(First published on electricrider.net on December 18, 2011)
“No,” the young woman standing behind the desk said, her face expressionless. She turned away from me and said something in French that sounded like “it's passed time.” It sounded like a dismissal.
It was my worst fear. I had asked for room service. A minor request at a three star hotel. I spoke only a little French so, instead of calling hotel reception, I brought the menu down in the creaky elevator to the night clerk and pointed to the items I wanted.
Her mouth was a permanent frown. “No,” she said and shook her head again.
Is she telling me that 8:30 at night was too late to order room service? That seemed odd because the menu said it was available until 9:00.
She did not speak English, I knew, because the night before, after I'd arrived late by bus, I'd had difficulty understanding what she was telling me. I never quite got it. Luckily I was able to get into my room and didn't give it a second thought.
Now I stared at her incredulously, the open room service menu lying between us on the desk. “It is too late?” I said in broken French.
"No, no! It is not too late!” she replied. Still, she would not meet my eyes.
I shrugged and repeated my order. “Je voudrais un casserolet y un salade y un verre de vin rouge.”
“No,” she said and then something more I didn’t understand.
I stared at her hopelessly. “Pourquoi?”
She just looked at me and said something more in a tone that sounded infinitely rationale and logical, but in words of utter incomprehensibility to me.
I shrugged. “Forget it!” I said and turned back to the elevator and creaked back up to my room. I had walked the streets of Saumur all day taking photos and I was too tired to venture out to find a restaurant. So, I did not eat.
I took it hard that night, crying on the phone to my husband back in the states. He helped me feel tons better, but during the ensuing weeks of travel I still feared that when I asked for something I would be told “no!”
Until I met Julia.
I was traveling through Europe for the first time and alone: seven weeks by train and foot exploring Eleanor of Aquitaine's twelfth-century domains. I didn't speak more than a few phrases of any language other than English and, after sight-seeing all day in cities where few people spoke English well, I was often exhausted. It took all of my energy (and an afternoon nap) to get myself back out on the street in search of dinner. In my head I could still hear the night clerk in Saumur saying “no!” and remembered my stomach grumbling with hunger as I fell asleep that night. Sometimes I just wanted to hide in my hotel room for twenty-four hours.
You might wonder why I put myself into this situation to begin with. From the time I started to think about it, I knew this trip would be difficult. But touring the ruins of the castles, abbeys, and churches that Eleanor of Aquitaine walked when she ruled France and England would make it all worthwhile. It would revive my creativity and interest in the novel I was writing that featured Eleanor's time as back drop.
I would be home sick. Anyone would be. To counter this, I planned to establish a routine while traveling that included some of my every-day habits.
I have always had books piled around me ever since I learned to read at age five. One pile teeters on my bedside table right this minute. Another sits, semi-collapsed, on the guest room futon. I find it easier at times to converse with the narrators of stories and the characters in books than with groups of people. If I was to feel comfortable talking to strangers in a foreign language day after day for weeks, I had to have a refuge. I had to have Fiction. Memoir. Travel. History. Books that kept me company. Books to help explain what I was seeing and where I was going and why. And books to help me escape. Maybe the practice of reading would help prevent me pining for the homeland too deeply.
I had traveled alone years before in New York City and Boston doing research for a biography. I had eaten out by myself in restaurants every night. But even in New York City where it isn't too far from chic to ask for a table for one, I had to wait for service because my server assumed I was waiting for a second. This created that familiar awkwardness anyone who has dined alone is familiar with. You don't wish to be overlooked, yet you don’t wish to be looked at too much. Like Goldilocks you want the attention to be just right. This balance calls on all one's communication skills: the subtle body language, the correct words, the demanding tone when needed. If all goes well, you order your meal, then sit back and sip a glass of wine, casually glancing over the pages of a literary tome while sneaking looks at new arrivals. You are of the world when you want to be or, when people-watching becomes too uncomfortable or boring, you can disappear into a book and be outside it. So I knew all too well that in France, Germany, and Spain, I would feel these classic symptoms at potentially excruciating levels. I would be alone and often essentially mute. There was no way I was living my literary friends behind. Because I was traveling by train and foot during my Europe stay and I could carry only so much weight, I put as many books onto my Amazon Kindle as I could. It added no more than a pound to my luggage.
