I’ll Never Be French
It begins with a girl. It always begins with a girl, and even though we don’t make it through the summer—through even half the summer—she gets me there and changes my life. It doesn’t matter what happened or why, it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given.
It happened like this.
It’s 1991 and I’m in her apartment, living her third of our bicoastal relationship (one-third in New York, one-third in California, one-third apart), probably the only person in Manhattan looking forward to a summer in the city, when she says, “Honey, let’s go to France.”
I close my book and listen, petrified. I hate to fly and don’t speak French. This isn’t a good idea. I was in Paris in 1966, and they loathed me, and I don’t think I’ve changed that much. “Let’s go to Saskatchewan.”
“It’s not the same.”
“I know. They speak English and we can drive.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”
It’s late May, a beautiful spring in New York, and this is her busiest time at work. As far as I can see, there’s no need to start studying French.
That’s my second mistake.
One week later, she announces she’s found the perfect place. “It’s special, magical, enchanted.” She’s a poet. Everything she says is exaggerated.
“Where?” I ask, thinking Paris, Nice, Cannes, Antibes.
“Brittany. It’s as far west as you can go. Finistère.”
“What does that mean?”
“The end of the world.”
That’s when I panic. I go to the bookstore and read in a guidebook that Bretons aren’t French but Celtic—linked by language and culture to the Irish, Scots, Cornish, and Welsh—so maybe I do have a chance. On the other hand, they’ve been French since 1532, why chance it? I go to the Café des Artistes and write her a note. “Great work. Could you ask if the place is on-a-country-road quiet, sunny, and large? Does it have a good bed, hard mattress, running water, hot running water [remembering my stay in Paris], a TV, stereo, car, separate studies for writing, a coffeemaker, shower, bath, at least two floors, farm animals in the vicinity, a washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher, a bar in the village, a boulangerie, a market, a post office, bikes, and neighbors who want Americans living next door?” I leave it on her desk, thinking, Saskatchewan, here we come.
The next day she leaves me a message on her answering machine. “We have it—a thousand a month, with a car.”
I wait a minute, put on my happy voice, and call her at work. “Hi…got your message.”
“Ouiiiiiii,” she sings.
“Does it have all those things I asked about?
“Certainement. The last thing I need is to listen to you complaining every day.”
“It really has all those things?”
“That’s what the lady said. Her name’s Sally. She’s English and just returned from the house. She lives in Massachusetts, you can ask her yourself.”
So I do. I call her, and she says yes to everything. There’s no way out. I’m going to France.
We book our flight on Air France. All I can think of is a joke I recently heard. “In Heaven, the French are the cooks, Italians are the lovers, English are the police, Swiss are the managers, and Germans are the engineers. In Hell, the English are the cooks, Swiss are the lovers, Italians are the engineers, Germans are the police, and the French are the managers.” I know I’m going to die—but if I do, I’m going in comfort and style. The food on the flight is scrumptious, and we’re flying economy. The meal begins with a printed menu and a choice of boeuf Bourguignon or filet de sole bonne femme. The wine is French—Côte du Rhône, Burgundy, Beaujolais—and is good and free and limitless. The front of the menu has a lovely little poem by La Fontaine. Mine is “Lion.” Hers is “Swan.” I look around and see four other poems. Everything about this is class. Joie de vivre, savoir-faire, je ne sais quoi. The movies, the nibbles and snacks, the pampering. If this is France, this is going to be all right, I think—until we get to the baggage claim, which brings me back to the joke.
The flight was wonderful, the landing superb. We took off and landed on time. The stewards and stewardesses were everything you’d want them to be in appearance, demeanor,
humor, efficiency. I’ve slept. I’m full. I’m in Paris. I have everything I need—except my luggage. The good news is, nobody else has theirs either. The worst news is, an hour and a half later, it’s still the same. Six and a half hours of relaxing comfort and pleasure getting here, and an hour and a half of standing up, nowhere to go, sit, eat, rest, drink, or relax.
It’s baffling. Everything about Charles de Gaulle Airport is space-age, high-tech modern: tubes, lights, tunnels; escalators running up, down, sideways. The French love gadgets and gadgetry (think guillotine), and everything that can be is automated, everything except labor.
