I don’t know when I first fell in love with France. It feels like it’s always been in my heart. Perhaps Henri Matisse or Claude Monet did it when I was a little girl visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a feast for the eyes. Maybe the romance of ex-pat Gertrude Stein’s 27 rue de Fleurus salons reached across the decades from 1920-something Paris into 1970s Long Island and touched me with rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. Maybe it started in my mouth with the perfection of biting into a crunchy baguette, the funky complexity of ripe camembert, the salty deliciousness of moules-frite (appropriated from Belgium, I know, I know), or just the mere notion of drinking hot chocolate from a bowl. When I was about 10 years old I sang passionately along with Jaques Brel, who was apparently alive and well and living in Paris, but singing to me from a scratchy album in my living room, too. I didn’t know what any of it meant, but I lamented with poor, sad Jaques, Ne me quitte pas.
In college I took French. I sucked at learning any language in the classroom (High School Spanish – ninguna suerte; College Hebrew – אָיֹם). Alas, French was no different. I thought it might be because I wanted to know it so badly. Later, I married a man whose mother is originally from French Morocco. So my children, therefore, are 1/4 French speaking, yes? Please tell me this is how it works.
As an adult, when I went back to school for a second degree and needed childcare, we ended up with a French au pair. At the time, I had no idea how many wonderful ways this young woman would impact my life and the life of my family, but for today let’s just focus on my French love affair. She brought France into the fabric of my children’s childhood. Ten+ years later and they still sing The Lion King’s The Circle of Life in French. She came into our lives astonished that we had never heard of Mont Saint-Michel. “But it is one of the seven wonders of the world!” she declared (although I’m not sure it actually is). But we knew the wonder of Mont Saint-Michel before we ever visited. She fed us crepes, made from her grandmother’s recipe. She is someone who embodies the term joie de vivre. She is from Normandy and she shared the story of how her family’s love and respect of Americans officially began on the 6th of June, 1944. I believe she felt lucky to be able to come to the States. She lived with us for two years, caring for the children, becoming part of our family.
My first European travel was to France as an adult. We took our children to visit their au pair a year after she’d gone home. First we visited Paris. We shlepped the kids to the Louvre, to the gardens of the Rodin museum, Notre Dame, on the Paris Metro, past the Moulin Rouge (covering their eyes so they wouldn’t see the “toys” and leather clothing in the windows of the sex shops). My 11 year old daughter yearned for coffee and I said yes. C’est la vie. I don’t regret that parenting decision because: French coffee! That same daughter lost a tooth at the Eiffel Tower. My son seemed more delighted to ride the carousel at the foot of Sacré-Cœur than to see Mona Lisa, but somehow that was ok.
We drove from Paris to Normandy, but first stopped at Monet’s house and gardens. I know I’m a writer. I know I’m supposed to be finding my words. But I have no words for the experience of walking through Monet’s paintings.
In Normandy we stayed with our au pair’s family in Saint-Lô. My older daughter was visibly relieved to be back with her au pair. They held hands, they whispered secrets, they were sisters. We visited with her parents and brother and met cousins and aunts. We met her grandparents from both sides of the family and visited the grandparent’s horse farm. We went to the open air market with flowers and vegetables and meat and fish which was so beautiful and so so French. We ate mussels at an outdoor cliffside restaurant that only locals know about, sitting on wooden boxes at a giant spool table, looking out over the ocean. I bought perfume in town. We visited one of the 7 wonders of the world! We drove down to Brittany, to the walled city of Saint Malo, and another carousel. It was all so beautiful and magical.
Visiting France for the first time was more than I could have ever imagined. The people were warm and welcoming. In Paris, I tried to converse in my mangled French, and the Parisians were happy to switch to English for me, when they could, to reward me for my efforts. It felt like the people of Normandy are still grateful for the Americans coming to their rescue on D-day. I don’t care what other people may say about the French. My experience on that and subsequent trips has never been anything but lovely.
I’ve returned to France a number of times since then, but that first trip with my family will forever reside in my heart.
On November 13th I was at a writing conference in Chicago when I saw a Tweet about Paris. I Googled and scanned Twitter and then my heart broke. My former au pair, who is my daughter, who is my sister, who is my friend, now lives in Paris. I immediately called France to make sure she was ok. She has a husband and children of her own now. They were all safe. They were fine. We cried together on the phone. We shared our shock and fear and love.
I know atrocities are happening all over the world, every day. It’s absolutely horrifying. I can’t help it though: for me this attack on Paris pierces my heart in a very personal way. I re-read what I’ve just written and I feel like I haven’t even begun to touch on what France means to me. I could go on and on and on. I don’t think I will ever actually find all the words to capture my love affair with France.