Ah, the French: Benjamin Franklin called them noble; Lewis Carroll labeled them magnetic; Friedrich Nietzsche praised them as the most cultured of people. On a crowded bus during a stifling Paris heat wave, Lisa Whelchel, 19, of NBC's long-running (three years) kidcom The Facts of Life, found them just uncomfortably close. "I thought I was going to die," says Lisa, thereby proving that, even if 50 million Frenchmen can't be wrong, one American girl might be.

The occasion was a three-week Facts field trip to France to film a TV movie special to be aired Sept. 25. And all four of the show's teenage stars—Whelchel (Blair), Nancy McKeon (Jo), Mindy Cohn (Natalie) and Kim Fields (Tootie)—were caught up in their first trip abroad. "It's so-o-o-o romantic," sighs Whelchel, who spent her spare time tiptoeing through the Tuileries Gardens, taking pictures of children and lovers. "In L.A., condominiums line the streets. In Paris, trees line the streets. I want my boyfriend [actor Brad Maule] to be here so badly." Echoes Kim, 13: "Think, seven years ago I was a little girl in Harlem, and now I'm floating down the Seine River!"

Kim found some of the cuisine at Maxim's rougher going. "I got sort of smashed on their Grand Marnier souffle—that stuff gets your head moving," she admits. "I was really surprised to learn that French kids drink wine and champagne. I'm into Coca-Cola." And as for le rock, "I brought my Walkman so I wouldn't have to listen to French music," she says. "They don't have Rick Springfield over here."

For her part, Mindy, 16, most enjoyed herself on a weekend side trip to Rome. "I just inhale Italian food," she says. She also found some other interests on the trip. "I'm in love with another guy back home," she adds, "but with this guy I met in Italy, I'm in heavenly like."

The plot of the TV movie Facts of Life courts the same romantic spirit: The girls, attending summer school in France, ditch their straitlaced teacher for a lost Parisian weekend. Reports Nancy, 16, of her first serious smooching scene, with young French actor Frederic (Diva) Andrei, 22: "It's a little embarrassing. It's easier to cry my eyes out." In real life, the girls were chaperoned by family members. Despite the language barrier, they learned to communicate. Explains Lisa: "I can get by on charades."

Facts schoolmarm Charlotte Rae, 56, found French-style affection a plus. "I love all the kissing," she says. "When the girls and I see each other, it's always three kisses. I'm a very affectionate person, so this country is for me." For the most part her co-stars agreed, though homesickness began to set in during the third week. "Yahooo!" yelped Mindy as one day's filming wrapped. "Five more days and California, here we come!"