chips, so to speak, with the exchange program came when my daughter was 17. A number of factors converged and we wanted to get her out of the bay area, with an opportunity to study elsewhere. My many years of assistance were reviewed, and the program director agreed to devise a special 4 month stay just outside of Paris, where she could attend art classes and live with a French family. We jumped on it!

The best part of this plan was finally, my time had also come. I was to go to France at the end of her stay, for a 2 week visit and tour. She would have the opportunity to show me around; and we would explore an unknown area of France together. I won't repeat what I've written before, really more the travel logistics of a first time visitor. But there are many things I'll cherish and chuckle over, regarding that 1st trip. Let me tell you, there's nothing quite like a trip to a foreign country with a teenage travel guide. Here's some of my favorite recollections and experiences:

Checking in to my little hotel, the Jeanne D'Arc and upon spying peeling wallpaper and no tub as promised, somehow making myself understood to the less than hospitable clerk that I WOULD see another room and right away. And receiving a new room promptly!

Walking for over an hour with my daughter in search of some nebulous, out of the way Tex Mex restaurant so she could have guacamole. We tromped and tromped, she couldn't find it. Finally, when my fury was about to erupt as well as her tears, we found it. Looking back, we both agree the food was terrible. But do we laugh!

Discovering a tiny little restaurant near my hotel in the Marais, le Grand Dane, hosted by a lovely elderly Danish woman. She presided over her postage stamp with maybe 8 tables as if it were haute cuisine at its finest. The food was tasty, the company divine. We returned again and again over the years, until sadly she finally closed.

Being dragged out to the Place des Vosges (one of my most favorite places on earth) at 11:00 p.m. to march the arcades in order to "walk off our dinner". My daughter was convinced that her love affair with Camembert had made her obese and this was the only way. Have I mentioned her inheritance of a hard Irish skull, complete determination, and ability to drive you absolutely bonkers if you don't concede to her will?

Hours upon hours of walking the city, particularly the Marais and Île Saint-Louis, with tears in my eyes at the untold beauty that is the museum and architectural wonder of the city of Paris.

Laughing fits in the basement rooms of the Louvre, where one can see the original stones and other fantasies which were once the foundation of a fortress in the heart of Paris, built to defend against the Normans and the dratted English invaders of the 13th century! Why were we laughing? who knows, it seems that my daughter was enacting a corpse scene at the moment.

An anecdote-filled TGV ride in what we thought were first class, no smoking seats only to find we were in a smoking coffin, I mean cabin ... and giggling our way through the cars as the train flew through the countryside, on our way to ....

Avignon! be still my heart. A most incredible ancient city, former papal seat for 6 or 7 popes and home to the most incredible Palais des Papes. This was a nearly unplanned visit, other than the train ticket. We arrived to rain, and ran down the main street's cobblestones near the train station ... darting in to a tiny hotel and navigating our stay.

Strolling a small park near the gorgeous Pont d'Avignon and listening to my now nearly grown daughter sing her childhood school song, Sur le Pont d'Avignon and feel the tears and pride swell, rapt amazement at the marvel that was me. That lonely, broken, striving, dreaming girl. The marvel that I was even still alive. Survivor. Now a woman. Accompanied by her daughter and revelling in the miracle of the moment that was my first foray into the land of my dreams.

I'll end there. I stumbled across some site the other day where you could have your blog posts rated for verbosity. Today, I think I'm about a 103 on a scale of 100.


Randal Graves said...

What a groovy, groovy post, though I don't think its verbosity is high enough. (of course, I just typed mine in and got no result. I don't talk at all apparently)

Not sure about the exchange though; my own kids are annoying enough, I can't imagine a third annoying one in a language I barely speak. ;-)

Je ne regrette rien said...

RG-the damn thing didn't work for me either. I didn't have time to investigate, but I think it is something to do with my RSS feed. or my HTML. basically, all BS IMO.

and just think of the free propaganda factor involved with exchanges ... you can brainwash the little suckers and send them home to torment their folks re the wondrousness of USA.

Utah Savage said...

I'm sobbing as I read this. You are my sister and you got it right in every way. I'm so proud of you. Oh my God what a journey you are on. You'll have it all. You'll have every success you ever imagined. Please, don't forget to write.

La Framéricaine said...

Very cool postcard! And a lot of Frenchified activities piled up over the years. Chapeau!

Je ne regrette rien said...

LF-after all, this series is for you ... the one wo clamored for my French *story* !