It’s the 1970’s. I’m 17 years old when I spend the summer in Fontainebleau, France as a piano student . Upon my arrival in Paris, I stay with my cousin for 10 days. She’s a beautiful Southern Belle from Laurel, Mississippi, living in Paris as a stewardess for Pan Am, and a student at the Sorbonne. Her French is flawless. Her kindness and sense of ease help me to get acclimated to my new surroundings. In my mind she is very sophisticated and worldly. This quickly becomes my personal goal.
Upon my arrival at Fontainebleau, in my enthusiasm, I forget to look at my itinerary. Had I looked, I would’ve learned that to find a taxi I need to cross under the bridge. (What does a young suburban girl know about finding taxis?) I waited over two hours in vain, feeling like I’ll in a Twilight Zone episode, until finally I ask someone. I grab a cab and race off to the Hotel D’Albe. They direct me to the dining room where I’ve completely missed orientation, arriving just in time for dinner. CRAP!
I’m taken aback by the fact that everyone is at least five years older than me, with the exception of a 10-year-old protégé, who was kind of a brat. Most of the students are architects, artists, and professional composers, conductors, or doctoral students at institutions like Juilliard and Eastman. I think I’m in the wrong story…
I make my way back to the Hotels D’Albe which houses Fontainebleau students exclusively. I arrive at my suite on the third floor where I meet my two roommates.
Donna is a doctoral student of piano at Juilliard. Beth is an oboist playing in the orchestra at the Tanglewood Festival. I’m a junior in high school who wants to be an actress. (I REALLY want to sing. But my family says my singing stinks! I know I can act and decide to keep the singing dreams to myself.)
They’re both great girls! I’m quite taken by Donna. She’s from Long Island but resembles Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm.. Although she is several years older than me, Donna is just a wisp of a thing standing at barely 5 feet tall. She has straight, long brown hair with bangs cut just above her eyebrows, and is wearing a red gingham dress with white collar. She is funny as hell and I adore her from the very start.
“You have to come and see the bathroom!” She exclaimed with great enthusiasm.
“At first I thought we had two toilets.”
“That’s weird.” I said. “Why would we need two toilets?”
“I know. That’s what I wondered. But look! This one is different. It has faucets and a drain, and no seat.”
“Whoa! That’s cool. But who wants to wash their face in something that looks like a toilet?” I queried. “That’s bizarre!”
“No you guys!” she laughed. “You don’t wash your face in it. It’s a foot bath!”
“Really?” I asked?
“Sure!” She surmised.
“No”, Beth proclaimed. “It’s a bidet. It’s for washing your lady parts.”
“EWWWW” Donna said.
“NO way!” I chimed in. “That’s just gross. Why? Are the French really that messy? Why don’t they just use toilet paper?”
(Toilet paper in France in the 70’s is this horrible scratchy brown paper that in the United States, would only be used to put groceries in. But NEVER to wipe your tusch even under the worst circumstances.)
While Beth is finally able to convince me, Donna did use it as a foot bath on more than one occasion saying that it isn’t very practical because it requires bringing a chair into the bathroom.
We stay up chatting for a bit that night. It’s a warm summer night so we sleep with the windows open. (No A/C in France.) I’m exhausted and also stunned to learn that the following afternoon I’m scheduled to play the piano for Mlle. Boulanger, then 93 years old and founder of the school. She is also highly regarded teacher, having trained some of the world’s greatest composers and musicians.
I’m up half the night with worry that I’ll be “found out“ tomorrow and swiftly sent packing. I decide to sleep in the next morning until about 10am. My bed is located in a corner just underneath the tall windows which swing open like doors. They are about 4 feet tall and 2 ½ feet wide.
I wake to a rather bizarre repetitive sound very close to my head. I must be dreaming. But the noise doesn’t go away when I open my eyes. I look up in horror to SEE A BAT HOVERING ABOUT 1O INCHES FROM MY FACE, beating its wings frantically. I’m terrified!
I quickly pull the covers over my head and scream for Donna. My roommates, being far more diligent than myself, have gone to breakfast and the practice rooms.
I don’t know who is more scared, me or the bat!
