1966–67 Angers program alumna
The first and only time I sail for France I am 18 years old, nearly fearless and eager for new adventures. I will have to deal with my shyness around meeting new people, but I am ready to conquer this demon and expand my horizons.
My guitar case sports a red, white and blue sticker with the ocean liner’s name—the S.S. United States. Acting grown up and nonchalant, I board the ship with my ticket and passport in hand. I am ready.
It is 1966. Twenty-five guys, 19 girls: We will all be together for the entire sophomore college school year on foreign shores. While my friend, Ellen, and I both hail from the same high school back in Texas, we barely know the other Saint Mary girls and none of the Notre Dame guys who will be sharing our great adventure. But the liquor is flowing, no one asks for IDs, and we are tasting all the sophisticated treats a cruise ship has to offer.
When the ship eases out of the harbor and into the rocky, bumpy, jarring open seas, I begin listing back and forth. I am seasick.
Five days later we sail into Le Havre. I am ready to kiss the ground, mostly because the motion is going to stop but also because I am realizing a dream. Ever since discovering France as a child on the pages of my mother’s 1926 Book of Knowledge, I have wanted to visit this exotic place. Now the dream is about to be mine.
Once on shore, we board a bus and drive to a nearby café. A man holds the door for me as I seek out the ladies’ room. The ladies’ room, the men’s room, there is no difference. You stand in a shower stall with a pull chain and try to protect your shoes. Toilet? There’s no toilet, only a hole. Paper, what paper? The French have no concept of toilet paper.
After the unisex bathroom experience, I realize that even when my leftover seaborne swaying motion stops I may still be adrift. I will live here in a French household for 10 months. This France is not exactly what I’ve bargained for. But I begin collecting stories, stories to send home. This is only my first day on French soil, and already I have scored a story to tell.
In 1966, two years before the student riots in Paris, my arrogant teenage self is certain that the whole world is nothing but a pitched battle between Communism and democracy. I am a little smug that I come from the greatest and most prosperous country of all. True, it is embarrassing to hail from Dallas, now the most hated city in the world after the Kennedy assassination. But I know in my heart that this act was just a freak horror perpetrated by a lone, sick Communist mind.
I learn many things that year. I learn that some really nice Communists live down the street, they have never met Herbert Philbrick from the I Led Three Lives TV series, and they are not plotting to overthrow the U.S. government. Other lessons have to do with the bathing habits of different cultures, the novel idea that one can take two hours for lunch, and the fact that it is possible to live for an entire year without a television set or telephone.
The 44 American students who descend on this mid-sized provincial city promptly invest in mopeds. Lined up in a row, we lean over our handlebars and mug for the camera in front of the Escargot Café, a favorite place to drink beer and wine with steak and French fries. For a year residents watch with dismay as we ride around like Hell’s Angels bikers from café to café. We avoid the snails, long for real hamburgers and regularly order steak frite along with a half bottle of vin rosé or a huge glass of lukewarm beer called an enorme.
Rich American kids by French standards of the ‘60s, we overrun their town like a tribe of barbarians speaking a different tongue. We are the first wave of Americans to attend L’Université Catholique de l’Ouest for our sophomore year abroad. The local merchants and families will never be the same. Tooling around on our Mobylettes, we are hard to miss.
The city is Angers (the g softens to a j sound) in the province of Anjou in the department of Maine-et-Loire. Otherwise known as the Loire Valley or, more simply, the Chateau Country. The Angers chateau is dark and forbidding, Richard the Lion-Hearted instead of Louis the XIV. It looms like a stone carving over the Loire River, a fortress with moats and a drawbridge, crenellated turrets and ramparts. Deer and fawn roam inside the high walls. Ancient tapestries line the inside, and suits of armor stand silent against the walls.
A few tourists come and go, but mostly we 44 students have the town to ourselves. It is a great place to learn French, because nobody speaks any English. Angers itself is as gray as the chateau. It rains every day. I ride my moped rain or shine to the university, to the Monoprix department store in town, to the third-floor attic room I share with my French roommate, a student from Brittany.
The attic room
Back in the 1960s, when savvy travelers carry the book Europe on $5 a Day, my room and board costs a mere $26 a month, including breakfast and dinner. I lodge with a French family of 12 in a three-story concrete structure next to the Citroen bus station. With no television or telephone, the house echoes with the voices of children. Dressed in navy blue, maroon, and dark green sweaters, skirts, and shorts, the 10 Meignan children range in age from 3 to 16 and are something right out of The Sound of Music.
