September 15, 2015 by The Citron Review
by N. West Moss
When I was fifteen, I spent the summer in the Loire Valley as an au pair for French friends of my parents. I lived in a mansion next to the main house, an actual chateau, where I was treated as something between an honored guest and a servant. I had a place of honor at the dinner table next to Monsieur, for instance, yet I slept in the attic in a tiny room, my French-English dictionary and notebook propped on my bedside table.
Just outside my attic window was a field of black currants. In the evenings when I climbed the stairs for bed, the sun-baked currants made my room smell like perfume. When I smell crème de cassis today, I am aware that this feeling of nostalgia, like homesickness, is a longing for something that never exactly existed in the first place.
The truth was that it was a difficult summer. At fifteen, I’d had only one year of high school French, and I was taking care of two very young children who spoke quickly and colloquially about wanting to make “sleep-sleep” and needing their “binky,” words that were not in my French-English dictionary.
For the first several weeks I had a consistent, pounding headache, and it wasn’t until somewhere around week three that the headaches disappeared and I began to dream in French.
It can be a lonely thing to be in a foreign country when you are shy, young and ill at ease in the language. I was forever trying to understand what they were saying, and poor things, everyone spoke so slowly for me. No one asked me anything personal, and I couldn’t have expressed how I felt if they had. What is the French word for “lonely?” I still don’t know.
I loved some tasks, like riding the one-gear bicycle into town for bread every morning. It was hard to carry the baguettes, which were very long and kept tipping out of the basket.
I loved the food. At home in New York, we never ate breakfast really. Here we cracked open the fresh baguettes, still hot inside, and slathered fresh butter and homemade jam on it. Later in the day we’d break off squares of chocolate, which we stuffed inside the bread like a sandwich. What a miracle it seemed to bite into the bread and have my teeth hit the chocolate hidden inside.
One day, Monsieur arrived home with a paper sack of fresh ripe peaches from a neighbor’s tree. Madame peeled them and rolled them in a bowl of white sugar, handing us each a dripping, coated peach to eat with our hands. I have never eaten anything that tasted as deeply of summer and the crackling bravery and joy of a shy fifteen year old so far away from home.
They took me on their holidays to Nice in the South of France. That was magic too, everyone topless on the beach, everyone zipping around on mopeds. I went topless on the beach, blushing and blushing endlessly, even though everyone was practically naked. The fat old women were topless. The fat old men wore tiny bikini bottoms, and of course there were beautiful young people too, rubbed top to bottom with baby oil, slippery as seals. I felt far away from America, and as though, being so far away, I could see America and my home for the very first time. Why didn’t we eat bread with chocolate, or roll our peaches in sugar? Why didn’t we ride mopeds or go topless on the beach? Why were we so prudish? How come nothing smelled like sun-drenched currants?
I ate my first oysters that summer, raw, and while I didn’t like them, I don’t think anyone could tell. I made humiliating mistakes in French that I still remember, mixing up the words for preservatives and contraceptives in a way that made everyone at the dinner table burst out laughing, and causing me again to blush and blush, not understanding my mistake until I had gotten all the way back to New York weeks later. I remember laughing at myself with my French friends, even though I did not know why I was laughing.
The trip changed me, showed me I could spend an entire summer without saying one word about myself other than my name and that I was from New York. Years later, my time in France that summer made me kinder to my college students, many of whom were struggling to learn English. Every time I watched them attempt to figure out what I was saying, and then blush and blush as they tried to formulate an answer, I fell in love with them, remembering my own desperate wanting to be understood, wanting to find a word that would show those people how special I was … and never finding that word.
Now, in my fifties, I think of those old women topless on the beaches in the South of France, sagging and wrinkled under their enormous floppy hats, unapologetically part of the living world, beautiful and craggy as walnuts, laughing at their own mistakes, biting at ripe, sugared peaches with toothless mouths and washing their arms in the salty, forgiving ocean.
N. West Moss’ work has appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Salon, and elsewhere. Her short story collection, The Subway Stops at Bryant Park was published by Leapfrog in 2017, and she has good news about her memoir that she can share soon. She has also completed a middle grade novel that’s making the rounds, and has just finished Columbia University’s MS in Narrative Medicine.