I was a seventh grader in the hills of Kentucky. The new teacher, a tall, lanky Norwegian fellow who had come to Eastern Kentucky to teach languages, handed out glossy French language textbooks with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on the cover. His name was Mr. Felde and he required us to put the eraser ends of our pencils into our mouths and close our lips around them to feel exactly how we should hold our lips (with no more and no less space) in order to pronounce “tu” properly.
By the time I actually went to Paris some years later I had learned enough French to feel confident I would be able to read the menu in restaurants. Turned out I recognized only a few items, so we mostly ordered steak and French fries. I had memorized “dialogues” in school and could introduce someone named Jean to mon ami Paul. I just had to remember to insert the names of the real people. The French talked too fast. They didn’t speak their language with an Appalachian accent. They didn’t stick to memorized dialogues. I said “hello” and “goodbye” and knew how to point and smile.
The point-and-smile method worked in most places. Candy shops, boutiques, sidewalk cafes. We took photos and then bought postcards in case the photos didn’t turn out well. While the postcards have remained crisp, the photos have faded.
We bought trinkets from vendors and my confidence in communicating grew. Until the day we got lost. The local bus driver and I did not understand each other at all. The point-and-smile method was of little value. We circled the city, passing the same sites again and again. We didn’t remember the address of the place we were staying and my Appalachian pronunciation of the hotel name was not discernible to the bus driver. He looked stumped, as if he’d never heard of it – until, of course, he finally drove past it and we both yelled “STOP.” That word he understood clearly and seemed happy to be rid of us.
The first time I tasted snow in the summer was in France. We were in the Alps somewhere along the border with Italy, heading up Mont Blanc. We’d left sunny skies and temps in the 70s in the valley and had come upon falling snow.
Percy Shelley once wrote a poem about this mountain…
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears – still, snowy, and serene;
This mountain is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world with thousands of hikers and skiers making the annual trek. A few years back they helicoptered a couple of outhouses to the top to accommodate visitors. Seems a lot of foul stuff was flowing down the mountain in the spring thaw. Perhaps I wouldn’t have eaten the snow had I known this at the time.
When I was little my mom made snow cream. A cup of snow, vanilla flavoring, a few spoons of evaporated milk. We were careful to scoop new snow from clean surfaces right after it fell. But then one winter we had to stop. Grownups said the snow could have traces of nuclear fallout. We saw it on the news, read about it in the papers.
During the intense nuclear bomb testing from 1961 to 1963 the US and the Soviet Union exploded bombs that injected the same amount of fallout over the Earth as would be created by more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. Hundreds of bombs were tested in the open-air by the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and other rising nuclear powers, including France, sending more than 400 million tons of TNT-equivalent into the atmosphere.
We had a fallout shelter beneath our school building back then and often played in the concrete “ditch” leading down to it. At recess we challenged each other to see who could jump across the ditch without falling in. We wondered what was inside the shelter and whether everyone in the school could fit. Was there enough food? Would there be snacks and a television inside or just healthy stuff and school books? Sometimes we fussed about these small details, but mostly we were angry at the people who had ruined the snow.
Years later, when I scooped that handful of snow on Mont Blanc, I had forgotten all those fallout warnings. I was a long way from home and the old shelter beneath my school. I had hoped that eventually kids would not have to worry about stuff falling from the sky or the world falling apart.
The first time I saw someone pee on the street was in Paris in the early 70s. I didn’t mean to gawk, but it was impossible to walk down the street and not turn to watch men peeing in those little cubicles — in front of God and everybody! Visible from the knees down. The old vespasienne or pissoir are gone now. Today’s pay toilets on the street offer more privacy, I understand.
I was reading about Parisian women during the 1800s and learned this: women had a harder time peeing in Paris. Back in the 1800s, when a lady of the court needed to go, she would say “I’m going to pick a flower.” The other ladies would follow her to the garden and form a privacy circle round her while she squatted on a pot. I don’t like the idea of company in the bathroom, but what a great excuse when you gotta go — I’m going to pick a flower! (Much prettier than the excuse men used in KY — I’m going to see a man about a dog.)
The bathrooms on French trains were a surprise, too. Years before I left Kentucky the passenger trains had stopped running. The only trains I saw coming through my small town were freight trains loaded to the max with blue gem coal. So I had never ridden a train before France. When I went to the restroom on the train traveling from Dijon to Paris I looked down at the open toilet bowl and saw the tracks flying by underneath us. I was stunned. Whatever we did in the john got strewn across the French countryside.
It was in Paris, too, that I first saw a man carrying a purse. He crossed the street in front of us, his leather shoulder bag swinging at his side. It was bigger than mine, for goodness sake. I wondered what he carried in it. What could a man possibly need besides his wallet?
Later, when my husband started handing me his stuff – sunglasses, film, notepad, pen – to cram into my bag, I had the answer. The smartest women today carry those tiny shoulder bags that double as wallets and have only enough room for a driver’s license and a credit card or two. They don’t have to keep up with anything belonging to anyone else.
We left France on a hovercraft, crossing the English Channel, Calais to Dover. I was excited and was looking out the window to spot the famous White Cliffs of Dover that my uncle had talked about seeing when he was leaving Europe after the war. The same cliffs where the blinded Earl of Gloucester, in the climactic scene in King Lear, wants to throw himself off into the sea. “There is a cliff, whose high and bending head looks fearfully in the confined deep: Bring me to the very brim of it, and I’ll repair the misery thou dost bear… ”
The edge of England, the White Cliffs, symbolize a boundary in the play — between the known and the unknown, land and sea, England and the outside world. But just as the cliffs provide a boundary, they also provide a link. You can see France on the other side.
My parents’ generation used to sing a lot of the songs associated with World War 2. They all knew Vera Lynn’s “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover.” My favorite lines from that old song, however, are these:
“There’ll be love and laughter, and peace ever after, tomorrow, when the world is free…”