Paris Flashback: From the Sahara to the Seine

Eiffel Tower

FLASHBACK 17 YEARS: Small-Town Ohio, USA … 
I began my love affair with the French language at age 14.

For the previous two years I’d been languishing in Spanish class, taught by Mrs. Black, who never shaved her legs but wore nylons that made all the one-inch hairs appear to grow straight up. It’s indelibly etched in my memory.

By the time I reached 9th grade I was ready for a change. Fortunately, over the summer, a mysterious young woman had arrived in our small Ohio town. Miss Nancy Arneau (”Pleeze call me Non-cee!”) was to be our high school’s very-first-ever French teacher. Count me in!

Miss Arneau was everything I hoped to grow up to be. Smart, mysterious, and well-traveled. She wore the most exotic makeup (to these small-town eyes), with heavy eyeliner that curved up at the outer edges, mascara that would make Twiggy blush, and a perfectly coiffed blond pageboy. Her lips (that always seemed pursed and ready to utter “Je t’aime” to some suave Frenchman) wore a shade of Revlon’s best hot pink. And to top it all, she wore a beret.

Needless to say, I loved learning French and eagerly anticipated the day I would set foot on French soil.

Eiffel tower Center

FLASH FORWARD 17 YEARS: Khartoum, Sudan … 
James and I had been living and working in Khartoum, Sudan for nearly two years. The country’s political situation had gone from bad to worse. We’d already experienced a coup that ousted the long-term president, and now there were specific threats that were worrying. We were due to move back to the States in a month, but I was asked to evacuate early. James planned to meet up with me somewhere in a few weeks. Since communication was difficult (these were the days of telexes), we agreed that I would go via Greece and France, ending in London where we would reunite.

After a disastrous stopover in Athens, I flew to Paris … for the first time ever.

I’ve had many “firsts” in my life, but this was exceptional. After living in the Sahara Desert for two years, the lush greenery of Paris was positively blinding. The Seine looked nothing like the Nile. The Eiffel Tower dazzled. I walked through my first rainstorm in years – quite different from the desert haboobs (sandstorms) I’d experienced. With my 9th-grade French, I ordered a baguette at a local patisserie and strolled along the river like a Parisian. Finally.

Miss Arneau would have been so proud.

The only thing that would have made it perfect? James by my side.


Eiffel Tower Detail

Photo Credits:
1. By Taxiarchos228  via Wikimedia Commons
2. By Luiza Fediuc via Wikimedia Commons
3. By Wladyslaw via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

55 thoughts

  1. I love this story. I too took French in school but my teacher was bald, five foot two and not nearly as exotic as Miss Arneau! Have you and James gone back to Paris?

    1. Thanks Sue. Exotic Miss Arneau launched my love of French, and then we moved to Chicago and my new French teacher was Miss Soldat (that should tell you something)! Standing resolutely at 4’11” she took no prisoners. She drilled us mercilessly and introduced me to beignets – another great teacher of a different type! 🙂 ~Terri

  2. A lovely anecdote, especially as in just 7 weeks Leslie and I are moving to France, where we too aim to be real Parisians.

    I always love your stories guys.


    1. Many thanks Steve. I am positively green with envy over your move to Paris. Do you know how long you’ll be there? You two are so international you’ll fit right in. ~Terri

  3. A nice language but the trouble with the French is that they are so unforgiving if you get it wrong and for me this stops me trying to communicate in my limited school book French. The Spanish in contrast are so much more relaxed about their language and any mistakes that we might make when trying to use it.

    1. Fortunately I have also learned to love Spanish since my lackluster teenage experience. I joke that I now speak both French and Spanish about as well as a 4 year old. When we were learning Arabic while living in Sudan we had the same positive experience you describe – everyone encouraged all our attempts to speak the language, no matter how feeble they were. ~Terri

    1. Many thanks. Like so many people, I’ve always had a love affair with Paris. And I see from your blog that you lived there. That must have been a fascinating experience! 🙂 So glad that you stopped by. All the best, Terri

    1. Thank you Betty. I’ve thought about Miss Arneau often and wondered the same thing. She said her dream was to return to Paris to live, so I’m hoping her dream came true. I know you’ve been all over the world – was Sudan one of your destinations? ~Terri

  4. I love your reflections back to junior high and how you then flashed forward, tying it all together. I had three different Spanish teachers in three years in junior high, and I thought the first one was bad…until I experienced the second and third ones. I never realized how good I had it! Nevertheless, something got through because I can now do the Spanish workbooks they hand out to third graders.
    I never had the desire to see France, mostly because of the not-necessarily-deserved reputation of the French people. Even though France is not on our list of places to live, we will no doubt visit there before we leave the continent. Thanks for another fun story so well-written. – Mike

    1. Thanks Mike. Fortunately I learned to love Spanish later on thanks to a great teacher. She had a wonderful sense of humor because the first thing she said to my class was “Spell socks.” We all looked at each other, and she said, “C’mon, all together now. Spell socks.” So in unison the class all said, “S-O-C-K-S.” She said, “There! You’re speaking Spanish!” We looked puzzled and she said “Eso si que es! … It is what it is!” I’ve used it ever since. 🙂

      And as for France, it’s a beautiful country with lovely people that I think you’ll enjoy. And being in Spain you’ll have great access. ~Terri

  5. I took French, Terri… but had no charming young Frenchwoman to encourage me. Maybe I would have studied harder. 🙂 I kicked myself for not taking Spanish. After all, I lived in California much of my life. Yesterday, a little more Spanish would have been helpful as I tried to describe to my Mexican taxi driver where I wanted to go. Fortunately, the ever fluent Peggy jumped in and saved me. –Curt

    1. Curt, Miss Arneau certainly launched my love of French, then when I changed schools, Miss Soldat (“soldier” in French) drove the lessons home with military-like drills.

