The Metz Exchange: The Smyrls Abroad: One Texas family's account of living in France in the 1980s.

by Carolyn Smyrl

NOTE: The following article is copyrighted by the Smith County Historical Society, Inc. and was reprinted with permission in three installments in the LOTE CED Lowdown. Here, the author recounts her family’s adventures living in France in the 1980s. Those who have traveled or lived abroad—and those who would like to—will especially enjoy this humorous account, still relevant despite the passage of time, of finding one's way in a different culture.

When the Sister City program between Tyler, Texas and Metz, France, began in 1983, one of its goals was the exchange of professionals between the two cities. That our family would be the first “guinea pig” family from Tyler to make such an exchange was a dream come true for us.

My husband Frank, a professor of history at The University of Texas at Tyler, and I had always dreamed of living for a while in France, influenced, perhaps, by his older brother Edwin who had lived and died there in the 1960s. Our daughter Vivian had been a Rotary exchange student in Aix-en-Provence during her senior year in high school and had participated in one travel-study course to Metz; our son Morgan had happily accompanied us two summers on travel-study courses in French to the lovely city of Metz in Lorraine province. There was no hesitation on our part when we learned of the opportunity for Frank to exchange teaching positions for a year with a professor at the University of Metz. Our entire family immediately began clearing calendars and planning our lives to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live abroad for the academic year 1985-1986.

I was in the middle of a two-year teaching contract at Robert E. Lee High School, so I asked for a year’s leave of absence. Morgan wrote for information on high school correspondence courses available through Texas Tech University and enrolled in a summer school to take all that he was allowed to take. Vivian hurriedly finished course work for her bachelor’s degree in the summer of 1985. By the time September arrived, we were all set to leave Tyler on our ten-month adventure.

There were several rocky moments in the last few months before we left Tyler. When we had first begun considering the exchange in the summer of 1984, we had agreed with a French professor, Jean-Claude Lejosne, that we would exchange residences and cars, as well as jobs. In the spring of 1985, he called to say that his family was not coming with him and that he could come for only one semester, so the arrangement about housing was off. Indeed, for a few hours it appeared as if the exchange were off entirely. Then, the same day, he phoned again to say that a second French professor could come for the spring term, thereby making the academic exchange again possible.
We were thus faced with the responsibility of finding and paying for our housing and transportation for the year, or opting to forget the whole thing. It was a dilemma for us, but having psyched ourselves to make the exchange, we decided to hold to the course we had set. So, on September 4, 1986, we departed from Dallas/Fort Worth airport, each with a footlocker, a suitcase, and high hopes of finding a suitable place to live when we got to Metz.

After stops in New York and Reykjavik, we landed in Luxembourg, to be greeted by Annie Cointre, the professor of English at the University of Metz who would come to Tyler in the spring to complete the exchange. She drove the Lejosne family station wagon which, by European standards, was large but which would not hold five people with four footlockers and four suitcases. After a few attempts to squeeze all of us into the car, Vivian and I elected to ride the train to Metz. Frank, Morgan and Mlle Cointre went in the car so that they could reach Metz in time to enroll Morgan in the lycée for the fall term. His school term would begin September 9.

The first few days in Metz, we stayed in Hotel Frantel while looking for an affordable apartment. Since we were seeking a furnished apartment, the available choices were limited. We found a small two-bedroom one with a fold-out couch in Sablon, a small quartier of Metz. It had the advantage of being only about fifteen blocks from Morgan’s school, but it was a thirty-minute bus ride through Metz to the university. Before the year was out, we had developed the necessary leg muscles to walk to either the lycée or the university without being “done in.”

The neighborhood where we lived consisted of primarily working class, middle-income families living in apartments similar to ours. We were on the second floor of a six-story building which had a large grocery store on the ground floor. We practiced many of our fledgling shopping skills in the downstairs market, much to the amusement of the neighborhood clientele.

