Pardon My French

At a Maine island summer camp, one urban exile learns a valuable lesson (if not any French).

Les Chalets Français, Maine Summer Camp
Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams
By Charlotte Albright

From our February 2016 issue.

I blame Gigi — you know, the 1958 Lerner and Loewe musical where a petulant teenager transforms into an elegant Parisian Cinderella. Gigi has a lovely French accent. The actress who played her, French-born Leslie Caron, came by it naturally. I, on the other hand, was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, where nothing was French except the dressing we put on our iceberg lettuce.

But my mother, who loved Gigi, had an adventuresome streak. When I was about 11, she and my father took my older sister on a Caribbean cruise. And what to do with me for six summer weeks? The answer must have jumped right off the ad in the back of Harper’s Magazine.

“Les Chalets Français,” it surely read. “Learn a beautiful language on the craggy coast of Maine. Sailing. Riding. Hiking. Archery.”

Tout en français!” my mother said, putting on a few airs.

Toot on what? I wondered.

The owner, I seem to recall, was a French professor from Princeton. My mother must have figured I’d become fluent while mounting a horse, sailing a skiff, and taking aim with a bow.

“But I can’t speak French at all,” I pointed out.

“You will,” she promised. “You look just like Gigi!”

But Gigi didn’t have to prepare for her transformation with 20 Saturdays of French lessons at the home of Mme Lenson. Sometimes, while I was singing about some bridge or another in Avignon, Mme Lenson popped a peppermint in my mouth, let me suck on it for a moment, and then abruptly grabbed me by the throat. This was intended to produce an authentic, guttural, French “r.”

But convincing pronunciation alone didn’t put me on par with my fellow campers. Most came from Princeton, where foreign language instruction evidently begins in nursery school. On the 12-hour bus ride from Philadelphia to Deer Isle, all of the girls comment-alley-vooed and gem-ma-pelled, while I played bridge with the counselors in the front row, the only place where I could speak English for a valid reason.

My roommates whispered things in French that would have been equally foreign to me in English, things about kissing les garçons.

In my drafty log cabin with no bathroom facilities and a carved lobster out front, I quickly picked up a few French words — but maybe not the best words. I’d enrolled late, so I got the last bunk in a cabin full of surprisingly worldly 13-year-old urbanites. After lights out, they whispered things in French that would have been equally foreign to me in English, things about kissing and fondling les garçons. I listened in disbelief, shivering in the baby doll pajamas my mother had packed in my trunk.

After two challenging weeks, I was still basically monolingual. Since the counselors spoke French, this made learning to ride a cheval difficult. Sailing was tricky too, as I didn’t know the French for phrases like, “Hey, look out for that boom!”

One day, the counselors of Les Chalets Français announced a contest that, against all odds, I became determined to win. All I had to do was to refrain from speaking English for three days. Of course, a friend had to interpret the contest announcement at dinner.

Pas d’anglais,” she explained, exasperated. “No English.”

In order to win, I realized, I didn’t technically have to speak French. It was kind of like being the “dummy” in bridge, which my parents had taught me so that they and my sister had a foursome. “Just lay down your cards and be quiet,” my sister usually advised.

So I spent three days sailing in silence, horseback riding in silence, even selecting from the dinner line in silence, simply pointing politely at the platter of mystery meat. Other campers baited me with questions in French, but I remained mute.

Sure, it was frustrating — like visiting a foreign country without having taken the Berlitz course. But for an ordinarily gabby kid, it was also liberating. When we don’t talk, I realized, we become more observant. I started noticing the smell of pine needles and salt water. I watched as the sun set behind the pine-topped coastline. I studied the subtle striation of rocks, the freckled faces of new friends, the huge brown eyes of a horse, and the flickering of campfire flames. In short, I soaked up everything that lured boy-crazy pre-teens to an all-girl summer camp, year after year, in the 1950s and ’60s.

My prize for not speaking English that week: a gilded pencil sharpener in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. It came in handy when I finally took a real French course and did très bien.

I never returned to French camp, though. My father got sick the following summer, and I didn’t want to leave home. But at Les Chalets Français, I learned something I still have trouble remembering today: that a person can be mostly quiet and mostly happy, all at the same time.

Illustration by Christine Mitchell Adams.