Within a week, he’d introduced me to his sister and mother, he took me to have lunch with his grandmother.
As far as we were concerned, as a couple, he had clearly decided: this was the real thing.
Of course, I eventually asked him why he’d kept inviting the Irish girl out and having me tag along. He replied “You don’t have a telephone and I could hardly call her just to ask you out.” He had a point.
My poor friend. Lucky me.
Francis and I were inseparable… for one month.
It was my last month in France.
During the month, I told him about my plans to travel around Europe with my Eurail pass and he reluctantly listened to me dreaming of leaving him to visit my family in Sweden, friends in Estonia, etc… I was nervous but ready for the escapade. For me it was an entirely magical month filled with love and eager anticipation of new countries to discover. I would start in the city of Amsterdam and working my way up through Scandinavia and then down to Italy and back to France via Austria.
During the month, he was conscripted to the army. In those days all French men had to do a compulsory year of military service. The letter came while I was with him. He would be stationed in Germany. I was thrilled for him,an adventure in another country! He was devastated; it would be hard to visit his family on week-ends. For him the month was an anxious month: our looming separation, the impending enlistment…
We were both on the verge of growing up. Learning we could do more than we believed we were capable of doing. Frightened of the unknown. And, we clung to every moment with each other knowing our time together was going to be too short.
That month was intensified by my knowledge of the scarcity of time. I lived every moment in the present, savoring each experience like I might slowly enjoy a sugar cube melting on my tongue. Everything was Technicolor. Everything was 3-D. Everything was new and stunning and fleeting. I was drunk with infatuation and the simplest things became bigger than life.
One evening, Francis and I climbed the hundreds of stairs up to the citadel together. He took the lead and turned around occasionally to look in my eyes and smile. Once at the top, breathless, we dared mount the crumbling steps of a rampart. With the foolishness of those who have not yet tasted their mortality we climbed atop a wall designed to protect defenders from attacking arrows. He knelt down and I used his thigh as a step. I crushed him under my weight and he only smiled up at me as I looked down apologetically. Then he hoisted himself up to join me on the ledge with the ease of a swimmer rising out of a pool. We sat there with our legs dangling down over the height with the city stretching out before us. He borrowed my camera and stole a picture of me. Always the photographer, I felt shy and awkward with the lens turned on me. We sat there for hours just watching the red-tiled rooftops fade into the darkness at dusk, watching the streetlights and windows gradually light up with the warm glow of incandescent bulbs. We leaned against each other. He wrapped his arm around me. We kissed. Love made time disappear. Doing nothing together with him was the only thing I wanted to do. Just being together, it was enough. The city looked like a fairyland of lights amidst the deepening cobalt sky. We had been enveloped in a Maxfield Parrish image. Contentment.
Twenty years later, Francis still has that picture. It is on his desk at the university where he teaches.
The weeks slipped slowly by during that one month we had together back when we first met in France. We must have seen each other almost every day.
On the week that my classes finished, he borrowed dusty, old, cobweb-covered, gearless city bikes and cleaned one up for me and the other for himself. And, one beautiful sunny day at the end of May when the sky was a beautiful blue and the temperature could only be described as perfect, we set out on the bikes with a change of clothes and a picnic lunch headed for his grandmother’s village.
We left the city along the river valley, passing through little villages and along tiny old roads used so rarely that some sections were gravel, I breathed it all in: all the lush green fields and forests, the hill top forts, the little steeples, the shimmering light of the sun dancing across the water in flashes and sparkles, the blue sky and cotton candy clouds. The perfection. The bliss. It was like a dream.
The ride was a bit rough because we were riding city bikes with thin racing wheels along gravel paths, but the path clung to the river bank for the most part and thus remained pleasantly flat. barges floated lazily by with flags from France, Holland, Germany…
It was a four to five hour ride. So after a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch. Sitting on the side of the riverbank we ate sandwhiches that he had prepared; baguettes generously buttered with creamy duck liver mousse au canard and peppered with the miniature French pickles called cornichons. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious.
After a long day of riding, a tall hill was all that stood between us and our destination. Besancon is set in a subalpine mountain range called the Jura mountains. So when I say hill, it was no little thing.
I made it about one third of the way up before dismounting to push the bike up the switch-back road that cut across the steep incline. Francis was well ahead of me, still riding, standing on the peddles to give extra push to each effort. As soon as he noticed I wasn’t with him, he dismounted and waited for me to catch up. Pushing his bike alongside me, he kept me company for the long ascent. And it was long.
