When visiting a foreign country, to have supportive friends there is a gift and a comfort almost beyond price.
By all odds, Paris is our family’s favorite destination. And that preference has a long history.
In 1984, I went with my wife and our two daughters to live for a year in the French capital and write what then was my thrice-weekly column from there.
The purpose was to get a real sense of the place and the people, to sample the richness of a culture whose literary and artistic contributions have so enriched the world, and to share all of that with newspaper readers at home.
Our daughters spent that year in a school with classmates from 52 different countries — all the complexions and languages of the civilized world.
My wife assisted in the school library. I helped a bit with production of the school newspaper. The girls mastered the use of the Metro and were able to comfortably navigate the vast and complicated city.
Our rented apartment was located in a pleasant neighborhood only two blocks from the Seine and just across the street from the stop for the bus that each morning took our girls across the river to school.
With such a wealth of subjects at every hand, the writing was easy. In many ways, for all of us, it was our favorite year. And in large part that was due to the kindness of a French friend.
One golden October afternoon, my wife and I walked to a horse track in the nearby Bois de Boulogne. Not knowing what time the races began, we arrived so early that only one other person was in the grandstand.
Thinking I might want to get a wager down, I asked him, in my lame French, how the betting system worked.
“You may speak English,” he replied.
His name was Hervé Marc. He came to sit with us, and we bet the horses — won some, lost some. Then we decided on dinner together, and he led us to what would become (and still is) our favorite Paris restaurant.
Often after that, from autumn until our year ended in June, he would telephone on a Thursday or Friday to ask what part of France we’d like to see that weekend.
On Saturday then, he would come with his car, pick up the four of us and spend two whole days showing us some amazing places that, except for him, we would never have known.
Our devotion to France was confirmed.
Since then, we’ve returned there as often as work and finances allowed and on subsequent visits have watched Hervé’s family grow.
He and his wife, Patricia, now have three daughters and two sons. The oldest of the girls, Auriane, 18, is a dancer and recently performed in a program at the Paris Opera.
The middle daughter, Amelie, 16, is a strong student, Hervé told me by phone. Though fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he said, she needs to improve her command of English before graduating from secondary school in the coming year.
I passed that information to a friend with an interest in bilingual education, whose own youngsters have attended Académie Lafayette, a French immersion charter school in Kansas City.
He and his wife volunteered to host Amelie during her time here through July and early August.
It was seven years ago, the summer of 2006, when our family and Hervé’s picnicked together in a park near their apartment in the Paris suburb of Versailles. Amelie would have been 9 then.
The poised young woman who came off the plane here two weeks ago is a joy to be acquainted with anew. Whatever we can do to assist her hosts in making her time here happy and productive will only begin to repay, in very small measure, the gift her father’s friendship meant for us in the year that Paris was our home.