- How to Win Amis
My French host family was adorable, as was their car, their house, and their little town of Bavay. There was a mom and a dad, a five-year-old son, and a two-year-old daughter. Both parents spoke English very well which helped us communicate from the get-go.
My host dad accompanied me to school the next day. By the time we finished taking care of a few things in the school office, my first class was already underway.
I walked into a large room abuzz with quiet chatter. Students were grouped sporadically throughout, mostly along the edges of the room. Great. It was just a study hall. Nothing to focus on but the new American girl sitting by herself in the center.
After a few minutes, some girls approached me, introduced themselves, and conversed with me very slowly. Everyone else just whispered about me from where they were.
When that period ended, the girls led me to my next class and wished me luck.
From the doorway, I could see that most of the two-person desks were already filled with students. I panicked and chose a spot near the door in the front row, next to a random girl. She smiled at me. I breathed a little easier.
The teacher, ambivalent toward or oblivious to his newest student, started in on his lesson, turning around to write on the board. I took the opportunity to look around.
"Psst! Eh! Psst!"
Three girls in the back were beckoning me to sit with them. I hesitated. I felt like I owed my original seatmate some loyalty. But these girls were adamant, and they looked nice, and I was flattered. I gathered my things and quickly changed seats.
One of the girls turned to me and said, "We don't like her."
She flashed her eyes in the direction of my original seatmate, who looked back at us briefly, trying to play it cool.
My allegiances were reforged in light of these new events.
Sorry, girl, looks like I don't like you anymore either.
I had a feeling I had just been adopted by the cool kids.
"I'm Oriane, and this is Lysandre and Alice."
"My name is Sarah. I come from the United States."
Nested comfortably among these new friends, I spent the rest of the class taking everyone in. Most of the students were dressed in dark colors, black and army green, and their outfits had a lot of texture and layers. It was the middle of winter, and the classrooms were only minimally heated, so many of the boys wore hoodies with Arabic scarves around their throats, while the girls wore double-breasted, military-style woolen jackets with high collars that evoked Communism to me. They wore black skinny jeans tucked into or rolled up just above a pair of black combat boots.
Class ended, and I asked Lysandre if she knew where my next class was located. She gestured to me like, Don't worry about it.
"It is a (__) today. We are not going."
"A what?" My comprehension was terrifyingly spotty.
I gathered it was some sort of lyceum, school assembly, or presentation that was out of the ordinary and didn't affect their grades.
The girls had buttoned up their coats.
"So, you are skipping?"
"Yes," they answered. "Do you want to come with us?"
Hmm, go to the lyceum and be back at square one, or commit truancy on the first day of school, at this school where I'm a guest, and have friends.
I thought of my French teacher. . .
"Oui!" I said with a smile.
I followed them out of the school onto a damp, narrow street. We only walked about ten feet before arriving at the door to a café.
It was a long and narrow establishment with a bar on the right hand side near the door where you could buy alcohol, espresso, soda, and cigarettes. It was 11 o'clock in the morning, and the café was already filled with what seemed like friendly regulars bantering loudly with one another and the barkeep.
Slowly, we made our way to the back where several other students, mostly boys, were already sitting, drinking little cups of espresso, playing cards, and laughing.
My friends introduced me to the group. "This is Sarah. She's American."
"Sarah, l'américaine!" one of them exclaimed. They laughed while raising their cups and nodding in welcome before resuming their conversations.
I was on top of the world.
We settled in around a table where some other girls were already sitting. After brief introductions and words of welcome to me, all of them exploded in a lightning fast conversation that I couldn't follow for the life of me. But I loved it. I let it wash over me, let my ears drown in it, this unlimited supply of the French language.
Then, pretty much everyone took out packs of cigarettes or tins of tobacco to roll their own. They seemed to all light up at once, several of them asking their neighbors for a light.
The cramped space filled with smoke, and I, a very well-indoctrinated American teenager, began to panic about lung cancer.
Once again, Sarah, you can either be a goody-goody, or you can have friends.
I took quick, shallow breaths and smiled politely while I continued to sit there like the deaf-mute I practically was. These classmates of mine had taken me on, and I was grateful.