Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Ma vie en France

Inevitably, my recent holiday in the south of France has stirred a flood of memories. Kinda like when Marcel Proust sank his pearly whites into that madeleine.

It has been exactly thirty years since I was a student in France. I didn’t even realize it had been that long until I picked up a newspaper in Cannes that noted on its front page the 30-year anniversary of the death of French president Georges Pompidou. I wasn’t in France the day Pompidou died. I was on spring break from the University of Bordeaux in Edinburgh, Scotland. But the news was a shock. I subsequently hitchhiked back to France, a journey that had its high points and its lows. The low point was a lift with a lorry driver from Liverpool, who didn’t want to hear any of my effusive chat about the Beatles (“Everyone always talks about them Beatles, but they never did nothin’ for Liverpool”) and who let me off as far as he could from a tube stop in the outskirts of London. The high point was getting a lift all the way to Paris with a young Indonesian man in a hot red sports car, who regaled me with stories about how he had made himself rich with various business ventures once he had gotten the Dutch passport he was entitled to upon Indonesia’s independence and emigrated to Europe. He was engaged, he noted matter-of-factly, to a daughter of the second richest family in Argentina. When we got to Paris, we ran into Pompidou’s cortege procession through the city center. Black limousines carried leaders from all over the world, including U.S. president Richard Nixon. My path had previously crossed with that of “tricky Dick” three and a half years earlier in southern California, but that is another story.

I did not become a film buff in France. I had always loved the movies. I was in thrall to cinema early on. My earliest memory of going to the movies was going to a drive-in in Bakersfield to see Disney’s The Shaggy Dog with my father and brother. I couldn’t imagine any other movie ever being better than that one. But for some time to come, every movie I saw was the best movie there ever was. Today I miss that sense of wonderment and discovery. My Irish brother-in-law Joseph still has it. Every film I bring him to, if not the best movie he has ever seen, is “brilliant.” Then, of course, there is the famous Stu, who said practically every movie he saw was the best movie he had ever seen, but he got paid to say that.

If I was already a film buff when I went to France, France is where I learned to love French films and, by extension, the cinema of the world. When we Californians arrived in France for a year of study, we were brought to the Pyrenees town of Pau for six weeks of intensive study (a stage) to immerse us in the language and the culture. The class on culture was taught by a stunning young blonde woman from Brittany named Gael. She made us watch Alain Renais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour with no subtitles, as well as Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, during which I clung to every word spoken by Jean Seberg, since she was the only actor in the movie I could understand. Gael gave us a book by André Bazin called Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? The title means “What is cinema?” and this is how I became aware of the French penchant for posing questions that sound as though they could be resolved by spending two minutes with a good dictionary but which instead lead to years of discussion and writing and argument and more discussion.

When I got to Bordeaux, I made a momentous discovery. The university there had a cine-club. This was a wonderful institution that a student could join for a few francs and be entitled to attend screenings of movies from around the world every week. It was a great (and economical) way to see movies from all over, including from my own country. The nice thing was that non-French movies were generally shown en v.o. (version originale), which meant they were subtitled rather than dubbed. The provincial cinemas inevitably showed dubbed versions of foreign movies. If you got to Paris, you frequently had a choice between v.o. and v.f. (version français). One notable exception to the cine-club’s v.o. policy was Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Fortunately, I had already seen it stateside because the exploits of Hawkeye and Trapper John just didn’t have the same impact when they were speaking French.

In addition to introducing me to various French and other foreign films, the cine-club also allowed me to see American classics that pre-dated my movie-going years. I particularly remember seeing a Marx Brothers comedy (I think it was A Day at the Races), in which Chico and Groucho did their famous routine about the “sanity clause.” Groucho explains a contract in which a certain clause makes the whole thing null and void if either of the parties turns out to be insane. Chico responds that he isn’t going to fall for that because he knows “there ain’t no sanity clause!” The French subtitles didn’t do justice to the pun, and an auditorium full of French students all looked in my direction as I burst out laughing totally by myself.

The University of California did a good job of preparing me and my fellow American students for our year abroad. They vetted us with a battery of psychological tests to make sure we could withstand a year in a foreign culture. They gave us tons of information to prepare us for “culture shock” and for our year abroad. And they provided us with plenty of staff in Bordeaux to look out for us while we were there. But what they didn’t prepare us for was something we hadn’t expected. We knew full well about the phenomenon of culture shock in going to France. What we didn’t know about or expect was the culture shock upon coming back to the States. At a time of our lives when popular culture and friendships were everything, we found that the U.S. had moved ahead without us. Our friends were listening to different music and telling different jokes. In the days before the internet and cheap international telephone calls, we had missed out on a full year in the life of the country. Inflation had seemingly doubled the price of everything, and the triumphant Dick Nixon of the previous year was now on the verge of resigning the presidency.

Most of all, we had become franglicized. We couldn’t stand the taste of American coffee. The streets seemed way too wide and the cars too big. We were still dreaming in French. And no one around us could understand why it was all so weird for us. They certainly didn’t want to hear us using French words in conversation because they seemed to fit better than the English ones or, worse, because we couldn’t even remember the English ones.

The thing we hadn’t expected was the fact that, having immersed ourselves for a year in a different culture where we could never be truly at home, upon coming back to our own country, we could never be totally at home again there either. It was a very strange experience to go through.

And I wouldn’t have missed it for, well, for the world.

-S.L., 22 April 2004

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