Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Skyped with France

Never Done: I Skyped with France

OK, not with the entire nation of France (as my friend Andrew pointed out, that would mean I would have had 62 million little windows open on my screen) -- but with one particular French person who is incredibly important to me.

I was an AFS exchange student in La Ciotat, France in 1981-1982. The year was some kind of a miracle for me -- I was placed in three separate wonderful families (all three were close friends, and they decided to divide up the year and share me) in a stunning working class riviera town in the south of France. As much as I loved all three families, I formed a special bond with my first -- the Ventadoux family. The parents -- Mady and Michel -- were math and physics professors in Marseilles. They had three kids -- Yvon, Sylvie, and Corinne. When I was there, Yvon had just left for university, and Sissou and Coco were in their last year of high school. I joined them. I spent the year studying philosophy, playing music, swimming and snorkeling in the Mediterranean, discussing French (and global) politics, riding on the back of fast motorcycles, and much, much more.

When it came time to leave La Ciotat, my broken heart made a little more whole when Michel and Mady and Sissou and Coco came to visit my family in Massachusetts and Maine. In fact, they arrived in New England just after I did -- and I remember thinking I didn't know how I could have handled the transition without them. I stayed in really close touch with them for years. Letters, phone calls, and even a couple of visits. Then as I got older and busier, I started writing less often. I still thought about them all the time, but I didn't write -- or call -- as much. I got to see them once in 1984, and then again in 1997, and then another decade and a half went by, and Josh and I went to visit them last summer. Walking into their house was like walking home. The cool tile Mediterranean floors, the shutters to keep out the heat of the day, the smell of the ocean combined with the dry pine trees, lavender, and wild fennel. People kept urging us to tour around -- to go to other cities -- but we were completely content right there, visiting with Mady and Michel, and walking down to swim in the sea.

We ate long late lunches and discussed the general strike over pension cuts. We played music, and went on long walks into the hills. We visited with old friends and just stayed home together. They fell in love with Josh and Josh fell in love with them and I basked in my incredible fortune -- that not only did I get extra sets of parents, but that I love all of them so much. When the time came, it was incredibly sad to leave, and I vowed to stay in much closer touch. I wrote a few times, and then I wrote less often, and then we said we might Skype, and then we didn't, and then I realized that an entire year had gone by since we were there, and we hadn't spoke the whole time. I felt awful. I felt like I had really let them down. I felt like it would be hard to pick up a conversation after so much time, because you know how it's easier to be in touch with someone you're already in touch with?

And then I decided to just face my guilt and take responsibility for being in touch. I set aside a big chunk of time, and I wrote a full, newsy letter, and I suggested we try to Skype together, which Mady was really into last summer, and which I at the time hadn't even tried. She wrote back and caught me up on everyone and told me she wasn't sure she remembered how to Skype, but that I should try to call her. I felt reassured -- she hadn't been waiting by the computer for 6 months! And then just as I was about to write her back with a question about what she'd written, my Skype video rang, and there she was!

I mean, really -- there she was. In the light blue room I have known for 30 years, with the afternoon summer sunlight pushing in through the closed curtains. With her gorgeous smile and chipped tooth. There she was, and we started to talk, and sure it was a little awkward at first, but that's how it is getting back in touch after a long time -- and in French, no less. But Mady, in her wonderful mathematician's way of making order out of the world, brought us right together when she said Enfin, l'Amerique, c'est pas loin. (It turns out that America isn't so far away.) And you know what? Neither is France.

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