“Ils sont la!” read the headline in the local newspaper in Fourmies, France. They are here! The temporary invasion by a small band of American students had begun. The accompanying photo showed 20 scruffy, long haired, wet, and tired teenagers standing on the steps of the town hall with the mayor. It was a grey and rainy afternoon in early June.
Fourmies is a small town in the north of France next to the Belgian border. There is nothing notable about the town. It was, however, the site for the European division of a large medical products company, which happened to have its headquarters in my home town. Some public relations person decided that the towns should be sister cities. I’m not sure what that means. Do the people of the towns fight over who gets to hog the bathroom or which TV program to watch or who has to do the dishes?
In the interests of cultural understanding, a group of French teenagers had visited my town a few weeks before. We struggled to understand them with our high school foreign language skills as they chattered incessantly at high speed and used local slang (some of which we were convinced were dirty words). They wore the same clothes for three or four days in a row, had the same schedule for washing their hair, and smoked a lot when the teachers weren’t around. They didn’t wear berets or striped shirts or perform mime, but they were unmistakably French. They seemed exotic to our Midwestern sensibilities.
When the possibility of visiting France in return was raised in French class, I jumped at the chance. The idea of touring castles and cathedrals, champagne and chocolate factories, and the Metro and the Louvre sounded fantastic to me. Besides, I had heard from the French students that the legal drinking age was something like 13.
After months of planning, working, and saving, we had finally arrived. The bus from Paris went straight to the celebration in the center of the town. The mayor and the school principal gave speeches in front of a large crowd. We felt like celebrities.
We were each assigned to stay with a French family for a week. I was with Mr. and Mrs. Keryer. They were both teachers at the school, but both spoke no English. This was going to be interesting I thought.
They went out of their way to accommodate me, despite my being a notoriously finicky eater. If it wasn’t a hamburger and French fries (ha ha), I usually wasn’t interested. I quickly discovered that the beef in Europe wasn’t to be eaten, and they didn’t really have French fries in France. I don’t know who named that food item but they obviously got it wrong.
During the days we went on long bus tours to sights in Northern France. If you’ve seen one cathedral, you’ve seen them all. Usually some French students came along. We tried to communicate with them, but often the Americans and the French ended up talking in their own social circles in their own languages. Since our language skills were rudimentary at best, it was difficult to hold a conversation with each other. Being teenagers, we always ended up talking about the members of the opposite sex from the other country. Arguments over who was the cutest girl on the bus were a daily occurrence. One day I discovered there was a spy in our midst.
There was a French girl named Lauren who wore the same clothes for three or four days in a row, washed her hair on the same schedule, and smoked a lot when the teachers weren’t around. She didn’t speak very good English, so she hardly spoke to us. Yet she observed us closely and listened carefully to everything we said.
By chance on one trip she was seated next to me on the bus. As she talked with another French girl across the aisle I noticed that she always talked to her friend whenever some American boys sitting behind us talked about her friend. They did this every day because her friend was the winner of all of the arguments about who was the cutest girl on the bus.
It suddenly dawned on me that she could understand everything we were saying. All of the crude, rude, and sometimes obscene things American teenaged boys say to pass the time on a long bus ride when in the close company of girls, both French and American, was being relayed in real time. I had an idea.
“Lauren, there is a bee on your foot!” I yelled in her ear.
She immediately looked down at her feet and shook them.
“I don’t see a bee,” she said as she looked up from her feet to my eyes.
Her face flushed red. She admitted she was an American. Her father worked for a division of the medical products company from someplace else in the US and had been transferred to France a couple of years before.
“Please don’t tell the others,” she pleaded.
“OK, it will be our secret.”
It was about this time that one of the American girls started following me around. There was a small group of attractive “popular” girls on the trip. They were perceived to be in the unapproachable higher echelons of social cliques from our high school. They were cheerleaders, homecoming princesses, and girlfriends of the star football players. Not even worth seriously thinking about to a non-athletic studious person like me.