Two and a half hours later—9:30 on the dot—we’re on the bus to Paris. We sit in the seat directly behind the driver. Kathryn takes the window and spends the next hour oohing and aaahing over the architecture and skyline. I spend it in awe of the driver, watching him alternately race to 130 kilometers per hour, then slow down to 30, only to race back to 130 and never once move more than eighteen inches away from the vehicle directly in front of us. He does this for fifty minutes, all the way from Charles de Gaulle Aéroport to downtown Paris, where he stops in front of a brasserie.
“Let’s go,” Kathryn says.
“To the station.”
For some reason—and I’m sure there is one, because there always is one, a reason, or rule, or normalement—the bus stop is across the street from the train station. Across two big busy streets in a city and a country not known for its kind, safe, considerate, California, pedestrian-has-the-right-of-way drivers. A phalanx of cars and trucks whizzes by and shakes the bus.
“Let’s wait,” I say.
“For what? This is the stop. Let’s go.” She pulls my hand.
I hesitate, then leap and run to the doorway of the brasserie to wait.
When everybody is off the bus and milling about, the driver pushes himself out of his seat, lumbers to the side of the bus, raises the panels, and lugubriously begins unloading the luggage. He does it with the seriousness and concentration of a brain surgeon. It’s then that I notice his uniform bears no name. No “Hi, I’m Jacques, I’m your driver for the day.” No “My name’s Pierre. If I drive like a maniac or smash your bag, here’s how you can report me.” This bothers me, because in a second or two, whatever his name, he’s going to hate us.
Everyone else’s bags are relatively small and lightweight, but we’re writers and staying for the summer. Between us we have nine heavy bags and two luggage carts. I have a computer. She has a typewriter. We each have a bag filled with books and another with files and notebooks and paper. She has lots and lots of shoes and clothes, something for any occasion. I have three bottles of twelve-year-old Macallan and a jacket and shoes for every kind of weather from blizzards and hurricanes to drought. The driver doesn’t know any of this because someone else loaded the bags at the airport. Now, as he pulls them out, he begins to grumble. The fourth bag he yanks and drops on the sidewalk. The fifth he tosses at me. The sixth he throws. The seventh is Kathryn’s typewriter. She taps him on the arm and tells him in flawless French that she’s a poet and that’s her typewriter and asks him to please be careful. He lifts it and puts it down gently, as gently as if it were a quail’s egg, the last quail’s egg in the world and he’s the hungriest man alive. Then he starts talking to her about poetry, quoting Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Poe, while I crawl into the luggage bin and tear my pants as I get my computer. When he finally finishes cooing and leaves,
she’s beaming. “La belle France, la belle France. That’s why I love it here.”
That’s also when it starts to rain.
She unzips her backpack and removes an umbrella. I’m amazed and delighted by her forethought. My rain gear is all packed on the bottom of the one bag I have that isn’t waterproof. I wait in grateful anticipation as she unsheathes her umbrella and opens it. It’s Barbie’s umbrella. Thumbelina’s. The tiniest little umbrella in the universe. An umbrella for one. I wipe the water from my glasses and glare at her.
I gather our bags as quickly as I can, balance and tie them to our luggage carts, and wait for a lull in the traffic. There is none. You’d think with the rain coming down harder and us standing there getting wet, someone might slow down. Not a chance. The morning Paris commute is a crazed Le Mans. I’m astonished. Can these be the same people who took two and a half hours to unload our bags?
Kathryn takes two steps into the street. I watch, as miraculously one car stops, then another, and another, and another. It’s like royalty entering a room. The stillness is almost palpable. I follow in her wake through the traffic, across the streets, all the way into Gare Montparnasse, feeling unbeatable, like Napoleon must have felt just before Waterloo.
Gare Montparnasse is huge, gargantuan, signifying grandeur, power, control, direction, order, authority, a plan. The first floor, the one we’re standing on, is a big wide-open space. In the middle of this space, slowly, inexorably, moving up and down, is a bank of escalators. On either side of the escalators are stairs.
I push my luggage cart around in ever-widening circles, looking for the elevator.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for the elevator.”
“I don’t think there is one. I’ll ask.”
