In 1961, Susan Albro Barkan joined the Experiment in International Living for a summer program in St. Etienne, France. She taught high school English in Massachusetts and California for 35 years, and in her retirement volunteers for the Sierra Club.
For the 10 American college students, most of who had never left the country before, the summer of 1961 was a mind-expanding adventure and a life-changing experience. Placed with families in the industrial city of St. Etienne, we got to know our French brothers and sisters while we cycled, picnicked, visited local points of interest, and danced to French versions of “The Green Leaves of Summer” on vinyl records. As we sheltered under trees and in garages, waiting for the ever-present rain to let up, we sang many choruses of “The Saints Go Marching in,” and “Alouette.”
A few weeks later we explored the châteaux of the Loire and the wild coast of Brittany on our 3-speed bikes, camping out and trying to re-create French cuisine on a one-burner propane stove. A young St. Etienne journalist reported our adventures for the local paper.
After the trip, many of us stayed in contact with our French families. My French sister and I have visited numerous times over the years and our parents even became friends.
Fast forward fifty years. Two of the Americans are living permanently in France. They plan a gala reunion. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, every single member is tracked down. Unfortunately several in the group have passed away, but all of the surviving American and French members attend, except for one American living in China. Our spouses and significant others come too.
St. Etienne has changed. The coal mine and the factories are now museums. The landmark slag pyramids have disappeared under a forest of acacia trees. The once-blackened buildings sparkle. We gather in a private dining room for a nostalgic banquet, followed by a slide show put together from snapshots dug out of mildewed and dusty scrapbooks, scanned, beamed across 6,000 miles of cyberspace, and reassembled to music. Our partners and children are fascinated by the youthful images on the screen. We exchange stories and dance once more to the old tunes.
Some of us still manage to climb on bikes to explore the Il de Re with its quaint harbors, stunning beaches, and museums. At the drop of a hat we sing “America the Beautiful” and “La Marseillaise.” Our journalist friend joins us. We are interviewed and photographed once again for the local papers.
All of us agree that our 1961 experience sparked a life-long desire to travel, not just to see sites, but to plunge into a different lifestyle and experience new ways of looking at the world. We learned early on how much is to be gained by being open-minded. And we rejoice in the lasting power of friendship.