VIVE L'AMÉRIQUE: THE BEGINNING . . . I AM OVERWEIGHT
I love my adopted homeland. But first, as an exchange student in Massachusetts, I learned to love chocolate-chip cookies and brownies. And I gained twenty pounds.
My love affair with America had begun with my love of the English language; we met at the lycée (junior high and high school) when I turned eleven. English was my favorite class after French literature, and I simply adored my English teacher. He had never been abroad but spoke English without a French accent or even a British one. He had learned it during World War II, when he found himself in a POW camp with a high school teacher from Weston, Massachusetts (I suspect they had long hours to practice). Without knowing whether they'd make it out alive, they decided that if they did, they would start an exchange program for high school seniors. Each year, one student from the United States would come to our town and one of us would go to Weston. The exchange continues to this day, and the competition is keen.
During my last year at the lycée, I had good enough grades to apply, but I wasn't interested. With dreams of becoming an English teacher or professor, I was eager to start undergraduate studies at the local university. And at eighteen, naturally I had also convinced myself I was madly in love with a boy in my town. He was the handsomest though admittedly not the brightest boy around, the coqueluche (the darling) of all the girls. I couldn't dream of parting from him, so I didn't even think of applying for Weston. But in the schoolyard, between classes, there was hardly another topic of conversation. Among my friends, the odds-on favorite to go was Monique; she wanted it so badly, and besides, she was the best in our class, a fact not lost on the selection committee, which was chaired by my English teacher and included among its distinguished ranks PTA members, other teachers, the mayor, and the local Catholic priest, balanced by the Protestant minister. But on the Monday morning when the announcement was expected, the only thing announced was that no decision had been made.
At home that Thursday morning (those days, there was no school on Thursdays but half days on Saturday), my English teacher appeared at the door. He had come to see my mother, which seemed rather strange, considering my good grades. As soon as he left, with a big, satisfied smile but not a word to me except hello, my mother called me. Something was très important.
The selection committee had not found a suitable candidate. When I asked about Monique, my mother tried to explain something not easily fathomed at my age: My friend had everything going for her, but her parents were Communists, and that would not fly in America. The committee had debated at great length (it was a small town, where everybody was fully informed about everybody else), but they could not escape concluding that a daughter of Communists could never represent France!
My teacher had proposed me as an alternative, and the other members had agreed. But since I had not even applied, he had to come and persuade my parents to let me go. My overadoring father, who would never have condoned my running away for a year, was not home. Perhaps my teacher was counting on this fact; but in any event, he managed to sell the idea to my mother. The real work then fell to her, because she had to persuade not only my father, but me as well. Not that she was without her own misgivings about seeing me go, but Mamie was always wise and farsighted; and she usually got her way. I was terribly anxious about what Monique would say, but once word got out, she was first to declare what a fine ambassador I would make. Apparently, Communist families were quite open and practical about such matters, and she had already been given to understand that family ideology had made her a dark horse from the start.
Excerpted from French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano Copyright © 2005 by Mireille Guiliano. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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