      When it comes to Spanish, James is my Peggy equivalent – he rescues me every time! 🙂 ~Terri

      1. They’re slowly forming, and it’s looking very exciting. Once I get my planes booked and dates nailed down, I’ll make an announcement! But Central America and perhaps the Balkans are all in the cards. 🙂

    1. Thank you Tricia. I always find it interesting what we gravitate toward when we’re young – then seeing if it stands the test of time. Reflecting on my teenage passions, a love of all things French has endured. And yes, we finally made it to Paris (together) a few years later on our way to Morocco. It was, once again, magical. ~Terri

  6. I just love reading your happy stories, love the endings 🙂 On the other side, you should go back to Spanish, is such a beautiful language and it’s “muy fácil” even easier than French I would say.
    Take care, Virginia.

    1. Virginia, Fortunately I learned to love Spanish later on thanks to a great teacher. She had a wonderful sense of humor because the first thing she said to my class was “Spell socks.” We all looked at each other, and she said, “C’mon, all together now. Spell socks.” So in unison the class all said, “S-O-C-K-S.” She said, “There! You’re speaking Spanish!” We looked puzzled and she said “Eso si que es! … It is what it is!” I’ve used it ever since. ~Terri

      1. Haha this made me smile “Eso si que es!” so Spanglish. I am really happy that you learnt the language after the other teacher 🙂

    1. Bronwyn, you’re so right about the romance. I had the tiniest hotel room I’d ever stayed in, but it suited me just fine. Every day I roamed the city from dawn until dusk, lingering at typical French cafes. I dined on simple French food and tried my best to understand TV shows ( I had more success with the kid’s shows 🙂 ) I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. ~Terri

  7. I would love to read the book you two should be writing. Everyone loves a happy ending, and separated by a coup, danger, and down the road touring the world together seems about as happy as I can imagine.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind, encouraging words. We did a lot of professional writing in our previous lives, so we toyed with the idea. But then we realized that we really enjoy the interaction of blogging, meeting people like you, getting to have “real time” conversations, and decided that’s where we wanted to put our energy. So we just keep opening new chapters. 🙂 Thanks again! ~Terri

    1. Many thanks Mélanie! Through the years Paris has continued to be a very special place for me. Living there must be a joy for you. So glad that you stopped by. All the best, Terri

    1. Thanks Jennifer … and you captured it in a nutshell. “No knowledge is ever wasted after all.” I love it, and it’s so true. You should know best given all the places you’ve worked and lived. So glad you stopped by. ~Terri

  8. Ha, loved this one! The image of one inch hairs standing straight up is now burned into my consciousness, too! The dreams we have as young people hold such sway- accomplishing them is somehow so much more satisfying.

    1. Thanks Miranda! So glad that someone else now has the “surreal upright hairs” burned into their brain. 🙂 And you’re so right about the dreams of young people – sounds like you’ve realized several, too. ~Terri

  9. I spent a year living in Paris as a student and so also have a bit of a love affair with it. You must go back and see the Eiffel Tower sparkling, on the hour, every hour, after dark if you haven’t experienced that yet. C’est trop belle!

    1. Hi Sarah, you’re so right – the Eiffel Tower is gorgeous sparkling at night. I bet that living in Paris for a year was incredible – I’m so jealous! How are your floristry studies going – you must be full of ideas this time of year? Happy Christmas to you! 🙂 ~Terri

  10. Paris is a very long way from Khartoum. When were you in the Sudan? I travelled from Wadi Halfa to Juba overland in 1977? Did we fail to meet in Khartoum?

    1. Peggy, we lived in Khartoum 1984-1986, so I guess our paths did not cross. We traveled all over the country, usually by car and truck, but on one special occasion we did have access to a helicopter to go to the pyramids in Meroe. Magical! What took you from Wadi Haifa to Juba? ~Terri

      1. It was part of my first overland trip in Africa. A friend and I set out from Cairo to Aswan by train, then across Lake Nasser by rust bucket, then by car to Khartoum (we hitched a ride with seven Sudanese, who were driving five cars and didn’t know the way), the bus to Kosti and finally barge to Juba. I was lucky enough to get back to the Sudan in 2009, travelling by truck from Ethiopia to Egypt. Ah, this does take me back. Now I need to go share two hilarious poems about the Sudan on my blog. Happy travels to you both.

  11. Great story! I was also influenced by my Grade 9 French teacher to visit the City of Lights. I was fortunate to go there a few years ago for work, as well as travelled to France three times for Spring Break trips that my French teacher organized. As the old saying goes, “better late than never!” Glad you got to accomplish this travel goal!

    1. Hi Ray, It sounds like we share similar inspiration for our love of Paris. Years later, when we moved to London, I often worked in Paris, gleefully remembering my first introduction. I still love wandering her streets aimlessly. Do you still have opportunities to visit? All the best, Terri

  12. Unfortunately, not anymore. That business trip in 2011 was our one and only time in Paris, and I have since moved onto a new employer. But, I will return to the City of Lights again one day as part of a longer jaunt around France to visit other parts of the country that I haven’t seen before.

  13. I was amused to read this, just after reading an article about Paris opening its beach for the season. Europe has been very dry this summer so is looking yellow rather than green.

    1. Hi Anne, Arriving in Paris after a couple of years of living in Khartoum was an otherworldly experience. I would have been happy with any season just to have a change in the weather. In Khartoum we used to wish for a haboob (sandstorm) just to see some different weather! 🙂 So glad that you stopped by. All the best, Terri

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