Sunday, September 14, 2008

Summer in France, 1956


Yes I know it's hard to believe that anyone was alive in 1956 and that there was a France to visit, but I have all kinds of evidence, and I'm busy albumising it with the help of the famous and talented Noorster. I was am such a pack rat that I have still, over 50 years later, a mind-boggling array of mementoes of that trip: the label from a bottle of Mumm Champagne purchased in Reims, the ticket stub from a bullfight in Spain (more about that later), concert and theater programs from Paris, all 25 of the letters and postcards I wrote home, the passenger lists of both the westbound and eastbound student ships that took nine days to cross the Atlantic, and on and on. All of this would be fine scrapbook fodder, but we're working on photo albums, and there very few photos. I wonder where the rest went?

The biggest gem of a memento that surfaced was the trip itinerary (photo), hand-drawn by our French leader, Robert Petelle. Because you see, this was no ordinary Grand Tour, but was rather an exchange program that consisted of a homestay with a French family for the first four weeks, and then a three-week camping trip with a member of the host family, in a group organized by The Experiment in International Living, or as we fondly called it, "The Experiment." I am amazed to see that it still exists, although now it seems to target high school students. My group of seven American girls and three American boys, all about 19 or 20 years old, all having completed at least two years of college and many more years of French language studies, was sent to some American-friendly French-speaking families in the neighborhood of Valenciennes, in the North of France. This being 1956, it wasn't all that hard to find American-friendly French-speaking families, what with the Yanks' stirring elimination of the somewhat unpopular German occupation, but it was more of a challenge to find a collection of them with room for an additional family member. My famiy, and a couple of others, were in Anzin, a suburb of Valenciennes. The others were in Maubeuge and other little towns close to Belgium. Since it was primarily a mining district, and not particularly interesting for a three-week bicycle trip, we did our camping trip in the much sunnier South of France. We were each supplied with a bicycle and two saddlebags to drape over the rear, with room for our sleeping bag in the center.

I would like to brag that I biked over the Pyrenees, but my best chum and I became adept hitch-hikers and several truck drivers were more than happy to carry us with our bikes. I seem to remember many cafe stops, becoming accustomed to a drink called menthe a l'eau, a kind of cloudy, minty, slightly alcoholic and very refreshing beverage. We biked and hitch-hiked from cafe to cafe. It was divine. Formidable!

8 comments:

Fred said...

Great trip. I save quite a bit, but I wish I saved more. It's fun to discover my past, especially since I seem to have forgotten most of it. Getting old stinks.

Savtadotty said...

Fred, you're not getting old, you're getting wise. Seriously, I wish older people commanded more respect, even awe, in the USA, because we deserve it! The youth culture there is just plain wrong. (See, when you get to be older, you can enjoy being a carmudgeon - not that it makes a difference in the world, but it feels good.)

Fred said...

Well said.

Lucy said...

What a fun trip! And what a great argument for being a packrat! But now what will I do when I get in that old argument in my head - the one between the "I-have-too-much-junk" self and the "Keep-it-keep-it-keep-it" self? I guess my "Keep-it" self will use this story as a defense... :)

Savtadotty said...

Lucy, I really don't approve of my pack rat tendencies, but this project is more like making lemonade out of lemons. I vote for your "throw it out" or "give it away" self.

Gila said...

Wow...will have to come over and see it!

Shana tova!!!!

Claude said...

I was alive and twelve in 1956. I didn't know you'd been to the North of France! Sounds like quite an experience!

Savtadotty said...

Claude, Yes, it was a special experience. And I was not only in the North, but also bicycling throughout the South. I wish I could recapture the language mastery I had then.