When I was 14 I traveled to France as an exchange student. I arrived confidently armed with my knowledge of textbook French I’d gleaned under the austere eye of Madame Barr. Yet somehow learning the language from a book with photos of
goofy French people on the front
is light years away from listening to locals speak it: foreign words sparking from their lips like lightning, then a questioning glance at me as I’d blush furiously and say, “Pouvez-vous parlez plus lentement, s’il vous plait?” (Could you please speak more slowly?) Probably the second most commonly uttered phrase I used that summer was, “Je suis desolee, mais je ne comprends pas.” (I’m sorry, but I don’t understand) Or, when all else failed, “Merde!” (Shit!)
It didn’t matter though because there’s one language that requires few words–the language of love. Unrequited,
lusty powerful, teenaged love. Gautier was his name, wearing too much Farenheit cologne was his game. He wore glasses, had light brown hair, and was quiet and very intellectual looking. In my typical Amazonian fashion, I surpassed him in height by at least two inches. I remember bringing my ancient headphones and (insert cringe here) cassette player with me on the trip (after all, it was 1991), listening frequently to R.E.M. in a hammock overlooking the Mediterranean from our villa on the coast of St. Tropez in southern France:
Oh, life is bigger
It’s bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I set it up
Dreaming of Gautier’s lips on mine and unaware of the tragedy that would befall me a few months later (my father’s coming out of the closet), I spent a blissful month in France coming of age.
One day Anne-Sophie, Gautier’s younger sister and her BFF Caroline grabbed my doll, whom they’d affectionately dubbed “Puppeynette,” from my sandy bed and we managed to sneak into Gautier’s room to douse her with his Farenheit cologne. Caroline likewise fancied Gautier, but he seemed to
despise merely tolerate us. Just then he caught us and yelled as we laughed our girlish laughs, our bare feet pounding the terra cotta floors while our hair, wavy from the salty ocean water, danced behind us.
Sometimes words weren’t necessary.
Munching on French bread dripping with preserves for breakfast on the patio overlooking the boundless sea, the heavy smell of salt hanging in the air. The Mediterranean, which I’d only ever studied in school, was just a short walk from our nine-bedroom villa. Women’s breasts on display, laissez-faire attitudes, loads of eateries and giant slices of Tropezienne, a local delicacy, to satisfy my sweet tooth.