A little different than my previous posts – which center around a particular experience or lesson & big-picture things learned from it – this is more of a travel vignette. It’s the story of traveling to Spain & France in 2008 with one of my best friends. A shorter version of this piece was performed at RUI: Reading Under the Influence, a wonderful reading series in Chicago that Julia and I and a few other fine folks are the creators of. There’s only a hint of a “big-picture-ness” here, but it’s still about travel, change, and living life.
Perhaps that day in France was cursed from the beginning.
My trip to Biarritz, a city on the country’s southwestern coast, should have been wonderfully idyllic. I was supposed to spend a week with my boyfriend, a rugged Peruvian man who lived there. We’d met while I was on a lengthy South American vacation and fell quickly in love over our mutual admiration for dancing and art and rum-filled cocktails. He was the color of milk chocolate and he said romantic things that sounded like poetry and music and joy wrapped together. I know it’s all kinds of cliché, but we had a Vacation Romance that felt real. Rather than die out after I returned to the States and he returned to France, where he worked as a chef, our romance continued via email, phone, and Skype, for months. We sent birthday cards and gifts and talked every day. It didn’t take long before he suggested I visit him.
What’s that? A beautiful man wants me to visit him in France?
Not exactly a tough decision.
He would pick me up in San Sebastian, in northern Spain, but we would spend the week together in France, drinking wine and eating croissants and frolicking on the beach and be European together. We’d speak a sort of Spanglish to each other (because my Spanish is really just bad Portuguese), I’d call home in English, and he’d speak French to everyone else. We’d be so freaking international, I could hardly stand it.
But then one day, three weeks before I was supposed to leave for this Romance Utopia, his girlfriend sent me an email. His French girlfriend of three years. You know, the one he failed to mention when we met. That one.
So I said screw him.
But before I tried to pawn the ticket, I decided to take the trip to the Basque country anyway – quick, somebody cue I Will Survive! – and instead of meeting my divine milk-chocolate man, I’d take a cute little blonde: my friend Julia. She was a writer and the kind of fun, single, smart, and witty big sister who is perfect for a helping to mend a broken heart. Still very fun – but in a very different way.
We got a hotel in San Sebastian, and enjoyed pintxos and wine, and 23-centavo beers from the supermercado, but decided to take a day trip to Biarritz. I mean, we couldn’t be so close to France and not go. But I should’ve known the stars were against us when I almost hurled in Julia’s lap on the bus ride there. We foolishly sat in the back and the driver thought he was racing in a tiny little sports car on the winding, hilly road during the hour-long ride. After finally arriving – and happily kissing solid ground – we found that the whole town was closed for the European afternoon siesta. Even the lovely-sounding Chocolate Museum from my guidebook was shuttered. We thought we’d found a charming bookstore that was open, after seeing a portly old man sitting in an armchair inside – but as we stepped through the doorway, he swatted his newspaper at us like we were flies and growled at us in a string of angry French. Oof. This was not going well.
And then the rain. Dear God, the rain. Noah would’ve been impressed. Soaking from head to toe, no umbrellas, we shivered in a phone booth for 15 minutes and joked about how funny this would be some day. But really, we were miserable and drenched and there was nowhere to go.
Then, like an oasis in the desert – only the other way around – we found a Radisson hotel with a lounge that was open. We dripped inside – ridiculously wet, beyond wet. We trailed water to the table, our hair was plastered in ribbons to our cheeks. Julia headed to the bathroom to use the hand driers, while I took off my coat and realized both my sweater and my dress underneath…and my bra…and my underwear were soaked too. My toes made little squeegee-squishee sounds in my boots.
A sweet, handsome man – our host – approached the table. His name was Laurent. Seriously. Laurent. He was perfectly French. He had dark brown hair and deep set eyes and a long French nose. He smiled warmly at him as if we were long-time friends. He made no indication that I looked like a sad, ugly mermaid.
“So eh-you had a sho-wer, eh?” he asked in a delightful accent, smiling as he nodded in the direction of the monsoon outside. His eyes sparkled and I hoped he was being cheeky, thinking about me in the shower, but I doubted it. Laurent was not prissy or girlish in any way, but he looked like the kind of man who might drink his tea with an extended pinky. He wasn’t a ravaging, washboard-abs sort of guy, like the ex, but dammit, I was in France: I was owed a beautiful man and I’d take what I could get.
