Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Ride from Saint-Emilion

Careful planner that I am, I knew I had arrived in the lovely wine village of Saint-Emilion with exactly two late-day options for taking the tram back to Libourne and my mod hotel in the Bordeaux region. Both gave me hours to spend walking the steep streets, shopping for wine and related goodies, venturing to the tiny town’s edges to be amongst the grapes, and most definitely stopping at one of the five restaurants I had identified would be ideal for lunch.

It was my first time in France, and on this, Day Three, I was convinced everything I had read about the French populace was wrong. They were extremely friendly: I had probably been in two dozen shops by this time, always on the hunt for the perfect gift for the ten or so people on my list, and each shopkeeper had greeted me warmly. They then spoke to me enthusiastically about candidate Barack Obama, who might (and of course would) make history and (in the eyes of the French, I’d come to find out) go a long way to redeeming us and establishing that our judgment is not, in fact, crap. They do not distain Americans but were befuddled at our re-election of Bush Jr.

Pondering my surprisingly warm feelings for the French, I meandered to the outskirts of town (eventually, all the outskirts, given how small the town is). No fellow pedestrians followed, preferring instead the town’s commercial area and thus missing discoveries like a single, dainty yellow flower growing out of the top of a stone wall, or the sad sight of hedgehog roadkill.

My obligatory exploration of parts unknown complete, I walked back toward town and approached the attractive outdoor seating of a café when a nearby door opened, and a man in suit minus his jacket stepped out and down. I noticed him because he was carefully holding a thick white restaurant plate with steaming fries and steak smothered in sauce, while his other hand grasped heavy silverware and a starchy bright-white cloth napkin. It was as if a waiter got lost on his way to a table, but no, the man took five steps down the sidewalk, then stepped through a glass door into retail space I assumed was his office—insurance sales, possibly. Fascinated now, and wondering if I could do this at home in my New York neighborhood, I watched the man head back to the middle of the office space and sit down at a desk, then drape the napkin across his lap and begin to enjoy his meal.

Half of me is mesmerized that such a thing could happen, would happen—That you’d just walk out with fine china! That the owner and staff would let you! That this is their version of take-out!—and the other half of me is wistful. I’m quite sure I lack the gene which allows me to trust others: I have no faith people will do the right thing or want to. I don’t believe, despite evidence to the contrary, people choose you and your needs over that of their own. This seems to me a fatal flaw, or at the very least, The Reason I’m Not Yet Married. Or maybe it’s basic kindness I lack, something my sister, in our younger days, would certainly attest to and provide to interested parties a list of examples demonstrating my cold and sometimes wicked tendencies. Of the many deficiencies my soul has, this is the one which creates the deepest wall between me and others. We can share a love of Bordeaux wines, or the Loire Valley’s semi-dry goat cheese, or the funny photo at the cloisters here in quaint Saint-Emilion of fully-robed bishops on snow skis, but that won’t diminish the gulf I feel. I wonder if you feel it?

I am still pondering those gulfs when I notice the time and the approaching dusk. Tossing a few euros on the café table, where I knocked back an espresso during the pondering, I begin to pick my way across the cobblestones and past the church to the tram stop. A few minutes of standing around waiting for the tickettaker turns into fifteen, and finally, someone arrives at the booth. Another tourist, a Frenchman wearing, of all things, an ascot, walks over to discuss the tram situation. (Or that’s my assumption, since my French is quite—quite—limited.) When they finish, the tickettaker (who also happens to be the tram driver) begins to close up the booth, and a panicked feeling jumps into bed with me. The man in the ascot seems friendly, so I cross my fingers, hope he speaks English or can at least muddle through my terrible French, and ask him for the skinny.

The gist of his alarming message is that the onset of dusk somehow took the tram operator by surprise, and they’ll not be running any more trams today. This leaves me just over five miles from my backpack, laptop, and other possessions in my hotel room in a town too small for taxis or rental car companies. My mind is slapped down and quite worthless, but after a moment, I recover and whiz (well, lope) through possible solutions.