And it was worth every effort.
At the top, a medieval village awaited us, complete with a feudal castle and sweeping views out over the valleys below. Each valley seemed to have a little village from whence rose a church steeple, always with a unique dome some metal, others made of brightly colored mosaic tiles.
We parked the bikes and explored on foot, daring to wander mischievously into the private gardens of the castle. The thrill of the forbidden. Then strolling along the road to find the best view. We took a break and sat looking out over the sweeping subalpine meadows dotted with wildflowers and grazing cows. The balmy breezy carried the strangely musical clunks of cow bells as the cows slowly shifted their weight from one leg to another, the tinny clunk when one lowered her head to graze and another raised her head. Birds peeped and piped and tweeted. Francis’ hand felt warm and soft in mine. I turned his hand over and drew lazy figure eights on his palm with my index finger. He leaned in cupping my jaw line in his freehand and tilting my face up toward him for a gentle kiss, such soft lips. His other arm glid lithely around my waist as he pulled me closer.
“Je t’aime” he whispered in my ear.
“I love you, too.” I replied.
And he pulled me toward him and held me in his arms as though he never wanted to let go.
We shared a bottle of water. The time passed slowly. We were in no hurry. To the contrary, we dawdled as though we could somehow make time slow down.
Eventually, we mounted the bikes and started to coast down the hill.
The bikes picked up speed at a frightening rate. Francis whizzed down the hill enjoying the speed. Fearless daredevil! The hill was steep. The road was narrow. Fortunately there weren’t many cars or turns. I road the breaks constantly to keep my speed under control and clamped down hard on them so I could handle the turns without careening over the edge.
Suddenly, my breaks gave out.
My bike picked up speed quickly. It picked up so much speed that I quickly caught up to Francis. I passed him just as quickly. There was a turn coming up. I was going too fast to stop the bike with my feet. Francis peddled frantically downhill to catch up with me. It must have been clear that I was out of control. I was fixed on steering the bike, so filled with terror that adrenalin had taken over and made me numb. I was acutely aware of the occasional car slowly ascending the hill with it’s motor groaning against the effort. I didn’t’ want to wipe out in front of one of them.
My heart was in my throat.
The village was below, so tiny. I took my eyes off the road for a fleeting fraction of a second to see how far I had to go. The village was so tiny down there. I couldn’t look. I shouldn’t look.
I kept my eyes glued to the edge of the road. I clung to the handlebars so hard my knuckles were white. All I could hear was the rapid rhythm of my heart pounding in my ears. I think Francis may have been calling to me, but I don’t know for sure, all I really heard was “Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub”.
I couldn’t do it anymore. A huge hairpin turn was coming up.
I managed to get my feet down without sending the bike off balance or hurting my knees. I applied pressure gradually. Heat developed under my feet.
Francis managed to catch up to me. He rode next to me while I slowed the bike.
I managed to bring the bike to a hault before the turn. Francis stopped next to me. I explained. I looked at the bottoms of my shoes. I had nearly worn the soles off.
I told him I would have to walk the bike down the hill.
Instead, he traded bikes with me and told me to meet him at the bottom.
I slowly made my way down the hill riding heavily on the breaks and savoring the invigorating sensation of elation.
But I also watched in horror as his figure got smaller and smaller in the distance until he disappeared around one of the switchback turns. When I rounded the corner, I just caught sight of him rounding the next. By the time I got to that turn, he was already out of sight.
When I finally reached the bottom, he was safe, lying in the grass waiting patiently for me.
He led me to his grandmother’s home. She was expecting us. We rang the buzzer at her apartment. When she didn’t answer, he took me straight down the street along the walled riverside gardens until we got to a wooden door that was ajar.
We slipped in. He offered no explanation.
It was like The Secret Garden. All brambles and weeds of a forgotten place amidst which there was a solid wall of wild roses. The roses burst with the lightest and darkest pinks and shades of pinkish-white. Pink, pink, pink. It was charming. The grass had been mown, so that there was a fine expanse of lawn. There were nubby, gnarly fruit trees and an ivy covered building. A little river, the one that started in the painter Gustav Courbet’s hometown had wound its way all the way here, and flowed green along side the garden. Canoers and Kayakers paddled by. A man with wading pants was fishing on the opposite bank.