The first mistake that I made was attempting to buy a cart full of groceries at one time. My full shopping cart brought such disbelieving glances from the other shoppers that first day, I began to notice what differences there were in our baskets. Many of them were not using carts at all, but rather packing their own personal market “caddies” directly from the grocer’s shelf. Certainly “caddies” would keep one from buying more than he could carry. When those shoppers reached the check-out stand, they unloaded their bag onto the counter, then reloaded it as the checker rang up each item. Not only did my full shopping cart draw strange looks from other shoppers in the store, but also when I checked out, I also realized that I then had all those groceries to sack and carry up to the apartment by myself. I came to understand why the French make frequent trips to the store and buy for only one meal at a time. Another difference I noted was that many of the shoppers bought only a half a dozen eggs at a time. Whether from lack of storage space or from lack of funds, I never knew. None of the other shoppers had more than one meal’s meat in his basket, and few had more than one or two canned items. Their purchases included items such as cheese, fresh vegetables, beer, wine, and various other items I could not identify without being obviously nosey.

As the first days went by and we settled into the routine of our new life, we found we needed a few items that our furnished apartment did not offer. The list of “essentials” we purchased that first week included a teapot, a brass cooking pot, a frying pan, a cheese grater, two kitchen knives, scissors, a can-opener, a stapler, a sugar bowl, a pepper mill, a hair dryer, a bread board, three blankets, a trivet, a mop, a tablecloth, and a television set. Otherwise, we relied on the items furnished with the apartment and what we had brought from Tyler. As Vivian pointed out, it was a lot like camping out.

In the meantime, our varied abilities with the French language were getting a workout. Of the above list of items, for instance, the only ones that I knew the correct French terms for were the knives, scissors, tablecloth, and television. For the rest of them, since we did not know how to ask for them by name, we had to describe their function to the salesperson helping us or find a department store that would allow us to poke around until we found the desired item. There are not any such department stores in Sablon, so we had to do that kind of shopping in centre ville, the central business district of Metz and bring our purchases home on the bus. The day we bought the TV, we made quite a parade.

The neighborhood grocery in our building continued to be my bête noire. One day I bought a chicken and four pieces of rumpsteak. Other shoppers looked at me as if I were a pig. I got so flustered that when I checked out, I failed to pick up the rumpsteak and sack it. I did not miss it until that night after the store was closed when I started to cook dinner. The next morning, I inquired at the store, and yes, they had found it. The butcher had put it back into the cooler, still packaged. The clerks looked at me as if they could not believe anyone could be careless enough to walk off after paying forty-six francs for steak and leave it behind. I felt like an idiot.

Perhaps that explains what happened the next time I went to the grocery. In my halting French, I asked for a pork roast all in one piece. I did not want it cut into steaks; I wanted it for a roast. “Entier,” I said. The clerk left and got a second woman to help me. “My French really is very bad,” I thought. I repeated my request, gesturing to the small pieces of pork in the counter. They called the butcher and told him what I had asked for.

He beamed, “With or without bones?” he inquired.

“Without,” I replied, relieved that we were communicating, but puzzled about why it took three of them to cut a roast.

The butcher disappeared into the cooler to emerge a few minutes later with an immense leg of pork on his shoulder. As he heaved it onto the chopping block, I thought, “The women called him because they could not carry it.”

He chopped off the shank end of the leg and proceeded to debone the rest of it. When he finished, there was a clod of meat about twenty inches long, twelve inches wide, and ten inches thick. He wrapped it and handed it over the counter to me. “Will that be all?” he asked.

“Oui,” I gasped weakly. I was so relieved that I had enough money with me to pay for it, I almost did not notice the clerks and customers who had gathered to watch.

We ate pork roast three times a day for five days. “My French is really improving,” I told my family, “I can now order a roast that will serve sixty.” “Entier” obviously means “entire,” not “whole,” in French. I was careful for the rest of the time we lived there not to order a “whole” anything else.

