When I was 17, I fell in love with all things French. During the summer of 1972, my headquarters for a study abroad program was Orleans, France, an idyllic backdrop for amor.
Orleans was like nothing I had ever seen before; exotic, fruitful, and mysterious. It was the perfect place for young explorers to spend hours getting lost in the magic. My school friends and I would eat strawberry cream-filled crepes en plein air. We inhaled French perfume in the grand plaza. JaReviens by Worth became my favorite scent. To this day, nothing smells as sweet. We obsessed over the statues of Jeanne D’Arc, the enigmatic French girl who led a revolution at age 14. She was my namesake and I was proud to call her one of my own. We rented rowboats with parasols and spent lazy afternoons patrolling the river for a breeze. We ate pastries in a café’s overlooking le petit jardin. Everything sounded better in French, especially music, which we listened to endlessly.
At night, we’d visit small cabarets and drink wine from a glass. We’d dance till curfew with French boys when they sang, “Vou le vou couche avec moi ce soir?” Everyone was happy. Some of my friends were in the midst of a summer romance, chock full of stolen kisses and broken promises. But I wasn’t having a fling with a mortal, I was having a madcap liaison with a country. France was the man for me.
France and I go way back. As a child, my mother had given me the book, Jean Marie, about a young French girl who lived on a farm. My middle name is Mary, so I believed that Jean Marie was my French twin. But it wasn’t until high school before I picked up French again. I added a beginning French class to my already course-laden school schedule. Six days after my first lesson, I was ready to hop on a plane and find my homeland.
I was an introverted child so this enchantment with France came as a shock. Before I knew what was happening, I’m giving flight to my dreams. The plan was for me to attend a six-week Study Abroad Program and travel to France and Italy, and lodge in universities and hostels.
When we travel, we keep lots of things to help us remember; photos, trinkets, journals. But nothing I have kept is more telling than a portrait I had drawn in Montmartre, Paris. Montmartre, my favorite spot in France, is an artist’s nirvana located behind Sacre’ Coeur. When we arrived in Paris, I realized that Orleans had been an aperitif. Paris was the entrée with delicious side dishes like the outrageous can-can dancers at The Eiffel Tower and the mesmerizing Water Lillie’s exhibit at The Louvre. Monet made me feel as though I could climb inside the floor-length mural and turn off the world.
But Sacre’ Couer, the massive white cathedral that sits atop a hill, was as close to heaven as I’d ever find on earth. I dashed up the steep 300 steps, two at a time as if I were meeting an admirer who doesn’t like to be kept waiting. My friends were climbing the steps one at a time, with frequent pauses for elaborate photo shoots. Slow and easy was not the way I wanted to experience Paris. When I got to the top, I stood under the gorgeous basilica. A soft whisper in my ear murmured, “Come this way.”
Montmartre was like Disney World for art lovers. Although I’m not an artist and I hadn’t yet discovered I could paint with words, Montmartre was much more than a colony for art enthusiasts. It was the world’s largest color palate. I touched, gaped, stared, and marveled until I stumbled. I knew I couldn’t leave Montmartre without a tangible reminder of the aura that enveloped the city like a halo. I paraded around the artist’s stalls. I thought I needed a painting. Flowers, fruits, landscapes, and French locales all seemed like good choices. But then I saw what I wanted.
I’m wearing a halter top and my hair is long, parted in the middle. It’s hot and my skin is dewy. I’m nervous as I approach the artist. “Portrait?” I ask. The artist motions for me to sit on the stool. Then he stands up and hovers next to the easel. I’m thrilled. A girl from Long Island is having a portrait drawn by a real French artist, one with smudgy fingers and a five o’clock shadow.
He paints me slowly, one stroke at a time. He spends a long time on my eyes and hair. Then he moves down to my neck. Even though Montmartre is a large tourist attraction and thousands of people are milling around, I’m aware of his close proximity to my skin. He doesn’t say much, this Frenchman, but whatever he says is uttered in a soothing Parisian accent. I stare transfixed as his fingers shade the top of my shoulders, and then as they outline the V-neck of my shirt. I think he’s going to move further down and shadow in my cleavage, but he stops. That’s as far he’s going to go. But even though his fingers never touch my skin, it’s as if my body and the illustration are the same canvas.
“Tres belle, n’est-ce pas?” he says.
When most people look at the portrait, they focus on the arresting smile. But don’t let the lips fool you. Look into the eyes. You’ll see flickers of light that dance around the iris like bright spots of joy. The pupils are large and dilated. If you pay close attention, you can watch a shy girl become a woman, right in front of you.