Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach and teacher — and a frequent contributor to France Today — who divides her time between the US and France. “Into the Wider World: My First Arrival in France” is an excerpt adapted from her memoir A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France. In this chapter, she describes her arrival in France for the first time, after years of longing to go there.
From the time I knew there was a place called France, I had wanted to go there. When I was a little girl, in my mind France was a place where kings and queens lived in castles situated in lovely, verdant valleys. As I became a little bit older, I became vaguely aware that it was a place where they spoke a language so beautiful the words had a kind of sensuality about them. (This was before I knew the word “sensuality.”) I studied French in high school and college, and by the time I had dropped out of college the first time, and was living temporarily with my parents, the desire to go to France was beginning to become a quiet, desperate, and unhealthy obsession.
I knew I had to go there, but flying to Europe was very expensive in the late 1970s, and for someone who was earning her living as a typist, even while living at home with her parents, being able to save enough money to buy the plane ticket was going to take a while.
That is why I was so excited when one day in 1977 Dan Rather announced on the CBS Evening News that a Sir Freddy Laker had just started a no-frills airline that was offering flights from New York to London for the unheard-of price of $135. “Okay, that’s it,” I muttered to myself as I listened to the rest of the story. “Now I can do it.”
Getting over there was now feasible, but I knew that once I got there I would want to be able to stay for a while. So I decided, then and there, that I would work and save as much money as I could for the next year, and leave for Europe the following September. I began to plan with a girlfriend to leave one year later. When the time came to go a year later and the girlfriend was unable to join me, I hesitated: but my boyfriend encouraged me to go, and drove me from Minneapolis to New York to catch the plane. (“You need to do this,” he said. “You can do this.” And he was right, on both counts.)
There was no “chunnel” then, and no Eurostar train—in 1978, the choices of Channel crossings were all by boat, either from Dover to Calais or from Newhaven to Dieppe. The plan I came up with with a friend I had visited in London was to make my assault on la belle France gradually, warming up my untested French language skills in the friendlier territory of Normandy before attacking the capital. So it was that I took the longer channel crossing, from Newhaven to Dieppe, where there was a youth hostel I planned to stay the first night. As the overnight boat drew near to the shore, people began to leave their benches and make for the exits. I saw one young man—an archeologist fresh from a dig was my guess, judging from his deep and even tan—leave his seat, a seat which offered a prime view of the Dieppe harbor, and I slipped into it the moment he had vacated it. So it was with surprise that, a few minutes later, I saw that the same young man was back, wheeling a bicycle. “Oh, did I steal your seat?” I asked, apologetically. “Oh, it’s okay,” he said. He was nothing if not gallant. We struck up a short and unremarkable conversation, one young traveling American to another, and then we went on our separate ways. I didn’t expect to ever see him again, nor did the thought occur to me that I wouldn’t.
That was our close encounter of the first kind. Fleeting, on a boat.
The second encounter came later that same day, in the youth hostel. I had found my way there using the public bus system in Dieppe, and was feeling quite pleased with myself despite the gloomy weather. I arrived at the hostel before it was open for the day, and was invited to wait in a kind of storage shed adjacent to the main hall, where I could keep out of the rain. I was sitting there, resting and absorbing the fact that I really was in France—the bus driver had taken my money, and said Voila! as he gave me my ticket—when the door opened, and there was the same young American, wheeling his bicycle. “Hunh! You again,” he remarked, in an unenthusiastic but not unfriendly tone; a comment that I echoed. He sat down on the uncovered mattress of the cot across from me, took a bar of chocolate out of his backpack—it was Milka chocolate, with a lovely lavender wrapper. He cocked his head inquisitively at me, then asked, “Would you like a piece of chocolate?” “I’m afraid I would,” I replied, with a smile.
There were very few guests in the hostel that night. Steve—for that was his name—asked me if I would like to go grocery shopping and then share a meal with him. I accepted his invitation, and we went to the nearest supermarché. In the dairy aisle, he picked up a quart of milk. “Lait frais,” he read. “Wow! Strawberry milk!” Being of a generation when most women still felt that the polite thing was to pretend that men were smarter than they were, I felt caught in a bind. “Mmm,” I said, diplomatically, “I think that means ‘fresh.’” “Oh no,” he replied, with complete confidence. “I know very few words in French but I do know that frais means strawberry.” (He pronounced the word “fraise.”)
There were no fireworks during this close encounter of the second kind. The vegetarian spaghetti we prepared in the kitchen of the hostel made for a pleasant and friendly but unremarkable meal. I remember only that Steve told me he thought Marcel Duchamp’s portrait should be on the 100-franc note. (It turned out he was not an archeologist, but an artist, and the deep and even tan came not from a dig, but from the extensive bicycle touring he had done around Europe that summer.) He gave me the phone number of the friends he would be staying with in Paris, and told me to call him “in case you should happen to pass through town.” I took the number and put it in my pocket, saying that I probably would pass through Paris, but not right away. I had other things to do first.
The next morning I left the hostel early. It was raining again and as I headed down the street toward the train station, the cheap plastic poncho I was wearing became the prop for a Don Quixote-like episode in which I, burdened with my backpack and hampered by my flimsy poncho, clumsily navigated the narrow streets through a fairly heavy rain, during which gusts of wind brought the poncho with regular and maddening frequency over my face, blinding me and causing me to stumble. It was irritating: but the train station wasn’t far away, and it was hard to dampen my spirits for very long. I found my way onto the train for Rouen, initiating the use of my Eurail pass, and feeling extremely adventurous.
The very first new word I learned in France was, appropriately, the word for “strike.” The train pulled out of the station, moved a short distance and then stopped and didn’t move for a very long time.“Pourquoi…” I finally dared to ask, and the handsome young Frenchman who was sharing a pole with me responded with a rueful grin, “Grève.” That was how I learned that French strikes tend to favor slowing down and annoying passengers, rather than totally interrupting service. Accordingly, we did reach our destination that day with no problem, just a bit late.
A couple of days later, in Bayeux on a Saturday night, I found that Dr. Zhivago was playing (dubbed in French, of course), and decided that watching one of my favorite films and hearing it spoken in French was a great opportunity, far more important than taking the time (and having the courage) to eat another meal in a restaurant by myself. The night before I had eaten alone, ordering with a spirit of adventure, and had regretted my choice. I could eat a big meal tomorrow, I told myself, and get by with popcorn and a chocolate bar for tonight.
So it was that in the following days I nearly suffered the embarrassment of starving to death in France—a country known throughout the world for its fine cuisine—and in the process learned about Sunday nights and Mondays in France, when most if not all of the businesses are closed, and the merchants who have provided for all those leisurely Sunday feasts for their neighbors take a day of rest for themselves.
A Long Way from Iowa can be purchased now through BookBaby in either ebook or paperback form. It can also be preordered through IndieBound/Bookshop.org, Amazon.com or Amazon.fr for shipping in March. Or you can ask your local indie bookseller to order it for you.
Lead photo credit : Janet Hulstrand enjoys some fresh baguettes © Kevin Sisson
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