France: A Midlife Journey

Nancy Brook

My fascination with France began long ago with my French uncle, Clarence. As a teenager, I’d travel to visit Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Clarence during my summer vacations. I remember the discreet half-shots of whiskey my uncle gave me more than I remember him talking about his family’s home country. But I loved Uncle Clarence for his warmth and charisma. Then, by osmosis, I must have started loving France.

French was not taught in my small Montana high school, but as a college freshman I began studying the language. Every day on my way to French class, I’d walk past a poster of the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. Many times, pausing by the poster, I’d imagine myself in Paris visiting Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower.

When I turned forty, my thoughts returned to France. Despite four years of college French, I had never mastered the language. I decided to buy myself French tutorial CDs as a birthday gift. My bathroom became the perfect language sanctuary. I’d sit in my bubble bath with a glass of red wine and repeat simple French sentences. Practicing the language roused my dormant fascination of France.

Two years later, I began vividly imagining visiting France. I decided a bicycle tour would be the way to go. I’d glide through lush landscapes and stop at charming hamlets along the way where smiling villagers wearing berets would welcome me. “Join us,” they’d say. We’d sit and drink wine at a roadside café, talking for hours in French. Finally, I’d tear myself away, explaining that I must continue down the road.

I began searching for a cycling tour and found one that seemed just right. Cyclists would travel from Bordeaux to the Alps, riding on quiet back roads during the day and camping at night. I liked camping. The photos showed people on road bikes, looking somewhat fit. Other photos showed tour members smiling for the camera while eating gourmet dinners and drinking wine. I liked good food and wine. The tour lasted fifteen days, and riders were expected to bike sixty miles a day comfortably. I was a cyclist and could do that already. While there were two major mountains to ascend, I figured within eight months, I could whip myself into climbing shape.

I had doubts about leaving work, my house, and nineteen-year-old daughter behind. But in the end, I decided that life is too short to postpone a dream indefinitely. So I ordered my passport and booked my trip to France.

The Journey Begins

More than six months later, on the third of July, I left for France. When I finally arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, I was rushed to find my train to Bordeaux. The depot for the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse or high-speed train) is located within the airport but I didn’t know where to go. No signs say, “Train this way.”
“Où est le train à Bordeaux?” I asked several people. When they finally figured out what I was saying, they all answered in French, too quickly for me to understand.

For a time, I hauled my bike case and two suitcases on a cart, but I left the cart behind when I took a wrong turn down an elevator. I then walked with my backpack strapped to my shoulders. I wheeled the bike case in my right hand. I stacked the small suitcase atop the large one, securing the two with a strap, jury-rigged for the purpose. These I pulled in my left hand. Every twenty paces, the small suitcase tilted sideways and I stopped to rebalance it. I stumbled on, stopping again and again to adjust my bags.

Finally, I made it to the train station with twenty minutes to spare. When the train to Bordeaux arrived, I asked the porter about my seat in car seventeen. He told me that my car was down the tracks, about two hundred feet away. I attempted to sprint but pulling my unbalanced luggage with each hand slowed me to a jog. At last I reached car seventeen and struggled to lift up my belongings.

People pushed by me, stepping around my load. No one would lend a hand until a middle-aged Indian woman dressed in a colorful sari saw my predicament and started to assist me. Her efforts shamed a young Indian man, maybe her son, into dropping his cigarette and helping me to lift and stow the luggage.

“Merci beaucoup,” I said to him. Somehow, my thank you seemed inadequate for the appreciation I felt.

I found my seat on the train, and it felt good to relax at last. I was tired from my overnight plane travel and smelly from my airport suitcase workout. Dressed in athletic clothes with my hair in a ponytail, I looked the antithesis of Parisian sophistication. But I was really in France and on my way to Bordeaux. I couldn’t believe I had finally made it there! It was the Fourth of July, and I was free from the suitcases at last—or at least until my train arrived in Bordeaux.

While lugging suitcases through an airport in a foreign country wasn’t an everyday occurrence, I had certainly become an expert at hauling a heavy load. From the time my daughter was eleven, it had been just me carting the burden of single parenthood, using my wits and perseverance to make it through. Even when I felt worn down, there had been no choice but to carry on.

All parents must go through this over-identification with their children’s well-being. Single parents especially overcompensate to give their children everything they are missing from being raised by one parent.

As a single parent, I learned how to truly love another person. I gave without expectation and set aside personal desires for the well-being of another. Yet in the process, I forgot about loving myself.

Next Stop, Bordeaux

Less than an hour into the Bordeaux trip, two women around my age boarded the train and sat directly across from me. Dressed stylishly with black shirts and square glasses, they chatted while flipping through French fashion magazines. I felt embarrassed by my schlumpy appearance so I turned my attention away from them. The train started up again, and outside the window I noticed green grass, many varieties of trees, and industrial-looking brick buildings. The scenes became blurry like an impressionist painting as the train picked up speed through the picturesque countryside.