Part 2

Running a kitchen in a new language was a never-ending challenge. Suddenly to have everything named something else does something to a housewife’s mind. Have you ever tried to make a salesperson recognize that you want cinnamon by describing what you do with it? The differences in the way items are packaged also gave me some difficulty. After searching the shelves for baking needs. I finally found the vanilla extract. It was sold in a little envelope with the vanilla on about a tablespoonful of sugar. I never found it in liquid form. I looked, unsuccessfully, for weeks for baking powder. Finally, Frank found it. It, too, was packaged in tiny envelopes containing about two teaspoonfuls per package. Everything seems to be packaged so that there is nothing left over to store. One of the skills of a French housewife is to cook precisely the amount needed for a meal—no leftovers. The French do not waste as much as Americans do; I came to feel terribly guilty every time I let a few inches of that wonderful yard-long French bread go stale.

The kitchen appliances in our apartment are worthy of mention. The refrigerator was about the size of one found in a college dorm room. Its freezing compartment would hold three ice trays. There was no room for frozen food. The stove had four burners and a small oven fueled by a butane gas cylinder that stood behind the kitchen door. The cylinder had to be returned to the grocery store each time it ran out of gas, which seemed to happen only on holidays. The washing machine was unlike any we had ever seen. The drain hose had to be emptied through the kitchen sink, so it was impossible to wash clothes and dishes at the same time. Another oddity about it was that the water entered the machine cold and then was heated to whatever temperature set for the cycle. Then, after the clothes washed, we could set another control, and they would dry in the same machine. The only problem was that just to wash and dry one load of clothes would take four or five hours. We noticed that, even in the most affluent French homes, the people did not have or use clothes dryers the way that Americans do. They consider dryers a waste of energy.

By the end of September, I was ready for a vacation. Vivian and I had bought France vacances train tickets before we left the United States. They are similar to Eurail passes, but are limited to use within France. Our tickets were good for seven days of travel, so we made a loop around France through some cities we had not visited before. Our first stop was Poitiers, where the Black Prince ruled after the English defeated the French in 1356. We saw the Palais de Justice where, in 1429, Jeanne d’Arc was questioned before being given command of the French Army. We had a family interest in visiting Poitiers, since Frank’s brother had studied there. Poitiers has been a university town since 1432 and still has a youthful, intellectual atmosphere.

We continued on to La Rochelle the next day. Noted for its history of Protestantism and resistance to siege, La Rochelle sparked my interest to re-read The Three Musketeers, this time in French. Climbing about the towers of the old port, one could imagine Richelieu there. Taking a boat ride into the harbor, it was impossible not to think of the English fleet standing off the coast.

It was not until we arrived in Carcassonne the next day that we learned that many of the French trains were already stopped and that a general rail strike was developing. We were about as far from Metz as one can be and still be in France. We visited the old city and walked along its ramparts not knowing if we would be there for our planned one-night stay or if we would be stranded there for an indefinite period. Even that worry did not diminish our delight in the old, restored city. It was like a Disneyland from the Dark Ages. We checked it as a “must-see” for Frank and Morgan, knowing that we would enjoy returning there with them. The next day, Vivian and I proved our determination, French-speaking abilities, and luck, not necessarily in that order, by renting a car in Carcassonne to drive to Marseilles. The hotel keeper had cautioned us against taking the train, saying that it might be run out into the countryside fifty kilometers or so and be stopped by the strikers. Since we had friends expecting us in Marseilles and Aix, we decided that it would be safer to rent the car and drive. The countryside through which we passed made us think of the Texas hill country north of San Antonio. It was a lovely drive.

Vivian’s families with whom she had lived as a Rotary student three years before welcomed us in Aix. They all seemed pleased to see us, and we had a good visit with them. We also got in a visit with Frank’s sister-in-law’s mother and aunt in Marseilles before it was time to return to Metz. After a week of constant travel and excitement, perhaps the best news that greeted us in Marseilles was that the rail strike was over. We took the night train back to Metz, sleeping in the tiny couchettes like weary, veteran travelers.

