The Stuck-In-France Take-Me-Home Blues

I ALWAYS hated France. As a preschooler in a military family stationed in Germany, I had the opportunity to travel all over Europe. I have memories of every country we visited - except France. I guess France and I just never clicked. One year, a group of Americans from the British university I was attending thought it would be nice to spend Christmas in Paris. ``Go to Germany,'' I warned them, but they didn't listen. I joined them for a few days, anyway.

There was no snow. It rained. They were depressed. We had Christmas dinner at a Burger King on the Champs 'Elys'ees. Not wanting to succumb to their holiday blahs, though, I called up an old friend and her fianc'e who lived in Paris.

I figured, they love France, maybe some of it will rub off on me. They were actually delighted to see me (I think) and they seemed very happy together. The only catch was that Sue's sister was visiting and was even more bummed out about being in France for Christmas than my university friends were.

As Sue and her fianc'e strolled arm-in-arm along the Seine, I trudged through the cold behind them - listening to her sister's I-hate-France stories. My attempt at enlightenment had failed.

I finished that year of travel thinking the only good thing I'd ever gotten out of France was the coq au vin recipe my mom would make.

Although I enjoy relating my misadventures in France, my dislike of the country was conditional.

For example, I held to the conviction that with a warm spring day and the girl of my dreams on my arm, France would probably be great. I wasn't entirely willing to dismiss a whole country because of a couple of bad experiences. I had been my own travel agent. Furthermore, my comprehension of the French language was limited to croissant and d'ej`a vu. I was sure that France was a lot warmer a country, deep down.

This spring, I got the chance to prove that theory. My college chorus invited a few alumni to take part in a singing tour in Normandy. For $365, I couldn't pass up the chance to challenge my anti-Franco bias.

My attitude didn't miraculously change the moment our plane touched down. In fact, I wasn't in the country an hour before an angry bus driver shook his fist at me. OK, so I wasn't looking where I was going, but the driver's scowl wasn't exactly the friendliest welcome I've ever had to a foreign country.

In the following week and a half, though, our musical exchange helped erode my prejudice. A French host family, concerts in cathedrals, a much friendlier bus driver at our beck and call, and get-togethers with the Caen University chorus were like open doors to a country I had only passed through. This time I wasn't just some Yank off the street; I was a guest. Better yet, because of our singing, we were guests with something to offer in return for the hospitality we received.

We sang 18th-century American hymns, Aaron Copland motets, and a spiritual for a mass at the main cathedral of Caen. The church's stone walls and floor were cold, but the citizens of Caen were not. When we sang at the end of the service from the back of the cathedral, the congregation turned to face us with warm smiles, and broke the atmosphere of seriousness with cheers of appreciation.

As we prepared for the joint concerts with the Caen chorus, the two groups began to harmonize on a personal, as well as a vocal level. Of course there were differences between us. Even their style of singing sounded slightly foreign to our ears.

Naturally, my perception of the country improved in proportion to the amount of people I met and time I spent there. My attitudinal shift wasn't the simplistic gosh-they're-just-like-us kind. In fact, being able to see and appreciate the differences between us and them, as well as between individual French students and host family members, helped to draw back the curtain of foreignness. They weren't all aloof, incomprehensible, and better dressed than I.

I never really doubted that I would have a good time on this trip. Singing with the Caen chorus, learning to say goodbye to French women (I stuck to handshakes with the guys), and being cared for by a kindly host family far outweighed the unpleasantness of earlier trips. My only regret is that I didn't get to stroll along the Seine with the woman of my dreams - maybe next time.

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