Over the course of my adolescence, our family hosted seven French students for “a delightful summer abroad.” They would get on a plane in Paris and fly to Montana where they would disembark, their necks wrapped in scarves, their mouths smoking Gaulloises. Then, with a slow exhale, they would stare, in shock, at the hicks milling around the Billings airport (who were, after all, wearing scarves–bandanas–around their necks and smoking–Marlboro Reds). C’était un nouveau monde entier for the poor Froggies. Standing there on top of the Rimrocks, they were clearly, assuredly, crushingly, not within a beret’s toss of a good baguette.
The first French student we hosted was Frederico, who, strangely, was Mexican. There must have been a mix-up in the paperwork. Or maybe he was undocumented entirely. All I know is he had cute curls, wore a striped shirt sometimes and–oh, yes he did–brought us a sombrero. Had he tucked a bottle of Kaluha into that sombrero, I would have dubbed him perfecto.
The second summer’s hosting brought us sixteen-year-old Jean-Pierre, he of the pencil-thin mustache and after-dinner cigarettes out by the roses. Standing there, puffing, he undoubtedly stared at the big sky and mused, “Zose potato streeps zey served pour le diner are faux. Zey are not one beet French. But I weel have more tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, for the grease is très comme une drogue, and I find I must have it.” The highlight of his stay was perhaps the night my brother broke J-P’s nose during a tutorial in The Hottest Moves of World Wide Wrestling. Later, after a trip to the emergency room, J-P and his love of ska introduced us Ozzy lovers to the madness of “One Step Beyond” and a new way of waggling our legs on the dance floor (by the tv in our den). Little known fact: such cultural exchange also played a major role in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.
Shortly after shaking hands, James Monroe and Barbe Marbois were hoisted into the air by Toots & the Maytals, whereupon the entire crowd broke into a tri-corned remix of “Pressure Drop”
Our third Frenchie was Marjorie, who sported a Flock of Seagulls haircut and labeled me très sympathique. I will always remember how my dad and I took her on a road trip to Chicago (long story: we were actually picking up my sister and brother at the airport there, after they came home from living in France with host families…and, of course, the closest airport to central Montana is O’Hare); the road trip coincided with Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding, which meant Marjorie and I, sharing a bed at a Budget Host Motel in Des Plaines, clutched sweaty palms at 6 a.m. as we watched the exchange of vows. And how could we not weep a bit in the presence of such genuine and lasting love? Also memorably, Marjorie’s father was a chef in Reims, and she brought aprons and some nice scarves as gifts. Had she rolled a bottle of red Coteaux Champenois into one of those scarves, I would have labeled her parfait.
Our fourth student was, um, Piquequinque, thusly named because I have no recollection of a fourth student, and I’m starting to think we didn’t actually host seven students but maybe more like five, but I’ve always told people “My family hosted seven French students when I was growing up,” and if the fact that one of those seven was Mexican has never slowed me down, then I don’t know why I would let the fact that there were maybe only five stop me either. So I maintain Piquequinque came, and s/he was terribly homesick and droopy until my sister taught him/her how to play Clue. Once there was candlestick in the conservatory and a wrench in the billiard room, the summer days shone un nouveau genre de soleil dans le coeur de poor Piquequinque.
Fifth came Hervé, a techno-musicophile who gifted us with Jean Michel Jarre albums, albums that tested our good will mightily, forcing us to paste a smile on our collective face and gasp phrases like, “Well, I’ll be. Is there anything a synthesizer can’t do?” Hervé’s precision cut, incidentally, was this
A summer later, we flung open our doors to fourteen-year-old Sophie, who was, memorably, from a region of France. And she had braids.
The only possible encore to a wild show like Sophie was, um, Pippi. Much like her cousine Piquequinque, Pippi didn’t really exist; however, to prop up my memory of seven students, not a mere five, she is here today. Boy, I’ll never forget her red Converse high-tops. Even better, side-stepping quarantine laws, she brought a monkey with her (one Mr. Nilsson) and did this amazing party trick where she had a horse stand on a wooden door and then would lift it above her head. Once, she asked to borrow my bike. Hoping that she would, in return, let me accompany her to the South Seas to find her long-lost father, I let her.
With all of these students, from Frederico to Pippi, our family did its best to show them the major sights and sites of the Wild West. They toured Boot Hill cemetery, the old pioneer cabin by the airport (what a convenient first stop, once they had alighted from the plane and put out their cigarettes!), and the Little Bighorn Battlefield, at that time named after the pudding-head of a general who had been routed there in 1876, a flan-follicled man called Custard.
But in between? Lots of down time. Lots of “What the hell do we bored kids do with the Frenchie while Mom and Dad are at work? Sure, there’s always ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ re-runs, but the constant translation of phrases like ‘Yee-haw’ and ‘cement pond’ gets old.”
What to do? What to do?
Fortunately, local radio stations often teamed up with car lots for mutual promotion. The radio jocks from KBear, 97.1 on the FM dial, would back the station’s van up to an open spot on the car lot and do a live broadcast from the van, alternately playing “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” by Kim Carnes and Kenny Rogers and shouting out plugs to “Come on over to Rimrock Pontiac-Cadillac before 3 p.m. today and grab a free hot dog and Pepsi!”
So we did. One hot July afternoon, with no other way to amuse Jean-Hervé-erico, my brother, sister, and I extended the ultimate in American hospitality. We got him the hot dog. We showed him the cars. He had a Pepsi. We bobbed our heads to Kim and Kenny.
Now, twenty-five years later, all I have to say is,
Suck on that, Sarkozy, you pretentious pâté mucher. Stuff that in your goose and smoke it.
We took your people. We made them sleep in a waterbed. Moreover, in perhaps the most inequitable cultural exchange since the Americas exported the potato to Ireland and Ireland countered with Michael Flatley, our French students gave us Hermès scarves, and we fed them Oscar Mayer.
C’est la vie, muchacho.