It Sunday morning at the Market in Auvillar, France, and I cannot resist buying roasted chestnuts from a vendor who scoops them hot into a cone he fashions from newspaper. There is no price. One drops coins into a jar. The day is sunny but blustery. Behind the chestnut vendor a brazier glows. Men gather warming their hands. In the air, the smell of more chestnuts roasting, and I am brought back to the chestnut vendors of my childhood standing on street corners in New York City. Perhaps, Mom, Dad and I have driven through the Lincoln Tunnel, come to see the Christmas show at Radio City, when Dad stops to buy a brown paper bag of sweet, warm roasted chestnuts. We peel and eat, as I am eating now, tasting time.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Yesterday, driving my rental car, I traveled back roads from Auvillar, a village in south west France to Beaulieu sur Dordogne, a village north and east. I circled roundabouts, two, sometimes, three times in order to read road signs. I took a sharp left, drove for maybe five miles, feeling as if something was wrong. Pulling over, I read my map, doubled back, found my route. I was ready for a morning coffee, so following my son’s suggestion—Mom, get off the road. Have a coffee in a café. It’s the best—I followed signs into the village of Montoc.
So there I was happily drinking a terrible espresso—believe me Starbucks is better—because I loved this village, loved this sunny terrace and the sibilant sounds of French surrounding me. I wrote in my journal, I day dreamed, when suddenly, I heard words in English, British English. Two women had settled at a table in front of me. A third approached on the sidewalk, and all three began a lively discussion about bees and a sting.
I’d started out that morning fog and cold, and now at ten-thirty, the sun was strong, and this terrace was filling with men and women who came, as the French said, “to take a coffee.” A man in his forties with dark hair, a lock curling onto his forehead, sat alone a table reading La Depeche; three older men held court a table near the restaurant’s door greeting everyone who entered or left. “Bonjour.” “Ca va?” Volleys of rapid French and laugher.
A couple crossed the terrace, found a table, she wearing tight jeans, tight tee shirt, a short jacket, he wearing jeans and a leather jacket. They were of a certain age.
The conversation about bees continued, and I was struck with a realization—no cell phones, no computers, no one speaking with or texting with someone who was absent.
A gray-haired man, solid and square with an open pleasant face approached the table of three British women. Directing his attention to one, a woman with curly gray hair, small and pleasing features, he wished her a happy birthday, then said, “Is this a birthday coffee? Are you having cognac in it?”
“No, I’m not,” she said.
“You should be, darling,” the man said, rounding the table to join them.
I didn’t want to leave this place where the music of conversation filled the air, where I was looking out at ancient buildings, where behind those buildings the countryside fell away into fields, where in front of those buildings flowers bloomed in pots, geranium and trailing vinca, where no one was plugged in or distracted by electronics. But I had a meeting in Beaulieu, and I needed to find my way.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Late this afternoon in Paris, I accepted a ride with a stranger. As I crossed a street, guide book in hand, I saw a man, dark hair, sturdy looking, smoking and standing just behind a car parked at a corner. I needed directions, so I approached him. He held up a hand, signaling me to wait, while he knocked on the passenger side window of the black car. The window opened. A woman. She, too, must have been in her thirties, dark hair dark eyes, turned toward me as if to say, Who are you? What do you want? They spoke in French. She opened the door, took out her phone, looked at my guide book now in the man’s hands. She entered the name of the street I’d written, rue du bac. “Ooo la, la,” she said. Standing beside her, I read the time, twenty-five minutes, but to walk or to ride? I asked.
“To walk, yes. You must take the bus,” she said.
I’m a walker. “That will be fine,” I said.
The man spoke. She spoke. Both in rapid French I could not follow, but I believe, he was the one who suggested driving me, although she, the English speaker suggested I come with them.
“Oh, no,” I said. “I can’t do that.”
“We will take you,” she said.
I shook my head. Waved my index finger like a metronome.
“I am…,” she paused. “How shall I say? No problem.”
“It’s not that,” I said. Although, partly it was that. How could I an older woman schooled against taking rides with strangers get in that car, but that’s exactly what I did, climbing into the back seat as the woman set her phone, now a GPS onto the dash. And we were off, driving through the maze of streets in Saint Germaine des Pres, the woman practicing her English, me practicing my French, both of us thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, the young man at the wheel. He was no longer smoking, and now I wondered was that why he stood outside the car? To smoke? My husband would do that. And thinking of my husband, I imagined his voice asking me about the car. What kind was it? As if make and model mattered. Maybe they did. Then, his second thought: "You did what?”
I was, as the French would say, en ce moment, in the moment. Call it luck, karma, serendipity or perhaps one person doing a favor for another, I was driving with strangers. It was the hour when work ends and evening begins. The sidewalk cafes were not full, but people sat outside at tables under awnings, sipping beer, coffee or wine. Inside the car, we exchanged stories, where I lived, if I had children. The man was from Portugal, the woman from Brazil. She has a first cousin in Los Angels. She plans to visit England, but her English is not so good any more. I tell her that in England, her English will return.
We pulled up in front of number 77 rue du bac. I offered a five franc note. Each refused, first the woman then man. I thanked them, then entered Dore Dore, a shop, where when I last visited Paris, I’d bought a pair of tights that became my favorite. This year, I bought three pair, telling the proprietors, a woman and her son, I’d been there before. And so we talked about where I was from and then about Romney and Obama, and we all want Obama to win, the French shopkeepers and I.
Isn’t this what travel is all about, finding that essential part of yourself that connects you to others? And I understand I took a chance. Something terrible could have happened on that ride. Would I take a ride again? I don’t know. Only the moment will tell me.