The French-American Connection
Brian Hampton, his wife Odile Clavier, and their children, from left, Eloise Hampton, 10, Juliette Hampton, 8, and Cecilia Hampton, 13, pose at their home in Plainfield, N.H., on February 5, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson)
Lunching on burgers at Lebanon’s Salt hill Pub, Odile Clavier and Brian Hampton of Plainfield discuss how they first met: It was at a New Year’s party in 1988 in Miami when she was an exchange student from Paris. The two teenagers liked each other, had friends in common, but realized they were interested in a relationship only a few weeks before Odile returned to France.
“At the time, I thought that was it,” Odile says of the budding romance, speaking with a barely discernible French accent. At 42 years old, she is tall with a confident demeanor, and hair so dark it brings to mind her black swan namesake in Swan Lake.
As she dips a carrot stick into some hummus, she tells me that she and Brian did stay in touch. A year after she went home, he visited her at her parents’ house in Paris. They attended a Pink Floyd concert together and roamed the streets of Paris. When Brian returned to the States, they corresponded. Or rather, Odile did.
“I wrote him 300 letters and he wrote me maybe one total,” she says, turning to him with a smile.
“That was before email,” Brian, 44, answers, chuckling. He has gentle eyes and speaks in an easygoing manner.
It wasn’t until Odile returned to the States on a trip for her 18th birthday that the two became serious. From then on, they made transatlantic visits to see each other until Odile came to the U.S. two years later to finish college.
They lived in Florida for a couple of years, then moved to California to study engineering (he at Berkeley; she at Stanford). They married in southwest France in 1995 and settled in Plainfield in 2003 when Odile accepted a job at the engineering firm Creare. They have three girls, ages 8, 10, and 13. The entire family still travels to France for vacation every summer.
When I ask them about their cultural differences, Brian says he was initially struck by how different Odile’s large, stable family was from his own: he was raised by a single mother, had step-siblings and had lived with his grandmother for a while.
“But Odile had three brothers that were really her brothers and three sisters that were really her sisters,” he says, setting down his burger. “I always like to see a different perspective on life.”
Getting to know Odile’s family appealed to Brian because “it looked like it was built to last.” He adds that his relationship with his French in-laws is positive, but notes the media in France and the U.S. cover topics, such as war, differently: “We don’t see the U.S. the same, so talking to them can be interesting,” he says.
Odile notices this disconnect too: “I think there’s some sort of competition between France and the U.S.,” she says. “People here make jokes about the French, and I wonder where they’re coming from because I feel like ‘I’m not like that and I’m French,’ and then, French people don’t understand I’m American, too.”
Because Odile has spent decades in the States, for her, there isn’t much of a language barrier. Early in their relationship, Brian took French classes at a community college. The couple would have a “French-speaking Wednesday” to practice.
“But it would get frustrating,” he notes.
“A one-sided conversation,” Odile says.
Now, when they travel to her country, Brian tries to stick to the few key phrases he has learned. It is difficult for the children, too, to master a language without constant exposure: Odile spoke French to all three of them until they started speaking English back to her by the time they were in preschool. “They couldn’t really have conversations with me that made sense once it got a little more abstract than a ‘brush your teeth,’ ‘pajamas,’ ‘go to sleep’ kind-of-thing,” she says.
If any barriers exist, they are of the culinary variety.
“A few times when I went to see Odile, with her big family coming together, they would sit at the dining table from 2 in the afternoon till 10:30 at night,” Brian says. “The food would keep coming, and I couldn’t deal with it. In my house, my mom will be having dinner in her room, and my brother will be having dinner in his room, and my sister will be having dinner in her room, and they’ll all be watching the same show on a different TV.”
But Brian sees the benefits of a French-style meal: “I’m no longer opposed to a dinner and talking, and I think it’s real valuable for our kids as they grow and try to make sense of the world.”
“And it doesn’t have to take forever,” Odile concedes, placing her napkin on the table.
And as we finish this meal, I consider maybe it is that attitude — their openness, their flexibility — that led to a happy union. More remarkable than hailing from opposite sides of the Atlantic, they’ve been together since they were teenagers. Twenty six years of amour éternel.