When I lived in the mountains, on my way to the highway, I drove through the woods, along winding tree-lined country roads. One house I passed had evergreen trees which were different: they formed a hedge, and were trimmed. They were high, but only about half the height of the trees left to their own devices. They were sculpted: narrow but blunt at the top, sort of like a head without a neck, and came down to very wide at the bottom, sort of like a body with a wide skirt but no waist. They reminded me of the dancing girls at the fêtes in France. The “skirts” ended about two feet from the ground, but I couldn’t see legs underneath, or pretty shoes.
One day, when my mother was talking to some French friends who lived in the next village, she was told about a family in France who wanted to set up a summer vacation exchange between their daughters and an English girl, so their daughters could learn English and the English girl could learn French. The first year I would spend my summer vacation with them, the next year they would come to us.
My mother had spent a year in the South of France before she was married, so she was a zealous Francophile. The idea that I could learn real French was exactly what she wanted for me; so it was organized, and I was packed off to spend the summer on the beach with a bunch of French teenagers.
That ensured that I would really learn French – with the proper accent! As they say, you can say anything in French – as long as it is said correctly. Teenagers aren’t exactly patient or forgiving. If you want to be part of the conversation you have to be up-to-speed; they won’t wait for you to figure out what words to use. At the end of the summer I went home really speaking French.
While we were at the shore, “Mamam” took us to all the local fêtes and we saw the dancers in their beautiful costumes: the girls wore black silk velvet skirts, gathered to the waist, and vests heavily embroidered in bright colors; their blouses and hats were very-white lace, starched and in stark contrast to the black velvet of their skirts; the men wore pants gathered to the knees, also with white shirts and gaily embroidered jackets. I don’t remember much about the dancing but the traditional costumes worn by the dancers made a vivid impression on me. The sun was shining, the music appropriate and the memories happy.
Every time I passed my “Dancing Girls” I remembered those happy summer days, and smiled.