And so, when I left on my arduous journey, I felt I had planned for every contingency. What I hadn't expected was that by escaping into a book in Europe, I could propel my dining experience to a whole new level.
* * *
I savor the last bite of Poached Eggs in Wine, holding it in my mouth to let the flavors roll back on my tongue. The Auxerre restaurant has a huge fire going between the dining room and the kitchen despite the mild June weather and it is quite warm. But I don't care. I sip the local wine and then turn to my dinner companion. “What do you think?” I say, swirling the glass.
She smacks her lips and leans her tall frame forward. “The sauces are so rich, like the Burgundy countryside. There is nothing fresher than produce bought at the local market, wouldn't you say?” She takes another bite of her egg, and smiles. “And of course everything is made that much better when accompanied by a nice glass of Burgundy wine!” She raises her glass and we toast to Americans in France.
Julia is as ebullient as ever. Perhaps that's why the couple near the fire glances in our direction, their eyebrows raised.
This meal is a result of hundreds of years of simmered local tradition and culture,” she says. “We taste a bit of history with every bite!”
I agree. This was the life. I grin at Julia sitting across from me at the Four Chaud restaurant: tall and angular, a food and culture goddess. And happy to be here. This is what I needed. A reminder of how happy I am to be here. I raise my glass and its raspberry color flashes with the firelight.
I dig into the next course and, although I am reading her words from her book, My Life In France, I listen to Julia McWilliams Child as if we are having our own conversation. I hear the merry quaver in her voice as she describes arriving on the northwest coast of France at Le Havre by ocean liner in 1948. Her husband, Paul, who had traveled extensively in France before World War II, knew the way to a wonderful restaurant in the Norman countryside. Julia was not fluent enough in French to order for herself, but Paul ordered an incredible meal of briny oysters portugaises and fragrant Dover sole with lots of freshly baked bread and butter.
As I sit enjoying my meal and reading Julia's book, I realize that she felt as alienated then as I sometimes did now. She had sailed to France with Paul when he started a new job at the American embassy in Paris. Otherwise, she had no strong ties to the country. It didn't help that her father had ridiculed the French culture when she was a girl. She knew nothing of the cuisine and little of cooking in general at that point in her life. But she kept her mind open and learned to love France, to cook fantastic French cuisine, and to teach others how to, as well. If Julia could learn to love living here, I could learn to enjoy my five-week tour of medieval castles and churches.
I am so involved in Julia's stories and our shared dining experience, that I forget that I am sitting alone in a restaurant in Burgundy, France, sipping wine with one hand and holding an Amazon Kindle in the other. But Julia's words are alive: They are much more than lines read from her memoir.
* * *
Julia's companionship continued throughout my travels. I worked hard, stuttering through dinner orders and keeping my phrase book at full alert for questions or comments as the staff brought each course. Once dessert and coffee arrived, I relaxed into a rhythm of conversation:
--How is your meal?
--Wonderful, thank you!
--Do you want anything else?
--No. The check, please.
Thankfully, restaurateurs in France plan on one seating in the evening so they expect you to linger after eating. I looked forward to this time and, after I'd paid the bill, turned my full attention to dessert and coffee and Julia.
That one night in the Saumur hotel was the only time I missed a meal during my tour of Europe, but it could have tinted my whole trip like a water color drenched in a dark wash. In discovering the magic of reading Julia's memoir during meals in bistros, brasseries, bars, lounges, and restaurants all over France, I realized I am made of even tougher stuff than I knew.
Julia, in her cheerful American English, stayed with me the entire journey, even following me into Spain and back to England before my flight home to Denver after two months abroad.
Yes, I traveled alone. But one is never completely alone when one has a book.