How can that be? This is a train station. A huge modern train station, the point of departure for all points west in France. How could old people, disabled people, people in wheelchairs, people carrying five heavy bags of luggage like me, get from this floor to the next without an elevator?
“Nope. No elevator. We have to take the escalator or the stairs.”
“Ask someone else. A woman this time—an old one.”
She glares at me, but she does it. She finds the oldest, crookedest person I’ve ever seen and returns shaking her head. “There is none. We have to use the escalator.”
I glower at the old woman and watch to see what she does. I want to make sure she doesn’t sneak off to some secret French person’s elevator and leave the American to the escalator. She doesn’t. She cautiously boards the escalator and white-knuckles the belt as it herky-jerks her upward, and I wonder for the first of many times: how can the French be so good at elegance and well-being, joie de vivre and eau de vie and vie de vie, and not have the slightest clue about ordinary, daily convenience—things like toilet seats, window screens, and shower curtains?
“Let’s go,” Kathryn calls, and wheels far away from me.
I follow and watch as three men open the line for her and make room for her and help her, while another holds her cart and bags in place with his knees. I wait for a break in the line, see none, and push my way in. Amazingly, no one complains or threatens to kill me.
I follow her to a fenced-in area, a square space roped off like a boxing ring, with a sign in the middle that says Terrasse. I
know what that means: I’m going to pay more than the normal outrageous price for a cup of coffee the size of a thimble with no refill. She sits down and orders a café au lait and a brioche. I do the same by pointing at her, then at myself, and nodding my head up and down like a bobblehead. That’s when I realize there are no sweatpants, track suits, or women in curlers. No beggars, homeless, or hungry people. No green hair or shaved heads, tattoos or pierced body parts—except for ears—and no crazies. I’m the scruffiest person on the terrasse, maybe even in the entire gare, Paris, and France. I look like an escapee from Devil’s Island—rumpled, crumpled, pants torn from the bus, and sweaty. Everyone else looks like Saturday night at the ball. I look like Monday morning.
Our train is scheduled to depart at 1:05. I pay the bill—twenty dollars for two coffees and a basket of brioches—and we get up to amble and stretch, which turns out to be a mistake. At 12:00 virtually every French person not serving food in Gare Montparnasse stops whatever he or she is doing and starts to eat. By 12:05 not a single chair, table, bench, or horizontal surface is empty. There are lines—actually wedges, the French don’t make lines—thirty and forty people deep waiting to buy a sandwich or a Coke or their ubiquitous bottle of water. Others are waiting in wedges just as deep for buffets. It’s a regular feeding frenzy. At 11:55 we could have sat anywhere and bought anything. By 12:05 there’s no place to go. I haven’t seen anything like it since the piranha tank at the Brooklyn Aquarium.
The good news is while everyone is busy eating we can easily board the train. I locate the track and begin walking along it looking for our car.
“Wait, you have to post your ticket.”
“You have to post your ticket. It’s not valid if you don’t post it. It’s a crime.”
I walk back to where Kathryn’s standing. “I thought these are reserved seats.”
“Then what’s with this posting?”
“It’s the law.”
“How do you know? Where does it say? Where’s the sign?” I’ve been in France five hours and already I’m gesticulating. “How is anyone supposed to know?”
She shrugs and points. I turn around and see another wedge of people standing in front of what looks like a time clock on an altar, which, given what they do with time, seems to me a sacrilege. I watch as, one by one, each person inserts his or her ticket into the machine, waits for it to click, then removes it, and goes on his or her validated way. They all look pleased with themselves, modern-day Saint Michaels, as if they’ve put their hand in the dragon’s mouth and emerged with it unscathed. Then Kathryn does it too, and I follow her—again, and again, and again. It takes me three tries, as the ticket goes in only one way and there’s no way on earth to know which way. I think about my father and his parents, Hungarians who emigrated to the U.S. from France, and my mother’s parents, who emigrated from Hungary and Poland, all of them at Ellis Island, and about cultural differences and assumptions, the things we take for granted—like the subway system in New York, and how lucky I am I was born there and speak English, and that some of the people who work there do too.
