Sundays in the early 1970s meant a routine that included services at the American Church of Paris followed by a potluck lunch in the upper room of the common area, then in the afternoon an exploratory journey of some kind that brought in leisure, culture and important family time. Often, the day would include a visit to an art museum. I loved collecting postcards of my favorite art pieces that hung in museums… the end of any museum visit meant we would go to the gift shop so I could have one postcard to add to my growing collection.
There were afternoons walking amid the easels in Montmartre while Mom took in the various techniques and appreciated her fellowship with like minded people; these strolls often meant enjoying a crepe with Nutella which was a marvelous treat for us kids, or maybe there was an item my parents had in mind as we trolled through the various stalls at the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen.
The traditional atmosphere and setting of our church during those years was a comfort. The shiny heavy dark wood pews, the what seemed endless distance between my little spot on the bench and the vast ceiling above me. My brother and I would spend a good amount of time in the sanctuary with the adults before being dismissed to our Sunday School Class. There were snatches of time I grabbed getting lost in the dark library with its massive leather chairs. A fairly nice collection of books in English ended up being my way of learning to read the language. I recall feeling desperate in a way to learn my home country language.
At home, we spoke English because Dad never really got the hang of French. On my thrice yearly visits to Norway, spending a lot of time with cousins at play- I learned the Norwegian language fairly fluently, at least in a passing conversational way, using comic books to teach myself to read. Since my schooling was in a French maternelle, I was not exposed to the written English language, so I would check out two to three books on a regular basis from the library, working my way through them on my own. I had no formal English language class until a few years later, just before our return transfer to the States.
My brother’s experience was much different from my own. When we arrived in France, he being a couple of years older than me meant that his introduction to school was quite a bit more stressful. The expectations that they had of him were very high, imagine- one poem a week that he had to come up with in French… and he didn’t even speak the language. This high failure set-up was devastating to his confidence and perhaps informed his abilities later on. My parents had been given advice from other ex-pats that the best and only way for full integration was to put their kids into a French school. In this way, the kids would adapt to life in France so much quicker.
I vividly recall the drop off at school those first few days. Mom backing up from me in the courtyard of the school. I am standing facing her in the doorway – a teacher or other adult person is holding onto my hand to keep me from going to her. And she has tears in her eyes and she is backing up across the courtyard- backing up towards the exit- waving tentatively, I can see she is conflicted. She felt she was doing the right thing. But this sunny child of hers that basically never cried or gave her any challenges was now screaming bloody murder at the top of her lungs: “Don’t leave me- please Mom ….. NOOOOOOOOooooo … hun hun hun hun” came the staggered breaths as I rebuilt the channel so I could belt out another wail. But she left. The adult motioned me to move indoors, taking my body in a different direction to seal the deal. And now, I am surrounded by blabbering sounds that make absolutely no sense. I don’t know how to say anything to these people. And I can’t recall that anyone said anything to me in English.
Somehow- time, yes that marvelous thing we call time, helped me manage. There were many days that I would come home from school and Mom would find me sitting in the soft gold Queen Anne chair in the corner of our, playing with my doll and talking to her in a language of my own, that I was in the process of making up. The words streamed together made no sense at all. They were sounds I was forming and repeating from my memories earlier in the day- cobbled together into my own little necklace of language which then eventually morphed into actual French.
Within just a few months, I became the school’s go to gal for anything that involved anyting Anglo. In a year or so- fellow playmates would tell me I was lying that I was an American. I had to show them my Dad to prove I was an American. At the age of about 4 or 5, the elastic in our brains allows us to collect languages and speak each of them well- like natives. At least this was the case for me. I learned fairly recently that Marly-le-Roi was actually a selected site for expats living and working for NATO. It’s no wonder then that we had so many new arrivals at school from places around the globe- like South Africa, or Australia or Great Britain. It became my role in fairly short order- to take these new students through the paces. I would give them the tour and fill them in on general tips. Like for example, don’t put anything in your mouth that the other kids call “gum”. That’s an eraser. I actually ended up thriving in that school- loved it. My brother on the other hand had a disaster on his hands. He ended up tuning everything out. Mom would show up at times to check on us and she would look into the window of John’s class and see him in his chair with a matchbox car making imaginary journeys around the roads on his head and arms and on the desk. It seemed the teacher allowed this, likely giving up on how to make this work. John ended up being held back a year and was transferred to a British school where he made great friends and had the requisite French class too. Adjustments are made.
Our routines were so different from that point on and since we were no longer with one another — or anyhow connecting to one another at school, I think back and realize that there was a bit of a chasm building between us even back then. As an adult now, I wonder if his resentment of me didn’t start that first year in France. In fact, I know that it must have. I became that child that amplified what he couldn’t do. I must have been exhausting for him to have as a sister.
I remember the day we got the call from Dad. He was traveling back in the States and had called Mom to inform her that we were moving back to the US. She was standing in what we called our “Entrée” which was the entryway to our apartment where we had this lovely chandelier, a tiny Louix IV style telephone table and doors leading on one side to the kitchen, another to the living area (living room, dining room and den) and then off to the right – the hallway that led to our bedrooms, bathrooms and water closet. It was early evening, and the phone hand rung in the middle of her preparations to cook us dinner, and she had been holding an egg in her hand. She didn’t put the egg down but rather dashed straight for the phone, knowing it would likely be Dad. We kids too- ran towards the phone to overhear their conversation. I sat myself down on the oriental rug and was looking down at the gold tendrils of illustrations, tracing one of the swirls with my finger, when I heard her take a breath in and then crash. The egg fell to the hardwood floor just beyond the rug where I had taken up residence, and the gooey white began to ooze. She didn’t rush to it, she just stood there looking at it and I could hear her say: “Ok Jack- you know best”. Her voice sounded a bit whispy and hard to hear. I sensed this was not a joyous occasion for her but understood that she would follow him wherever he would lead her.
We would be moved into a farmhouse in the middle of a vast empty landscape in South Barrington IL by middle February 1976. This would be our temporary logding until my parents found something more permanent for us.