In late summer 1981, an incredible rumor spread among the kids in my small Long Island town: Our seventh grade class was getting a French exchange student that year. All I knew was that his name was Guillaume, which my mother told me was William in French, and that he would be living with a family whose son was going to France in Guillaume's stead.
I was ecstatic. I had seen the movie Private Benjamin and was smitten with its portrayal of Paris and Armand Assante's character, Henri, a dashing, soccer-playing doctor with a beautiful accent and chateau. I started dreaming about Guillaume and what he might be like.
All I knew about French people at the time was that they seemed to love food and wine, romance and underwater exploration -- but that was enough for me. Also, my grandmother was born there, so I considered myself French even though her family only lived on the outskirts of Paris a few years while en route to Ellis Island from Russia. That pit stop always sounded so exotic -- even more so than, say, fleeing a pogrom -- and exotic wasn't something that happened on Long Island very often, if ever.
My mother had some high school French, so in the waning days of August she taught me a few words: "Bonjour." "Au revoir." "Phillipe est dans la piscine." I practiced all over the house and asked every kid on the block if they'd heard about Guillaume, and was surprised when no one seemed as excited as I was about his imminent arrival. But then it dawned on me that I wouldn't have much competition for his friendship, and he was sure to be captivated by my command of his native tongue: "Bonjour." "Au revoir." And, of course, the pièce de résistance, "Phillippe est dans la piscine." I didn't hear any other kids in those parts brushing up on any French.
I saw him in the hallway that very first day, and it was kismet -- at least for me. He had freckles and a strawberry-blonde, bowl-shaped haircut, and his clothes looked different from ours, what with 1981 being long before globalization made everyone look essentially the same. His jeans, although blue denim like the Levi's we wore, had an entirely different look to them, and the way his crisp, white collar rested on his navy blue crewneck sweater had a je ne sais quoi the likes of which I'd never before experienced. Then there were the sneakers. They were a slim, white canvas, and didn't look at all like our Nikes. I spent half a lunch period staring at them before I could make out the brand: Lacoste.
That night after dinner, when I had finally finished regaling my family with tales of Guillaume, I set out to learn what I could about France so that I might befriend him. I studied some World Book encyclopedias, and subsequently became, I imagine, the only kid that year at Oakdale-Bohemia Junior High School to initiate conversations about cassoulet, Anaïs Nin and the films of the Nouvelle Vague.
I was surprised and a little hurt, however, when Guillaume didn't seem to care about what I had learned. He wanted to speak English and talk about American football, The Dukes of Hazzard and Ocean Pacific sweatshirts. It took me a while to understand that I wouldn't be able to dazzle him with my knowledge of France, a place I only really knew by way of Goldie Hawn and what I'd gleaned from the encyclopedias I'd read.
As the school year went on I decided that I liked Guillaume fine, but he wasn't the most fascinating person in the universe like I thought he'd be. He was a nice boy with unusual clothes and a great accent, and I soon realized that I, just by virtue of being American, had seemed intriguing to him, too -- at least at first. But once our fantasies of each other melted away, we were just a couple of kids in junior high. Guillaume went home at the end of the school year and I forgot about him.
I have since traveled to France many times and during each visit I think of him. I often scan the faces of 40-year-old Frenchmen, looking for Guillaume, although I probably wouldn't recognize him if we ran smack into each other right there in the Tuileries. And, even if we did, I doubt he'd remember me or we'd have all that much to talk about.
I sometimes think about what I'd say, though, if I were to see him again. Perhaps I'd tell him how that year informed so much of who I am now? Maybe I'd mention how his presence nurtured my interest in other cultures, as well as an appreciation of my own curiosity? Or I might tell him that -- for this lifetime of a most pleasurable Francophilia, which he helped instill in me -- merci beaucoup!
Follow Leigh Flayton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LeighFlayton