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
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.