I love my adopted homeland. But first, as an exchange student in Massachusetts, I learned to love chocolate chip cookies and brownies. And I gained twenty pounds.
My love affair with America had begun with my love of the English language; we met at the lycée (junior high and high school) when I turned eleven. English was my favorite class after French literature, and I simply adored my English teacher. He had never been abroad but spoke English without a French accent, or even a British one. He had developed it during the war, when he found himself in a POW camp with a high school teacher from Weston, Massachusetts (I suspect they had long hours to practice). Without knowing whether they’d make it out alive, they decided that if they did, they would start an exchange program for high school seniors. Each year, one student from the U.S. would come to our town, and one of us would go to Weston. The exchange continues to this day, and the competition is keen.
During my last year at the lycée, I had good enough grades to apply, but I wasn’t interested. With dreams of becoming an English teacher or professor I was eager to start undergraduate studies at the local university. And at 18, naturally I had also convinced myself I was madly in love with a boy in my town. He was the handsomest though admittedly not the brightest boy around, the coqueluche, that is the darling, of all the girls. I couldn’t dream of parting from him, and so I didn’t even think of applying for Weston. But in the school yard, between classes, there was hardly another topic of conversation. Among my friends, the odds-on favorite to go was Monique; she wanted it so badly, and besides she was best in our class, a fact not lost on the selection committee, which was chaired by my teacher and included among its distinguished ranks PTA members, other teachers, the mayor, and the local Catholic priest balanced by the Protestant minister. But on the Monday morning when the announcement was expected, the only thing announced was that no decision had been made.
At home that Thursday morning (those days, there was no school on Thursdays but half-days on Saturday), my English teacher appeared at the door. He had come to see my mother, which seemed rather strange, considering my grades. As soon as he left, with a big, satisfied smile but not a word to me except hello, my mother called me. Something was “très important.”
The selection committee had not found a suitable candidate. When I asked about Monique, my mother tried to explain something not easily fathomed at my age: my friend had everything going for her but her parents were communists, and that would not fly in America. The committee had debated at great length (it was a small town where everybody was fully informed about everybody else), but they could not escape concluding that a daughter of communists could never represent France!
My teacher had proposed me as an alternative, and the other members had agreed. But since I had not even applied, he had to come and persuade my parents to let me go. My over-adoring father, who would never have condoned my running away for a year, was not home. Perhaps my teacher was counting on this fact; but in any event, he managed to sell the idea to my mother. The real work then fell to her, because she had to persuade not only my father but me as well. Not that she was without her own misgivings about seeing me go, but Mamie was always wise and farsighted; and she usually got her way. I was terribly anxious about what Monique would say, but once word got out, she was first to declare what a fine ambassador I would make. Apparently, communist families were quite open and practical about such matters, and she had already been given to understand that family ideology had made her a dark horse from the start.
And so I went. It was a wonderful year—one of the best of my adolescence—and it certainly changed the course of my entire life. To a young French girl, Weston, a wealthy Boston suburb, seemed an American dream—green, manicured, spread out, with huge gorgeous homes and well-to-do, well-schooled families. There was tennis, horseback riding, swimming pools, golf and two and three cars per family—a far, far cry from any town in Eastern France, then or now. The time was so full of new, unimagined things, but finally too rich, and I don’t mean demographically. For all the new friends and experiences I was naively prepared to evade while at the lycée, something else altogether, something sinister, was slowly taking shape. Almost before I could notice, it had turned into fifteen pounds, more or less…and quite probably more. It was August, my last month before the return voyage to France. I was in Nantucket with one of my adoptive families when I suffered the first blow: I caught a reflection of myself in a bathing suit. My American mother, who had perhaps been through something like this before with another daughter, instinctively registered my distress. A good seamstress, she bought a bolt of the most lovely linen and made me a summer shift. It seemed to solve the problem, but really only bought me a little time.
In my final American weeks, I had become very sad at the thought of leaving all my new pals and relations, but also quite apprehensive of what my French friends and family would say at the sight of the new me. I had never mentioned the weight gain in letters, and somehow managed to send photos showing me only from the waist up.
The moment of truth was approaching. . .
Part 2: Return of the Prodigal Daughter