Suzanne Lenglen, from France, was a world class tennis player almost a hundred years ago. Never heard of her? Me neither. Not until I was researching this post. It turns out she and I have a lot in common. (Note to my kids: if you’re reading this – I’m not telling porkies – honest.)
It was her dad who got her into tennis. She suffered from asthma and he thought the exercise would be good for her.
Soon after my arrival in Breckenridge, Minnesota I, too, needed something to do. It was the height of summer. It was hot. Temperatures in the high 90s(F) were common. And the activities I associated with summer – spending time in the hills and swimming in the ocean and lying around outside with a good book were out of the question. The first two for reasons that will be obvious to those who have followed my recent posts, the last because it was just too hot. My host family must have wondered what on earth they had gotten themselves into. I talked funny, I held my knife and fork the wrong way, my clothes were … well, strange … and I kept talking about hills and mountains and something totally bizarre called tramping (best American interpretation is hiking).
And then I fell in love.
Like all such things, it took me by surprise. I’d anticipated meeting boys like those in American Graffiti – not so much the Richard Dreyfuss type. Harrison Ford or Paul Le Mat would have been perfectly acceptable. However, love is not only blind it’s also illogical and unpredictable. My life vacillated between the longing that was induced by forced separation to moments of bliss when at last we were reunited.
My host Mum knew something was up. She took a leaf from the book of Monsieur Lenglen. Tennis, she said, will be good for you. It will get you out of the house. It would, she said, be a good way to meet other kids. And the exercise wouldn’t hurt either.
During the summer vacation she organised for my host sister and me to play a few games at the local courts.
Now, my host sister, was, and probably still is a natural at the game. She was tall, lean and had a mean serve. I, on the other hand, am short, stocky and, as my kids can attest, deficient in hand-eye-ball coördination. I hadn’t played tennis in New Zealand – except for primary school when padder tennis was all the rage. We played at every spare minute, until the craze wore off. Padder tennis is easier. The court smaller and the rackets were wooden paddles – like table tennis bats only slightly bigger. Nevertheless, I understood the idea of tennis was to hit the ball with the racket, to pummel your opponent into submission one lobbed ball at a time. I knew it to be a game of skill, strength, quick reactions and quick thinking.
My host sister was patient with me. She explained the rules, gave me tips on how to serve and where to aim the ball.
Aim? Aim?! Instead of the lovely thwack most tennis players will recognise as the sound of gut hitting ball with decent momentum I produced the whoosh of gut passing through air, the ball flying on by. True triumph for me was if, on those occasions when ball and racquet did connect, I got the ball over the net. There was never anything so sophisticated as purposeful direction.
Within a few minutes I was flushed, sweating, and my was heart was pounding. I contemplated begging for relief … I may have actually done that.
My host Mom, filled with enthusiasm and ever hopeful, said you’ll get better with practice. Not an entirely unreasonable theory and one that I have applied many times in the course of my life. It’s a phrase very familiar to my own children and something I tell myself about blogging and all other forms of writing. Like all truisms, it’s only mostly true. Although history shows Suzanne Lenglen quickly mastered the game, a glance at my host sister confirmed my suspicions – I didn’t have what it takes.
When school started I tried out for the team. Somehow I fluked it. I was in. At tennis meets I was easy pickings for our competitors. How they loved me! My teammates perhaps not so much. They should have been awarded medals for tolerance. As for our coach, her patience and persistence should have won her the coach of the year award. Myself? I’m eternally grateful that the team results weren’t included in the school yearbook.
As a strategy to break up my new infatuation the tennis ploy didn’t work. August progressed, the heat intensified as did my obsession. Oh, how I connived and contrived to go places where I was certain I would encounter the object of my affections. Oh, how I adored my new love, up close and from afar. Ah, the cool, sweet relief of snatched moments together.
I discovered my love was everywhere. Air conditioning was not only in my new home, other people had it too. It was at church, the library, the shops. In cars. Yes, in cars. Oh, the delight, the pure heady pleasure of driving in a cool car.
There was nothing like it in New Zealand at the time. Even now central heating and/or air conditioning in private homes is relatively uncommon here. A point that T.A.Maclagan makes in her post about surviving NZ winters.
More seriously, my host Mom’s strategy of getting me out and about, encouraging me to join groups and clubs and teams is one I have adopted many times in my life since and one my children are familiar with. It’s simple. New job? New town? New country? Don’t know anyone? Solution: sign up … for anything. If it doesn’t work out, move on to something else.
I only played tennis for one semester. I was terrible but I like to think I was a good sport about it. My team mates were. Some of the girls became true friends to me. As for Suzanne Lenglen she helped to make women’s tennis the popular sport it is today.
What about you? What are your strategies for getting to know people in a new place or a new job?