Ch. 13 – Oh, my goodness, the food!
When the pre-stage ended, so did the “free lunch” – although I knew that we had paid for it in advance! We received a letter from the directrice, informing us of the 3 restaurants universitaires on our side of the river. The closest “RU” (the French are fond of short names – it was pronounced “roo”) was Belle Beille. The price was right – 8.5 francs per meal. That year, the dollar was very strong, cresting at 11-12 francs to the dollar, so this was quite a meal deal. We checked it out over the break before the university year began, and the food was okay. There were not many students there, as it was vacation time.
This trial period did not prepare us for the experience of trying to get meals when there was a full student load.
Let me just say that, while the United States has a lot of faults – and many of those will come out later on during the year – we are an orderly country that is fond of lines. In cafeteria lines of our memory, students were either forced to stand in an orderly line, or they did so of their own accord. Cutting in line, say, at the movies or for an event – or even at the supermarket – is discouraged. The exception to the rule, of course, is in the case of the “saved” place: usually people won’t hassle you if you are meeting someone who is already in line.
In France, you are forced to forget all of those rules. And this was especially true at the RU. Upon entering the portal of 4 double doors, you were thrust into a boiling crowd of students, all jostling for a place. Their goal: the entry to the turnstile that finally led to an orderly line to choose your dinner dishes. All bets were off – we surged forward en masse, while I had visions of getting crushed against a doorjamb if I aimed poorly. Luckily for me, the guys in our group were fairly aggressive. The best strategy was to stick close to one of them, and enter the line in their wake.
At first, we were intimidated and self-righteous about this situation – it baffled us. Here we were, learning the French spoken formes de politesse (courteous address) – we were told not to use the familiar form, tu, until we had been given “permission.” Instead, you had to learn a whole new verb form, using vous, to follow these rules of etiquette. For such a polite society, we were outraged at how rude they were!
I likened the dinner “line” experience to herding sheep through a chute at my grandfather’s ranch in order to vaccinate or shear them. The sheep would crowd forward, goaded by the cowboys, leaping into the air onto each other’s backs until choice animals were pushed through the chute. Chuck had an even more graphic analogy. He called the dinner line at the RU the “birth canal.” By that time, we had a sense of humor about the ordeal, and would let ourselves go with the flow until we were “given birth” to at the final passage to the food line. Chuck would bleat “Waaaa, Waaaaa!” like a newborn as we “crowned” at the door. We would all laugh hysterically – he was hilarious.
Given that I was now on my own for meals, I would sometimes skip the RU all together and grab a quick bite at a café. I was very fond of a sandwich called the croque madame. A croque monsieur is basically a grilled cheese sandwich, made with ham and Gruyere cheese and topped with a Mornay sauce. To make it a madame, you grill it with an egg on top. Add Dijon mustard, and you had a taste sensation! It took me a while to get used to the sinus clearing effect of this ubiquitous mustard, but I grew to love it.
I was also a fan of the pastry “on the go” – especially as a breakfast food. The 30 minute walk from my dorm to class inevitably led me past one or two patisseries, where I would grab a croissant, or a clafoutis, or a coconut square dipped in dark chocolate… or a sable, which was a shortbread cookie. Dipped in chocolate. I also could buy a baguette and eat half of it by the time I got back to the dorm. I was also fond of the economy-sized bars of Lindt dark chocolate. Let’s just say that I was in heaven – and I reasoned that my dietary indiscretions would be forgiven by the large amount of walking I was doing.
As a group, we tried for a while to get together and prepare meals. In the dorm, there were no kitchenettes. Rather, there were two hot plates that we used to prepare meals. Sometimes, we would each bring something and share it with the group. We would end up with a full dinner. We would have bread, butter, a dish with sauce prepared on a hot plate, pasta that was cooked on the other hot plate, cheeses, salad (rarely at the end of the meal, in the French manner), and a dessert of cookies or chocolate. It was quite a spread.
Oh, and there was a LOT of wine. Bottles of good vin ordinaire could be had for under a dollar, and we did partake. Oy, the hangovers!!! But we were young, and it rarely interfered with our getting to class the next day.
The group that dined together was usually Chuck, Carol, Robert, Trisha, Didier (the boyfriend of the former Louisiana student), and myself. Sometimes, if he didn’t have organ practice, Roger would join us. Other students joined us as well – as long as they contributed, they were welcome. Every once in a while, we would welcome someone that didn’t bring someone, but we had to be wary. Keesha, in particular, caught a lot of flack for not contributing. She would often “show up” and nibble at things until Chuck called her on it. After that, she seemed to subsist mainly on Camembert sandwiches she brought along.
We wouldn’t do this every night, because the RU was cheap. When we were feeling extravagant, we would hop a bus across the river to the hypermarche. The hypermarche was the biggest supermarket I’d ever seen. They stocked everything from food to alcohol to clothing to appliances. There were paper products, like stationary and notebooks, and health and beauty items. Since were never got very familiar with the mass transit system, we like to go as a group. It also helped to do this to divide up the bags to carry the final half-mile to the dorm from the bus stop. With our supplies, we prepared larger meals of turkey cutlets, with cous-cous and vegetables. Carol’s father supplied her with a small refrigerator, where we stored small amounts of perishables and the Kahlua and cream, but the weather was cool enough to keep cheese and butter in our rooms. We had a great time, and these dinners became our main social activity.