It’s in that mood that I search for our train car, not sure what to expect, French comfort or lack of convenience. It’s a TGV bullet train, sleek and shiny, the Concorde of trains, but I’ve
just come from the “modern airport,” so I’m not expecting the best. I enter our car, look around, and relax. The seats are airline seats, first-class airline seats, leather, individually contoured, with a headrest, footrest, and a table, and they recline. The windows are huge and spotless. The lights are bright, and the bathroom smells good and works. The train, like the plane, is wonderful, and like the plane, it departs on time. At precisely 1:05, we leave Gare Montparnasse and head west for Brittany, Finistère—the end of the world.
I take out my book, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, and start reading. This is my summer for French lit. Along with everything else, I’m carrying Stendhal, Proust, Flaubert, Hugo, Balzac, Sartre, Camus, Voltaire, Maupassant, Bataille, Sarraute, and Réage. Kathryn is carrying the poets and reading Baudelaire—in French. Our plan is to sit for a while, read, look out the window, and buy lunch on the train when we feel like it.
Ten minutes out of the station, everyone, as if on cue, starts removing food from bags, boxes, sacks, purses, coats, scarves, pockets, day packs, backpacks, suitcases, socks, you name it: breads of every size and shape; sausages; cheeses that are round, square, wedged, rolled, and rectangular, white, gray, black, blue, green, and yellow, with aromas that go from sweet honey to bathroom; there’s fruit, casseroles, chicken, chocolate, crêpes, crackers, chips, and liters and liters of water: Evian, Vittel, Volvic, Isabelle, Perrier, Badoit, Vichy. In no time at all everyone is eating, except us.
The sight of us sitting there without any food must have been too much for them. The woman in the aisle seat next to me reaches over and hands me a hunk of bread and a slab of sausage.
“Merci,” I say. For me, it’s the end of the conversation. For
her, it’s the start. She speaks rapidly. I nod and nod and say a few “ouis” and hope she will quit, but she doesn’t.
Kathryn switches seats with me and speaks with her and translates. “The bread is a multigrain, made the old way in a brick oven by an artisan. The sausage is an andouille. It comes from her brother’s farm near Saint-Brieuc.”
Upon hearing her speak French and understand it, everyone around us joins in, first by giving us more things to eat, then by telling us what we are eating, where it comes from, how it’s made, the ingredients, locations, specialties, what’s homegrown, homemade, artisan-made, natural, fresh.
The conversation switches back and forth from the serious—food, family, the land, weather—to the hilarious: what kind of water to buy; no sodium, too much sodium, not enough sodium, carbonated, noncarbonated, flavored, natural. At one point I think a Badoit person is going to bean a Vittel. There’s lots of “offs” and “bawees” and laughter, and a strange sucking noise that sounds to me like the whistle of an incoming aerial bomb.
About an hour and a half out of Paris the woman sitting directly in front of me, who has yet to say a word to us, turns around and asks, “Vous habitez en Angleterre?” You’re from England?
“Non. Nous sommes américains.”
Everything changes after that. I expect to have to duck and cover and answer questions like, Why is your country ruining the Earth? Instead they ask about us, where we live in the United States, how long we’ll be in France, why we’re going to Brittany and Finistère, and what we’re going to do there. When Kathryn tells them we’re writers, that we’ve come to visit and write, they all make that sharp sucking sound and say, “Bien sûr,” as if it were preordained. The woman sitting behind me
then says something about Chateaubriand. The fellow next to her, a round portly gent with a nose the color of eggplant, says, “Non, non, non,” and goes on and on about Max Jacob and Jules Verne. The woman who first gave me the bread and sausage stops him, points to my book, and tells us to go to Camaret, where Céline lived out the final years of his miserable life. At the mention of Camaret, a man dressed in blue-and-green plaid pants and a green-and-blue striped shirt, and who doesn’t look half bad, takes a harmonica out of his jacket pocket and begins to play “The girls from Camaret,” a little local ditty like “Mademoiselle from Armentières,” and follows it up with some down-home James Carter Chicago blues.
The closer we get to Brest, the more jovial everyone becomes. More food is passed around, foods we hadn’t seen earlier, pastries and cakes with Breton names: kouign amann, far Breton, and galettes from Pont-Aven that make Danish butter cookies taste as if they’re made with lard. There’s cider and wine and more conversation about local specialties—oysters, crab, mussels, langoustine, salmon, monkfish, and what else to see and do in Brittany. Just before we arrive at the station, a boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen, comes over and shyly asks in broken English if Kathryn would write a note in English to a girl he met in Dublin the previous summer. She does, of course, and when she gives it to him and wishes him “bonne chance,” he blushes and thanks us and kisses us both on each cheek. Everyone around us hoots and whistles and claps.
