As we speak, my brother is getting to know his host family in England and it made me think about the four months I spent living in the home of the Reboul family in Dijon. I learned so much about French people by living with this family of 6. I find this part of the world so interesting because while France may look like a simple variation on life in the Western world as we know it, it's truly a different planet. (So coy!) But mostly I found that French people are a pretty decent lot and are no more or less kooky than the rest of us.
My program must have thought "Perrrfect!" when they got the chance to pair someone who was the oldest of five kids with a family where I would, for all intents and purposes, find myself the older sibling to four French kids. They probably thought I'd be able to handle the chaos better than any other potential student. And then when they read on my application that I played piano and confirmed the Rebouls had a piano, well, SOLD!
Madame picked me up in a minivan. Plucked from the small, nervous, mostly-girl group of American students sitting on the steps of a hotel in central Dijon, I was whisked off to Avenue de Marbotte and hoping to GOD I could assemble enough working phrases from 6 years of French to convince Madame I wasn't going to be a rough several months of one-word conversations.
The house. Simple on the outside, but to this day I marvel at how many bedrooms it contained. At least five! Madame gave me a key to the front gate, and upon entering that we entered the house on the right side, under what I considered a very cute little Art Deco glass overhang.
The view of the front door once inside. Typical super-high French ceilings. Jaunty nautical print on the wall. A use of floral fabric that just looks so right. And also, a gigantic wooden entry that creaked like the dickens.
Madame (Berengere) and Monsieur (Bernard). Madame was from the Savoie region of eastern France. In other words, "from the Alps." Monsieur was actually Belgian and made sure I was aware of this. If Monsieur had his way, he explained, "We would live in the COUNTRY! I am not a city man!" to which Madame would typically shoot him a pained expression and reply with something along the lines of "Oh Bernard, that's dreadful." Needless to say, Monsieur also adored hunting. "La chasse!"
And les enfants. Augustin, Marius, Camille, and Jeanne.
The only words that routinely come to mind when thinking of 14 year-old Augustin are "throes of adolescence." He was physically growing at what appeared to be an unprecedented rate, was always hungry, and was the member of the family designated with the daily task of picking up the baguette for dinner which would then arrive home boomerang-shaped and flattened in the middle after being perched upon the handlebars of his bike. The only other person in the house besides me who ate oatmeal.
Marius was...6? Very opinionated, but also very sweet. A dead ringer for both parents and a Cub Scout. And usually the last person to finish dinner. Which wouldn't normally be of consequence, but when everyone in France dutifully waits to move on to the next course or finish a meal only when everyone has finished what is in front of them (as in: consumed, not "I'm not eating it"), we were often at his mercy, or the witness of a soup standoff ending in a display of "child does not run the show." I was obviously living in a French etiquette lab.
Camille was the oldest, 15 or 16, and very interested in art and fashion design and hanging out with her friends at the mall. Like Augustin, also at an age where clashes with parents are more commonplace, but she was clearly just a sweet girl at that age where the fact that you still don't have money to buy your own clothes is becoming thoroughly annoying. She took a weekly drawing class and I accompanied her there once, after which our conversations naturally extended to questions about how best to shade upper lips.
Jeanne was about 10 and from what I gathered, a star pupil. Of the 4 kids, she was the one I associated with the piano. She was adopted from Korea, the circumstances of which were unclear. Actually they probably gave me the story early on and I probably nodded in feigned understanding. Monsieur and Madame found it uncanny that she and I were the only ones in the family who ever said "Oops!" (For my own part, exclamation of this word frankly can never be undone once learned. I'm not sure where Jeanne picked it up.) She also adored chevre of any kind.
At any rate, to say the French language was flying in this household would be an understatement. One minute, Monsieur is spouting vocabulary around how to kill a pheasant or going to great pains to get me to pronounce crepe correctly (two syllables), and the next, a sullen teenager is pounding up the stairs, proclaiming school nul, his outfit nul, and the fact that he has to do chores nul. Nul means dumb. This is how you learn a language.
