I met her in early 1981. I was 20. She, being two weeks older, was 21 years of age.
Spring was nearing its arrival in Besançon, France, warmer weather was on the horizon, and we were six months into our junior year abroad studies. Having successfully immersed ourselves in the French culture, more traumatically for some than others, the collective group of American college students took steps to finally converge and get to know one another more fully.
Initially, the students were separated into distinct camps. Upon our arrival in Besançon in September 1980, each student lived with a French family for five weeks. Thereafter, the students lived in either the “Bouloie” or “Planoise” apartments. I chose the more communal lifestyle of Planoise, where I shared an apartment with three older students who, in terms of their proximity to my room, hailed from Iran, Senegal, and Ghana, respectively. Several of my American friends lived in the same apartment building or across the courtyard, which made for easy access and a quick holler to convene our nightly meeting of conversation over a pint of Kronenpils beer or a glass of wine. Usually, it was several of each.
Correctly or incorrectly, the students who elected to live at the Bouloie always struck me as being a bit more adventurous, a little less needy, and perhaps slightly more aloof. I mean this in a positive sense. Although I didn’t get to know the majority of these students as well as the Planoise folks, I always admired their grit and independence. These were the types of students who first ventured on dates with foreigners, for example. These were the students who lived in a dormitory-style building in a single room without the benefit of a common area. The entire living arrangement smacked of self-confidence, autonomy, and even isolation, which portended an earlier maturation period for these inhabitants. It was so un-Planoise-like.
The choice of living quarters ultimately made a significant difference in one’s cultivation of friendships. In the early stages of our program, particularly during the first couple of months, students rarely traversed each other’s territory. As the months advanced and the confidence levels rose, the need for self-imposed immersion and exile slowly vanished. The students voluntarily crossed paths more frequently to seek the comfort and kinship of their American brethren. Heck, Planoise was the primary venue for those loud all-night parties, or “boums” as the French called them, so it was simply a matter of time before the Bouloie students would see the light and come to the other side – our side.
It was during one of these late night gatherings in Planoise that I spotted the traveling Karen. Although I had seen her numerous times over the preceding months, I really didn’t have the occasion to interact with her regularly. She lived across the tracks in Bouloie, which could have been located in Germany, as far as I was concerned. But on this particular night, I talked to her at length and found myself captivated by her entertaining and amusing banter. She was witty, intelligent, and charming.
Over the next several weeks, our friendship blossomed, and I introduced Karen to my circle of friends and acquaintances, American and otherwise. Most accepted her into our cocoon readily and without reservation (although one individual expressed consternation that Karen repeatedly “missed that last bus back to Bouloie and would have to remain at Planoise until the morning.” Oh, darn).
It was a beautiful springtime in France, full of good wine, conversation, laughter, exploration, and contemplation of future possibilities.
In June of that year, I left Besançon to return home. Traveling on the train to Paris, I discovered the following note, carefully tucked away in my suitcase:
Le 1 juin 1981
Here’s wishing you a safe & pleasant journey and the same kind of welcome at the other end.
Don’t bother searching the envelope for an enclosed souvenir by which you would always remember your year in France. As Jane Avril’s papers were not in order and Jacques Chirac would give me permission to uproot neither the Eiffel Tower nor the Louvre, and not wanting to settle for some second-rate replica, I decided to fill the newly found space with words.
My spring in France is one that will stay lodged in my memory for many years to come. There were so many wonderful adventures, sights, experiences and people. I never dreamed that I would spend my spring break traveling in Italy gazing at the works of Michelangelo, that I would wander through 16th century chateaux, eat in a three star restaurant, disguise myself as an apple pie, receive the title of “La Reine”, miss the last bus a dozen times and find a very special person who would kindly take me in those dozen or so times offering me coffee, wine, good company, enjoyable evenings and sunrises between which was sandwiched “double-stuff style” conversations covering infinite topics.
What started as a light friendship turned into a true and profound caring (here we go with word games and semantics…anyway, you know what I mean) whose growth was cut short by the circumstances. Please know that next to my memories of warm days in Rome, the Sistine Chapel, & Chartres will be the memory of a wonderful Sunday morning made special by the company, a red rose, café au lait et un pain au chocolat – as well as many other times. For adding so much to my printemps français, for your caring, for being you and sharing that person with me, the words “thank you” are insufficient, but due to yet another weak point in the English language, they will have to suffice.
I hope that this next year finds you happy & that you learn to just let yourself go.
Take care –
I love you –
Yes, indeed, it was a wonderful springtime in Besançon….