The summer before we stole the car from the English electrician, our friend who arranged for us to pick grapes in Southern France, Eve, gushed from her perch in the 107th Street bistro, glass of wine in hand, fresh-faced and rested from what we would later learn was an extended stay at a sanatorium.
“I’ve spoken to the Madame, and her grapes are definitely growing,” Eve’s smoky laugh tinkled imperceptibly in the noisy bar. “She’s very excited to host you girls in Provence this fall. Oh, I wish I were going,” Eve lamented politely. “I’ve got to finish this semester, though. I’ve got to finish something.”
I admired so many things about Eve: her frosty hair and lined face seemed worldly at 20, as did her dry pride in the social nuisance of finishing college in four years. Add the fact that she kept disappearing, keeping my travel partners and I guessing about the grape-picking gig, and she quickly became just the right type of mysterious to me. One week I’d bump into her on the crowded city campus, finishing a blue cigarette by the Pan statue before our creative writing class. “See you upstairs in a minute,” she’d said with a weary smile. But when her empty chair persisted for that day and days after, Eve’s power only grew in my mind. She was living an urban, Cheshire life and I couldn’t think of anything more romantic.
I longed to break out of my suburban girl’s shell. Besides working as a hostess in a dingy, Upper West Side jazz club, I lived a fairly sheltered life for a twenty-one-year- old, commuting by bus from my parents’ house to Columbia University, scrunchies in my ponytail, buried under books in the magnificent library after lectures. I had no social life to speak of since relinquishing my cool magazine internship (I couldn’t afford not to be paid). New York was all around me, but I hardly felt like a city girl.
According to Eve’s pitch, if I was willing to take a semester off and fly to France, I could work the harvest for a few weeks and stay with Eve’s family friend, Madame Beauvert, who prevailed over acres of what would become Cotes du Rhone. My imagination conjured not backbreaking work, but lavender fields and nearby Mediterranean beaches; and Paris. I could live in France instead of read about how Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller did. So I withdrew from the upcoming fall semester and bought non-refundable plane tickets in cash, my first two major decisions made without parental consent. With a few hundred dollars saved from drunken tippers, I boarded a plane with a borrowed backpack and an elevated feeling that I was both finally living and pulling off a stunt meant for other, more privileged people.
But once seated and angling into the air, I felt sweat seep into the armpits of my Putamayo dress. In retrospect this onset of in-flight panic, prompted by fears of a future ruined while sipping free champagne on Air France, stood to reason. I had had no direct contact with Madame Beauvert. Our “plans”, arranged through Eve, had no confirmed dates of beginning or ending. I had no credit card, and of the three of us traveling, my college-level French was by far the best (I had gotten a B- in Conversation).
My travel partner, Mae, shook her head. “We’re in the right place at the right time,” she said, as one who had the glorious trait of worrying about nothing might. Mae was my age but Southern. She waited tables and lived alone in her mother’s Washington Heights apartment, and one of those circumstances made her as fearless as a secret agent.
Kay, our party’s third member, agreed. “Traveling is one of the good things in life,” she soothed, and because Kay was an artist and daughter of a tragically famous New Yorker, I believed she knew more about life than I.
We lugged our bags through the chaos of Orly airport, amid the human-smelling crowds and sexy, overhead announcements. Not one familiar face, sound or scent. Nothing to read, study or intelligently discuss. Someone stepped on my foot, but I didn’t care. I glimpsed a crepe stand and while waiting for a taxi, my fears became small and ornamental. That safe state in which I had lived, that of dissatisfied longing, had gone. I leaned my head out the window, feeling the urge to make a mark strike my face like raindrops on headlights.
For weeks, Paris was wet. We walked over puddles in our black city shoes and red lipstick, exploring old cathedrals and desecrated cemeteries that, while lovely, didn’t match my visions of sun, wine and the Mediterranean Sea. I had imagined there would be an obvious beginning by now, the pop of a cork, a magnanimous “welcome” from Madame Beauvert and ensuing directions of how to get to our new jobs at her palatial estate. Mae tried calling Madame Beauvert once or twice a day casually, as if it didn’t matter, and Kay echoed Mae’s cool calm about money more easily than I, sketching leisurely in the Left Bank tabacs. She had already finished college, and since Mae had no real intention of going back, the two of them shared a drifter’s context perfect for long afternoons in the Latin Quarter. I was alone with my urgency.
In order to not worry about money during the day, I tried evoking what I imagined would be Eve’s demeanor, smoking and ordering water and coffee to keep from wanting to eat more than camembert on baguettes. At night, I counted my remaining francs and dollars, about 150 total, and imagined myself as Eve, sitting by the statue of Pan, Greek God of the Wild, awaiting a change of fortune.
It was as if I had inadvertently said a prayer.
“Hi Madame Beauvert? My friends and I have arrived in Paris.”
Mae cleared her throat and spoke loudly into the youth hostel pay phone.
“We came from New York to work on your vineyard? For the harvest? For faire le vendage?”
“You are American?”
“Yes. Our friend Eve said she had spoken to you about our arrival. We’re here to pick–”
“I have men from Spain and Portugal to do that.”
“I see. Eve had said–”
“I am not well. I cannot take care of three girls. I’m sorry. Please enjoy Paris. Tell Eve I’m sorry.”
A few days earlier, a nun in a church vestibule where I had waited out a rainstorm had looked at me with pity. I scanned the wall full of nanny job postings, but her stare reminded me I didn’t belong, so I grabbed a few free publications like Libre Paris and France/USA, and covered my head across the street to the post office. In line for postcard stamps, two classifieds had caught my eye.
1. Join a crew of hot air balloon professionals for a two-month race across Europe. No experience necessary.
2. Restore a medieval farmhouse in the Provence countryside. Light construction/electrical experience preferred. Room and board.
My parents’ postcard, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful never slipped down the mail slot that day; the line for stamps was too long and the message felt untrue. But now, this morning after Madame Beauvert refused us, the sun cracked through gray clouds while Mae fed the phone franc after franc, finally reaching the medieval farmhouse (the hot air balloon line buzzed a constant busy).
“You can do construction?” the male voice asked.
“Let’s just say I know how to use a hammer,” Mae replied.
“Let me talk to him,” I grabbed the phone. Picking grapes had slipped through our fingers, but a medieval farmhouse in the French countryside, and the grand adventure I now felt entitled to, would not.
“I’ve helped build my grandfather’s shed,” I lied into the phone without the least bit of regret. “I’ve carried wood, I’ve worked in gardens. I’ve even dug a ditch.”
“You did all of this in New York?”
“Upstate New York. It’s very rural. But we can tell you about it when we meet. How do we get there?”
Within one hour, our bags were packed. I amended my parents’ postcard message, Dear Mom and Dad, Paris is beautiful. We’re taking the train to Provence this afternoon but I was so excited, I forgot to drop it in the mailbox.
End of Part 1