Friday, February 08, 2008

Hyper Chouette (Very Cool)

As cool as French kids may have thought I was, I thought they were 10 times cooler.

For one thing, they spoke French effortlessly. I arrived having studied the language for several years, and I certainly got better as the summer went on. But it was obvious early on that my accent, grammar, and textbook-prim vocabulary were always going to set me apart. Marks of fluency like the subjunctive and verlan, the rapid-fire deliberate inversion of syllables popular with teenagers, would remain beyond me.

French kids also got to do things American kids didn’t, at least not at that age. Some of them smoked openly. I didn’t want to join them, but I was secretly impressed by their fearless adoption of an activity that in my town was restricted to the darkest corners of doughnut shops and video arcades. French teenagers could also legally drink, but bafflingly, didn’t. They in fact seemed to think that being visibly drunk was a little déclassé. Kids who could reject as uncool something that was considered the holy grail of teen experience where I came from were obviously operating on an entirely different and unattainable plane of cool.

I did arrive in France holding what I believed to be one very cool card—I had a driver’s license. The French can’t take their driving test until 18, or at least that was the rule then, and apparently everyone fails the first few times anyway. So hardly anyone I met could legally drive a car. But since no grown-up was going to let me drive his or hers, and because many French teens zipped around on impossibly cool scooters anyway, no one was too impressed.

What I found most intoxicating about French youth was the degree of autonomy they seemed to be granted. The family I stayed with had a daughter my age named Manu. The two of us were chaperoned on a trip to Paris, but towards the end of the summer, the two of us were put on a train by ourselves and sent off to the Riviera, where we stayed in someone’s temporarily unoccupied apartment with two family friends who were not much older than we were. Predictably, the only one of us who got in any kind of trouble was me; I thought I was too cool for sunscreen the first day at the beach and peeled like a reptile for the rest of the week.

After the Riviera, Manu and I somehow made our way to the city of Toulouse, where we stayed with her aunt and cousins. I honestly don’t remember how we got there. Looking at a map, I can see that the distance between the towns is about 200 miles, and it surprises me a little bit now that as 16-year-olds we were trusted to make this journey. We must have taken a train but how did we get to the station? How did we find out what time the train left?

I don’t remember how we did it, but we did. The fact that I don’t remember the details suggests that the trip, as remarkable as it was for me, must have been uneventful. Though I can see that it might not have been the best idea in practice to let my teenaged self loose in Europe with a rail pass, it obviously worked out. And I’m glad. This was the first time I really traveled in any way that could be described as independent, and I must have taken to it. I’m really glad nothing went wrong, or who knows what I’d be doing now. Working at a golf club, maybe. That’s what I did the next summer, but for some reason, that experience didn’t seem to resonate with me quite so strongly.

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