Francis’s grandmother, mamie, was sitting in the garden cutting potatoes into thick sticks to fry. He went over and kissed her affectionately and she scolded him equally affectionately for being so dirty and sweaty, calling him by her son/ his father’s name as though the sight of his face transported her back in time. She upbraided him for bringing me on such a long dusty ride. Which I took as a welcome. A welcome of the best kind, the kind when you are treated like an old acquaintance even before you’ve met. Then her face broke into a huge smile. She was clearly delighted to see him.
I gave her the “bise”, the traditional French greeting, in Francis’ region it was just one kiss on both cheeks and I delivered them shyly as she simultaneously kissed my cheeks vigorously. She continued cutting potatoes and launched into her story of the handsome American GI who had broken his promise to marry her after WWII because he’d already promised to marry another girl back home. Oh, the heartbreak.
She went in to heat the oil.
Francis and I laid in the grass and naively talked of marriage. He was a Sartre-ist who didn’t believe in marriage. He was all about co-habitation. I was more of a traditionalist. I argued that if we were going to live together for the rest of our lives, wouldn’t it be nice to have a fabulous party first to share the joy of that decision with our friends. Anyhow, we weren’t from the same country, I pointed out. There were practical issues. We needed to get married if we were going to live together in the same country: there were VISA issues. But neither of us were serious. These were just the dreamy talks of young lovers. I didn’t want to marry him now. It was just fun to imagine, to debate, to fantasize about a long distant future that could be spent together. He concurred reluctantly and then we day dreamed together about what a marvelous party we could have right here in the garden when the roses were in bloom. He told me about some of the wild parties he’d hosted here with his friends.
Mamie was preparing dinner for us in her summer kitchen, adjacent to the riverside garden. We would eat outdoors and savor the weather. I would savor the setting.
While the potatoes fried, Francis walked me around the small space and explained how she’d bought it from a friend long ago. The garden was walled on one side and bordered by the river on the other. Mamie had filled it with hydrangeas, fruit trees and the cascade of verdant wild roses that concealed the wall.Her kitchen was in a funny little stone building which Francis said had once been a sort of tax or toll booth for those entering or leaving the village.
“Philippe!” She called him over to help her once again addressing him by his father’s name. She salted and peppered three steaks, browned them in a pan and removed them. She couldn’t see very well. On her signal, Francis tossed into the pan a shot of Armagnac, which is a really nice version of cognac and equally high in alcohol. He deftly set it ablaze with a quickly lit match. The blaze reached the low ceiling and danced momentarily against the smooth white painted surface. When the fire was almost entirely quiet, the last little whimpers of blue and orange flame were drowned in cream to make sauce that turned out to be heavenly. It was rich and creamy, a bit spicy thanks to the freshly ground pepper and the perfect foil to the savory meat.
It was a wonderful day and we slept well that night alone in the garden in the dilapidated room upstairs in the toll house.
The next day, while Francis was helping his grandmother move some heavy furniture back at her apartment, I walked around the little village and poked my head in the little shop they called a “conquillerie”. It was full of everything from anvils and cement to LaCreuset cast-iron enameled cookware and china cups with saucers. I had greeted the shopkeeper with a warm “Bonjour” upon entering but it was quickly clear that he found it as peculiar as his neighboring grocer did when I said that I was “just looking”. Why would anyone come to a shop if they didn’t need something in particular?
On the road leading out of town, I spotted a huge vine covered old building. Perhaps it had once been a barn. Now, it housed an antique shop with a sign on the door which I didn’t see as I went in to browse that read “by appointment” followed by a phone number.
I barely got a glance at anything when a little woman with reading glasses and silver curls began to interrogate me. She wanted to know who I was. She wanted to know why I was there.
Her tone warmed when I mentioned my boyfriend’s family. Obviously, I’d come to her shop to pay her visit. Because no one would just drop in a shop to look around, now would they?
She offered me a seat.
I mean, I wasn’t going to be rude! She clearly didn’t expect me to do any browsing… so taking a brief moment out of my unhurried day seemed the thing to do.
Half an hour later, I noticed the sign on the door as I was leaving.
She must have been lonely. I’d said barely a word. She reminisced about how talented Francis’s father had been, even as a child. He had become an antique dealer too. “He has a gift” she told me. “He has ‘an eye’” she told me as though it was a mystical thing, “he sees beauty where others cannot and he has the skill to reveal that hidden beauty to the world”.
Francis and I spent the week-end canoeing and enjoying the garden.