Expressions: French Reunion

The author, Stephen J. Kotz, can be spotted in the front row, fourth from right.

Forty years can go by in the blink of an eye. Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how it’s possible so much time has slipped away since I was a sophomore in college, studying in the provincial city of Angers on the edge of the Loire Valley in western France. I’ve been reminded of that a lot, ever since I joined a Facebook group created by the school to tout a reunion of its American alumni in Chicago next month.

Oh, to be 19 again, when air travel was still a novel experience and the notion of flying to Paris on a Boeing 747 was a dream come true. Never mind that we were crammed into economy class: Attractive French flight attendants served us one of the few good airline meals I’ve ever had — coq au vin — with real silverware too!

Shortly after arriving in Paris, we were bused straight to Angers where we joined students from all over the world. The rules were simple: “Ici, on parle français.” (“We speak French here.”) That first month, when we attended class from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and took all-day excursions every Saturday, left lots of us with near constant headaches as we tried to adjust to speaking a new language, but eventually it did click. At least for a year. Today, when I struggle to put together a few sentences in French, it is frustrating to think that once upon a time, I could actually read Descartes, Racine, Proust and Sartre and understand it well.

As I thought more and more about this pending reunion, I found myself digging out an old plastic bin that sits on a shelf in the back of my closet. In it are things like the French flag I shimmied up a pole to steal as a souvenir a few weeks before I returned home, a cheap corkscrew with a handle made from a piece of grapevine, a class photo and a makeshift yearbook we put together.

Today, when I read that yearbook, I’m amused when I think of what my classmates missed or complained about. Seriously, you mean to tell me you couldn’t make it a year without eating peanut butter or going to McDonald’s? Someone actually said they served too much bread — and it was too crusty. You’ve got to let that one sink in: We’re talking here about French bread, which might just be the closest thing to perfection mankind has ever created. And someone didn’t like it? Back then, the inability of some of my classmates to go with the flow rankled me, and as the year passed, I found myself more and more detached from our group and hanging out with a broader circle of friends.

To be sure, I had my complaints. It rained too much, and the damp cold was bone-chilling. I missed my friends back home, and the disco music the French students played at the weekly dances they held was abysmal. Mostly, though, I found the freedom of being on my own for the first time exhilarating, especially because I was doing it in another country with a different language and a different culture. Seriously, how many Americans do you know who have walked into a butcher shop and willingly bought a couple of horse steaks? Trust me, they weren’t bad — and if horsemeat wasn’t your thing, you could always fill up on bread.

I had already decided I was not going to attend the reunion when I posted, with my regrets, a photograph of the house I lived in with another American and three French students. The owner was a horticulturalist, and we lived in a ground-floor apartment that looked out over 10 acres of potted plants and greenhouses. While most students lived with host families, ours was more of a landlord-tenant arrangement. Surprisingly, they didn’t mind if we threw parties, so our apartment, with its central kitchen and paneled living room with an out-of-tune piano became the place to hang out.

That photo attracted lots of attention from former classmates who had signed up for the reunion and said they would miss me. As I read their posts, I found myself clicking on their profiles to see what they looked like today. I was astounded by how few I still recognized and how many I could not identify in our class picture. Were they thinking the same thing about me? I suppose they were. And I decided there was no time like now to find out. I booked a cheap flight AND contacted a few of my closest friends from the group to tell them, “I’m in.”