When I was 17, turning 18, I went with my mom to England and Scotland to celebrate my high school graduation. We were based in London in the flat of a friend of my mom’s, and toured the city and traveled around the UK, from Bath to Glasgow to Edinburgh and through the Scottish Highlands and over to the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Skye and its neighbors, half of one of which was named for our people.
I was in shock for much of the trip, as I had never really been anywhere before.
I was floored by sensation: the curiously clean smell of the London suburb of Richmond; the permeating flavor of green peppercorns in restaurants throughout much of Scotland; the astounding sound of people really saying “Cheerio” and “Jolly good” while actually inhabiting flesh; the reverential feeling of walking among the ancient stones of Callanish and beholding the stupendous artistry of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Toward the end of our trip we found ourselves in Plymouth and realized that it would be easy and fun to take a ferry to France.
I remember the voyage being fairly long, or at least taking place overnight, and settling down for the journey on the crowded floor of the ship with a copy of Dracula or Cujo or whatever paperback I had managed to forage in a tiny train station in Scotland two days before.
We alighted in the morning, a Sunday, and found ourselves steeped in the tranquility of a sleeping village. It must have been the day before Assumption Day, my research indicates, as it was August and everyone on the ferry had said that the banks and the shops would be closed the next day.
All the other passengers must have leaped into rental cars and fled as soon as we arrived, because the town remained lusciously slumberous the whole time we were there.
All in all, I remember four things about those quiet days: picking seashells on the beach; buying, at some point, bread, cheese, apples, wine, and a knife and corkscrew for a picnic; spilling my wine at a cafe; and the view from our hotel room.
The wine incident was one of the things that warmed me to a love of France.
I was embarrassed partially by my nationality and largely by my inability to speak French, so I was trying to say as little as possible other than “Bonjour” and “Merci.” I was in the act of smoking as inconspicuously as possible while people-watching from our perch in a cafe when I became engrossed in developing a friendship with a handsome spaniel, and, without thought or finesse, knocked my wine glass to the ground as I reached to pet the pup.
The glass shattered into a million disgracing shards and the liquid splashed my leg and chair and the ground and the dog and half of France. I expected to be banished for the unforgivable faux pas, to be called a stupid American and laughed out of the town, but immediately the man with the dog and his wife and their son and the waiter and the owner and a passerby and half the village jumped up and rushed to my aid, wiping my leg and brushing away the glass and whisking away the mess and earnestly asking “Ca va?” and breezing back with a new glass all garnet and full and doing everything possible to ensure that I was OK and that the mess was gone and that I had everything I needed to be comfortable.
It looks in the picture like the man in the 80s jacket is glaring warningly at the inelegant American teenager to his left, but in fact he’s regarding his dog to ensure that she behaves, that she’s as respectful and courteous and composed as any belle fille de France.
I had already known, both instinctively and through my travels in Britain, that people are generally courteous in most places you travel, but this incident proved to me that despite their reputation, French people can be particularly gracious and kind.
Our hotel room in Roscoff was across the street, and it offered one of the most magnificent views in my memory.
I remember standing in that wooden-floored room above the town in the late afternoon, amid a simple old wardrobe and dresser and two twin beds, looking out the open window at the cobblestones below and the church to my right as the bells rang, feeling that feeling you sometimes get when all of life’s prospects and beauty seem to unfold before you and enfold around you, and thinking, at eighteen years old:
“This is why I’m alive.”