As in true personal fashion, I was as taken with the house as I was with the people in it. I loved the inclusive, casual style Madame achieved in what was clearly a dynamic living space. The bluish throw on the canape and the red-based Oriental rug anchored the room so well against the "could have gone wrong but didn't" mustard-colored walls. And the fireplace added some good drama. Everything seemed to have a place, including the Russian nesting dolls lined up perfectly on top of the very leftmost bookcase.
My room on the third floor of the house. (Have I mentioned that the general concept of a three-floor house pleases me to no end?) It was a very basic room with bed, desk, and armoire, with light coming in through a decent-sized window in the slanted ceiling. If I had been any older than 21 at the time, I'm sure I would have considered the excessively thin mattress problematic and somewhat medieval in nature, but as it was, I loved everything about my tiny garrett of a room and considered it perfect.
In the early weeks before school was in full swing, I discovered I had some extra time on my hands and took to decorating my room with a floral explosion, courtesy of Madame's back copies of gardening magazines. As far as she was concerned, any decor affixed only with tape was fair game. Next to the bouquet which only grew as time went on, I think that's a T.S. Eliot poem I scrawled out for some reason. One of those phases. And below that a funny Peugeot car ad.
The house from the back. Given Monsieur and Madame's very non-urban upbringings, they were very enterprising people when it came to agricultural matters and had a number of large garden plots whose contents seemed to produce a number of novelty items that were canned or preserved, like mirabelle jam and eau de vie. The green door was the door to the kitchen and Madame would often set out desserts to cool on the top of the back steps. A seemingly ongoing lesson in the number of things you can make with flour, eggs, milk, and sugar. She would frequently pronounce them "failed experiments," but they always tasted pretty good to me.
Jeanne's room on the second floor of the house. I loved the contrast of the green stripes with the hallway's rich orange color, and the cute and chaotic way all of her books and games fit in the bookcase, with a little row of dollhouse tables and chairs on top.
One night we had a pique-nique in Marius's room, which I went along with without fully understanding why. Most nights, the seven of us ate dinner together in the kitchen at 7:30pm sharp. A more typical French dinner scene may have run longer than ours did, simply because kids had to do homework and get to bed soon after, and I found this to work out nicely. So pique-nique night was quite the anomaly and I'm not sure where the other half of the family was. Madame once again proved her ability to make a meal out of whatever was around.
There are many very French things about this picture:
1. Mother issuing commands to children in even-handed but always firm way. French children know who's boss.
2. Yogurt as dessert. Very common.
3. Sugar spilled all over table. Very common with yogurt as dessert, as child attempts to force as much sugar as possible into the container. Normally this kind of excessive sweet would not be allowed, but since it falls within the cadre du repas, or mealtime, it is.
4. a) Lazy Susan of odorific, room temperature cheese and b) children nonchalantly sitting next to and partaking in Lazy Susan of odorific, room temperature cheese. And I don't care what anyone says. If I could raise a child to like stinky cheese, I would be tremendously excited. It should be noted that one of the cheeses sitting there is Epoisses and it truly stinks to high heaven...but tastes amazing. I was actually given that piece of cheese at my internship interview at a food company in Dijon. I'm telling you, food is serious business!
5. Cousin Florian on the far right: a perfect example of a beautiful male French name that would never work in the U.S. Too bad.
6. A cooling dessert made out of flour, eggs, milk, and sugar!
Another view of the family with some friends over for dinner, Marius center stage.
Marius and me. The kids were used to having students stay with them, so I was simply the current installment. Though I did gather that they appreciated that I didn't sleepwalk like their last student. All I knew was that while a nice guy, he had done some sleepwalking which had caused them some alarm. I think they were happy to find me comparatively subdued. And my piano-playing ability was a bonus.
This was just the beginning of meeting a lot of interesting people and having a lot of "I don't know how I got here, but I love it" moments.