So, something happened on Facebook this week that has me re-living and re-thinking my time in Nantes. I found my "French brother" on Facebook - one of the siblings in the family I stayed with in France during my year in Nantes - and "friended" him. [As I told my neighbor, Ed, I only use my web-sleuthing/stalking powers for GOOD!]
Anyways, he accepted me as a friend. Then yesterday, I went to look for him, and my French sister, and another brother, who I really wanted to catch up with, and he had blocked me. And the sister, I think, has blocked me too. It makes me sad. I really liked her, and the brother I haven't been able to connect with, named after my favorite saint, I haven't been able to connect with. I miss him and think about him often. He was my age, still lived at home, gave me tips on how to deal with faculty and exams at the Université de Nantes and generally put up with non-stop harassment from his siblings.
As an American visitor, it was a strange family. They had an aristocratic family name, and lived in a huge apartment in the centre ville. They had a 3 foot tall statue of the Virgin Mary in the hallway, similar to the one above, but with a big "Sacred Heart" and a light shining on it at all times - I'll get back to this point in a moment. They are Monarchists, and know about a distant Bourbon relation of the Louis-Philippe who could come back and sit on the throne in France at a moment's notice. And Monsieur believes that slavery in America was a good thing for African-Americans because that's how they learned to read. "Would any of them move back to Africa now?" he would ask me.
I had talked to myself, in moments of panic before leaving home and starting on this adventure, through my anxieties by asking, "What's the worst that can happen?" I decided the worst thing would be to be placed with a family where there was sexual or physical abuse going on. "What's the second worst thing?" I continued with myself..... "to be stuck with an ultra-conservative family." Well, my worst fear did not come to fruition. My second-worst did.
But, I also learned a LOT from this family. I learned that the French don't handle the American way of emoting. They don't like "working through emotions" with crying and the desire for comforting in the form of hugs. Instead, they try to "build up character and emotional strength" through repeated pronouncements to "snap out of it!" I learned that there are still people who believe that getting a blessing from a priest, or getting demons cast out, can really make a sick person healthy again. [I had a cold that lasted for pretty much 3 months because I refused to stop smoking. Camel Lights, at that! If I had switched to a French brand I could have at least saved some money! Once I quit smoking, the cold went away. Imagine that!] I realized the fluidity of the French language. If you were a frequent visitor to Le Bar Marlowe, you could say, "On va Marlotier." Amazing, right!?
Most importantly, because I was surrounded by it, I came to appreciate Religious Art. I was raised in a "low church" family, and had attended a New England Episcopal church with minimal stained glass or other decoration. Walking past this statue every time I went to the bathroom, or to the kitchen for breakfast, made the presence of the Virgin Mary real in my life. Her image was there every single day. Of course, being in France, and traveling around Europe, also gave me an appreciation for religious art in situ. I mean, you just can't avoid Christian images there. Impossible. I am grateful for that immersion. And to live with people who believed in the power of these saints (they were not idol-worshipers, don't get me wrong) was eye-opening.
When I got back to college, I did my anthropology thesis on an Armenian Catholic church community. I chose it, in part, because of the icon of Mary that is over the altar of the church. It just felt right for me to be there - sort of like home.