For several months, I’ve been wondering why I ever consented. I was neither drunk nor sleep-deprived: nothing material obviously clouded my judgment. So, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it was the romance that made me do it. At least, that’s the fairy-tale interpretation.
We were in a bright, clean kitchen, waiting for a pie to bake when Jean-Michel asked me if I would like to be a counselor for the Scouts. A responsable, they call it in French. I had only known Jean-Michel for a short half-hour, but he seemed nice, so I said, Sure, why not, failing to comprehend what my role would entail and how laughably unqualified I was. Even though I told him that I had never ever participated in girl scouts nor done anything really scout-ish in my life—I have never even been camping—Jean-Michel reassured me that c’était pas grave. And so I entered the world of woods and two-toned scarves, of strange chants (all the more daunting in French) and sleeping bags.
At first, I was absolutely elated by the prospect: I would be part of something in this foreign city I swoon over daily. It would be an adventure, but not in the hop-on-a-midnight-train-and-wake-up-in-a-different-country kind of way. Instead, I would be discovering something on the quotidian rather than the tourist scale and would be treating this city more like a home than a prolonged pit stop. I would contribute. I would earn my place. I would belong.
Then, however, came the raised eyebrows, first from my parents, who know I like to spend my weekends curled on the couch with a cup of tea, reading and writing. But, also from French people who don’t know me very well, and this confused me—I had not expected that my volunteering would be met with guarded suspicion. Later, I learned that there are many branches of French scoutisme: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and secular, and when many people hear the word “scout,” they think of the fundamentalist Catholics with their navy blue culottes, white knee socks, and exclusive doctrines, a branch that would never have recruited me. Needless to say, all those raised eyebrows cooled my exhilaration, and I embarked on my first weekend a bit uneasy.
This is Sabrina. She’s American and doesn’t speak French very well. The chief counselor presented me to eight high school-aged Scouts and drove a dagger into my already-wavering self-confidence. That mortifying weekend I came to embody his epithet well: when three of the boys were up to no good, I told them to please clean the ceiling. They politely asked, You mean the floor? Yes, that, I answered, grateful they got busy mopping rather than laughing in my face.
During the Scout weekends, I do things I’ve never heard of before: thèque, the French version of baseball; Time’s Up, a variation on charades; and Scoutball, a cross between rugby and basketball. I muddy my shoes impressively and sleep on a foam mattress that does not keep out the cold. Usually, it is the Scouts who end up explaining games and general Scout knowledge to me. After a bad night, they tell me that a Scout learns quickly how to sleep in unfamiliar places, that it’s a necessity. Once, as we were trudging through a field so overgrown that the grasses and thistles looped, tripping us, Elise, one of the younger scouts, stopped underneath a tree and showed me which variety of chestnuts were safe to eat—the ones with the tufted tops—and I went home from that weekend with my pockets full of smooth, morning-dewed nuts.
Even though the other counselors assure me that I’m not a burden, I know I’m not nearly as useful as I (and they, probably) had hoped. During our preparation conference calls, I’m generally more confused than not. Also my city-girl side keeps surfacing, wishing everyone would wash their hands before dinner, worrying about tetanus, and pulling out my own clean sponges to keep the kids from doing the dishes with the gray ones. In a few weeks, it will be my last weekend, and I will have helped out in the small ways I could: providing a female presence in a male dominated troop, keeping the strays outside the cliques included, and handing out band-aids and comfort. However, I must admit that I’m relieved the end is in sight. I’ve realized the fairy-tale was only that, and no real, rugged Scout was inside, secretly waiting to wake up and roar. Romance has faded to reality.
And, after all of this, I will have never, never, yet, ever slept in a tent or under the stars.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.