The Hairpin Kindle Serial, Episode 7: Madame’s Cane
by Anne Helen Petersen
From The Hairpin’s eight-part Kindle Serial “An Experience Definitely Worth Allegedly Having.”
You’ve heard this story before. Clarification: you’ve heard this story before if you reside within the not altogether rarefied demographic of middle- to upper-class students who studied abroad at some point in their college or postcollege career. Sometimes the details are slightly different — one of my friends went to Vietnam; another spent at least a month in the backwoods of Ecuador making pottery with an eighty-year-old master.
But the reason so many people undertake the voyage that so many others in their place have before — that’s not too difficult to understand. Studying abroad in Europe isn’t a pilgrimage, nor does it aim to reenact some nostalgic understanding of what our parents and grandparents did when they were our age. When my grandparents were our age, they were fighting in the war — or at least hanging out with “ladies of the night” in France, which I learned only when I had been ensconced in France and reading the cat scratch of my rapidly fading paternal grandfather, who slipped a note into the otherwise very chaste letter from my grandmother.
Studying abroad isn’t necessarily a “thing” to which Generation Xers lay claim. But I did it right on the cusp — I mean, I was that thirteen-year-old watching Reality Bites and wishing that generation was mine; that student reading Generation X in the first semester of college and analyzing it instead of living it.
But my generation of study-abroaders, we were no millennials. My first year of college marked the first year of all-campus Ethernet. No one had a cell phone. When we wanted to find someone on campus, we walked a-fucking-round. Laptops were rare; AIM reigned supreme. But I don’t mean to be nostalgic for transitory digital culture so much as set the stage for what it meant to go abroad at the beginning of 2002: airline tickets were ridiculously cheap (Seattle to Paris: $450); everyone kept telling you to sew Canadian flag patches to your backpack; and the guiding understanding of communication was that you’d write letters and send a few emails and maybe call if you figured out the complicated “SIM card system” that seemed to characterize all European cell phone economies.
Let it be said that I was completely okay with this scenario. I have hated talking on the phone since I was a small child and ran away from the receiver even when it was a plump Norwegian relative who simply wanted to talk about my new American Girl doll. When I was in junior high, I loved “note culture” because it meant that I didn’t have to say anything aloud; I could convey it all in a well-crafted note that I may or may not have spent more time elaborately folding than actually writing.
I was one of those kids who spent all summer at camps (Science, Math, French, Overarching Nerd), where I accumulated pen pals like neuroses. There was nothing I loved more than sitting down and crafting a five-page letter, written in my exquisite and very unique left-handed penmanship, and making sure that the sender thought I was very, very sophisticated and very, very romantic: Did I meet you in an AOL chat room and you’re from Ohio and all I know is that we feel the same way about the lyrics to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm”? Great. Give me your address.
By the time I reached college that impulse had only slightly tempered. I spent an entire summer as a counselor at a camp where I had access to the Internet once a month and didn’t even care. My best girlfriends from school wrote me elaborate letters with lots of markers and stickers, straight-up third-grade style. I was never hungover, ate a lot of trail mix, got a sweet one-piece tan, and won the Mail Contest every day. It wasn’t a bad life.
And then friends started studying abroad. The first semester that this happens — especially at a small liberal arts college where you know everyone and feel as if the presence of all 1,200 students is intricately knit into your social well-being — you feel adrift. I felt especially adrift given that the boy that I loved, you know, that boy, the one who tortures you all four years of college and four years after — that boy had gone to a country so exotic and specific that I can’t even name it. I was dating someone else but That Boy wrote me on homemade paper with a return address in a script so intoxicatingly foreign. I was a goner. I wanted to go away and write those letters at all times.
So I went to France. Not Paris, though — I knew that Paris was for:
a) People with serious aspirations about living on the Left Bank and becoming artistes and going Full Beret;
b) Suckers. Namely, suckers who get stuck in a crappy homestay with someone who rents out rooms to make rent, rather than to have inculcating discussions with a very learned college junior from the sticks.
Plus, I’d already been to Paris before. Like a zillion times, like all the other privileged Idaho dorks in seventh grade whose parents took them to France and who then spent most of the time scowling at the camera while wearing very purposeful outfits of Umbros shorts, high socks, and Adidas T-shirts. Plus, after I’d exhausted the resources of French Immersion Camp, the last step was a full month in France — a week in Paris, two weeks in Saint-Malo, a final week with a host family. My mortification (I killed a French chicken with my own hands and went to a French party where I declined wine) and French training were effectively complete.
I was ready, in other words, for a real French town.
Nantes fit the bill. Two and a half hours from Paris by TGV, it was the French capital of the triangular slave trade, a past now far closeted and manifest only in the beautiful architecture by the quais. Jules Verne grew up there; the Edict of Nantes, signed by Henri IV, obviously went down there. It’s a classic, midsize European city — everyone in France knows of it; few outside of France do. Residents speak English but refuse to, the way good French people should. The seafood is effervescently fresh. The Loire and Erdre rivers meet there. It’s sister city is Seattle, which should make some climate realities clear.
The weeks leading up to any study abroad are a mix of boredom, overplanning, and very careful outfit selection. Or maybe that’s just for type A pre-abroaders like me, because chances are many of you were out getting wasted the night before and stuffed a ton of shit into a giant suitcase at 3:00 a.m. Either way, I got to Nantes, and in short order disposed of my carefully chosen wardrobe in favor for clothing purchased at the French soldes, which, confusingly enough, is actually the word for “massive sales at the end of each clothing season.” I had a few weeks with my J.Crew polo shirts and Banana Republic jeans; then it was all tight black pants, H&M poly sweaters, and heeled black boots. As soon as I made my way to London, I bought a full-length black wool coat at a market in Piccadilly Circus. I was ready to blend in with some Europeans like a totally self-conscious boss.
If you’d like to read more, “An Experience Definitely Worth Allegedly Having” is available for $1.99 via Amazon. A Kindle or a (free) Kindle app is required. Excerpts from the first six episodes can be found here and here.
Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.
Illustration by Thyra Heder.