burning bridges: pink toilet paper

Me, atop the Dune du Pilat, about 60 km west of Bordeaux, France.
Summer 2000.
Last time I updated this series, I wrote about my work with painter/professor Katherine Sherwood while an undergrad at UC Berkeley. Turns out I skipped over a summer internship with a bit of a twist. In 2000, less than a year after transferring to Cal, I decided to apply to a summer exchange program to supplement my French major, since, as a transfer student, I didn't want to be abroad for an entire year or even a semester. The main reason I decided to double-major, after all, was to extend my credit "ceiling" which allowed me to spend three years at Berkeley instead of just two. So during the summer of 2000 I traveled first to Paris, then to Bordeaux, as part of a work exchange program with the goal of being perhaps not fluent exactly but certainly "conversational" in French by summer's end.  My exact goal was to be able to watch French films without subtitles and more or less understand the plot.

For most of my 11 weeks abroad I completed a "stage", or internship, at the Office of Tourism. Normally in these "burning bridges" posts, I write about the job. But the job itself was mind-numbingly boring, with most of my journal entries from that summer about other things like the pink toilet paper in Paris, the dog poop problem, and the incredible food (skip to the post-script below if that's all you're really interested in). I was led to believe I'd be working in the information area of the Office of Tourism but they stuck me instead in one of the offices upstairs, where I interacted with just a handful of regular employees each day and spent most of my time translating various documents into English and responding to email and phone inquiries in, you guessed it, English. “I’m not at information nor will I ever be, hence no need for all the navy blue skirts and white blouses I bought,” the dress code for the folks who worked the floor, so to speak. Seriously, that was really challenging, like trying to find school uniforms to fit a grown woman. Anyway, while this occupation did little to enhance my French speaking ability, I was a whiz on French keyboards by the end of my internship. And I spent much of the first three weeks and a bit of the last week or two on free walking tours, "dégustations" (wine tastings), day-trips to nearby châteaux, etc. The days I did no sightseeing could be summed up in four sad words: "all work, no wine."

While in Bordeaux, I stayed with a host family, the son of which was participating in the same program, working at Great America in Santa Clara. I'd grown pretty fond of my host family by the time I returned home in August but initially found the entire experience to be incredibly awkward and frustrating. My hostess spoke little English, criticized me for not dressing "elegantly" enough for shopping in Le Bouscat, a suburb of Bordeaux, and took me on epic sightseeing adventures that had us visiting old churches and castles until 9 or 10 p.m. most balmy Sunday evenings. One of my most vivid memories is when she picked me up from the train station and I complained, in French, that my trees (mes arbres), not my arms (mes bras), were tired from schlepping my luggage through Paris during the first three or four days of my summer in France. Talk about first impressions.

My French hostess, elegantly dressed in a skirt and heels for a rainy tour of a medieval town.
Other than all the free tours and wine-drinking in and around Bordeaux, I spent, as I mentioned already, my first few and last couple of days in Paris, where I'd been a few times before (lucky gal that I was to spend grades 4 through 12 in Germany and England). I love Paris. I could totally live there. Additionally, I spent one mid-summer weekend in Toulouse, and a few weekends away with my host family, first on the Ile d'Oléron, where they were spending their August vacation, and my final full weekend in Blois, for a traditional French wedding. I could write entirely separate posts about each of these weekend adventures!

Ile d'Oléron at sunset. Just heavenly.
I saw just two movie-theater movies: Le Gout des Autres and Les Destinées Sentimentales. I developed a bit of a film-crush on Emmanuelle Beart, writing in my journal that she had "a great face." The films were, obviously, not subtitled and sure, I got the gist of what was going on. Mission accomplished!

The final entry in my journal, written during my final night in Paris before my flight home to SFO, details the few regrets I had about my summer in France, primarily this: "Didn’t ever get around to writing in here in French! But, see, if I read this in, say, twenty years after I’ve forgotten all my French I’ll be glad I stuck with English." Writing "twenty years" probably seemed like an exaggeration at the time but here I am, going through my box of Bordeaux memories 15 years later. And yes, I'm glad I wrote my journal in English!

PS - A few more words about the incredible food...

Most breakfasts consisted of croissant or baguette with jam, coffee or cocoa, juice, and occasionally yogurt. Dinners in Bordeaux with my host family were usually buffet style and served outside since it's so hot there in the summer. Some examples include: “first some tomatoes, tabouli, and spicy chicken wings, then salad, then some cheese and bread, and finally apricots for dessert.” Another night: “first some radishes and bread, then salad with tomatoes and cucumbers and a piece of ham, cheese and more bread, and strawberries for dessert.” And another example: “half of an avocado, followed by a green salad with these little crab meat stick things, bread and cheese (of course), and pudding for dessert.” One more example: chestnut mousse one night for dessert, following a dinner of salad, 3-cheese “tart”, and bread & cheese. Weekend lunches were the heartiest and most formal: “melon, some sort of beef thing and fries, bread and cheese, and cherries for dessert.” This next example, I wrote,  "lasted four hours!" - aperitif & hors d’oeuvres of cheese trays and toast with salmon pate. This dinner called for fancy table settings including “little salt servers that resembled very small ashtrays with tiny little spoons.” First course was a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, cabbage, and green peppers with vinaigrette and feta cheese, served with bread. There were two different kinds of meat - bayonne ham and “some sort of pork thing” served over green beans. “Also, some chicken McNugget things but with broccoli instead of chicken.” Full cheese course, with bread and for dessert - individual fruit tarts (I had lemon). Another Sunday lunch included “three aperitifs, mussels, cheese trays, and what essentially seemed like duck ‘bacon’ to me, followed by salmon pate hors d’oeuvres, some sort of duck main dish (too much! enough duck already!), served with berries and nectarines, cheese and bread, and chocolate gateau for dessert. The cake was so good - consistency of a great big brownie, served with creme anglaise.”

The Bastille Day Dinner that blew my mind: “I had some sort of gratin dish for starters, with avocado, cheese, some sort of seafood and a few mussels. The main dish was kind of like a salmon shish-kabob with some sort of very rich sauce and rice and for dessert … fondant au chocolat with creme anglaise. I don’t know exactly what ‘fondant’ means in English, nor have I ever had anything quite like this, but it was so tasty. Kind of like a cake but really dense, essentially fudge, but with a creamier ice cream-like taste. There were two slices of this swimming in creme anglaise and garnished with sliced almonds.”

Labor-intensive seafood on the Ile d'Oléron: "Lunch was an adventure - assiete des langoustines - like little lobsters, unbelievably difficult to eat, but delicious. 'Dos de maigre' was some sort of fish, for the entree, and nougat glacee for dessert." "Had my first real 'gaufre' with chestnut spread at the port." Another lunch at the port included family style "platters of seafood, again all very labor-intensive to eat - langoustines, shrimp, ocean snails, crevettes, mussels, oysters, and crab."

In short, lots of meat, much of it unidentifiable (or was it that I was in denial that I was eating a cute little bunny rabbit?). And cheese. Lots of cheese.

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