In 1998, you could practice your French in France

Natalie Campisi


In 1998, you could practice French in France. The new and old words were still distanced by water and paper and games of telephone.


It was the year of the Euro. The year of Kosovo. The year of Sampras and the Yankees.


The bus wobbled on steel-belted cartoon wheels toward Montpellier from Paris. Not Marseilles where they steal your money at knifepoint. We had little money and no credit cards and no gold to sell in a pinch.


In 1998, you relied on maps and eyes and lips and eyes.


In 1998, old lives couldn’t be accessed through an app and unrequited loves could remain in amber, forever lithe and limitless, forever Lotte — not living in Haddonfield with four kids and a mortgage.


<<Je voudrais deux billets, s’il vous plaît?>>


With paper maps and paper money, we packed on the packed bus with skinny people who mumbled grunts and slip n’ slide words, a potion of sweet and mildew. The wheel was too big for the driver’s hands. The mirror too small to see.


The faded baby blue bus was peeling-paint old.


The windows were trimmed in white and had curved corners.


A man pressed against me. I sent this postcard of the man pressing against me to my older self, and I received it — perhaps in the middle of the night — and realized he had assaulted me. He had pressed his body against mine on purpose. It wasn’t just a packed train. Assault is a big word when time gets between action. Too big. But, memory remains. I hated it.


I send a postcard back to my 22-year old self: “Push him away. Disez: Arrêtez! Arrêtez!”


But, no. It’s in amber now. The bus keeps moving.


In 1998, Montepellier was a college town. Probably still is. With old Roman light, and curved streets and corners that spiral around into other universes. A Pasolini dream of youth and sex and light and infinity.


Where was la plage? Où est la plage? Open sesame. Another bus, this one with kids our age. College kids. Skinny, loud college kids. Backpacks, not ergonomic like American backpacks, in mismatched colors — feminine, like this country.


Accidents are scientific phenomena that are caused by destiny. They are caused by magnets that pull us. Invisible air marshals. Waves that we hop on and ride by hunch, a temporary tunnel of force until we get to our destination.


Whoosh. Gasp. Ding. Palavas Les Flots! A spit of beach that was handspun out of blue cotton candy and pale yellow gauze.


A wave. A magnet. A marshal.


In 1998, the streets of Palavas are thin and lean.


Maybe it was late morning or late afternoon, it was late something. The end of some section of time. This is important. Because it was Sunday. And nothing is guaranteed on a Sunday. This is a rule of life.


The Sea and Cake Hotel was vertical and lean like a dancer who smoked.


And the windows, long and narrow and open, let through a breeze that blew sheer curtains toward us, the wind choosing a shape.


Let us take a moment to think about drapery. There is drapery meant to conceal. And drapery meant to adorn. And drapery meant to give dimension to the outside. A windowless frame provides a clear picture. A window provides a view with distortion. A sheer drape over a window on a frame provides a tease.


On the beach, the circles of young bodies hunch like hooks and smoke hashish rolled into small cigarettes with some tobacco mixed in. They motion and we sit.


Across the Atlantic is a blonde Hungarian disguised as an American. His skin is pink and his eyes are blue. His hair is curled, down to his shoulders. His teeth are big and his smile is venomous. He will go to Samoa. She will never send him a postcard when she’s older.


In 1998, under this vertical sky, under a happy film of hashish, the Hungarian in American accent has vanished. It’s just now.


A whirl of half-naked bodies pack into a small French car. It zooms sideways down beach-town roads.


The day would be the sea. The night would be homemade pastis: anise, licorice root, and boiled sugar poured into a bottle of vodka. Steaks and green beans. Ketchup for the Americans. A song about love. A song about AIDS. Kissing in French and speaking without words.


Sleeping bodies tangled up. Sleeping bodies on a beach. Sweetness in the breath that comes from the gut. Everything is smooth. Everything is bright.


In 1998, you could practice French in France. You could hang your underwear off a rucksack to dry. You could kiss sweet breath in $2 flip flops without feeling self conscious. You could be naked in the sea and know that this moment is Le Morne Brabant.


You can take it with you for later. There are always leftovers.




Natalie Campisi is a journalist and fiction writer currently residing in Los Angeles. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in fiction and her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Auburn Literary Journal, and Writer Magazine. She was recently awarded a writing scholarship to the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Currently, Natalie’s producing, directing and performing in a fully improvised play based on the work of Wes Anderson, which is running at ImproTheatre in Los Angeles.