Read Part 1, "Vive L’Amerique" here
My father brought my brother with him to Le Havre to collect me. I was traveling on the SS Rotterdam. The ocean-liner was still the trans-Atlantic standard among French people in the late 1960s. With me was the new American exchange student from Weston, who would be spending the year in our town.
Since he had not seen me for a whole year, I expected my father, who always wore his heart on his face, would embarrass me, bounding up the gangway for the first hug and kiss. But when I spied the diminutive Frenchman in his familiar beret—yes, a beret, can you believe it? —he looked stunned. As I approached, now a little hesitantly, he just stared at me, and as we came near, after a few seconds that seemed endless, there in front of my brother and my American shipmate, all he could manage to say to his cherished little girl come home was, “tu ressembles à un sac de patates” (you look like a sack of potatoes). Some things don’t sound any prettier in French. I knew what he had in mind: not a market-size sack but one of the big, 150-pound burlap affairs that are delivered to grocery stores and restaurants! Fortunately the girl from Weston spoke little French, else she would have had a troubling first impression of French family life.
At age nineteen I could not have imagined anything more hurtful, and to this day the sting has not been topped. But my father was not being mean. True, tact was never his strength; and the teenage girl’s hypersensitivity about weight and looks wasn’t yet the proverbial pothole every parent today knows to steer around. The devastating welcome sprung more than anything from his having been caught off guard. Still, it was more than I could take. I was at once sad, furious, vexed and helpless. At the time I could not even measure the impact.
On our way home to eastern France we stopped in Paris for a few days, just to show my friend from Weston the City of Light, but my inexorable grumpiness made everyone eager to hit the road again. I ruined Paris for all of us. I was a mess.
The coming months were bitter and awkward. I didn’t want anyone to see me, but everyone wanted to greet “l’Américaine.” My mother understood right away not only how and why I had gained the weight but also how I felt. She treaded lightly, avoiding the unavoidable topic, perhaps particularly because I had soon given her something more dire to worry about.
Having seen a bit of the world I had lost my taste for attending the local university. I now wanted to study languages in a Grande École (like an Ivy League school) in Paris and, on top of that, to take a literary track at the Sorbonne at the same time. It was unusual and really an insane workload. My parents were not at all keen on the idea of Paris: If I got in, it was going to be a big emotional and financial sacrifice to have me three-and-a-half hours from home. So I had to campaign hard, but thanks in part to the obvious persistence of my raw nerves, in the end they let me go back to Paris for the famously grueling entrance exam. I passed and in late September I moved to Paris. They always wanted the best for me.
By All Saints’ Day (November 1st) I had gained another five pounds and by Christmas, five more still. At 5 ft. 3, I was now overweight by any standard, and nothing I owned fit, not even my American mother’s summer shift. I had two flannel ones—same design, but roomier—made to cover up my lumpiness. I told the dressmaker to hurry and hated myself every minute of the day. More and more, my father’s faux pas at Le Havre seemed justified. Those were blurry days of crying myself to sleep and zipping past all mirrors. It may not seem so strange an experience for a nineteen-year-old, but none of my French girlfriends was going through it.
Then something of a Yuletide miracle occurred. Or perhaps I should say, Dr. Miracle, who showed up thanks to my Mamie. Over the long holiday break, she asked the family physician, Dr. Meyer, to pay a call. She did this most discreetly, sans tambours ni trompettes, careful not to bruise me further. Dr. Meyer had watched me grow up, and he was the kindest gentleman on earth. He assured me that getting back in shape would be really easy and just a matter of a few “old French tricks.” By Easter, he promised, I’d be almost back to my old self and certainly by the end of the school year in June I’d be ready to wear my old bathing suit, the one I’d packed for America. As in a fairy tale, it was going to be our secret. (No use boring anyone else with the particulars of our plan, he said.) And the weight would go away much faster than it came. Sounded great to me. Of course I wanted to put my faith in Dr Meyer, and fortunately, there didn’t seem to be many options at the time.
See the first prescription Dr. Miracle gave Mireille.