The whirring of the train and the relaxing views made me feel sleepy. It was two in the afternoon there—but only seven in the morning back home. I didn’t want to sleep and stay awake all night. Leaving behind the French vogue ladies, I walked to the dining car. On the menu I recognized the words jambon and fromage as ham and cheese in a sandwich called a croque-monsieur. I ordered the sandwich with a half-bottle of Beaujolais wine. Not the greatest French red wine, but this was a train after all. When the sandwich arrived, I realized I wasn’t in America anymore. Instead of the flat grilled sandwich common back home, this one came with ham and gruyère cheese stuffed between two slices of crusty white bread and then an even thicker layer of cheese caramelized over the top slice. It was like eating pizza without the tomato sauce. Following lunch, I returned to my seat and despite my intention to stay awake, I napped.

After a four-and-a-half-hour train ride, we arrived in Bordeaux. Leaving the depot became my first challenge, which required me to go beneath the tracks using a ramp. On the other side, up again, but there was no ramp—only an escalator. By now I was an expert at hauling my awkward luggage. How quickly I learned, just as I learned to manage my load as a single parent back home. My triceps and shoulders ached from the effort and I was dripping wet. Paris was hot; Bordeaux was even hotter.

“Excusez-moi,” I said loudly as I attempted to avoid ramming my suitcases into people. No one in the dense crowd offered help, and I expected none. Once outside, I sighed with relief. My hotel was located only a few blocks away. But when I came to a narrow sidewalk of crumbled bricks, again my wheels stalled. Every few steps, my suitcases toppled over.

I wanted to stop, sit down on the bricks, and cry. I stumbled forward anyway. A man passing me on the sidewalk saw my predicament. He didn’t speak English, but he gestured that he would take my bike case.

Strange—it never occurred to me to ask for assistance. A single, independent woman shouldn’t have to rely on anyone; I could do it on my own. Yet this time, I was grateful for some help. I was so relieved as the man followed behind with my bike case and rolled it into the hotel lobby.

“Merci beaucoup,” I said for the second time that day and waved as he left.

The hotel in Bordeaux looked drab with traffic-worn carpet, stained furniture, and a counter made of wood paneling and Formica. The small hotel elevator meant two trips to transport my luggage. On the second floor, two men and a woman watched as I walked to my room.

“Are you part of the tour group?” asked a man with a British accent. I guessed him to be around twenty-five.

No, I wanted to say. I always lug a bike case around on my travels. I managed a smile instead. “Yes, I am.”

“I’m David,” said the young man, extending his hand. “This is my wife, Kate.” She had blond, curly hair, a wide smile, and looked around David’s age.

The second man I presumed to be in his sixties with his weathered skin and gray hair. He introduced himself as Ian from Australia. The trio had planned to dine together, and they invited me to join them. We agreed to meet in an hour, giving me time to shower and change. Goodbye frumpy sweat lady, bonjour French traveler.

An Evening in Bordeaux

That night for dinner, we took the tram to centre ville, or the city center of Bordeaux. The tram stopped at Place de la Bourse where we saw the Miroir d’Eau, which means “water mirror.” There was a thin sheet of water in the large square reflecting La Bourse, the eighteenth-century stock exchange building. A continual stream of water sprayed up, producing a misty background for the people, young and old, splashing shoeless in the shallow water.

We didn’t linger because we were on a mission to find food. We agreed on pizza to satisfy David’s vegetarian preference, but finding a place wasn’t easy. We strolled down the narrow streets, passing eighteenth-century Gothic cathedrals and mansions. I noticed ornate statues of ethereal women atop some of the historic structures. Even though it was after seven, the summer sun still shined brightly, forming a background of cerulean sky and white clouds behind the marble buildings.

We walked down narrow streets and found several outdoor cafés, but they were overpriced or non-vegetarian. I decided to ask for help instead of following my usual pattern of self-reliance.

Two couples crossed the street toward us, and I asked if they know of a pizza place. One of the men spoke a little English, and he deciphered my request. They walked us to an Italian restaurant two blocks away, just as if they were escorting long-lost friends.

“Did you know those people?” David asked.

“I’ve never seen them before in my life.”

He couldn’t believe that I pulled random people off the street for help. And what a surprise: generous assistance, even though I asked in my broken French.

Why did I insist on doing everything on my own anyway? Was it a misguided sense of pride? A need to prove myself as self-sufficient? Spurning help had become a habit. I had grown accustomed to suffering through my struggles rather than appearing weak. I could mow my own lawn, shovel my own snow, and raise my daughter by myself. That first day in France, I discovered that people were there for me—and probably had been all along back home. I just needed to extend myself and ask for help. I vowed to remember this lesson during my sojourn in France—and throughout my life.