When Julia returned, Laurent served us the smoothest wine of my life and told us “how see-mplee won-der-ful Biarritz eez een de su-mmer.” I realized then: I am in love with Laurent. Ok, maybe I was just feeling lonely, displacing my affection for the ex. But I was pretty sure I wanted to have his babies and live in a seaside cottage with a white picket fence on a rocky cliff. I wanted to drink wine all day long and make pastries and feed them to him while we laughed and both had perfect hair all the time. Julia, ever the loyal girlfriend, posited that Laurent was likely charmed by our plucky American-ness: we had taken the bus – public transportation – from Spain! We had arrived during the siesta – or whatever it’s called in French! We had arrived during rainy season without umbrellas! And now, without shame and trailing rainwater wherever we went, we were unapologetically drinking glass after glass of fine wine as if it were Kool-Aid! I mean, we were American: nothing could keep us down!
Julia swirled her wine expertly and gazed into it before taking a sip and saying: “Mandy, you’d probably make his day if you flirted with him.” (Note: This is exactly why Julia is the perfect vacation-mate.) But I never got up the nerve to truly flirt with Laurent, because I can never flirt with the ones I’m keen on and his shift was over before I could change my mind.
When the rain let up, Julia and I left the Radisson and landed in a bar around the corner from the bus stop. We easily had 30 minutes before our bus left and took the opportunity to enjoy another glass or two of glorious French wine. Really – this stuff made me consider becoming a sommelier. Alas, though, that was yet another nail in our coffin to that doomed day in France. After leaving the bar, we made our way to the bus stop where we waited and waited for a bus that never came.
Timidly walking up to a bus at another stop where a driver sat reading the newspaper, I peeked in the doorway and quietly asked, hopefully: Tu parles anglais? The man scoffed at us like you’d imagine a French bus driver might scoff at you for asking if he spoke English. Non. He returned to his newspaper. And then, I pulled all four years of high school French that were left in my brain to produce the sentence: Ou est l’autobus pour San Sebastian, s’il vous plait? The man’s face lit up like I’d told him a fantastic joke. Ehhhh, San Sebastian? Then he rattled off a rapid succession of French, of which I only understood “over there,” “bus,” and “gone, 15 minutes.” We were screwed.
There was no bus back to San Sebastian until 9 a.m. the next day. There were no trains in the city and we hadn’t seen a taxi all day. All the other buses were city buses.
And then it started to rain again. This time with biting wind. Then the rain turned to hail. Hail. HAIL. We were Job, we were on trial, we were being tested. We were trapped in Biarritz and we didn’t know a soul.
Except of course for my ex-boyfriend.
I would like to say I never thought about calling him, that I didn’t have any interest in hearing his voice. But I did. I wanted to hear him say, like he always did, “I am missing you.” I wanted things to be the way they were before – just for a while – but even more than that, I wanted to be dry and in a bed. I didn’t care if I had to pretend he didn’t have a girlfriend: we needed help and he was it.
With my self-respect firmly tucked away in my back pocket, I dialed his number and thought about how I would explain the situation. “Hello dear, guess where I am!” I would make it sound exciting and make him think this was all a happy surprise for him. I might hate myself in the morning, but at least I’d be hating myself with dry feet. His number only rang and rang though before his voice mail clicked on and because I knew from experience that my international number wouldn’t show up on caller ID, I hung up. Tucking away your pride is one thing, but having your humiliation recorded to be dealt with later is an entirely different matter.
I might’ve been sad if I’d realized how symbolic it all was, hanging up on the relationship for the last time: Saying goodbye to that dreamy Vacation Romance – all that hopefulness that builds up when can’t hold the person you want to be with. I might’ve been sad if I’d realized I was hanging up on the last 7 months of my life and everything I thought might come after, but worrying about dry clothes and a bed to sleep in ranks way higher on the hierarchy of needs than feeling bad about lying cheating dillholes who don’t answer their phones.
So somehow, somehow, we find a cabstand and unbelievably, as we wondered how long it would take for a cab to appear, one does. God himself set this cab on the road and sent him to us. I slid in the back seat and started my request in the best French I could muster: Je voudrais…and before I could finish, our savior behind the wheel turned and said, English? I wanted to kiss him, I wanted to hug him, I wanted to bake him cookies. English? Yes, God bless America. English. Julia slid in beside me and in her wonderful Julia-ness whispered, I’m so happy I would give him sexual favors and we explained everything and asked if he might drive us to Spain. He nodded, “Of course,” and off we went, back to our hotel, away from France, and away from everything that, at one time, I thought made me happy.