In search of old-world charm

Tiny Islettes, France, had only one tourist attraction – me.

Like every American traveling in Europe, I was looking for the perfect Old World moment on a Greek island, in Paris, or in the Swiss Alps.

Something, however, had gone drastically wrong.

In 1974, the village of Les Islettes in northeastern France was about as far as you could get from a charming European postcard. Take away the snow and the Ardennes Forest, and you could have been in a one-traffic light Texas farm town, with a single highway and a handful of houses and businesses strung out along the road like cows seeking shelter from the wind.

I arrived there one frozen week in November, looking for a place to stay. My target was a friend of mine whom I had gotten to know the year before in Louisiana. He had been part of a crowd of young French men and women who had come to America to teach French in Louisiana grade schools.

Now, a year later, I was seeking his help. My money was running low and I was alone – 24 years old, far from home, and lost.

Jean took me in. He was teaching in an elementary school in Les Islettes. He had been assigned there by his departmental school system.

His apartment was on the second floor of the principal's house. This was an aged, but sturdy two-story stone building – its first floor was inhabited by the principal's family and the upstairs was divided into apartments for unmarried teachers. Behind the house, forming the legs of a horseshoe, were two schoolrooms with a dirt playground in between.

My days were filled with the cheers and cries of schoolchildren – happy, noisy voices oblivious of the American living in a room just above them.

Even though Jean was exasperated with his small-town life in Les Islettes and itching to leave, he was a very fine teacher.

His first-grade class consisted of 30 little Antoines and Nathalies who could have been extras in the "I Got Rhythm" scene in the movie "An American in Paris."

In his 20s like me, Jean was as energetic and boisterous as his students, and he bounded about the class from map to globe to blackboard like a half mad-scientist, half clown.

The children had never seen anything like it and they loved him. He made up games for them, read them stories, passed out candy from a big sack, and spun a soccer ball on his head.

Sometimes, he would take out a huge roll of white tracing paper and tack it along three walls of the room forming a continuous mural. The children painted on it, drew pictures, and added bits and pieces to it each day. It was a free-form narrative of their own lives complete with drawings of their houses, parents, brothers and sisters, dogs and cats.

Just before I left Les Islettes, Jean asked me to visit his class – the children were having a day of show-and-tell.

Well, of course, I would come, I told him.

I had already learned one or two of his student's names: Nicole, a kind of French Miss Priss, whose hand shot up first in every lesson – who, however, was no snob, would lend a hand in every project and simply couldn't help it if she got every answer right. And little Max, a red-faced 6-year-old – permanently smiling – a gentle, miniature French John Belushi.

"OK, everyone, let's welcome our visitor from America," Jean announced.


"Now who has questions?"

Naturally, no one said a word.

I began to wonder where the show-and-tell objects were – the turtles and goldfish, the deer antlers and wooden shoes.

Finally, Nicole stood up and raised her hand. "Do you have strawberries in America?" she asked gravely.

"Well, er, uh ... yes," I said.

At that point, everyone seemed to relax, and they began to ask many questions: Do you have apples in America? Do you have dogs in America? Do you have trees in America? Do you have songs?

Then Max asked, "Do you have ice cream in America?"

Yes, we certainly do, I assured him.

And then, the class went a little berserk, crowding around me in the front of the room: Do you have chickens? Do you have bathrooms? Do you have towels? Do you have bananas?

Near the end of class, after Jean had regained control of things, I realized what the object of the show-and-tell was – it was me.

I stayed a day or two longer in Les Islettes. Then I began to make my way back home to the US.

Recently, I looked up Les Islettes on the Internet. The highway still passes right through the center of town, and the population is 826. Evidently, it is still far from a tourist attraction. But I wouldn't mind visiting again to see if Max is still there and to see if Nicole has become the mayor.

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