- French Kissing
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 62]
Late August 1997
We are having soup for dinner and I am in a terrible mood.
It is a ridiculous soup: vegetable broth with these flimsy noodles shaped like matchsticks. My spoon cannot catch them. And I am hungry. I want six bowls of this lousy soup, but I am not going to ask for seconds because Thomas has already been making jabs about my weight. Thomas, my host brother, is sitting across the table from me. At fifteen, he is a year younger than I and completely unremarkable. [End Page 63] He is neither handsome nor intelligent, but he is the firstborn in the family and a boy; therefore his mediocrity in all things has been praised from an early age. My host sister, a year younger still, is clever and eager to gain her parents’ attention. The fact that she consistently fails at this has made her mean. I have no allies among the children in this household. I reach for another dinner roll.
“Oh, wow, you’re going to put butter on that? Butter has an awful lot of fat in it,” says Thomas.
I butter my roll in silent contempt.
“That’s, like, another kilo right there.”
I can feel that my face is flushed, and the only thing I want more than to leap across the table and pummel Thomas is for my face not to be flushed. I pray to God, as I’m sitting there, to get in touch with my inner anorexic. To be disgusted by the food in front of me. To become thin and irreproachable. To stand up, flinging my soup at him, and say, “To hell with your butter, Thomas! I would rather fast than eat even a teaspoon of your goddamned butter!” But I am sixteen, and I am contending with hormones that defy any amount of arbitrary control over my appetite. I continue to eat my soup in shame and fury.
My host parents watch the spectacle unfold before them and feel no need to interfere on my behalf, even though my French is poor and I am unable to defend myself. They are content and disinterested. They are slurping their soup.
Suddenly my host sister, Caroline, who is sitting to my right, darts her spoon into my bowl of soup. This is more than I can bear.
“You don’t mind, do you?” she asks. It is not a question, and she already has the spoon to her mouth before she asks it.
I do not know the word for “spit” in French, so I reach for the only Latinate root word that I can lay hands on and guess at the French conjugation: “Go ahead, I’ve expectorated in it.”
Now the parents rouse, snorting with unexpected laughter into their soup. Caroline sees she’s been had.
“What? What did she say? What is ‘expectorate’? What did she say?”
Nobody explains. They just keep up the chorus of slurping. It is my one small moment of victory in this household, where I have landed, by way of a foreign exchange, deep in the agricultural heart of France.
My host family’s house is built of three-foot-thick medieval stone on top of a hill next to the Château des Milandes, formerly owned by 1920s jazz legend Josephine Baker. Reaching my head up through the [End Page 64] little attic window in my bedroom in the early morning, I am greeted with wooded valleys and green pastures stretching out of sight in all directions, bespeckled with other medieval stone cottages and herds of grazing dairy cows, all nested in a thick bank of fog. In the backyard are a small crooked apple tree and a hazelnut tree, both in bloom.
The surrounding countryside is a veritable feast for the senses, especially to a child of bland American suburbia. The August afternoons are heavy with cicadas. Inside roadside tabacs, old men sit smoking cigars and drinking crème de menthe. Inside bakeries along cobbled side streets, buxom, rosy-cheeked women with cloth kerchiefs in their hair...