The kind man in the ascot sees I am flummoxed and makes a suggestion which turns out to be scary and perfect. While he and his wife are not going to Libourne, he guesses the tram driver, a short man approaching what Americans call elderly—is, and this turns out to be true. Ascot arranges for the man to pick me up in ten minutes at the traffic circle just a few hundred feet to the north and deliver me to my riverside hotel in Libourne. The arrangement is made without me meeting the driver or exchanging words. Ascot is happy with his good deed and departs with his silent wife, and I begin to march, with a walk and a wait providing time for my nervousness to reach its peak.

I do not hitchhike. Of course I don’t. The types of risks I take don’t involve being in an enclosed space with a stranger, save the occasional elevator ride. As I walk, I distract myself by again admiring the bombed-out remains of what I think was an abbey, and then with a pep talk about how very unlikely it is that something, large or small, will go wrong on this short ride to my hotel. (My hotel! He’ll know where I’m staying! And that I’m alone!)

I find a spot on the wall where the driver (What’s his name? Did he even tell me?) can safely pull over to pick me up. I wait. Dark is coming. I wait. Car lights turn on. Dark comes. I’m convinced the driver either forgot or has changed his mind, possibly viewing a small white American woman as a physical or existential threat. I’m working out Plan C when a small car slows down and pulls up. Relieved and yet not, I get in.

“Bon soir,” in my best French (which is probably the wrong greeting).

He returns my greeting, his voice soft but friendly. I tell him, in mostly English, where I am going. Blank stare. Oh brother. I explore a little more and confirm he speaks no English. I muster all my French-speaking skills—it’s a matter of life and death (or at least a ride to my destination or lots of walking). I try a few topics, but with my limited vocabulary, my lines of conversation don’t have far to go to die. Finally, a Sinatra song comes on the radio, and he points to the console.

“Sinatra?” he says cautiously.

“Yes! Sinatra!” I’m excited—common ground is struck. We run through song names for a few minutes, then I ask if he knows Obama.

“Obama!” he says with a smile, giving the steering wheel a light and happy thump. Yup, we’re practically twins. He chatters away, forgetting I can understand one word in ten he says.

In line with what I’ve heard the past few days, the French are optimistic about Americans as humans once again and hopeful we will elect this Obama person. (By the time I leave in another week, I will have become convinced electing this man will do more for US-world relations than dropping gold bullion from Predator drones.)

My new friend and I continue to talk, trying to find more interests we share. Finally, we enter Libourne, and I direct him as best I can to my hotel. Thankfully, the town is smallish and has a river as a landmark. While the plan I formulated on my walk to the traffic circle was to have him drop me a few blocks away, I have by now changed my mind. As we approach the bridge I recognize as the one a less than a half block from my hotel, I tell him he can turn here and pull over, fearing nothing at this point but continuing to subject this man to my subpar French. My disembarkment from his little car is a warm round of au revoirs, and he watches with a serious look to ensure I am safely greeted by the hotel desk staff inside the front door.

Having ordering a drink from room service straightaway, I unpack and fiddle with their strange cable system while waiting for my glass of Bordeaux. Instead of letting me accept the tray from him at the door, the young man will hear nothing of it, bringing my wine and the additional, unexpected treats of olives and nuts over to the desk and explaining the treats he is presenting. He is sweet and earnest, but now I need him to leave so I can decompress. Grabbing my wine, I settle back on the bed and flip channels, trying to ignore the emotional exhaustion caused by entrusting my life to two strangers. Did the fact this experience drained me like an empty tub make me healthily cautious? I feared it was another answer, making me a cold, suspicious person unable, without extreme effort, to relate to others.

I read once evolution and our survival-of-the-fittest instincts cause humans to assume the worst; then when it doesn’t happen, we’re at least still alive. (Versus: Nope, that’s probably not a lion making that tall grass rustle. Oh…oops.) I keep my hitchhiking experience in mind when I feel distrust creep into my brain upon encountering a new person. Surely there are fewer lions in the tall grass than kind, elderly lovers of Sinatra and Obama, happy to give a stranger a ride when dusk approaches early.

No comments:

Post a Comment