Our Own Tour de France

The next day, I met Nate, another riding companion who was from New Zealand, and we made plans to cycle around Bordeaux. Nate and I rode through the city on well-marked and extensive bike lanes. Instead of the honks and dirty looks I would occasionally see back home, the drivers seemed courteous, welcoming even. Two young men in a car shouted out, “Tour de France!” as we pedaled by.

“Why would they say that?” I asked Nate.

“It’s the start of the Tour today.”

At our pedestrian pace, saying “Tour de France” to us was like shouting “Indy 500” to a van driver through a school zone. Maybe we looked faster than I thought.

Our first ten miles consisted of stops and starts as we encountered many traffic lights through the city. Several miles down the road, Nate and I left the urban area and came upon a rural road. It looked like a landscape from the States. The countryside surprised me with rows of corn, pine trees, and pastures. We turned around after twenty miles since we had agreed to ride only forty for the day.

A few miles from the turnaround, Nate suggested we break for lunch when we spotted a grocer. I bought some peaches and sat on the curb to eat them. Taking one out of the paper bag, I noticed its perfection: large, soft, and speckled with subtle shades of orange and red. As I brought the fruit to my mouth, I smelled the sweet nectar. My teeth ripped through the tangy membrane. It tasted tropical, like mango but with a citrus zing. Peach juice trickled down my chin, and I wiped the drippings with my hands in between bites. Who knew France had such delectable peaches?

The French phrase “J’ai la pêche!” came to mind. It literally translates to “I have the peach!” But it means so much more. When you have the peach, you are on the top of your game and feeling unstoppable. I didn’t have the peach yet, but I thought that maybe I’d find it during my time in France.

We returned to the hotel and later that evening, the entire tour group gathered at a bar near the hotel. There were thirteen people in our group: four crew members and nine paying customers, most of whom are Aussies and Brits. I ordered a vin rouge (red wine) and listened to the conversation of my new friends. They discussed their lives back home—their jobs, the weather, and the soccer teams. Frankly, I didn’t know how to contribute to the conversation, so I listened as I sipped my wine. After two hours, I was weary of their banter. I said goodnight and went inside the bar to pay for my wine.

There wasn’t much going on inside. I noticed the only customer, a small man with thinning hair sitting on a stool. His elbows were propped on the bar and his cheeks rested on his hands. He looked like he was drunk and trying to hold his head up. The trim waitress scurried by with her tray of drinks for the outside patrons. Behind the mahogany bar was a large man with lots of dark hair. The hair flowed in waves on his head and created a shag effect on his chest. He seemed proud of his carpet, wearing a white shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest. A gold chain with a crucifix sank into the rug.
I walked up to the bartender and attempted to tell him that I’d like to pay for my drink. He shook his head and corrected my French.

He was annoyed, and I was amused. I handed him my euros and went back to the table to retrieve my camera. When I returned to the bar, I imagined him thinking, “Now what does she want?” His mouth turned down, and a furrow crept between his eyes.

“Une photo à vous, si vous plaît,” I said.

“Ce n’est pas ‘à vous.’ C’est ‘de vous,’” he corrected my French.

“Je voudrais une photo de vous, si vous plaît.” I repeated, this time emphasizing the de.

He agreed to the photo and his once gruff face softened with a broad smile. I snapped his photo and extended my hand.

“Je m’appelle Nancy. Et vous?”

“Patrick,” he told me his name, which he pronounced “paw-TREEK.”

“Je voudrais pour vous être mon professeur de français.”

He laughed at the thought of being my French professor. I sat at the bar, and he conducted my lesson. He said the words and I repeated. He corrected my pronunciation, and I was reminded of my first college French professor. Her most memorable tip: “You say the r by growling like a little French poodle.”

Patrick didn’t provide such instruction, and after a while, he forgot about the lesson and invited me to join him for a drink. I asked for a vin rouge. He poured himself a shot of rum.

In America, I’m great at talking, even belonging to a speaking group. In France, my limited language skills meant I had to focus on listening to comprehend. I didn’t understand half of the words he said, but I did get the gist of the conversation. The difficulty of translation meant my undivided attention and focus.

After an hour of listening to his monologue, I said, “Au revoir” to Patrick. With a fifty-five-mile ride in the morning, I needed some sleep that night.

As I returned to my room, I thought about my cycling group outside, swapping stories of home and each other’s countries. They were missing out on discovering the culture right before them if they would only extend themselves, however awkwardly, to a French person.

During my day in Bordeaux I learned some key life lessons. Listen more and talk less. Plunge wholeheartedly into each day’s experience. And let go of the comfort of the familiar life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

At age 43 Nancy Brook decided to fullfill her lifelong dream of visiting Frace. She traveled on bicycle from Bordeaux to the Alps and wrote an award winning book about her journey titled Cycling, Wine, and Men: A Midlife Tour de France. For more visit her website www/nancybrook.com