Reconnecting With La Belle France

THE bus was late. I'd have to wait another hour for my new French connection to arrive at this parking lot outside of Chicago.It'd been 23 years since I'd first seen France, since Dad maneuvered our family through Paris in a rented Renault. None of us spoke much French, so we misread a sign and parked on the wrong sidewalk. When we took the ticket to the police station, several gendarmes surrounded my dad, all speaking at once. Dad was anxious: I think he expected to be taken away in handcuffs. Finally one gendarme said something that Dad understood. "Souvenir," he insisted, to Dad's great relief. My love affair with la belle France intensified after that trip: I spent a college year abroad; I toured with my own French students; I camped with two friends. But then I left my job as a French teacher to become a full-time parent, and my contact with France weakened. In my small Midwestern town I heard and spoke little French. I tried to compensate: I read Madeleine stories regularly to my kids, pointing out the Paris landmarks each time. We sang French songs, and kept track of the Tour de France. I r ead Simenon's mysteries, wandering eagerly with Maigret through French neighborhoods. But it wasn't the same as being there. Since I could no longer afford a trip to France, I determined to find another connection with France, one that would nourish my love for the country and culture, and, at the same time, introduce my kids to it. I read that Les Petits Chanteurs de Sainte-Croix de Neuilly, a boys' choir from Paris, was touring the Midwest. Eighty boys needed homes for three nights, so I signed up, and here I was - waiting in a parking lot for two 12-year-old French kids. Suddenly the buses pulled in, and boys were everywhere. Several hosts unrolled a welcome banner, and our brief "hurrah" carried across the prairie evening. I held up a small sign with the names of my boys, "Francois-Xavier,Eric." They found me. "Bonjour, Madame. C'est moi, Eric. Voila Francois-Xavier." "Bonjour," I responded eagerly. The words, stored in some favored corner of my mind, rushed back to help me welcome these kids. They would be in my home for three nights, and parts of three days - whenever they weren't rehearsing Mozart. Any hesitations about hosting two boys vanished when I met these tired but excited kids. Yes, my son would give up his bed, and yes, I would make sack lunches and serve late suppers. But now it seemed simple: They were boys like my own, needing beds, companionship, and time to play. I could give them that; moreover, since neither boy spoke much English, I could also give them the relief of communicating in their own language. We left the maze of the Chicago suburbs for our small town one hour west. Thinking that my new friends must be completely lost, I explained that we were in the middle of the United States, heading west from Chicago into the countryside. They seemed more curious, however, about the house at the end of the ride. Was it big? Were there children? A yard? A garden? The sounds of this language startled and thrilled me. I have marveled for 25 years at this language and its strange but appealing sequence of sounds. French pleases the ear even as it communicates the price of bread or the anger of a teased child. As we talked, I learned that Eric was an only child, and that Francois came from a family of four. They attended the same school in Paris, their school choir had taken other tours, but yes, this was their first visit to the US. Their chatter took over, becoming a full-speed discourse. As the two voices wove around me, I listened carefully to an intense discussion of the value of seat belts. Participation was more difficult: I couldn't get a word in. The boys debated the topic boldly and formally, each making his assertion with a burst of gesture and hyperbole, then continuing energetically for several minutes, or until the other took over. "My uncle would have been killed wearing his seat belt!" Francois-Xavier exclaimed, giving a description of the accident. "Non, non, non ... ," Eric insisted, coute-moi," and quoted statistics to prove his side of the argument. Sitting there, with my seat belt securely fastened, I was beginning to feel dizzy from the effort at following their voices. I decided to concentrate solely on my driving. The next morning I was ready for more, but I wondered about my own son, nine-year-old Matthew, whose French was limited to "Frere Jacques." Would the boys manage to communicate at all? Would they find an activity they could share? Would they like each other? Even as I worried, the language barrier was crumbling. My son had reached the kitchen first, and he was pulling out cereal boxes and milk for the breakfast crowd. He pointed to his favorites - the sugared cereals, and soon all were pouring milk and rummaging for spoons. They were managing well without language, so well that when Eric asked, in clear British English, "Do you play the piano?" Matthew jumped. Eric knew more English than he admitted and could find words to help the others along. He startled us with an Alfred Hitchcock articulation of "Good ev-e-ning." He also communicated his joie de vivre with bits of Mozart melodies, sung from the stairwell, the front porch, or the bathroom. Francois-Xavier hadn't done well in English, he said, and asked me to convey messages to Matthew. "Tell him he can call me 'F-X ("eff-eeks" in French). "Tell him thanks for the welcome.Tell him thanks again." The boys' manners were engaging. The rest was easy. While I prepared sack lunches, the kids dumped out a box of dominoes. Soon they were erecting walls of dominoes around the living room, each child trying to direct the construction with gestures and shouts. Then, just when patience was wearing thin, the wall was completed: Someone touched a dominoes, starting the chain reaction that felled them all. There were handshakes all around. These boys were eager to spend the money they had brought, so we spent an hour shopping. F-X oohed and aahed over a battery-operated pencil sharpener ("Does it take French batteries?"), while Eric commented that tennis shoes were selling for a good price moins cheres que chez nous." The boys' purchases, however, included neither of these items. Instead, they bought some party tricks from a card shop. My Mozart singers took garlic chewing gum and rude noisemakers back to Paris with them. The boys spent most of the three days in rehearsal. They disappeared into the local opera house to prepare for their Mozart concerts. After leaving them at the backdoor, Matthew and I found seats in the balcony and waited. The two boys, with party tricks stashed nearby, stood with their hands at their sides, eyes on the conductor, and began to rehearse Mozart's "Regina Coeli." Matthew was not impressed: They weren't singing in his language. He would have preferred the Beach Boys or Abba, he said. But I believe that seeing and hearing the French choir may "give him permission" to play the piano or sing in a local choir. The experience will come back to him on another day, I hope, enhancing a collection of musical memories. The boys spent the last day touring Chicago with their choir. AgaTin I drove them from the bus to our home. And again, although they were weary, their conversation was as animated as before. As if in preparing for feisty French political discussions, they presented and contrasted their religious views. After awhile, F-X asked if I understood them. I did. It seemed an appropriate moment to share what one US Midwesterner believed, and to encourage them in their own thinking. I briefly described my faith, then added that I had invited them because I loved and valued this sharing between people from different places and different generations. That night, F-X and Matthew carried sleeping bags to a tent out back. What would they talk about? From inside the house, I heard sounds of "Mercy, mercy!" and smiled. The language barrier had crashed with a late-night arm wrestling match. The next day the boys left. We gave them bright yellow Dick Tracy T-shirts with "Woodstock, home of Chester Gould" printed boldly beneath the face of the famous crime solver: The shirts would probably reinforce the French opinion of Chicagoland as "Gangster Town," but the boys could soften the stereotypes with their own stories. As if gifts of friendship, adventure, and language weren't enough, I also received the gift of music: I heard the Petits Chanteurs de St. Neuilly in concert. There were two thrills - the thrill of the pure, strong melodies of Mozart's "Missa Solemnis," and the thrill of seeing my two French sons on stage.

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