Oh dear – I think I’ve broken this girl’s nose. This isn’t good. I can’t see blood but she’s still clutching it like it may fall off and roll into the Bordeaux gutter. Maybe we’ll laugh about this later? I’ll wait until she laughs first, just in case. I’m now familiar with the customary kiss on both cheeks, but this one has gone horribly wrong. I haven’t pulled back far enough on the inter-cheek transition, and our noses have had collided at great speed. My nose appears to have won.
It’s not the first time on this trip that I’ve messed this up. On my very first night in Bordeaux, my new sister Hélène was saying good night to everyone, and I left her hanging after only one cheek. I assume it’s the equivalent of ignoring a handshake. She has since forgiven me, but I didn’t make that mistake again.
So for just over a month, I get to enjoy this new french life in Bordeaux. I’m part of a group from Auckland University, and we’re here for December, enjoying Christmas and New Years in Bordeaux. I’ve been so lucky with my family, although I’ve been mistakenly assigned to them after someone thought I could ski. They are so generous and so much fun, but even better, they are so stereotypically French – in the best possible way. Everything is said with hand gestures flying in all directions, every meal is a social gathering, and there seems to be constant laughter.
Our group of about 15 Aucklanders have arrived from Paris and one by one our names are read out and matched to a French family waiting on a chilly train platform. I notice one guy about my age with his mother. What would staying with them be like? Probably pretty quiet. Wrong!
The initial impression is that of speed. I’ve never heard anyone talk as fast as my new French mum. I thought my French knowledge was fairly proficient, but I’ve been left way behind here. And I’ve never experienced driving like this either. In the 80’s it wasn’t customary to wear seat belts in the back seats. I seem to be sliding from one side of the car to the other with every corner. I cough while I click the seatbelt, so as not cause offence to Marc’s driving. He notices and laughs – and speeds up. I later find that his Mum drives faster than Marc, and am not surprised.
Two or three minutes later, we arrive at their home, about ten kilometres from the station. They see my massive suitcase, and tell me that I’m on the third floor. I smile; I like this French humour – then I see the staircase.
Throughout the evening I’m introduced to various people, hearing and forgetting many names. A bunch of people have arrived having seen the Cure that night, and I think one of them is one of my French brothers. They all have beautiful girlfriends or wives with fantastic accents, or maybe some of these women are my sisters. There’s an English girl here – maybe she can help. Apparently that guy’s from Morocco. I’m never met anyone from Morocco before. I know there’s a dog and two cats – I’m sure they live here. I haven’t seen any Dad yet. I need to start taking notes.
It’s quite a change for me. I’m 19, I have no brothers or sisters and live with my parents in a quiet home in Auckland, New Zealand. I’m now the guest of Monsieur and Madame P, whose family includes two sons and two daughters living at home, with two other married sons and one other married daughter frequent visitors. There’s also a Maid, an English student who used to be an au-pair with the family, and a student who is part of the Moroccan royal family. And that dog and those cats. There’s a constant stream of cousins and schoolmates, boyfriends and girlfriends. I now understand the need for the three floors. I just keep shaking hands and kissing cheeks unless instructed otherwise. I also know that I’m here for Christmas and I have nowhere near enough presents.
So what was France like in the late eighties? Carlos the Jackal was setting off bombs in Paris, which didn’t exactly endear himself to my parents. I needed a Visa to enter, leaving my passport with a great souvenir. There were 100 Centimes to the Franc – and buskers in trains didn’t appreciate getting paid in Dirhams from Dubai. “May I cash a Travellers’ Cheque” was an essential phrase to learn. And like anywhere, people used cameras to take photos, not phones, and a month-long trip meant you had to be choosy with your subject matter, or spend a lot on film. Watching the “Top 50” with my new brothers, I learned that France in 1987 was full of people who looked like this:
and even this
I can tell that this is going to be a very enjoyable and educational month. I’ve been welcomed into my new family, and just like the other kids, I’ve been given responsibilities. Picking up the oysters from the local shop would never have been this much fun in Auckland. My new family is very traditional in many ways, and it’s great to see in action the customs that I have learned about in text books. It’s been a fantastic start to my first trip this far from home. If I can take care not to break any noses, I hope to stay friends with these people for a long time to come.
Long live Bordeaux!