What happened is that for the entire summer I made one ghastly mistake after another, and anything that I accidentally did right turned out wrong. It didn't improve matters that before the summer was over I had become pregnant with my first child and was marking that event by throwing up, in public, from one end of Europe to the other. I think a representative chunk of that mess to work with here would be the month I spent in a charming (and primitive) stone house in the south of France with 21 of my new in-laws.
Where: Because they were aware that I didn't know how to do anything right, the job they gave me on the first day was to grind the coffee -- a job ordinarily reserved for the smallest child in the group -- using an oldfashioned wooden coffee grinder and a big sack of coffee beans. I was more than willing, and I ground it all. However, nobody had told me that you have to stop every so often and empty the little drawer; I just kept going until the coffee grinder jammed. Very quietly, they took it away from me, took it apart, cleaned it up and fixed it. And then they gave it to the smallest child in the group to do over again, with a new sack of coffee beans.
Where: Morning after morning, after breakfast was over, the women would cluster near me and say a sentence or two, pause significantly, look at each other with eyebrows raised, and then go off in a group. It was years later before I learned that the sentence or two had always been something like "Well, let's all go string the green beans for dinner," and that the pause had been to give me an opportunity to offer to join them and help. I'd had nothing but A's in French at the University of Chicago, and I could read French "literature" as easily as I read the newspaper, but spoken French was a very different matter for me. It was a struggle, and I didn't have in my vocabulary any of the words for common housework and household chores. I would have been happy to help, but I never once understood what they were saying, and I didn't dare ask them where they were going or ask if I could go too.
Where: The children and teenagers despised me, and weren't shy about showing it. My husband -- only 19 at the time -- had always been part of their group, and was their favorite pal. They'd spent the whole year looking forward to all the fun they were going to have that summer with him as leader of the pack. And now, because he was married, he was suddenly An Adult. They ate outside together at the "children's table"; he had to eat inside with the grownups. He couldn't go off with them to the lake or the woods or the waterfalls or the markets or the dances; he had to spend his time with his new wife. It was my fault, and they hated me for it; I had ruined their summer.
Where: After the third time I addressed my mother-in-law as "Belle-mère" when we were all sitting outside on the lawn after dinner having coffee -- because that was what people did in the French novels and plays I'd been reading at college, and I thought it was what I was supposed to do -- my father-in-law walked over to me, shouted "Don't you ever say that again!", and slapped my face, hard. And I reacted to that by running into the woods and hiding up in a tree, absolutely humiliated and baffled, and determined never to go near those people again no matter what I had to do to get away from them. It took them hours to find me, wandering through the woods in the dark with lanterns and flashlights, and I no longer remember how they managed to coax me down out of the tree.
Where: Since I didn't know how to do anything properly, I was really pleased when the family decided they wanted to put on some kind of family "theatrical," and I was able to offer to write a play for them. They accepted my offer, and I wrote the play easily enough, and they met in a sort of council to read and discuss it while I waited outside the room. After a while they came out and thanked me for the play, which they said was very well written. However, it wouldn't do. It was, they said, "too literary and too depressing." And reading it, they said, had been so depressing that they had decided to give up the idea of doing a family theatrical.