Inside the house, there is no wasted space. In our small attic room, a tiny dormer window opens like a trap door, shedding light upon two cot-sized beds separated by a wardrobe. Next door, right at the top of the stairs, is the only bathroom—just a toilet, no sink. Five boys live on the second floor in a kind of dormitory across from their five sisters. Downstairs on the ground floor, the living room doubles as the bedroom of Monsieur and Madame Meignan. Behind it sits a small kitchen and the focal point of the whole house—a large dining room consumed by a huge wooden mead-hall table where we take our meals.
After I move in, the family decides to install a shower in the kitchen. Everyone takes turns using it on designated days. The banquet-sized table overflows with food, enough to feed 14 counting my roommate and me. Monsieur Meignan, a talkative chemist who works in a paint factory, presides over meals, and I learn to follow his French or pretend to. Madame Meignan, his cheerful petite wife, rolls her eyes whenever he gets long-winded. She is my ally.
I happily partake of the vin ordinaire on the Meignan table, which even the children drink as watered-down wine. This is okay as long as they never touch the dreaded Coca-Cola, which will rot your insides, or so the French think. On that same table, Madame Meignan threatens to serve me calf tongue with the taste buds showing.
The family owns a deux-chevaux, a 2-cylinder car smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle. Everyone generally walks to school, to church, to the boulangerie for bread or the boucherie for meat. There are no American-style grocery chains and hardly any canned foods—everything is fresh.
Whenever the sun shines, I love riding my moped out in the country, with the wind on my face. The fields and pastures wear aprons of yellow and green. If I squint, the colors blend into an Impressionist painting. There are no billboards, only road signs.
Europe by train
During school holidays we all take to the trains, and my Europe on $5 a Day book grows dog-eared from overuse. Using three-week Eurail passes, my companions and I spend Christmas and Easter in countries outside of France.
On our way to Spain, six of us board the wrong train and leap off just as it chugs out of the station. In Italy we buy guidebooks and give each other impromptu tours of the Roman Forum and the coliseum. In Amsterdam our travel book leads us to a red-light district, where we inadvertently stay in a house of ill repute. We are carefree, we are fearless, and we are having a fabulous time.
In Innsbruck, Austria, we drink brandy schnapps to fuel our courage then go rodelnd down the hill through a white forest at night in sleds, hoping to miss the trees, and certain we cannot be harmed at the tender age of 19. Nothing can touch us then, even when we enter East Germany and the soldier barks, “You must pay 5 marks,” the fastest 5 marks that ever cross a palm.
We pass through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin, whose charred buildings haven’t changed since the war, a depressing place where one of our companions cannot find his passport, leaving us to cool our heels at the border while he goes back to look for it. I absentmindedly toss out a square Instamatic camera flash, the likes of which the guard has never seen. He spots it with his flashlight and picks it up cautiously as though it were a bomb. We just want to get back to freedom and West Berlin, where everywhere lapel buttons with Kennedy’s face say “Ich bin ein Berliner,” bringing tears to my eyes and shame for being from Dallas.
Time slows down. We ride our mopeds out in the country with the breeze against our faces as we pass yellow fields. There are no plush wall-to-wall carpets on most floors and no such thing as air conditioning. And yet, life is rich in France, rich with rose windows, gothic cathedrals, graceful castles and rolling hillsides. Cuisine amounts to an art form, and dining serves as a ceremonial ritual.
In the summer of 1967, I sail home on the S.S. United States. My re-entry into the United States brings on the biggest culture shock of all. The television assaults me with messages linking toothpaste and shampoo to romance and popularity. Billboards and huge shopping malls display the road to happiness, American style. America is all about buying newer and shinier and prettier things. I have not seen a TV commercial in almost a year, and now I peer at my native land through the eyes of a European.
France has been a bubble, a kind of cocoon, where life isn’t about buying this product or that product to make things better. How can the people in America not see the prison of their own making — this advertising house of cards? Everyone grows tired of my pointing out the differences. They just want me to get over it, to get back into the life I left behind.
But in the summer of 1967, life has become much too complicated for that. Hippies will soon converge on Woodstock; students are joining an activist, anti-war group called the SDS. It is the year before 1968, when sheer havoc will erupt in America. There will be no going back for me or for the country after 1968, the year the Beatles will sing about a Revolution.
After 30 years as a business writer, Phyllis Moore now applies her pen to more colorful topics, such as growing up Catholic. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Email her at email@example.com.