I was fifteen when I felt the French Riviera kiss my unpolished toes for the very first time. The sea foam touched me first; I was startled by the cold of the ocean. We were on day three of the trip- 30 students, four teachers, and six parents all on the adventure of our lifetime. It was a spring morning in March and I had walked down to the beach with a friend after our quick breakfast of chocolate croissants and fruit. The white sea foam was frosting on the dark brown sand and it pulled me deeper into the ocean. I inhaled the sea air, gazed up at the deep blue sky, and promised, “Today is the day I change.”
“Genevieve! We gotta head back inside!” called Lily. She smiled at me from her place further up the beach, closer to the hotel and waved me back inside. I reluctantly and slowly turned my back on the ocean. All of us were loaded back into the bus and I watched the deep blue hue of the beach fade into a small blue dot. Lily popped one ear bud in her ear and I started to play music as the bus rolled away. We were taken to an open piaza, which I had discovered on this trip, are scattered around France. Our tour guide told us stories of the actors and actresses painted on the buildings. I gazed at a man in a blue tux and became entranced with his leading lady in a bright red feather scarf. We were led to a pier and I listened to the ocean that I loved so much. I captured a video of a dog running down a slope towards the ocean before dancing in the waves. His grey ears flopped giddily while his owner trailed behind him, calling for him to slow down.
At the pier, we were helped into a boat. The scent of gasoline was overpowering and we all needed a moment to adjust to our sea legs. We took a seat and Lily gave me a panicked look; she told me before we left how sea sick she could get. She clutched onto the silver hand rail as we sped off. The engine at first was startlingly loud, but soon it became background noise. We gazed out at an open ocean, untouchable and unchangeable. I toyed with my locket with the Eiffel tower on it as we watched the ocean rush past us. When we turned around we watched the coastal town turn into a small painting against the clear sky. FInally, we reached a small cove, tucked away from the harshness of the sea. The captain turned the engine off and we bobbed in the water for a moment. In the silence of the sea I could feel my heart vowing to love France, vowing to return. It was the kind of place of my childhood; this was the cove that young mermaids would swim in. The captain helped us all gaze into the ocean looking for the colorful scales of fish. Overhead, seagulls sang a chorus of happiness at another beautiful spring day in southern France.
Then, came the good part, when we were allowed a moment of freedom. The square had become an outdoor mall and we were allowed to adventure within the parameters of the shopping center. Our little group decided to stop at a restaurant on the water. Two of the teachers chaperoned us as we all headed in for a much needed bite to eat. Our adventure had exhausted us; Lily especially. I could tell sitting down was a good choice for her as the color returned to her cheeks slowly. Most of our group enjoyed seafood, but I had always found it turned my stomach sour. I enjoyed a roast chicken breast and some mashed potatoes. You could step away from our table out to the edge of the pier and stare down at the fish below. They clustered near the docks because people would occasionally drop scraps for them. Lily grabbed my hand once we left the restaurant and we began to browse the beautiful boutiques. Lily tugged at a long, red dress with big yellow flowers. She put it up to her shoulders, “Thoughts? Genevieve?”
I turned from the blue blouse I was eyeing and assessed the garment, “Lovely! Red always looks good on Asians,” I reported and she giggled. She checked the price tag and tucked it on her forearm before continuing to gaze around the shop. After a bit of half hearted browsing, she settled on the dress and I settled on a sea shell souvenir. I could gaze at the little dolphin jumping out of the ocean for hours. As we exited the shop, Lily mentioned had seen a gelato shop next to the boutique and we waited patiently in line. The weather was enviously warm. We stepped up to the counter and Lily smiled big at the sign, “Genevieve's Gelato” was written in brown cursive below a painting of three large scoops of gelato. We giggled and ordered. She picked French Vanilla and I picked a dark chocolate, we snapped a photo outside of the shop.I still have that photo of us, smiling like fools. I’m in my little white lace dress and Lily is in a red sweater, her black backpack slung over her shoulders.
Our little group all met up at the square and a young girl, about six, ran up to one of the French teachers, wrapping her arms around his waist. She has on a little pink shirt and matching skirt. My French teacher embraces her mother and they all begin conversing in rapid French. The little girl called him “Oncle”, uncle. She has his light brown hair and easy smile. They all rejoiced in a moment of reunion. I hadn’t thought to ask him how long it had been since he had been home. How long had it been since he had heard his own tongue spoken fluently in the streets of an outdoor mall? At that moment, I imagined my own future. I imagined meeting up with my sister and her husband in twenty years, a little girl wrapping her arms around my waist. I imagined my sister asking how the trip back home to Colorado had been. I imagined I had called France my home for many years.
