The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960′s.
Out the door, into the elevator and down the walk to the gold tipped iron gate at the street, we raced to be on time. My brother and I were to ride the bus to school, a great army green hulk of a bus, a relic of the post war years. There were no bus routes in my small American town, we walked the few blocks to and from school. Our new home in St. Germain was miles from the American school provided by the military for dependents. The bus would wind through the narrow local streets, drive over the motorway and deposit us at the sprawling campus of Paris American High School. The sound of grinding gears preceded the bus as it rounded the corner and stopped at our gate. I hoped I’d remember the seat hierarchy outlined by my new friend, Carmen. Elementary up front, junior high behind them and the last four rows for the high school students. Bus seats were as important as the lunch table chosen in the cafeteria. New to bus rides, I found the fifth seat from the rear and grabbed the “chicken bar” as the driver roared away to the next stop. We stopped countless times, sometimes waiting for several minutes for the latecomers to race onto the bus with toast, books, and jackets flying around them.
The ride to school was 45 minutes from our gate and would be reversed at the end of the day. No late buses for sports or after school clubs, there was one bus for our area and everybody would start school at the same time. We arrived at the campus, entering through the gate with guards standing at attention and barbed wire surrounding the complex. There were so many buildings, the elementary school, the three-story high school with its junior high wing and the sports center behind. Two gated entrances were guarded by MP’s who ensured our safety in the middle of Paris. The students were “Army Brats”, kids of NATO members, civilians with military clearance and the children of diplomats assigned to SHAPE headquarters. We all rode the same army green buses, all felt the first day jitters and all entered the typical American brick building for the start of the school year. No segregation due to rank, race or culture, we were American dependents continuing our education.
I was the new kid in class yet most there were new to the area. Military families moved often and starting at a new school was common. My school in the US was small compared to the multi level, spidering hallway building I entered. There was the challenge of finding the room, the locker, the gym and especially, the cafeteria. I was amazed to survive that first few days, amazed to find the gym locker rooms where I changed clothes from mini skirt to midi blouse and bloomer shorts, amazed to find the cafeteria with the trays and food lines and hundreds of kids. I had walked home at lunchtime throughout my early school days, but now encountered lunch lines, cafeteria food and keeping lunch money; I learned a whole new way of life. It was a full day of new experiences without opening a book.
At day’s end, the process reversed and we swarmed the buses lined along the sidewalk. No stenciled numbers, rather the overhead sign illuminated the bus routes. I searched for familiar faces and assured myself I would find the correct bus. I sank thankfully into my appropriate seat across from the other bewildered students and watched carefully for my brother and his friends. Fortunately there was a stop at the army base before my town, I could always stop there and wait for a general transport bus if I had boarded the wrong bus. The ride home was loud with daily recaps of schedules, mistaken classrooms and late notices and the singing from the front seats. Our driver, a seemingly ancient Algerian, smoked Gauloise cigarettes and winked at the girls, he would mutter in French as we neared each stop. Later in the fall, he would make a quick pit stop before my stop and relieve himself on the rear wheel of the bus before continuing on to my gate. The afternoon ride was comedy in action with the personalities involved.
I was a Paris Pirate for 5 short months. The lessons learned were varied and basic, more learning of life than academics. Memories of French bubblegum chewed secretively in gym class, the long lockers crammed with coats, sneakers and texts, the smell of the cafeteria on spaghetti Friday and the posters for Prom at the Eiffel Tower revolve in my mind. Those memories provided confidence for every job and school change when being the “newbie” could never be quite as terrifying as that first day, that first bus ride to a sprawling school campus dropped in the middle of Paris.