Every year, around the post-midterm blues, I begin feeling like I’m in France.
Not just because I’m surrounded by impossibly svelte people in scarves who spend their time carbo-loading and wondering condescendingly, “What is existence?” And not just because our campus towers take on a Gallic flavor against autumnal skies. Rather, it’s because in the November of my ninth-grade year, all 25 members of my class at my tiny, wacky high school were shipped over to France to spend a month living with French families, perfecting l’imparfait, and — in some infinitesimal way — growing up.
Angers, the city where our communal bildungsroman was set, is a beautiful town of medieval limestone and slate, bisected by the Maine River and dominated by a thirteenth-century chateau. Famed for its blue chocolates and Cointreau liquor (both of which we sampled, with varying levels of illicit thrill), the city speaks a softer French than the guttural Parisian dialect we had learned from Chrrrrrrrrristiane, our legendary instructor whose initial consonant cluster had proved the downfall of more than one impetuous beginner. Angevins skip lightly over their r’s — we got laughed at for our amateurish insistence on ordering crrrrrroissants and crrrrrêpes.
But despite the phonemic taunting, Angers shaped us. It bridged our childhood and our adolescence with Cartesian precision. Parentless and tongue-tied, our little tribe of suburban New Englanders reveled in an old and urban world. We changed, for the first time, beyond recognition. And that metamorphosis is so bound up with the November cold and leaves and stone that, come this time of year, this faint nostalgia becomes inescapable. I confront my 13-year-old self at every battlemented vista and café table. We have conversations that go something like this:
Me, 13: Hey! I’ve always wanted to grow a beard!
Me, 20: It’s not as fun as it looks. Actually I just don’t have time to shave. Also, your haircut is dumb.
Me, 13: Tell me about my future!
Me, 20: It’ll be pretty fun. You’ll see some cool places, do cool things and meet cool people who will generally be nice to you. Also, you’ll get into Yale. That’s an exciting thing.
Me, 13: Why do all of my sentences end with exclamation point and none of yours do!(?)
Me, 20: One day you will learn, little one.
Me, 13: I’m as tall as you are!
Me, 20: You’re also wearing a necklace with a giant bear tooth on it. That invalidates everything you say, and will continue to plague your social life until you finally get the message and bury it in a cupboard, never again to see the light of day.
Me, 13: Tears.
After all, I remind myself, what do I have to lament? Nothing is lost forever. In fact, there are some intriguing parallels between living in a basement on Elm Street and living in a house in Angers. In both places, the buildings are old and mysterious; the bathrooms are torturously cold; and I am often awakened by horrible sounds at inopportune times — 5:00 a.m. garbage collection at the former, my French host brother’s daily hair gel application at the latter.
But damn it all, there’s still this irksome gap between the November of then and the November of now. Then, I ate warm, fresh pastries several times a day; now, I splurge occasionally on a desiccated ABP corn muffin. Then, adventure was getting lost in ancient alleyways or going on unsafe rides at a sketchy riverside carnival; now, adventure is meandering a route between expiring hang-out venues, fingers furiously texting to hunt down my next destination. Then, my smiling host mother would dish up buttery sole meuniere and homegrown tomato salads on a daily basis; now, my haggard roommate grilled me a pre-sliced cheese sandwich — once.
The distance is crushing.
Me, 20: Hold on a minute!
Me, 13: You used an exclamation point!
Me, 20: Fair enough. Hear me out on this.
Me, 13: Speak.
Me, 20: Wait, first just take off the f*ing beartooth, will ya?
Me, 13. Fine. Go on!
Me, 20: Okay. So can the memory of a transformative experience become a transformative experience? Or does it just suck the dreamer back in upon past versions of himself, a sort of mnemonic whirlpool, or, maybe, a Proustian jail-cell without the redemptive possibility of art that transcends mere lament? A Camusian wasteland where consequence is retroactive rather than progressive? WHAT IS EXISTENCE?
Me, 13: *Shakes head. Takes giant bite of just-baked pain au chocolat. Chews tauntingly.*