“Rabu Clause” was a fat, jolly man. His long, dark, curly beard matched his long, dark, curly hair that flowed out from beneath his funny, red and white stocking cap. He had features quite similar to a familiar storied man whose primary occupation it is to bring presents to children around the world on Christmas Eve. Of course, I should know. I doodled him that way. I could feel Julien Dorval’s breath on the side of my face as he leaned over to investigate what I had been laboring over for the past ten minutes of Monsieur Rabu’s history lecture.
“Heh heh,” Julien chuckled. “Rabu Clause!”
“Shhhhhhh!” I warned, mid-chuckle, as I fumbled the doodled-on page over to reveal a clean sheet of French ruled writing paper and resumed my note-taking.
Only weeks before this, Monsieur Rabu had been lecturing, as usual, on topics of World History when he chronologically climbed the ladder towards the most deplorable subject of imperialism. It is then that Rabu’s usually calm demeanored lecture turned into a scathing tirade, rebuking the United States of America (my country?) for littering France’s landscape with yellow arches and Coca Cola bottles. “You all like McDonalds but really, that is not a good thing,” he announced to a classroom of giggly, future culture killers. I scribbled ferociously into my notebook trying hard to keep up with Rabu’s litany of accusations against my red, white and blue as teenaged French bodies twisted around in their seats to get a read of my face—of my reaction. Julien leaned over to whisper, in earnest, “I’m sorry.” I shot a glance towards Rabu who tossed a look in my direction, acknowledging me briefly as if to say “sorry sweetie, but I got a lesson to teach,” and continued to rant.
Julien and I shared a desk together in Monsieur Rabu’s history class at the Lycée Christophe Colombe of Sucy en Brie, a suburb of Paris, France. When I had begun attending Christophe Colombe in the Fall of 1995, I had become the first foreign exchange student Julien and his classmates had ever seen in their hometown.
I had come to Sucy en Brie to stay with the Mérand family who had selected me from a pool of students coming to study in France via an international exchange program called Youth For Understanding (YFU). The Mérands had chosen me, according to my host mother Bénedicte, because having sorted through all their options, they determined that most of the students from America were too picky. This is to say they were vegetarian. All the better for me. The Mérands were perfect!
In joining the Mérand family, I earned 4 new siblings and, lucky me, new host town was located a mere metro ride from Paris. At 17, Cédric was my age and would be showing me the ropes at Lycée Christophe Colombe. Damien was 19 and Sophie was only 9. Nicolas, the oldest, was 21 and had already left home to live with his fiancée. Benédicte and Patrick Mérand were a warm and loving middle-class suburban couple. She was a school teacher and he worked at a publishing company called Sepia. Of the family, only Patrick and Cédric could manage to communicate to me in English, a service for which I was terribly grateful considering that my three years of public school French were of very little help to me.
Our first night at the dinner table, we feasted on the Mérand family special, “Poof Poofs” which were more or less biscuits smothered by cheese and tomato sauce and filled with ham.
“I usually like to prepare bigger meals,” Benédicte conceded, “but when school starts, I have so little time. Poof Poofs are so easy to make.” I wanted to tell her how often I saw my mom put something in the oven but then realized I hadn’t yet clued into the French equivalent of “once in a blue moon.”
I brought my Poof Poofs to the dinner table to sit with my new host family. Bénedicte scurried over to the refrigerator to grab one last thing for the table: a bottle of Coca Cola. Her eyes gleamed as she flashed me a big smile and brought the bottle to my end of the table as if it was exactly what I wanted…and it was.
“I never buy this for the house but I knew you would probably want it. We never drink it,” she mused. However would you get that idea? Because I’m American? I mean, I could go without drinking Coke but I just don’t want to. That’s right, I could quit anytime.
“Thank you,” I said in defeat. I had never wished so much in my life before that moment that I had never touched the stuff. I poured myself a glass as Bénedicte assured me there were back-up bottles in the garage.
My role at the Mérand household became a role my teenaged, politically apathetic, pseudo-anarchistic mind would never have fathomed taking on: Ambassador for the United States of America. At 17, I had believed I had done it all my way. I listened to punk rock, dressed outside the norm, dyed my hair unnatural colors and read George Orwell. At home, I was the youngest of four and grew up with little to no parental guidance. I had a Volkswagen Bus which reduced my time spent at home to late nights and early mornings only. I hardly considered myself American. Maybe Californian? But “American” had connotations like “apple pie” , “American Dream” or John Phillip Sousa, all of which I wanted nothing to do with. So how can I be an Ambassador for America when I would much rather America bash than be the only one at the dinner table drinking Coca Cola? Nevertheless, the Mérand family dinners were centered around a hearty array of roasted cutlets, soft cheeses, baguettes, vinaigrette-drenched salads, and one grilled American.
As my French improved, I was able to engage with my host family in their various conversations involving the many differences between the French and American people and as I began to realize their tone was more curious than condescending, I was better able to fulfill my role as Ambassador.
“Everything is so big in America,” Patrick might say, animating his statement with a wide-armed gesture that could very easily be mis-read as “THIS fat!”
“Yes, everything IS so big in America and SO small in France,” I’d assent, much to the pleasure of Patrick who seemed to love to debate the subtle nuances of cultural differences. He saw humor in the fact that American cars were so humongous while the typical French Citroën or Peugeot were more relative in size to, say, a rollerskate. American buildings were tall, skyscrapery monuments that stretched over the sky, making our gargantuan 4x4s look like, say, Citroëns. Oh, and what about American people? Oh, so that’s what that funny arm gesture was all about.