“Go AWAY! Get out of here! Can Somebody Please HELP??? HELLLLLP!!”
Silence…except for the sound of this crazy blind bat, trapped in the corner above my bed. It’s trying to find it’s way out of my bedroom.
No one is around. It must have flown in and gotten trapped in the corner above my bed behind the open window. Being nocturnal creatures, this poor thing is blind and franticly crashing into things trying to find its way out. I have little to no sympathy!
I’m wearing a little pale yellow baby doll nighty with matching panties, (which no one but my roommates are ever to see.) I crawl under the covers to the foot of the bed and with a pillow covering my head. All I could think of was, bats like to go for your hair. I frantically cover my rather short hair.
I make my great escape. I race down to the first floor (pillow in hand) totally oblivious to the fact that I’m wearing this little tiny nightie. (My measurements were 38. 24.36. I know because I usually monitor my measurements instead of my weight. Oh to have that body again…but I digress!)
The concierge is a hunched over old woman who may have rented rooms to Marie Antoinette back in the day. She has little to no reaction to my attire.
It suddenly occurs to me that I have no idea what the word for BAT is in French!
I start screaming, “There is a bat in my room!”
“Je ne parle pas Anglais Mademoiselle.”
What? Are you kidding me?? No one knows what I’m talking about.
Suddenly two older maids appear. They look like they could have been extras in the movie “The Scarlet Pimpernel” sitting next to Zazu Pitts, yelling “Guillotine! Guillotine!”
They look me up and down and start making gestures with their hands as though they were holding two melons. Really ladies?
One turns to the other. “C’est bon ca. N’est ce pas?” Then she looks at me and winks. “Mademoiselle! Belle poitrines!” (Beautiful bosoms!)
WTF! There is a crazy BAT in my room and you’re commenting on my breasts??
“Aidez Moi S’il vous plait! Il ya quelque chose dans ma chambre! (Please Help Me! There is something In my bedroom!)
“Qu’est- ce qu’il y a?” (What is there?)
I start making wild gestures with my thumbs hooked together to try and imitate a bat.
“Elle est folle” (She’s crazy!) Now they’re laughing at me.
A couple of older students walk past me on the stairs. Oddly enough, they are so immersed in their thoughts, they barely notice me.
“Does anyone know the word for BAT in French?” in inquire.
‘Nope”. They walk right past the crazy girl who missed orientation yesterday who is now standing in the lobby in a little yellow nightie. By now I’m thinking, I may as well start packing. Because after my audition I’ll surely be asked to leave.
Finally a heavyset man in his mid-40s who has challenges negotiating the stairs because of his size, blurts out, “Papillon Noir”
“The word you’re looking for is Papillon Noir. For bat. Right?”
“Funny! Real funny!Papillon Noir means black butterfly!!
With a look of surprise and recognition, one of the maids exclaims, “Papillon Noir? Il y a un Papillon noir dans ta chambre?”
“I know. But that’s the word for BAT in French.”
“OH MY GOD!! Thank you!” I would kiss him right there, but I’m not dressed for the occasion. I doubt he wants this crazy girl to get too close anyway.
“Oui!! Il y a un papilion noir dans ma chambre!!!!!!! I shriek.
“AHHHH! C’est terrible! Venez! Venez!” (That’s terrible. Come!) They follow me to the third floor while making jokes and laughing about my attire and poitrines.
Finally… I just spent 20 minutes at the front desk in my little yellow nightie, evidently trying to find the word “black butterly”! They grab a broom, ready to do battle as I take them to my room.
One of them opens the door very slowly, so as not to let the bat out into the hallway. I cover my head with my pillow as we look around.
The little terrorist has flown the coop!
The French have a gesture that is unique to their culture. It involves taking your index finger and tugging lightly on your cheek just under the eye. It’s shorthand for “Bullshit!”
They made the gesture as one of them said, “Alors mademoiselle. Il n’ya rien de Papillon noir. Elle est folle!” (There is no bat here. She’s crazy.)
I’d try to proclaim my innocence, but my mind quickly turns to my ensuing audition and I’m just grateful to have the room to myself. Maybe I need a footbath.