Ch. 14 – What about Pablo?
Despite the fact that Pablo had sent me two cards almost immediately after I arrived, I managed to worry about him constantly. After hearing that he wore Paco Rabanne aftershave, I would walk into perfume stores and spray samples of it onto a piece of paper, or on my wrist, and walk around town, mooning over him. I had a Walkman, and would usually have a tape playing when I walked from place to place. I had acquired the Julio Iglesias album with “our song,” his duet with Diana Ross, and I would play it all the time. I even had purchased mini speakers to turn my Walkman into a stereo to listen to in my room.
I finally wrote him back. It was a six page letter, and I mailed it on September 18. It seemed to only take four days for his first card to arrive, but I had no concept of how long it would take for a letter to reach the United States. When two weeks went by, and I had not heard anything from him, I started to get nervous. To make things worse, Elaine wrote to tell me that Pablo had finally gone out with their waitress friend, Chris – the one that he had said was no competition.
Well, that sent me into a two-day funk. I frantically tried to remember just what I had written in my letter. In retrospect, I decided that my letter had sounded a little too eager – and perhaps made me sound a little desperate. I cringed as I recalled going so far as to spray my stationary with perfume. How corny could you get? I decided it was time for damage control – long distance damage control.
I decided to send him another letter. This letter was written on an aerogramme, which was a pre-stamped piece of paper that you wrote your letter on, and then it folded itself into an envelope. It was a no-frills method of sending mail – to counteract the extravagant use of stationary in my first letter. I wrote to him about how much fun I was having, and about all of the “people” I was meeting. I put the emphasis on my new guy friends. I finished the letter off by saying that I hoped that he was getting along at work and had not been fired yet because of his temper (He had been suspended for almost getting into a fist fight with one of the waiters during the summer.). I didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but I was definitely going for a nonchalant attitude.
Three days after I returned from my break in Paris, I finally received a reply to my first letter. It was so sweet. He was obviously thrilled to get my letter, and he told me that he missed me. He said that he never thought that he would feel that way about me, but he did. He asked me to send him a phone number so that he could call me. There were not private phones in the dorm rooms, but there was a phone on each hall with a number that could be given out. I couldn’t believe that he was going to call me!
I felt like such a fool for doubting him – he honestly sounded like he missed me as much as I missed him. I immediately regretted my second letter. I also took back all of the times I cursed him and had disloyal thoughts about him. Soon after, I received a card from him in response to that aerogramme. It could have been my imagination, but he sounded a little down. He wrote that he was happy that I was doing so well in Angers, but said that he was tired of living in Lafayette. He mentioned the dreaded Chris, but only to say that she was dating someone else. He said that he thought – no, he was sure – that he had no business there. He wrote about baseball, and politics and his trip to the World’s Fair, which was held in New Orleans that year.
I didn’t like the tone of his letter – probably I was too sensitive. The card, however, gave me hope. It was a cartoon of a rhinoceros, with crossed “arms,” tapping his foot. Looking fed up, he said, “Your just impossible…” I opened up the card, and it said, “…to get along without.” On its little tusk, Pablo had penned in his name. I immediately wrote him back, hoping to make up for my game playing. I told him that I missed him terribly, and admitted to buying the Julio Iglesias album so that I could listen to our song. I did not admit to the Paco Rabanne thing. I spent a lot of time choosing a card for him, and could not wait for his next letter.
My mother managed to call me on the hall phone one night, and I told her that I thought that I was in love with Pablo. I tried to say it jokingly, but she saw right through that. Fresh from separation herself, she warned me not to build up a big fantasy about Pablo. She pointed out that I didn’t really know him and reminded me that eight months was a long time to be separated. I got really annoyed with her. I knew that she was probably right – and I hated it when she was right. Still, it looked like I was determined to keep the dream alive.
There was another reason why I was pinning my hopes so steadfastly on my long-distance romance. I had no prospects in Angers. If I were honest with myself, I would have admitted that I had a crush on Robert. We spent a lot of time together, and had traveled around Paris in each other’s company. We had a bantering relationship, which I thought might mean that he was interested – in the manner of a schoolboy’s interest, that is.
I also had a new roommate. British Elaine was a lot of fun – she said that she had a boyfriend back in Birmingham, but she definitely liked to flirt. She had recently lost weight, and made an effort to make salads topped with tuna at the dorm. I was a pastry-aholic, and it was beginning to look like walking was not going to be enough to prevent the pounds from creeping up. Also, it became apparent that she was “new blood” and the guys in our group, bored with their compatriots, showed interest. Robert showed interest, in particular. He would come up to visit “us” now, not just me! I was jealous, and realized that my femme fatale days of summer were behind me. These guys just saw me a little sister.
I also didn’t see any possibilities in the way of a romance with a French man. Didier was already taken – or so I thought! We also had a friend named Jean-Noel, who liked hanging out with Americans. He was nice enough, but I was not attracted to him. Whenever we went to dances, the French guys were annoyingly noncommittal. I didn’t know at that time that the French like to meet each other in big groups, and that they don’t pair off that quickly. When we went to dances, we girls would tire of waiting for guys to ask us to dance. There was not stigma to girls dancing together as there was in the United States, so we would just go out on the floor and dance with each other. The boys would come out onto the dance floor and dance in our general vicinity – but not in a way that you could conclude that any one of them was dancing with you. It was maddening. I yearned for someone to just be direct with me!