Our French Friendships all began in seventh grade, my first year of French class, with $1 and an address. Twenty-nine years later, as my daughter finished up her first year of seventh grade French, my parents and my family of five traveled to Bordeaux and reunited with my penpal.
For a dollar in 1983, I got her address in Floirac, Bordeaux in southwestern France. Benedicte, Bene for short, was a year older than me, she wrote to me in English and I wrote to her in French. We were learning one another’s language and we craved more interaction, more practice, and a glimpse into each other’s lives.
Bene and I mailed pictures, books, postcards, maps, cassettes and trinkets along with lengthy letters. We corresponded for years without ever having met or spoken. We were intercontinental friends and eventually arranged our first meeting.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I spent July in Bordeaux with Bene’s family. I learned how to make homemade mayonnaise and tasted pates, frogs legs, cheeses and wines. I was taught to keep my hand out of my lap and my wrists on the table while eating as is polite in France. I watched dubbed American sitcoms like “Who’s the Boss?” I went topless on beaches (best tan of my life) and celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower. I walked to Bene’s little sister’s (Berangere) neighborhood school and taught her class an American nursery song. I made a mess of the bathroom as I learned to shower without a curtain on the tub and my consumption of fresh baguettes required an increase in the daily delivery from la boulangerie.
I was living in French and dreaming in French. On weekly Sunday night phone calls to my family in Connecticut, I would sometimes forget words in English searching and struggling to find American vocabulary.
During the month, we visited the Lascaux Cave, wine villages like St. Emilion (UNESCO world heritage sites), dunes of Archachon, Paris, Versailles, Loire Valley and numerous other impressive French treasures.
The following summer, in 1990, Bene spent July with us, she was fascinated with the squirrels in Boston and tasted cereal with milk.We visited the Statue of Liberty, hiked up the Empire State Building and admired the gleaming Twin Towers. We went to outdoor concerts in Washington, DC and took a photo with a cardboard cutout of the President outside the White House. We hosted a farewell party not knowing when we would next be together, she was part of our family now, as I had been a part of hers.
As technology advanced and our friendship flourished, we still wrote and sent cards, but we also emailed. We had a few connections, Bene’s brother and his friends visited, and I spent some time in Bordeaux at the end of my semester in London. In 1996, I had been married for two years and Bene invited us to her wedding. When she heard that we were coming, she asked me to be her “temoin,” her witness, her matron-of-honor.
The wedding began midday, first with the official government ceremony, then to the centuries-old church and finally to the chateau for cocktail hour (which lasted 3 hours). After multiple courses, all paired with wines, dancing to French karaoke and learning the moves to a French song (akin to the Hokey Pokey) we almost begged to go home around 5:00 am. It had been an all-nighter on top of our jet lag. It was special and meaningful to have been included so grandly and to have experienced French knot-tying.
After their wedding, we didn’t see Bene and Olivier again until June 2011. It was a brief visit, we only got to spend dinner together during their four-day vacation in New York City. We had a creative conversation with pieces of French and English; our nonnative languages were a little rusty, but we communicated and caught up. We had stayed connected through the space of 15 years with Facebook and email, texting and Christmas cards. Our correspondences evolved with technology and changed as our families grew.
It was our turn to visit. My family, including my parents, landed in Paris on April 2, 2012. Before heading to see Bene and her family, we spent time in Paris and Normandy. My French came back rapidly as I was immersed in the language and the sole French-speaker of our group. I translated menus, bought train tickets and asked directions, by day two I was already dreaming in French again. It was a relief and invigorating to be speaking and understanding a language I love. I was, however, trepidatious about conversations when we got to Bordeaux, it’s one thing to order a meal and a bottle of wine and quite another to follow group discussions and explain whole stories in French.
Bene, Olivier, Berangere, and Jules (Bene’s younger of two sons, Antoine, 14, Jules, 10) met us at the train station. They had to bring three cars to accommodate all seven of us and our luggage. With the familiar two-cheek kisses, and small talk about our trip warming the way, we eagerly reentered our decades old friendship.
Our children met for the first time and after brief shyness back at their home, my son, Michael, 11, and Jules disappeared together. The adults talked and laughed, pored over old photos, sipped French wine and savored fresh oysters. Soon, Jules and Michael barreled into the living room laughing and nudging one another like old pals, without either speaking the other’s language, they had figured out to get onto Google Translate and have whole conversations. Over dinner the boys were playful, silly and behaved just like friends. Heartwarming.
We spent Easter Sunday ambling around St. Emilion and Berangere took the kids to ride her horse, Galant. I took my parents to meet Bene’s parents and to see the home and room where I had lived for a month.
Maman and Papa were nervous about meeting my parents, and my Mom and Dad were a bit tentative, too. We sat with an aperitif and between us, Bene and I translated and explained introductory and reminiscing conversations. Almost instantly, everyone was at ease.
The two Moms decided that since they both knew Spanish (a generous description) that they’d chat that way; it was a true comedy act as they pieced together Spanish words with French and English accents and laughed so hard they cried. In the end it didn’t matter one bit that they couldn’t speak to communicate, they had formed a friendship in their own way as their grandsons had connected in their own way.
Easter night we ate a leisurely, typically French meal (which began at 10:00 pm and we got up from the table at 1:00 am) with samplings of various wines, pates, and hours and hours of happy, boisterous conversation. It was comfortable, warm and easy to be in Bene’s home with her family.
This visit was the highlight of our trip. It spun a beautiful thread from my seventh grade year to my daughter’s. It wove our families, parents, husbands and children into our 29 year friendship. It confirmed our extraordinary bond, built letter by letter par avion. We were reconnected and in awe of our commitment and our loyalty. We’ve grown up together, across an ocean, from school girls to mothers, from pen pals to cherished friends.