The director of the ACCP program is a bird-thin woman in her late 40s named Helen. (Hélène, she’ll tell you.) She moved from California to Aix twenty years ago and seems to think that this makes her French---she speaks with an exaggerated accent and prances around the school gardens with younger men in tight jeans and leather jackets, showing them off to the students in a see-I-told-you-I’m-still-desirable kind of way. We stare at her from the tables under the trees during breaks and gossip about how absurd and scripted she is, bonding over our shared dislike of her.
Even though my initial inclination is to dislike her, I haven’t had any one-on-one interactions with her until about a month into my stay in Aix. My friends who feel comfortable and welcome in their homestays urge me to talk to Helen about the problems I’m having living with Agnès, so I have a meeting with her one morning before classes start to explain the situation and see what options there are for me.
Helen tells me that it is my own fault. Olivia, she says in French, you have une certaine rigidité où il devrait être du douceur. A certain rigidity where there should be sweetness.
I am silent for the next five minutes as she continues talking. I nod when she wants me to nod, and I stand up to leave without saying a word when Helen indicates the meeting is over. I have to get to my next class on French culture, which Helen is teaching that day.
We talk a lot about cultural barriers in class, the different situations that Americans might find impolite or weird but in France are perfectly normal. Today, Helen chalks up all our perceived French rudeness to cultural differences---what we see as rudeness is just their way of being direct and honest. I raise my hand and add in my own exemption to Helen’s rule.
Sometimes, I say, looking her right in the eye, people are just assholes.