She would bump up next to me in the crowd to get on the bus. She would trade seats in order to get close to me. One day by the luck of the draw she got a window seat and when I got on the bus the only open seat was next to her. To be honest, I hadn’t really noticed her before that day. I knew of course that she was on the trip but I had never talked to her. She was a year behind me in school. She had moved into my town recently due to her parents getting divorced. It soon became apparent that she had a huge crush on me. I had been oblivious.
Her name was Landis and I soon discovered that she was a master at flirting. She would stare into my eyes, smile, and bat her eyelashes. She would tell jokes, laugh, and ask me all kinds of crazy questions. I was like a lamb being led to the slaughter. I had no natural defense mechanism. The crush was soon reciprocated.
For a few days we were touring partners. We ate too many chocolate souvenirs at the end of the chocolate factory tour. She was my partner at the French-American dance. She kissed me in the alcove of the Rheims cathedral.
Then one day I saw the dark side of her. We had taken a tour to the champagne factory. The tour guide showed us how the workers painstakingly turned the tilted bottles of champagne as they aged in the underground cellars so that the minute particles in the wine settled onto the cork. We saw how the grapes were crushed and the bottles prepared. At the end of the tour we were given a souvenir bottle of champagne to take home with us. I saved that bottle of champagne for over twenty years. One New Year’s Eve I opened it and drank some. It tasted terrible! Maybe champagne doesn’t age well.
After giving us the souvenir bottle, the tour guide brought us to a room for a wine tasting event. There were hundreds of glasses of champagne on tables around the room. Apparently they do this for high school tours in France.
I don’t know what our chaperones were thinking. Perhaps they were overwhelmed and beaten down from keeping track of 25 American teenagers in a foreign country. I certainly don’t blame them for their lack of oversight. But at the end of the tour they were nowhere to be found. Perhaps they were back at the bus resting or buying their own souvenirs.
The tour guide then left us to take over his next tour. Whereupon most of our group proceeded to drink as much champagne as possible before the chaperones came back. I quickly discovered that champagne doesn’t really taste that good and sends bubbles up your nose. You can’t drink it like milk or water.
What surprised me was that Landis and all of the other “popular” girls loved to drink. We were left alone for at least a half hour. They drank glass after glass of champagne.
I have always been a rule follower. These girls were definitely rule breakers. Before we left on the trip we had signed an agreement with our school certifying that we would behave properly, represent our school with honor and dignity, and obey the chaperones. If we didn’t follow the rules, the chaperones could call our parents and send us home on the next available flight. Apart from the obvious parental discipline difficulties that would cause, for most of us the financial penalty of the impromptu flight home would hurt our families.
By the time we left for the bus, they were wasted. None of the chaperones noticed.
The ride back to Fourmies was uneventful. We all talked and laughed on the bus. The girls giggled nonstop on their champagne high. Nobody threw up. These girls knew how to hold their liquor.
The next day it was time to leave Fourmies and spend a few days in Paris, before continuing on to the castles and chateaux of the Loire Valley.
We were going to stay at a lowly tourist class hotel in the Montparnasse district of Paris. It was called a hotel, but it was actually a dump, perhaps like what transients would stay in for $5 per night in a rundown part of an American city. We were divided up into small groups and assigned to rooms. There were only four boys and over 20 girls on the trip (yes, that was a very nice ratio). I was assigned to share a room with a guy named Chip.
I didn’t know Chip very well. He had been in my French class, but I didn’t talk with him very much. Chip was well known throughout the school because his father was a teacher at the school and the hockey coach. He had been in many plays and was well liked for being very funny. He also had been diagnosed with lupus as a child and wasn’t expected to make it to age 18.
Chip and I lugged our suitcases up the narrow stairs to the third floor. The building was old, the rooms were old, the beds and furniture were old, even the man at the front desk was old. There was a bathroom down the hall. It usually worked.
In our room there was a double bed and a cot. The double bed looked decent enough. The cot was a misshapen lump of straw covered by a moldy sheet stuck on a rusty metal frame. It tilted severely to one side.
We looked at each other. There was no way in hell we were going to sleep in the same bed. We were 17 years old and very heterosexual. It just wasn’t going to happen. But the cot looked horrible.
“OK, here’s what we can do,” said Chip. “We’ll take turns. I’ll sleep in the bed the first night and you sleep on the toxic cot. Then we’ll switch tomorrow night.”
