by Cameron Cook
Sometimes, you just need a change of mind. Change of scenery, people, mind-set. So, in 1992, my mother made a life-altering decision; it was time to move to a foreign country. The choice was relatively visceral; it would be St. Lucia, a small island in the West Indies. To move from my mother’s birthplace of Chicago, Illinois, we just threw a dart at a map (literally), sold all of our furniture to buy plane tickets, and left the country. My father had died when I was three years old, and my brother was one and a half in my hometown of Los Angeles, California; nothing was really binding us to the United States.
Unfortunately, tropical promises of “Endless Summers” get old pretty fast, and before long France seemed like an interesting place to park our bohemian lifestyle for a while. I could go on for pages about my St. Lucian experiences, battling with oversized insects and eating enough chicken and rice for at least three lifetimes, but that is not the point of this piece. Another day perhaps.
I first stepped foot on French soil in September 1995, in Nice. We had moved to a studio apartment for a few months in the near-by town of Cannes, where my aunt lived. She and my cousin were the only French people I knew at the time.
Quasi-immediately, I was submerged into a totally different way of life: I turned on the TV, and didn’t understand a damn word, went to the shopping center, didn’t understand a damn word. It wasn’t only the language… I was perplexed by the average Frenchman’s in-born power to be constantly blasé; the slightest bump in the road of their carefully mapped out existence, and I thought they would spontaneously combust with anger. The food also, was quite a challenge (even though, I must say that escargot has become one of my favorite dishes). You know that scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta tells Samuel L. Jackson about his recent trip to Europe? Well, you actually can buy wine and beer at Mc Donald’s, and a Quarter-Pounder with Cheese is a “Royal with Cheese”.
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School was also a big huddle to over-come, of course. Since I hardly spoke a word of French upon my arrival, I had to repeat the 5th grade, an experience that proved itself highly positive, yet humbling, in a certain way, being a year older than everyone, on top of not speaking their language. But I learn quickly, thankfully, and graduated elementary school that summer with a somewhat perfect knowledge of the French language.
I spent five long, border lining tedious years in Cannes. Don’t get me wrong, if you are a seventy-year-old retired shoe salesman, it’s probably the happening place to spend your twilight years, but as a young teenager, complete with puberty-caused insecurities and raging hormones, Cannes, with its Mediterranean way of life, inexistent night-life, two movie theaters, three record stores, one concert hall and Beverly Hills 90210 teen mentality, sheer boredom not fitting in were huge issues for me and my little circle of friends. Was it due to the very widespread French elitism, or just the same senseless drudge that every young person goes through during those delicate years? Maybe I’ll never know.
So, after Cannes lost its charm, my family and I headed north, to the flourishing capital of Paris. As soon as I stepped out of the cramped, red, typically French four seated car (did I mention we drove eight hours across country, four people and a cat? Thank God for Discmans…) I knew I had found my element. Paris is one of the most astonishing cities on the planet: the convenience of a big metropolitan, yet it still manages to preserve a little bit of quaintness. First of all, the city is among the most beautiful in Europe, if not in the world (try walking along the Seine at night, watching the bateaux-mouches go by) and little by little, Paris’ beauty can’t help but to rub off on you… soon, you find yourself prancing about Les Champs Elysees, the town’s grandest boulevard, just for the hell of it; walking around The Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero neighborhood that surrounds it, checking out parks and art houses; spending literally entire days at Beaubourg, my personal favorite place in Paris, buying postcards of your favorite photographers (in my case, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe) and hanging around the museum there (I once spent five hours in an exposition on Surrealism, one of my favorite modern art movements). School was still somewhat of an issue, even though, as the French school system requires of every student, I had chosen a major in the 10th grade (you have the option of either Literature and Arts-what I took, obviously- Science and Economy) and my class was full of what I considered “my” people: the punks, the Goths, the rejects. The last years of high school are especially difficult in France; the work level is equivalent to that of a college sophomore in the USA. But I had found an environment that I could call my own, far away from the preppy, selfish mindset of Cannes. The work was hard, but the play made it all worthwhile.
Alas, my time in Paris was shorter than I would have liked: only two years, from 2000 to this summer, July 2002. Even though I now live in NYC, but sometimes I get a little homesick. Yes, even though I am an American citizen, I consider France the closest thing to a homeland that I have had the pleasure to experience. I plan to go back there soon, maybe have an apartment in Paris, live there for a while. As the French say on July 14th, their independence day, my independence day, in a way, Vive la France!
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