Frank’s university duties began October 21st. Vivian and I enrolled to audit courses at the University of Metz. I attended two history classes in addition to the French-for-foreigners class that Frank, Vivian, and I were in. Our French class was like a miniature session of the United Nations with 15 students from 10 different countries. The instruction was entirely in French, since that was the only common language we had, besides being what we were trying to improve. Our instructor, Mme. Honnert, was one of the best teachers I have ever had. The class met for seven and a half hours each week.

Vivian was asked to teach English at one of the cultural centers in Metz. She had two children’s classes and one adult class each week. It was enough to keep her busy, but it still allowed her time to visit libraries and archives to continue her own research projects, as well as giving her teaching experience.

Frank’s courses at the university were offered through the English department, and were called “American Civilization.” In truth, they were history and government courses on the topics of slavery, U. S. history since 1865, American thought and ideas since 1932, and the U.S. Constitution. Seeing the depth of study that students have in their language courses there, we began to understand why their foreign language studies are so superior to the foreign language courses offered in typical American schools. Their students learn to speak and understand the language, whereas so often our students merely learn to call the words. As Frank noted, we never got to use the phrase found in every freshman French textbook, “La plume de ma tante est sur la table” the whole time we were in France.

Part 3

Perhaps because American armies liberated the city of Metz and the Lorraine area during World War I and World War II, the people in Metz are extremely friendly toward Americans. With Frank and Morgan’s German-like appearance, we were often mistaken for Germans. When the shopkeepers we were dealing with found we were Americans, especially American Texans, there was an obvious thawing in manner.

We had made numerous friends in Metz on previous travel-study visits, and it was nice to renew those acquaintances. We were treated to wonderfully prepared meals in several French homes. The townspeople were apparently pleased with our efforts to learn and speak their language. They were sympathetic and helpful when we became stuck on a word.

One custom, that of closing stores from noon to three in the afternoon, was difficult for us to get used to. Fortunately, the restaurants and cafes remain open during that period, so we could generally pass the time happily if we found our shopping cut short by the closing. The holiday of All Saints, which fell on Friday that year, caught us unprepared. We were caught without groceries; the American Express office in Paris was closed along with all the stores, so we were unable to transfer funds; and a former student of mine from Robert E. Lee, Ryan Hilber, who was a Rotary exchange student in Mannheim, Germany, visited us for the weekend. Fortunately, we found our favorite pizzeria open, so we did not go hungry.

Ryan was the first of several visitors we welcomed. We met Donald Whisenhunt, former vice president of the University of Texas at Tyler, in Paris and gave him a whirlwind tour of the city. Frank’s cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Eldred Wilson of Flint, came to Metz and made a tour around the country with Frank and the children. Frank’s niece Marianne Smyrl, who was spending her junior year of college studying at the Institute for American Universities in Aix-en-Provence, joined all of us at Christmas time for a second trip to Carcassonne and then returned to Metz for a visit. Frank and the children acted as guides through the city for several members of the UT Tyler travel-study group which came to Metz in June. Vivian’s friend Mary Kay Wisener remained after the tour group returned so that she and Vivian could visit Normandy and the South of France.

News from home was welcomed throughout the year. We soon discovered the International Herald-Tribune which was generally available at the train station where we had to transfer for the bus to the university. We soon exhausted all the English books we had brought with us, and were happy to find several English-speaking bookstores in Paris. We bought James Michener’s Texas the first week it was released and worked out a schedule for reading it because each of us wanted to read it first. We soon discovered the city library and began checking out French books that until then we had only read in translation. It was marvelous to begin enjoying French literature.

