Getting There

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.

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