The beautiful day cooled to a crisp evening. The sky became grey with rain and I snapped a photo of the ocean against the edge of the land. I resisted the urge to leap into the sea. I resisted the hope that I would transform into a mermaid and take shelter in that cove we had seen earlier today. As the day became evening, we all became hungry and our tour guide led us to a different square for supper that evening. The menus were almost always “Prix Fixe,” but our hunger encouraged us to devor what we could. That evening, we were served fruit for dessert, much to the despair of the majority of the American teenagers. I enjoyed it and even got a couple extra servings from the other students. As we were leaving the restaurant we saw a group of street artists. A beautiful French woman was playing the violin while her friend played the accordion.
All of us rushed over to them and lost ourselves in the music. The woman was graceful and tall, like she had stepped out of a movie. She wore a sheer, thin navy blue dress. She danced to the rhythm of her own music, lost in her own evening in the French Riviera. She smiled at us, guddy American students. Her blonde curls bounced in the streetlights and her partner gazed adoringly at her. He knew each of her movements before making them in a magical coordination. He swayed to the left when she did, he trailed her like a shadow around the square, and he smiled when she did. Suddenly, a student in the back exclaimed, “Look!” as an orange tabby appeared. The violinist smiled as we all begged to pet the cat. Each of us took our turn giving affection to the purring creature as he danced in between our legs. We all tossed some cash into the violin case and we thanked them for their entertainment.
We all returned to the bus and took our seats. I began playing some music but after a bit, one student asked to play the radio. Our bus driver complied and we did our best to decipher what the French DJs were saying. After a bit, a song came on. Every student in the bus recognized the extremely popular guitar chords and even rhythm. The love song began and very slowly at first, a few students began to sing along. By the first chorus, we were all singing at the top of our lungs. The bus driver cranked up the radio. Lily sang to her friend sitting across from us, Lily and I sang to each other. By the second chorus the entire bus seemed to be dancing together as we all encouraged each other to jump in. One student was precariously standing in the back, imitating the guitar solo. Somewhere in the back we could hear a teacher asking him to sit down so we all began clapping to the beat before screaming the name of the song at the top of our lungs. The guitar ended the song and we sat back down, breathing deeply for a moment. The windows of the bus were fogged up, the heat of the bus contrasting with the intensity of a cold night. Our bus driver turned down the radio as a French commercial came on.
We were at a new hotel this evening and we faced the hassle of room keys and assignments. We all seemed relieved to see the hotel grow from a small black dot in the horizon to the warm glowing safety of a place to rest our heads. Once Lily and I got our baggage up to our room, I headed straight for a shower. I begrudgingly washed away the sea water, but I needed the release of hot water against sweaty skin. I stepped out in PJs, releasing steam, and Lily stepped into the bathroom. In the quiet of the room I unpacked my belongings from the day. I admired my souvenirs and nibbled on some chocolate. That’s when I noticed the door to the left of my bed. I stepped closer to examine itt; it was a balcony. We were under strict orders to not go outside onto the balconies. They were justifiably deemed dangerous for thirty American teenagers. I found myself placing one hand on the doorknob.
I peeked behind myself to see if Lily was still in the shower. I could see the night sky tempting me to open up. I slowly turned the knob. I opened it for a moment and lied to myself; I could handle opening the door without stepping outside. But I couldn’t. I found my feet leaving the soft white carpet of the hotel and stepping onto the cold balcony. The air was cold against my hot skin. My hair grew colder against my back. I breathed in the French air. I listened to the foreign sound of sirens. I stared up at the night sky, commiting to memory the exact pattern of the stars. Below me, the street was bathed in a soft, yellow orange glow from the streetlights. I gazed at the ginormous buildings beside me. I wrapped my fingers around the cold metal railing. I could see the small figure of my French teacher swirling a wine glass as he took a stroll down the sidewalk. I bathed myself in a full moon that night.
“Genevieve,” Lily’s voice startled me and I turned to see her standing in our room with a small, pink gift bag. “Happy Sweet Sixteen.”