We were supposed to stay in this sorry excuse for a hotel for four nights. That meant two nights on the bed and two nights on the probably flea-infested cot.
“OK, it’s a deal,” I said.
We unpacked some of stuff and got ready to go out into the city of lights. The rules the chaperones set up were simple. Don’t go out alone, sign a sheet at the front desk detailing who you were going with and where you’re going, and be back in your room by 11pm. They were going to check on us every night at 11pm.
The first night we got into our little cliques and headed for the Metro. We had a great time being independent and adult-like as we toured the city and of course stopped at McDonald’s. We made sure to be back to the hotel by 11pm.
Being back to the hotel by 11pm didn’t necessarily mean that we went to bed, or stayed in our own rooms. The chaperones checked on us at 11pm and promptly went to sleep. After all, they were middle-aged parents and teachers. The students stayed up most of the night and hopped from room to room. Since the vast majority of the students were girls, I don’t think there was anything going on in an improper boy-girl sense. However, it was apparent on the first night that the girls discovered that they could buy any alcohol they wanted and have a party in their rooms. Soon many of the girls were silly, falling down drunk. Chip and I retreated to our room to get some sleep. We had a big day of touring the sights of Paris coming up.
Chip lounged in splendor on the bed like a king while I tilted in agony on the cot. I was just drifting off to sleep when there was a soft knock on the door. Chip was still awake. He got up to see who it was. It was Landis. Of course, she was drunk. She wanted to see me.
“OK, come over here to my pesticide-coated cot.” There was no room for two on this thing. She tried to fit anyway. Chip snickered from the bed. He couldn’t believe this. We were both mostly afraid to talk to girls.
We talked for a few minutes and then Landis started snoring. She fell off the cot onto the floor (did I mention that it was tilted?). I fell asleep.
At about 5am I woke up. The happenings of my pre-slumber night came back to me. There was a girl in my room! Shoot, she better leave before I get into trouble. Chip was sound asleep in the bed. Landis was still on the floor. I shook her over and over.
“Get up! You need to go back to your room!” I whisper yelled into her ear. She didn’t move. She was out cold.
I picked her up and carried her out of our room and upstairs to her room. After knocking briskly on the door, I finally roused one of her roommates. Their room was covered in party trash – empty bottles, snack bags, glasses, and full ash trays. The “popular” girls were strung out all over the room in various states of disrepair. I dumped Landis on the bed and left.
After three hours of sleep, we made it to breakfast to start our day of touring. Chip and I were tired, but most of the group was hung over. Walking around Paris in that condition had to have been terrible, but it was self-inflicted.
During the day Chip started talking about bed bugs. He was scratching himself all over. He showed me many small red welts all over his stomach and back, arms and legs. They looked like bad mosquito bites. He thought they were bites from bed bugs. He said he didn’t have them staying at a host family’s house in Fourmies. He must have gotten them in the bed last night in the hotel.
As much as I hated the cot, there was no way I was going to sleep in the bed and get bitten by bed bugs. I don’t like insects or spiders. When I am near mosquitos, they head straight for me and overlook others. The thought of sleeping in the bed with the bugs nauseated me. When we got back to the hotel that night, I had a solution.
“I tell you what Chip. I’ll stay in the cot and you can stay in the bed.”
“Are you sure?” said Chip. “We had a deal to change.”
“Nope. I can survive on the cot. You take the bed. If I’m in the bed and Landis shows up tonight, I don’t know what might happen.”
That night was a repeat of the previous night. The girls had a party and got drunk. Chip and I were exhausted so we skipped the party and went to sleep. At 2am there was a knock on our door. It was Landis. She was drunk. She came over to me, fell asleep and fell on the floor. Chip laughed and laughed.
The next day we dragged ourselves around Paris again. The girls were hung over. We laughed at them behind their back.
The third night was a repeat of the other two nights, except Landis never showed up. I think she got drunk in her own room with the other girls and couldn’t get up.
While on the bus tours, Landis and I had talked about what we wanted to see when we got to Paris. I had the idea that it would be romantic to take her on the bateau mouche, a boat tour along the Seine at night. We decided that we would do that together, just the two of us on the last night in Paris. It would be a date. We would form our own small group and sign out together.