As the train pulls into the station, people begin saying their good-byes—au revoir, bonne journée, à bientôt. Clearly, this is important to them, this business of getting together and leaving. They say their good-byes cheerfully and with smiles but also with a sense of loss. It was the same with the stewards and stewardesses at Charles de Gaulle when they said their
au revoirs as we deplaned. They said it as if they meant it, as if something significant had happened between us. And, as if to make that point, the woman who first gave me the sausage and bread comes over to me, shakes my hand, kisses me twice, once on each cheek, and pats my arm. I stand there and wave bye-bye.
We have an hour’s wait for the commuter train that will take us to our village. Kathryn goes to the office to buy our tickets. I push and pull the luggage carts into the station and look for a place to leave them. There is none. No Baggage Claim. No Left Luggage. Zip. On my third or fourth circle around the station, I find a bank of about ten lockers that are camouflaged to look like the wall, none larger than a bread box. All of them are locked, in use. It’s extraordinary, really, the number of ways France finds to make daily life a difficulty. I look around for a bench to sit on. None of those either. Not a chair or a seat, unless you count the floor, which several people are already using. It’s just like the airport while we waited for our baggage.
I push and pull the carts outside and wait. Except for the signs in French, the station and everything around it is Anywhere, U.S.A., 1950s–’60s postwar, ugly, cheap. I studied European history in college and know a little about France and the war. Brittany was occupied by the Germans, and Brest, which had been one of the chief naval ports in France for centuries, served the same function for Germany. The Germans based the submarines they used in the Battle of the Atlantic here, and the Bismarck was heading here when it was sunk. Brest was liberated by the U.S. Army under Patton in 1944, and in the process was completely destroyed by the constant bombardments and house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat. That’s why it looks like Newark.
I leave the luggage—something I’d never do in the U.S.—and cross the street to look at the bay. Bright yellow cranes unload a red-and-green tanker. Sailboats of all sizes and shapes—including three old tall masters with rust-orange sails, painted rowboats, barges, yachts, trawlers, ferries, even a kayak and a racing scull—move in and out and around the harbor. It’s a lovely, tranquil sight: bright yellow cranes, primary-colored boats, white cotton candy clouds, silvery light, and the blue-green sea. I try to imagine what it was like before the war, and during the war, and how beautiful and awful it must have been.
I return to the station and find Kathryn. We go to the track, and this time I manage to post my ticket correctly on the second attempt and board the local commuter train, which is like the Toonerville Trolley, two little green cars with tiny baggage compartments. As before, the people are reticent, but also as before, become friendly and funny and curious. One woman wants to know where we’re from, another where we’re going, and all want to know why we’re there. Kathryn, in her perfectly accented and conjugated French, explains.
I nod while she tells them, periodically say “Oui,” and shrug, while stealing glances through the windows at the lush, verdant land, a quilt of greens, tiny squares, rectangles, and triangles divided and subdivided by rows of hedges, stunted trees, and stone walls. The land is hilly, roly-poly, looking beautiful, wintry in the early evening mist, and hard to sow. Cows and sheep graze everywhere. I don’t see a single person, but dotting the land like punctuation are huge rolls of hay and small, two-story stone houses with dark slate roofs. There’s a fixedness to it all that’s comforting.
We arrive in Loscoat forty minutes later, where a taxi is waiting at the station. On the ride to the house, Kathryn once
again explains who we are, where we’re from, and why we’re there, as I oooh and aah over the shops in the village—boulangerie, pâtisserie, crêperie, charcuterie—the old stone bridge we drive over, the river, sailboats, people fishing along the quay, the flowers—bright red geraniums and fuchsias perched on windowsills and hanging from lampposts, pink, white, and blue hydrangeas lining the road—the sky, and that light again, even with the clouds, the vitality and durability of everything, including the old men playing boules and finally our village, Plobien, a one-road hamlet with a row of three-story stucco houses and an occasional stand-alone house facing the river, and our house, Chez Sally: a blue-shuttered, white stucco row house thirty feet from the quay. As we step out of the cab, the driver points up. A double rainbow dusts the sky. The three of us watch until it fades and disappears. Then the driver leaves and Kathryn goes next door to get the keys from our contact, a Madame Piriou, the person who will change my life.