Since Frank taught in the English department, it was not surprising that we made some English-speaking friends, too. Some of the women were Americans who had married French men. The week of Thanksgiving, we were invited to the home of one of the members of the English faculty for lunch. We sat down at the table at 12:45 and did not get up until 5 p.m.

This was one instance where the exchange brought mutual astonishment. M. Lejosne was the guest of my family in Tyler for Thanksgiving dinner, and he could not believe the way a whole turkey dinner was wiped out in twenty minutes’ time. He told my sisters that such a meal in France would have lasted six hours.

One of the American women at the dinner we attended told me of a specialty import shop in Sablon which carried canned tortillas. I checked it out the next day, and sure enough, there were several cans of Old El Paso brand tortillas. I bought two cans, steeling myself against the price—over $4.00 per can. Back at the apartment, I mixed a concoction of herbs and spices to resemble chili powder. Then, Morgan and I scoured the cheese shops of the city until we found a reasonable facsimile of Cheddar cheese, ground the rump steak into hamburger in the manual meat grinder I had brought from Tyler, and surprised the family with homemade chili and enchiladas for our Thanksgiving dinner. We may have started a new family tradition. On weekends we enjoyed traveling by train to surrounding points of interest. We visited the cities of Nancy, Reims, Luxembourg and, of course, Paris. It was such a rich experience to get acquainted with Paris beyond the tourist level of visits to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. We went to the city at least once a month and finally got to see some of the things we had overlooked on previous visits. We toured the Conciergerie, St. Eustace Church, Chateau de Vincennes, and the Les Halles area. I finally got to the Louvre on the right day to find the room where the Code of Hammurabi is housed open. We at last had the leisure time to walk the maze of little streets on the Left Bank.

One aspect of French life completely eluded us: the French attitude toward money. Frank and I opened a charge account at the largest department store in Metz, only to find out when we went to pay the first bill that the store would not accept a cash payment for the charge account. Not having a French bank account, we had to get a money order from the post office. The postal clerk, when he heard our predicament, laughed and said that the really strange thing about such a policy was that the store would have to bring the money order back to the same post office that issued it to get it cashed. We never quite understood that.

We were frequently amazed by the scrupulous honesty of the people. One day on a crowded street in Metz, a man tapped me on the shoulder and returned several franc notes that had fallen from my pocket. Frank lost his entire wallet, filled with all his credit cards, passport and identification papers, on a city bus in Metz. It was found and returned to the driver, who turned it in to the bus office, which wrote Frank a letter that it was there. When he got it back, everything was still in it.

Morgan’s lycée afforded him rich opportunities to travel, as well. His class made several trips to Paris to participate in cultural events. He saw a spectacular presentation of Julius Caesar and attended an international trade fair of technology. Often they would make up a special train to take about a thousand school children to Paris from Metz for the various events. One trip that he found especially interesting was to the ancient Roman city of Trèves, which is now in Germany. He got to accompany a group of younger students to London for a week, where they lived in the homes of English families while meeting daily to sightsee in and around London. His French had progressed to the point that the English family with whom he stayed thought he was French and were surprised toward the end of the week when he told them he was American.

Vivian was able to visit the city of Moulins, site of the 1624 witch’s trial that was the subject of her senior honor’s thesis. She uncovered new sources on the subject in the archival material there, and found a man in the library with extensive knowledge on the subject. She was amused but shocked to be asked if her interest in witchcraft was “historical or practical.” The area still has practitioners of the dark art, it seems.

The illness of my father, W. F. McWilliams of Tyler, brought me back home in February, so I missed the adventurous travels of my family in the spring. They visited Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy during the spring break from school.

Would we do it again? We probably would. The severe financial cost, much greater than anticipated, was offset by a list of intangibles that we would not trade. Both children are securely bilingual. Frank’s and my language abilities are strengthened. We made contacts and friendships that will endure a lifetime. When we return to France, it will never again be as mere tourists, for we have left a part of ourselves there.