I was lucky. Patrick and Benédicte loved France. They wanted me to love it, too. They had so much information they wanted to share with me and were so interested in my point of view. Unfortunately, they were unlucky. With a growing sense of homesickness and general malaise with being so far removed from my comfort zone, dealing with me came with some degree of difficulty. The closer I got to the Mérand family, the more I realized how vastly different it was from home. Benédicte had legislated that the family would share in the dinner preparation responsibilities on a rotating schedule. While eating dinner at home with a family was already a stretch of my sense of reality, cooking for a family broke right through my wall of logic. Up to this point, I had little to no skills for being cooperative in the family world and was struggling against my own lack of regard for authority. I was my own worst enemy.
There was one evening, however, when my knack for challenging authority had won the delight and approval of my host brothers. After having chided Cédric on several occasions for being what I saw as unarguably submissive, he decided to challenge his father after denying Damien and himself the right to go to their friend Olivier’s house to watch a Paris-Saint Germaine game on the television. The argument seemed rather clear. Benédicte and Patrick would be watching their program during game time, giving Damien and Cédric no other choice but to skip out to their friend’s house to watch his T.V. Patrick, not a fan of soccer, insisted that they stay home. When the boys put up a fight, Patrick requested my opinion on the subject.
Me??? You’re asking me what I think? In my house, I don’t even tell my mom where I’m going. I just go. “Well,” I began, “Damien and Cédric really like soccer and since they won’t be able to use the television tonight, I think it makes sense that they should be able to go to Olivier’s to watch it over there.” Victory?
“Well, then it’s not a problem. You may go.” Victory! Ambassador to diplomat in mere seconds.
These were fair people and as I began to understand my host country, I began to grasp the logic of Mérand parenting. And, while I spent much of my energy trying to convince my host brother to exercise a bit more rebellion, I envied the limits they put on his freedom and the guidance they were motivated to provide.
I got my true lesson in what it means to be French on November 15, 1995 when Alain Juppe presented his plan for the reform of the social security system. This announcement tipped the scales of a people who were already anxious about the changing political climate under their newly appointed President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Juppe. My host family and I had been following the news nightly on their own news parody show called Les Guignols de L’Info (imagine: The Daily Show with puppets). This is a show which ceremoniously ends with the lead puppet anchor reciting the line “Vous regardez trôp le television. Bon soir!” or “you watch too much television.” True enough, dear anchor, but without the tube, where would I practice my French language comprehension?
The Juppe Plan, as this “reform” plan would come to be known, threatened benefit cuts for the working class. Employees of the metro rail system, the post office, the airlines, and many more government institutions would end up losing much of their allocated vacation time, be forced into later retirement, and limit their access to health services among other things. Juppe insisted that his plan had to be implemented in order to deal with France’s insurmountable budget deficit. The people, however, were not convinced that the working class should bear the grunt of these budget cuts.
As I followed the news in France, I had become increasingly amazed at the energy that the people put forward in protecting their social security and the support they received from the majority of the French people. While the much depended upon public transportation system shut down so that workers could strike, people willingly sought alternative means of transportation to and from work without the slightest squeak of complaint. This was solidarity.
Patrick would come home late from work because he had to take the freeway which was hardly navigable during the strikes. While I had been spending much of my free time touring Paris and relied heavily on the metro line, the strike took a bite out of my lifestyle as well. This required that I spend more time at home with my host brother who had become incensed at the social injustices of the Juppe plan and spoke of nothing else. In fact, no one spoke of much else during this time.
Because of the strike, I saw less and less of my teachers. Monsieur Rabu, to no one’s surprise, among other teachers at Christophe Colombe participated in the strike. In France, if a teacher can’t make it to class, there’s no such thing as a substitute to come help you waste an hour or two. Cédric and his classmates took to the streets as well, donning signs which advertised their solidarity with the working class. This climate continued for weeks. “You’re watching history in the making,” Benedicte would remark while passing the coke bottle. Yes. It was a part of history I will forever appreciate for what it was able to teach me about French life.
While all the people took to the streets day after day of the great working class strike, I reflected often on the real differences between America and France. I knew I had never seen a strike like that in history and for a moment, I felt a twinge of shame that I lived in a country where “strike” seemed to mean “threat on convenience.” Chances of over half the population of America coming out in solidarity for the working people over vacation, pension plans, and health benefits? Uhhhh…what’s the French expression for “slim to none?”
In my Semester abroad, I had put up with a few unfairly skewed attacks against my homeland from people who had never been to America but, for instance, listened to Rage Against the Machine and laboriously translated the song lyrics to come up with strangely poetic tirades re: the American Dream. On several occasion, I sought refuge from political attack under the clause that I had come there to learn about France, was speaking French, and should therefore be granted asylum. But as I sat there doodling on my notebook a picture of Monsieur Rabu in a Santa hat, I was no longer feeling defensive. A sense of elation overcame me as I finally realized that I had accomplished what I had set out to do when I left for my studies in France. I saw home from another angle. I saw myself from another angle. And everything seemed to make more sense.
The last souvenir that I picked in France was an illustrated detail of the map of Paris dotted heavily with McDonald’s logos—one for each franchise location. This was quite a handy guide for anyone who might be hungry for Chicken McNuggets after visiting the Mona Lisa or perhaps craving a McShake on the Champs Elysée. I chuckled to myself as I stuffed the McMap in my purse and thought about Monsieur Rabu…and how right he was.