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Sunday, August 28, 2011

How I Ended Up In France: Boarding school dreams

'How on earth did you end up in France?' If I had a 'Napoléon d'or' for every time I've heard that question, I'd have enough ancient gold coins to be able to move away from France (but I wouldn't). Every expat has a cool story to tell about how they became expats. I love expat stories! For my part, it's not like anyone forced me to move in here, that's for damn sure. We used to spend family vacations in an old Berry county farm house when I was a kid. A pre-pubescent girl hardly needs added romanticism to screw up her hormone-ridden brain, but spending endless warm summer days in a house that was built in the year of 'La Révolution', 1789... I was bitten by a big fat hairy beret-headed France-bug with enough winey venom to have me drugged for my remaining days. So even if my 'lycée' in Finland was a nice, renowned, art-oriented school that would probably have served me better in life, I wanted to live out my romantic fantasies of studying in a french boarding school. I had a friend write an application letter in french and got accepted to Lycée Alain-Fournier boarding school in the medieval city of Bourges. (Imagine the school's administrators surprise when they found out I actually didn't speak any french!)

Oh! A castle, transformed into school housing, with creaking oak-stairway leading to my solitary room in one of the turrets, lit by only torches and candlelight! My days were filled with boarding school dreams fit for 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'. So when I packed up and moved my bags to my family's old farm house and set out to explore my new school-castle, I truly felt like the hero of my own life.

The truth was somewhat different. Calling the boarding house of Lycée Alain-Fournier a castle would be grossly stretching the truth. It is, however, a shining example of the sixties functional institution architecture; a Stalinesque-grey barrack with doors that may or may not have been orange once upon a painter's cigarette break. By the way, upon my first sight of the disturbingly ugly school, approximately all of the school's two thousand students were outside, forming a circle around an anonymous grey steel barrel moving around it like hoards of pilgrims around the Stone of Kaaba, covering the asphalt yard in ritual Marlboro smoke.

My solitary room in a tower lit by candlelight? A dormitory for eighty girls, sort of hospital-beds separated only by flimsy pliable walls. A brown-gray blanket neatly folded on the bed. I could have another upon request, they assured me, if it got too cold. They wouldn't start heating the dormitories before mid-november.

The art-oriented study program I had opted for? Sorry, no room left! But I could opt for ancient greek or latin instead! Mercifully, a month later I was transferred to the music specialization class, and another month later, I started actually learning french. By the end of the school year, I had become a chain-smoker, had found friends, a lovely french sweetheart to write weepy love songs about, and I could curse the teachers in fluent french. But I could never really get over the fact that my boarding school wasn't the castle I had dreamed about. (I have a strange, inexplicable love for old, moldy castles, the murkier the better.) But I loved my french lycée years dearly. 

To answer the question about how I ended up in France: I just thought I would get to live in a castle. Fifteen years later, I still don't. But I do see one from my bedroom window. That's good enough for me. For now.

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