After meeting Pauline, or as she is affectionately referred to by all but her family, Popi, only three weeks before at the start of a Short-Term Rotary Exchange, I was able to form a still unbreakable bond with a complete stranger. Maybe it was divine intervention or just a bit of serendipitous coincidence, but from the moment Popi stepped off the plane in JFK we fell hard for one another, in the platonic sense. The three weeks spent visiting Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and the charming rural destinations in my own little New Jersey town, whizzed by with uncommon haste. Before I had time to load all of our photos onto my computer we were boarding a plane together to Paris. My childhood dream was finally coming to fruition and the crème anglaise to add to my already delectable crème caramel of an adventure was this formidable friendship. Little did I know during those long hours spent flying over the ocean, that I would be lucky enough to live a fantasy that most teenagers can only see play out on film.
Popi and I spent approximately two days wandering about Paris with her sister, Mathilde, and grandmother. We had the fortune of staying in her Aunt and Uncle’s house in the 16eme while they vacationed in the south of France with their four children. When our meanderings were over Mathilde, Popi, and I piled into the car with her parents and set out for Niort, a small city about an hour’s drive inland from La Rochelle. The afternoon of our arrival we arranged our belongings in Popi’s house and almost were almost immediately greeted by BP (Benjamin), Popi’s wonderfully charming boyfriend who has lends more of a surfer-dude vibe than that of a Frenchman. We promptly drove across town to chez Soulet, the cute suburban dwelling of one of Popi and BP’s dearest friends, Marmotte (also Benjamin, who I later was informed had a penchant for taking long naps, much like a little Marmotte or prairie dog, hence his nickname).
His house was lovely, utterly and perfectly French, in my opinion, with its clay tile roof and little Renault parked outside. More than the house, I was struck by his intense, well, Frenchness. Unlike BP, who for the record, is an extremely handsome, stylish, and sweet guy, Marmotte’s thick, wavy, black hair fell in ruffled tumbles over his forehead and provided the perfect frame for his impossible-to-ignore green eyes. Of course he was on the thin, ok maybe he was really skinny, side and almost a vampire shade of pale, but he was the first boy my age that I had come into contact with that was a. not romantically attached (to my knowledge anyway) and b. just so French! I spent the afternoon mostly silent, overwhelmed with an uncharacteristic bout of shyness and a desire to let Popi gush about her overseas odyssey. The sun finally started to lower in the sky and Popi and I needed to return to her house downtown as not to miss the family dinner. My language-fatigued brain soon registered that we would in fact be meeting up again in only a few hours, seeing as BP’s parents were away on vacation, leaving his beautiful, sizable house, up for the location as a welcome-home soirée.
After dinner, Popi and I spent a good three-quarters of an hour primping and giving me a crash course on the social circle of her and BP’s closest friends. While I tried to keep Kevin, Pierric, Nem and Cécile all straight in my head, which was proving to be difficult considering I had never seen any of them, I immediately concocted a romantic vision of what this party would be. I imagined soft lights on a terrace as we sat around a big table while my capability of understanding French slowly waned and the wine continued to flow. Being just a few weeks shy of my eighteenth birthday, I had barely touched a drop before I arrived in France, but somehow this failed to unsettle my naive American sensibilities. Popi and I gathered our basic overnight belongings, since BP’s house was but a five-minute walk down the street and there were more than enough beds to share between the guests, and we set out down the sidewalk.
What happened in the next few hours remains a rosy haze in my mind at this point. I remember Popi getting thrown into BP’s pool, a welcoming gesture for sure, playing les caps (which remains my favorite drinking game of all time), tasting SoHo, a lychee flavored liquor, dancing in the backyard to The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and somehow striking up a conversation, if you could call it that, with Marmotte. Let me make it clear that my French was barely conversational and Marmotte’s English practically non-existent. But I suppose that the language of love somehow transcends the spoken languages to which we are so attuned. The night that we met remains one of the best nights of my life. As the moderately inebriated guests became tired and everyone was settling down, Marmotte was strumming his guitar for me and we eventually found ourselves innocently kissing and snuggling for the rest of the night in one of the spare guest rooms. (Mom, Dad, I promise that is actually what happened!)
The next two weeks in Niort and L’Île d'Oléron were made all the much more dreamy and romantic because of my romance de vacances. Marmotte was always the perfect gentleman, and while our spoken communication was ridiculously limited, we quickly grew intensely fond of one another. Knowing that there was a clear expiration date on our flowering romance really didn’t seem to matter. While I taught him English and he taught me French, we were both learning the coming-of-age lessons of the heart.
I was fortunate enough to spend the last bit of my trip in Popi’s vacation house in L’Île d'Oléron. At the time, the house was not large enough to fit me, Popi, her family, and her friends, so her beloved BP, Marmotte, Kevin, Nem and Cecile booked a nearby campsite so that we could all enjoy the remainder of the summer together. This arrangement led to many nights enjoying wine and serenading guitar on the beach, as we tried to keep the wind from blowing out our candles, and ate more than one meal of cold pasta. Regardless, the whole experience was everything that a summer vacation should be: friends, no responsibilities, and plenty of memories. (Note: Even though I wrote all about my French adventures in a journal, there are some details that I neglected to pen down that have since become fuzzy in the past several years. The conclusion to my little tale is as I remember it, which may or may not be 100% accurate, but is hopefully satisfactory!) Two days before Popi and I were set to leave, BP, Marmotte, and the crew went back to Niort. Marmotte and I snapped a few photos and said our goodbyes in a local café, knowing that the time had finally come for our blissful few weeks together to end. As you can imagine, we were both sad but we were simply forced to come to terms with the inevitable.
The next afternoon that Popi and I decided to take a stroll to the beach after spending the afternoon shopping. We set off down the road and would you believe that nestled among the other cars in the parking lot sat Marmotte’s red Renault! Naturally, as soon as Popi and I laid our eyes on it we broke into an excited sprint. In perhaps what was one of the most romantic movie-like scenes of my life thus far, I uninhibitedly jumped into Marmotte’s arms and burst into tears. The boys had driven back to the island for the sake of Marmotte’s heart and I could not have been happier. Through my crying sniffles we managed to go over our whole goodbye once more and as we bid our final adieu I gave him kisses and he gave me a letter.
Unfortunately, between between the suitcase packing and the general shuffle of the summer house, I returned to the United States sans lettre de Marmotte. From what I can remember, however, Popi and I snuggled in the same bed than night and she struggled to translate it into English because she could not help but cry. I recall the letter as one of the simplest expressions of affection that I have ever read and for a seventeen-year-old girl, it was a total dream.
To this day, Marmotte and I remain close friends, and he now attends engineering school and dates a lovely girl named Elodie. Popi and BP are still together, and I just spoke with them last week. Popi remains the sister that I never had growing up, and even though there is an ocean separating us, my life cannot continue on without her. You will all be hearing more stories about our friendship as this blog continues. As you can imagine, I reflect on my first experience français with a hearty pinch of wistful affection; the setting was a dream, the food incredible, the language a blur, and most importantly, the people were perfect. And even if I had not written down the bulk of my adventures in my Tour Eiffel-covered journal, there are certain moments of my first three weeks there that are positively unforgettable.