Before last December, my previous visit to France was in 1995. Both times I landed at CDG, my French family greeted me at the airport. My trip in December, 2015 was no different. This time, as I walked across the jetway and set foot on French soil for the first time in twenty years, I turned on my cell phone, and it immediately began to vibrate.
“Allo my brother! Now hurry through customs and take the train to the baggage area, I will meet you there.”
A beaming smile greeted me as I made my way through the crowd. Two kisses and a bear hug later, he grabbed my backpack and rushed me to the parking garage. We had an appointment to keep. Marveling at the narrowness of parking spaces and driving lanes, we wended our way onto the periphery and made our way to the center of Paris. We were late for a meeting.
We drove to La Lycée Franklin, also called Saint Peter Gonzague. Late for a meeting with the headmaster, my brother called the school from his cell phone while dodging traffic. I was stuck at his delicate use of language and propriety as he explained our tardiness.
We turned a corner and the Eiffel Tower appeared. I gasped at the unexpected delight.
We parked between cars fitted with traffic boots — “In Paris, one should always pay the machine. Ha ha.”
In a pace between a jog and a speed walk, we got to the front doors of the school. A man pulled my friend aside and told him to bring his car through the gate and into a private parking space. He darted back to the car, and I was left in the lobby to dust off my decades old French. I spoke very slowly to a man who sat behind the glass. He looked alarmed then sympathetic. I have no idea how I mangled those sentences.
“Vous etes Américaine?”
He buzzed me into the small lobby. Surprised, I felt strangely at home. The words “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam,” stood within the crest of the school.
The emblem of the Society of Jesus is carved into the terrazzo floor, just like the dozens of Jesuit high schools I’ve visited across the world.
Even though it was Saturday, the school bell (an identical electronic bong sound that my school uses) released hundreds of students to their next classes. Franklin is a high-powered school that prepares students for the high stakes tests that France uses to allocate spaces in prestigious universities. The students looked quite familiar to me, their chatter was filled with laughter, and one boy shoved another into the wall. Ahh. High schools.
As my friend breezed in, the smiling headmaster came down a long flight of stairs to take us up to his office. Impeccably casual but fashionable, students deferred to his presence and moved to give way. He called to a student behind us to remind her of a meeting she missed. As he greeted us, he admitted that he spoke little English, so I was grateful to have a fluent wingman.
Our tour revealed some marked differences between our schools. It is clear that this school was several hundred years old. Marble and wooden stairs were worn in the middle from the millions of school shoes that smoothed them out one atom at a time. Hallways and stairwells were dark until a motion sensor flickered a few dim lights on (common in most schools compensating for high electric costs in France).
Our meeting went smoothly, mostly because I did not have to speak very much. My program will feature a website that I hope will be the “match.com” for Jesuit high school students. Get matched, make friends, then plan a trip. The headmaster like the idea that such a connection could cut the price of travel in half … only a plane ticket is needed to visit a friend. No busses, tours, or hotels necessary.
Afterwards, we continued our tour. A rooftop gymnasium, an elegant chapel, and a science class in session. I lingered to listen to the teacher who had a significant height advantage … what with his twelve-inch riser at the front of the room. Again, I felt at home.
Onto the roof deck where the students eat lunch, I paused for my first picture in Paris. You can forgive me for pointing this out, but are you kidding me?
Our meeting ended back where we started. My friend and I basking in the glory of a successfully sales call. Looking for a place to have lunch, we made our way to the Seine River.
We shared the streets that day with thousands who marched against the climate talks. At lunch, my friend also shared some terrible news.
Until next time.
The first blog of this series is Global Companions – My French brother