Not that long ago I was able to meet up with a dear friend I made while I spent a sensational semester in Paris as part of an undergraduate exchange. While Amanda is a native of Minneapolis (I use the term native loosely, since as a child she moved around for a substantial part of her formative years as a part of her father’s contract with the US Navy), attended college in Olympia, WA, and happened to meet me, a Jersey girl, in the City of Lights. As part of my cross-country move to sunny San Diego, we arranged a rendez-vous in Des Moines since it had been a long two years without seeing one another.
Four four months in the autumn of 2007, we spent at least five afternoons a week, sitting next to one another in Madame Jehiel’s class at the Sorbonne’s Paris IV language institute for foreign students. Upon seeing her brilliant cheveux rouge (courtesy of Aveda, I believe) in the restaurant parking lot, I was immediately struck with intense feelings of nostalgia for the blissful months we had shared as American ex-pats.
Over dinner, we began to recall the dozens of Parisian particulars that we longed for, as part of our lingering re-entry shock. First, we described, for my mother’s benefit, a detailed account of our typical grammar class. Located in a kind of shabby building near the intersection of Raspail and Montparnasse, our daily grammar drills required us to walk up at least ten flights of stairs into a stuffy little room lined with old wooden tables and chairs. The setting, more typical of an elementary school classroom than a collegiate lecture hall, was only enhanced by the melange of nationalities and our eccentric Prof, Mme. Jehiel. Fortunately, or perhaps for the sake of learning French grammar drills, unfortunately, most of the students in the class were either of American origin or spoke fluent English while our beloved instructor did not. Before I continue, I feel obliged to provide a physical description of this unforgettable Madame. Standing at barely five feet tall, Mme. Jehiel was of an unknown Asian origin, though we suspected Vietnamese or Chinese, and had quite a unique style, both in fashion and instructional method. She wore flamboyantly colored pantsuits, reminiscent of my ninety-one-year-old grandmother, while Mme. Jehiel was probably not a day over sixty. In addition to these colorful get-ups, which always provided an interesting subject to study during roll-call, she was adorned by what must have been pounds of jewelry, typically bangles and large earrings, high heels, a sort of triangular bob, and of course a full face of maquillage, often with bright lipstick.
While none of the pupils were really ever impolite enough to tease her about her physical appearance, her mannerisms and favorite phrases were simply too easy to parody. There are many things that I can hardly recall about the way she conducted her afternoon grammar drills, but her favored expression, which she managed to exclaim and bark simultaneously, was, “ZERO!” Hardly a day went by where neither she nor a student, in an affectionate, mild sense of mockery, used the expression to draw attention to a complete failure to do a grammar exercise with a shred of accuracy. In fact, to this day, there is even a Facebook group dedicated to her former students who were either scarred or simply entertained by her eccentric and amusing antics.
Amanda and I giggled over our meal as we recalled those long afternoons, longing to take a stroll up the Boulevard Montparnasse to grab a cafe creme at a cheap, chain cafe before riding line four to line twelve to search for exorbitantly priced delicacies in the Grand Epicerie or my biggest weakness, yarn from my cherished Bon Marche.
When we snuggled into bed in the hotel that night, we made a list of all the things Amanda would need to do in the coming year, since she is in fact returning to Paris to teach as part of the Language Assistant in Paris-Créteil-Versailles program through the French embassy. “You have to got o BHV, and don’t forget the gelato place with the cherub on the sign,” I reminded her. “Do you remember when I had to sleep at your apartment in the 13eme during one of the grèves?” I asked her. “Do you remember when you gave me your books and ran all the way to Raspail from Bois Colombes during on of the grèves?!” she replied. “Please eat a lot of creme fraîche, Bonne Maman, fromage frais with a bit of sugar sprinkled on top, and drink kir for me,” I requested. As we began to drift off to sleep we continued to list memories or Parisian vices, the bad date I had at La Defense - well it wasn’t totally bad, since I did get to see the latest Bourne movie - dinners at my house, the little old man who spilled red wine on my cream-colored sweater, F.G. her host brother who is not only perfectly sarcastic and basically all-around awesome, but had the knack to remove red wine from aforementioned sweater, baguettes, pain au chocolat, the mairie in Bois Colombes, and its live creche at Christmas, the transillien, Vietnamese food - the only food we could afford to eat out - chocolat chaud at Angelina, and countless others that escape me even now.
As my chère Amanda embarks on her latest Parisian adventure, I cannot help but render an emotional fondue of happiness, envy, and longing. With any luck, however, I will be able to save enough money in the coming months to be able to also hop a transatlantic flight to CDG and Amanda will not be forced to enjoy ALL of our favorite Parisian pleasures toute seule.