I sit on the steps and look at the river. On the other side is a crumbled old stone house with broken-down walls that once must have been a château. Around it are open fields where cows graze and horses run wild. A fish leaps out of the water and lands gracelessly with a flop. From upriver—or down, I can’t tell—a sailboat heads my way. It doesn’t get any more perfect than this. I take Céline from my backpack and start to read. I’m expecting to wait fifteen or thirty minutes because nothing in France, except the driving, seems to go fast. Kathryn returns in a paragraph, a Céline paragraph, which surprises, pleases, and bothers me. I don’t know what it means, but I know it means something. This is France, and every human thing does.
I put the key in the lock and fiddle with it and finally open the door. Dankness engulfs us, followed by a funeral smell.
“It’s an old stone house,” Kathryn says. “It’s normal—C’est normal,” a phrase I would learn to hate.
I pull the bags in and leave them in the hallway. I also leave the door open to let in the light and out the smell.
“Look, a stereo, TV, VCR, and dozens of English and American movies on tape.” I follow her voice, with a mixture of hope and dread, into the combined living room–dining room. The windows are shuttered so I can’t see out. There are a table and four chairs for eating and a couch and three chairs for sitting, all pretty ratty looking, which is fine with me: nothing here to destroy.
“There’s a dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer, in the kitchen.” I peek in and see that they, along with the stove and refrigerator, are Whirlpool, Philips, and Brandt, American, Dutch, and German. For some reason that reassures me.
We go upstairs to the second floor, which the French call the first floor, le premier étage, and find a small study at the top of the stairwell. The window is unshuttered and looks out at the river, the hills and fields, and the sky, an encouraging sight. It’s a little nest, this room, with its writing desk, captain’s chair, and three-shelf bookcase filled with English and American books. Kathryn looks at me and I look at her, and we smile, knowing this is going to be a fight: Who’s going to get this room? We leave it as fast as we can.
I push open the door to the adjoining room and enter the bedroom. It’s big and airy and has an even larger window than the study and lets in the same view, only more of it, and oodles and oodles of light. Everything glimmers, including the dust and the spiderwebs. I sit on the double bed facing the mirrored armoire and watch myself bounce up and down. Then I lie down and roll over and over again. “The mattress is firm,” I pronounce.
“That’s what the lady said,” Kathryn says, as she disappears into the bathroom. I follow her. It has a shower, thank God, and a bidet—something I yearn to use. The toilet’s in a separate room—a great idea, right up there with evolution, and probably responsible for saving thousands of relationships.
On the third floor, le deuxième étage, there’s another bedroom with a double bed that isn’t so firm (I find out later that summer), a tiny sitting room with a torn sofa, a scuzzy sink and toilet, and, to my great relief, another study. It has the same view as the first one, and it’s a little larger, has a bigger desk, a leather chair, more books, and a radio. I can’t believe our luck. The house has two studies on three floors—a floor for each of us to work on: the third for me; the second for her. “You did it,” I say, giving her a hug and a kiss. “Nice work.”
“Thanks,” she says. “I’m beat.”
It’s nine o’clock in the evening and still as light as if it were three in the afternoon. We’ve been traveling twenty hours, door to door. I follow her down the stairs to the second-floor bedroom, on le premier étage, where she lies fully clothed on the bed. I continue down the stairs to close and lock the door. Then I go back to the bedroom, open the window, and lie down next to her and fall asleep. Sometime in the early-morning hours I wake up, then she does too, and we lie there in the light of the moon as the breeze from the river washes over us. The last thing she says before I fall asleep is “Bienvenue en France.”
“Merci,” I say, and mean it, and I still do. Merci, merci.
Over the next two months we drive each other crazy and fall out of love, and in spite of that, or to spite that, or despite that, or having nothing at all to do with that, I begin to fall in love with Brittany, Finistère, the end of the world.