Friday, July 12, 2013

How NOT To Make The Most of a Summer in the South of France (Jennifer Castle)

Not long ago, I was flipping through a magazine and randomly saw this photo, which caused me to have a Nostalgia'splosion:


I have walked through this picture. The July after my sophomore year in high school, I spent three weeks here with a French family hosting me as a summer exchange student. Their daughter, Alex, was my age, and wherever we went, she referred to me as “ma couresse Americaine.” She didn’t like me very much. But I was a girl from Westchester County spending her vacation on the Riviera instead of the town pool. I drank Gini lemon sodas and wore mini-dresses so short they barely covered the curve of my butt cheeks. I grew fluent in the language and developed a deep, unapologetic tan that made the whites of my eyes pop like bleach stains. Two days into my stay, I traded my one-piece Speedo swimsuit for a bright turquoise string bikini decorated with tiny pearls.

In the mornings, breakfast with fruit and croissants and hot chocolate in small bowls at a long table on the balcony draped in a red and white checked tablecloth. Then, the beach until lunch, the pool all afternoon. At night, we’d hook up with a dozen or so other teens from all over Europe and make our way to a club in town.

That day with the magazine, these memories overtook me, having not thought about St. Tropez in years. I had to catch my breath. How awesome that I had this experience! At home, later, I looked for and miraculously found the thin brown steno notebook I used as a journal that summer. On the front was my name -- spelled "Jennie" with an IE like I did back then -- in tiny script handwriting that’s half the size I use now. And I started to read.

I read about being on the plane and feeling nervous and excited and sweetly hopeful about my summer. I read about meeting the family and settling in to my room, and the strangeness of putting ketchup on rice and how couples actually danced together at Alexandra’s end-of-school party. Ah, memories. So far so good.

But then I was reading about how one day Alex is friendly, the next she’s cold and snotty and thinks I take too many showers. I’m coaching myself about being more relaxed and outgoing, and to ask for things that I want even if I can’t find the right French vocabulary words. I buy a copy of Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day” because it’s one of the few English language books in the nearby bookstore, and make it my new “motto” so that these European teens will like me and maybe, just maybe, I’ll kiss a boy before summer’s over. SEIZE THE DAY!, I write in big block letters across the top of one page.

Worst of it all, yet so tenderly familiar, is how I can’t stop talking about how "fat" I am. I’m using words like “thunder thighs” and “cellulite” and trying to diet -- DIET! -- during my month in France. Every second or third day, I berate myself for losing my willpower and swear to start again in the morning. I’m looking in the mirror nightly and searching for where the pretty might be. All the other girls go topless on the beach because it's normal here, but I just can't do it, too ashamed of what I don't have.

By the time I was done, when the journal had taken me through St. Tropez and up to Paris for a week with my mother and then ended abruptly, I was overcome with ironic regret, and my heart…my heart ached with a type of sadness you can only feel many years after the fact of something.

Because you know, I have always looked at photos of myself from that summer and thought it was the most attractive I’ve ever been. The thinnest, the fittest, the most poised on the edge of a fabulous young adulthood I have ever been.

Now when I think of St. Tropez, the memory is spiced bittersweet and forces me to look at the insecurities I had then, and the ones I have now, and whether any of them have really changed. I still have that damn hot turquoise bikini. It's so tiny, I could gluestick it onto a scrapbook page. I'll never get rid of it because it's connected to everything that summer was, and continues to be. It wasn't exactly the stuff of juicy romantic YA novels, but it was all mine for better or worse, and that alone makes me want to hug this girl:


I posted a version of this story on my own blog about two years ago, but I'm telling it again, here, because the irony of it haunts me still. SEIZE THE DAY indeed. I hope you can revel in the good moments of this summer, learn from the bad ones, and embrace all of them as part of who you are.

4 comments:

  1. This is so wonderful...I want to hug that girl, too...

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  2. Such a great post! Thank you for sharing that experience with us.

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  3. Love this post--for giving me a blend of nostalgic-splosive feelings about my own past summers and the summer that is happening right this moment for my daughter age 15--away at a college program and struggling to seize her own day.

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