Travel stories: France (part 4)

As the bus pulled out of the parking lot of the Mont Saint-Michel, Leeza, Kate, Mel, and I leaned in to hear Amie’s Harrowing Bathroom Adventure. 

Amie had found herself alone in the restroom—without toilet paper. She had called out for my assistance, but I was already gone. Then she rummaged through her purse, to no avail. All travel literature warned that public restrooms in France never provided free toilet paper. One should always bring one’s own tissue, she had read, or purchase some from the restroom attendant. Should she call out to the attendant? Was there even a woman with a basket at the door selling the valuable commodity? She wasn’t sure she had seen anyone.

Then dozens of school children stampeded into the communal restroom. If an attendant existed and Amie beckoned her, the racket from the kids would drown out her voice. And could she formulate a sentence in French to explain her predicament anyway?

“So I went through my purse again, looking for paper of any kind,” she said. “But I only found one thing I could use.”

“What?” I edged closer, as if my proximity to her would bring a suitable resolution.

“A twenty franc bill.”

“Get outta town!” Leeza said, and our hoots of laughter even caught the bus driver’s attention.

Aside from the possible illegality of flushing currency, I thought of the economic repercussions and did a quick calculation. With the exchange rate, Amie’s only solution had cost her $3.64. But it was money well spent; because of her cautionary tale, we all learned a valuable lesson that day.


After five hours of traveling by bus, we arrived in the southwestern coastal city of La Rochelle, an ancient fishing village, replete with medieval architecture, arched walkways, and a collection of lighthouses. Our new host families clustered, waiting to welcome us, on the parking lot of l'Institut d'Etudes Françaises, the school where we would study for the next six weeks. My assigned roommate was Andie, a girl from our touring group whom I had met in Paris, and our host mother was a woman named Madame Germanaud.

Madame Germanaud drove us to her home—where she lived alone—and showed us our downstairs living quarters which opened out into a back yard with a swimming pool. At the dinner table that night, she invited us to call her Jacqueline, and with that simple invitation to familiarity, she plunged into her life’s story, stretching both my vocabulary and my empathy.

Years earlier, Jacqueline’s husband had been unfaithful to her, leaving her for his maîtresse. Soon, though, the other woman abandoned him, and he longed to return home. But my host mother was a woman of principles, she said, so she refused to take him back.

"It's better that way." She pursed her lips, sniffed, and passed me the Salade Niçoise.

The next morning when Andie and I entered the kitchen for breakfast, the sight of a man sitting at the table startled me.

“I’m Monsieur Germanaud,” he said, jumping to his feet to plant the customary kisses on our cheeks. “I’m here to ramasse les haricots verts.” His gaze flitted off to his wife who stood at the counter tweezing the greens from some strawberries.

Andie shot me a confused look and mouthed, "Pick the green beans?"

Jacqueline puttered around the kitchen, and a smile tugged at the corners of Monsieur’s mouth as he watched her. Andie and I exchanged shrugs, ate our breakfast, and then hurried off to catch our bus for school.

We attended French classes with other international students until noon. Then a group of us girls ate our déjeuner in the school cafeteria before padding off to the beach near the marina. Along the shoreline, vendors hawked their trinkets from tiny huts. Seagulls zoomed through the air, their caws scaring every last cloud from the sky until only a sheet of blue covered our afternoon. Under these conditions, homework would have to wait until dark.

At the beach, the French men wore Speedos, small children skipped naked through the waves, and the local women—half nude—basked in the sun. In contrast, we American girls appeared prim in our swimwear.

"What are they gawking at?" Kate whispered, nodding toward a group of males passing by our beach towels.

The men ogled us, and I frowned back, wrinkling my nose.

"I've read about this," Mel said. "It's because we still have our tops on."

We were a spectacle at Jacqueline’s home too, but for different reasons. When my friends came over for a swim one day, my host mother’s three visiting grandchildren stared at us like we were three-toed sloths dangling from the trees. The kids cocked their heads while they listened to our chatter and watched us behave more like ten-year-olds than twenty-somethings. Then Amie choreographed a synchronized swimming routine in the water.

"C'mon in and do this thing with me," my friend hollered to us lazy ones. Her laugh reverberated off the white limestone of the house.

Jacqueline snapped her floral swim cap in place and eased into the water near me. Then she nodded toward Amie, furrowed her brow, and drew her lips into a bunch. "Elle s'amuse bien, n'est-ce pas?"

"Yeah, she has fun," I said, trying to act my age to please my host mother. But then I bit my lip to keep the giggles away.


*Come back next week for the conclusion of our traveling adventures in France.


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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.