I wore my best clothes and washed my hair three times. I had bought some cologne and splashed some of that on me. Before Chip left with his group, he shook my hand.
“Good luck tonight. Have lots of fun and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
At the appointed time I went down to the hotel lobby to meet Landis. She wasn’t there. Well, girls are usually late, I thought. She’s probably primping in her room.
I waited. And waited. After a half hour I asked the desk clerk to call up to her room. No answer. Then I checked the sign out sheet. I discovered that everyone in our tour group had signed out already. Including Landis. She went with three of the other girls to the Avenue de Champs Elysees. I was left alone on my last night in Paris.
I signed out by myself and wandered the streets of Montparnasse in a daze. How could she do that to me? I thought she liked me. Why are girls like that?
I played pinball in a corner café. I ate some pizza. I got bored walking around and decided to go to the cinema to kill time. The clerk kept telling me in slang French that the movie was not in English. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going back to the hotel room to do nothing.
I sat in the back of the theatre and wondered went wrong. I was baffled and embarrassed. It was a long movie and incomprehensible, even if I could have understood the dialogue.
I staggered back to the hotel. It was 11:30pm. I missed the bed check. The head chaperone was standing in my room talking to Chip. She was our French teacher. I had had her as a teacher for the past three years. She was grey-haired and grumpy. Her husband was also a chaperone on the trip. He was very sloppy and also grumpy. I sensed they had a grumpy marriage.
She did not like me. She thought I was arrogant and cocky. I probably was. I was an excellent student and would never let any errors go unnoticed. I had this problem with a couple of other female teachers in high school, I don’t know why.
“Where were you?” she yelled.
“I, uh, I was walking around Montparnasse,” I stammered. I hated getting yelled at or getting into trouble.
“By yourself!?” she yelled again. “You know the rule about going out by yourself. You could have been kidnapped or gotten lost. And you signed the sheet saying ’gone out walking around.’ What is that supposed to mean? How could I or anyone else find you?”
“Well, I agree it is not very specific. But other kids have signed out as going to the Champs Elysees. That’s a street. Who knows where they would be along that street? Anyway, I made it back OK, I am a little late, but so what?”
“Shut up! Now you are quibbling.” Her face was beet red and a vein was sticking out on her forehead.
While she ranted and raved about the rules I almost told her about how the girls had gotten drunk at the champagne factory, and had gotten drunk and ran around between hotel rooms every night. But there would be no gain in that. I didn’t want to be the tattletale. Even if I was being singled out for special treatment.
“If you break the rules even one more time or cause any trouble whatsoever you will be on the next plane home!”
She turned and stomped out of the room.
“Well, that was fun,” said Chip. “I tried to cover for you but couldn’t. She never liked you anyway. Let’s get some sleep. Only one more night with the bed bugs.”
We finished the trip without any further trouble. I didn’t get sent home. Landis wouldn’t talk to me.
I only saw Landis once after that. A few years later I was attending the university and saw her walking across a courtyard arm in arm with her boyfriend. He looked pretty nerdy. I turned the other direction and walked away.
After that trip Chip became my best friend. We became like brothers to each other, since neither of us had one. We were the best man at each other’s wedding. We spent a lot of time together over the years. He made it past every doctor’s diagnosis that he would die by age 18.
Sometime many years later, when we were probably in our early 30s, we were at a small party with our wives and small children. We were reminiscing about the old days, about badly behaved we were in our high school French class, and our trip to France. He said he had a confession to make. He had lived with something all these years and had to get it off his conscience.
“You know that hotel we stayed at in Paris?” he asked.
“Yeah, I remember it very well.” I said.
“Well, there never were any bed bugs in that bed. And those welts on my body were from lupus. I just didn’t want to sleep on the toxic cot,” he admitted.
I socked him in the shoulder. We all laughed. He told that story for years afterward. He always said we should go back to France together again sometime. Of course that never happened because of college, work schedules, getting married, and having children.
Chip passed away suddenly a few years ago. The complications of dealing with lupus and the side effects of all of the medications he took for years depleted him.
I will always miss his friendship and sense of humor.