Left in Andover: Finding our place in France

By Susan Leader
©2019 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Late August 1963, stranded in Helsinki, my family and I explored the city, subsisting on hearty black bread, figs and sour yogurt from an open air market. A family living near the Olympic Stadium rented us the dining room of their mansion, outfitted with five beds.

An overly cautious American consul got word of our predicament and sent an urgent telegram to relatives in Bennington asking for money to send us home. We, however, were just getting into the spirit of adventure.

The telegram that almost derailed our trip.

Dad sent his own telegram back: “DISREGARD URGENT LETTER OKAY = HERBERT LEADER”

We tromped around Helsinki for about a week visiting the National Museum and, my personal highlight, catching sight of the son-in-law of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as he boarded a bus.

On Sept. 6, we booked passage to Germany on the Hansa Express. An agent told Dad that students could get a $10 discount on fare. So we went into a typewriter store where he typed a letter, supposedly by a professor, wishing Dad a safe trip, and hoping he would have an enjoyable year at the Universite de Montpellier. In fact, it was part of Dad’s master plan to audit classes there in archaeology, though on an unofficial basis. He got the travel discount.

By this time, my toes were poking through the ends of my worn out red Keds sneakers, but there was no way I intended to switch to the sturdy white boys suede shoes that my parents had bought me for the trip.

The Hansa Express ran from Helsinki to Travemunde, Germany, a two-day trip. A few passengers rented recliners and the rest of us camped out anywhere flat. The first night, every indoor surface having been claimed, we made our way to the outside deck. We spread our sleeping bags under the stars and went to sleep.

The Leader children enjoy ice cream in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. The author is waving.

In the middle of the night a storm came up. I finally awoke, sopping wet, just in time to snatch my beloved red sneaks from a wave. A hundred card games of rummy, casino and go-fish later, we arrived in Travemunde.

Near the dock, Dad helped shovel out a car buried in sand. It belonged to Sam, a fellow American who had left the vehicle parked too close to a construction site. Sam was low on gas money, but was heading, as were we, to Paris. We joined forces, purchasing Sam’s petrol for the trip.

Shipping out our heavy luggage by train to Montpellier, we all piled into Sam’s Studebaker for a midnight run across Germany.

After a Vermont-type game of “you can’t get there from here” played on us by some local farmers, we finally crossed the border at Nancy, France, and Sam treated us kids to our first cafe au lait with marmalade on a baguette.

We “took” Paris, staying at Sam’s apartment.  A few days later, Mom and my little brother boarded a train for Montpellier. To save on money, Dad, my older sister and I set out hitchhiking for the Midi.

We got one ride from Fontainebleau all the way to Dijon, where our driver left us off in drenching rain by the railroad station. We went inside and shared two big plates of ‘french fries’ before Dad realized that the train with Mom and my little brother would be coming in shortly. I recorded what occurred next:

“Their train came roaring into the station. Mom happened to be looking out the window. She later said she thought she was seeing our ghosts on the ‘quai’ next to the train.

Prouilhe-par-Courniou.

“We jumped onboard and had a happy reunion. It was soon Lyon, where we (Dad, my sister and I) got off the train again. Sleeping on a bench for the night we weren’t too refreshed, but it would have to do.

“The next morning, we took another train to Vienne, outside of Lyon. There, we hitched a ride to Pont-St-Esprit, hometown of Jacky Kennedy (Bouvier family) …”

Sept. 18, we finally made it to Montpellier. Mom and my little brother had already arrived. We joined them — as we soon would discover — in a bedbug infested pension.

Unfortunately, there was zero housing available due to the influx of refugees from French North Africa.

Dad sought out the agricultural society, which put us in touch with a fruit grower, M. Lunes, who rented seasonal “gites” 80 miles away in a remote section of the Cevennes Mountains.

Courniou public school group photo, fall of 1963 The author, at 12, is standing in the back row, far left end.

The village of Prouihle-par-Courniou was a mountain stronghold built around a central square that featured communal stone laundering tubs, but no stores.

We enrolled in the two-room school in Courniou, about 10 miles away, where the teachers were still permitted to discipline with a ruler. We learned French fast.

Although many of the folks we met, including our landlord, were very kind, I did not fare so well with the other kids. At recess, several  surrounded me flapping their arms like chicken wings and screeching. I attributed this to my wearing those white suede shoes. My red sneaks had finally died.

Mom took pity on me, and we made the 10-mile hike to and from the market village of La Bastide, passing through a whole abandoned village, overgrown in vines and bushes.

A clipping from the Montpellier newspaper, the Midi Libre, Dec. 24, 1963.

The woods were eerily empty of songbirds, still decimated from having been eaten during and after World War I. We toted a frying pan, collecting luscious wild chestnuts along the way and roasting them on a campfire. Inexplicably, the French peasantry disdained blackberries, so we had unlimited quantities of them all to ourselves.

Best of all, she bought me a new pair of red canvas sneaks. I held my head high the next day at school, and even started to make friends.

In the strange way we remember things, I know precisely what shoes I was wearing the day President Kennedy was assassinated.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Ritva Burton says:

    After all these years, I found out where the Leaders disappeared to and came back to VT. Very happy to know that you visited Finland!

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