I prefer to recall the beginnings of things. Nothing is really wrong with the middle or the end. I just find that if you’re going to take the effort to step into the space of reflection, the starting point tends to be much more satisfying.
My first face-to-face encounter with France was a trip to Paris at the age of 19. I say encounter because for a college girl traveling alone to a foreign country, Paris does not reveal itself subtly. The city explodes in front of you boasting its many contradictions — its ancient history and beauty mixed with sordid urban life, its cliché tourist hotspots and the not-so-underground subcultures. Despite all of the stories you’ve heard about the way Paris has romanced millions of people for hundreds of years, you convince yourself you are the first to experience such grandeur in all the history of man.
It was winter, the middle of December, and my Southern Californian-self was all bundled up in a long, black pea coat, a color-blocked scarf from the Gap, a darling hat and snow boots — just in case it might snow. I remember schlepping from the metro station to my friend’s apartment in the Marais, my massive royal blue rolling LL Bean duffel bag struggling over the cobblestone sidewalk. I remember Madame Lombardi, the haggard, omnipresent landlord of my friend’s building shaming me for making too much noise as I walked up six flights of stairs. I remember mint tea and homemade crêpes with new Parisian friends, being complimented on my choice of wine at a fancy dinner spot, and the haunting beauty of the Père Lachaise cemetery. Everything was perfect. Even my first Turkish bathroom, my first stinky waiter, and my first snub at a parfurmerie on the Rive Gauche made me feel alive and connected. I practically danced down The Champs Elysées, and when I saw how the Arc de Triomphe looked at night — it took all of my will and rationale to keep from throwing my hat in the sky while spinning around in circles, delighted in the urgency of something new.
Ten years later, here in Lacoste, I’m seeing a different side of France. If Paris is a woman, she’s a firecracker, that one —fabulous and chic, brilliant and posh, confident, arrogant — already a little over you before you’ve expressed your interest, but she’ll allow you to chase her anyway — it amuses her. If Lacoste is a woman, she is your best friend, and you know it from the moment you look at her. She is warm and welcoming and has a wise, darling grandmother who thinks you need to eat more food. She leads a simple life, but is anything but simple. She observes more than she speaks, she is generous and available, and when she smiles, it is as though the galaxy as discovered its latest star.
I don’t think of myself as being pessimistic; for me, the glass is more than full — it’s constantly overflowing. But after just days in Lacoste, I already knew what I would recall in my reflection of the beginning. I already knew what I would miss.
I will remember the way the sky holds pinks and greys with equal amounts of intensity and the moment I finally understood what Monet was trying to do. I will remember the taste of crisp, bright red and yellow cherry tomatoes, eaten straight off of the vine from my new friend’s farm. I will remember that la vallée Luberon never looks the same and yet its classic image is burned into my memory. I will remember the clock tower and the bell that consistently rings on time, three to five minutes late. I will remember seeing hornets, beetles, bumblebees and scorpions and noticing the urge to call Pest Control had left me. And I will remember the wind, rolling and fluid, scented with hints of lavender fields that make the landscape so inescapably vibrant.
But at heart, I’m a person who needs and seeks out people. As much as I enjoy being alone, I am fulfilled in what it means to be human when I connect with others. And so I know, what I will miss most about being in Lacoste are the Lacostois, the men and women who have grown up in and around this village. I will miss hearing and speaking French and learning how to say things in the proper Southern accent. I will miss hearing Robert’s music go from the Gipsy Kings to Michael Jackson. I will miss Marie and Laurent, their side glances and murmured couple-conversation. I will miss the way Bruno corrects my verb conjugation and the way Renaldo at Café de France, when asked what time he’s closing up, never says a time, but just “Bientôt,” soon. And when I get home in September and see my friends and family they will be so happy that I’m back, and of course, I will be too. We’ll make plans to catch up, get together for drinks and talk about the last couple of months for hours.
But I know who I am. And I know that when I walk into my old neighborhood bar and see my wonderful friends and my favorite bartender, I will have to excuse myself for a moment, because I will have lost my breath. For I know, I will be all together moved by the realization, there is no one in that bar who will kiss me three times and say ça va? That when I look out at the view I won’t see limestone-capped mountains, or the dance of flying birds feeding at sunset. I will see other things. And they will be good. But it won’t be Lacoste. And I will remember.
1 September 2016