I was 20 and had been planning on going to Europe with my boyfriend, Eric. Wouldn't you know it, we broke up right before the trip. I don't know if I was just being stubborn, putting on a good face or if I really thought I would have a good time alone but I decided I was going anyway. All by myself. I'd worked hard and saved the money. I would be brave. I was determined to have an adventure. Simply to ease my parents' concern I agreed to begin my trip at my grandparents' home on the outskirts of London, in a lovely town called Chorleywood.
I know - I know!
What does this have to do with France? I'm getting there!
And that's where France comes in ... and particularly Bandol. After seeing Amsterdam and Paris (another blogpost, another time) Nancy and I headed south. We were planning on staying in Marseille then heading to the Cote D'azure, stay in Nice maybe or Cannes. On the train we were lucky to meet a couple of Canadian guys who set us straight. We'd be arriving late at night - around midnight I think (my mature woman's brain is HORRIFIED) without a room - they said Marseille was the last place we should go at night period, let alone without a room, and suggested we go to Bandol with them instead. My 16 year old boy-crazy sister was all over that but I was a tad more wary. In the end, they 'seemed' like nice guys, they spoke English and French, and they were right, I hadn't booked a room and they scared the heck out of me, so we ended up going with them to Bandol and 'crashing' (as we used to say) in their tent. It seems to me it wasn't a campsite but in someone's yard but I could just be getting a 40 year old memory wrong!
Around six in the morning Nancy and I headed down to the beach for an early morning bath - I remember we had a cake of Irish Spring that we took into the sea to wash ourselves with. Sea water does not generate a lot of lather! It was just the two of us, Nancy and I, giggling and trying to get clean before someone saw us and screamed for us to get out of the water. What were we? Crazy Americans! Of course no one did come and scream for us to get out of the water. We sat and shivered on the beach and saw the sunrise and whispered about the adventures we'd had so far (those other blogposts, those other times).
After we got dry, we went in search of a pension and found one on the far east side of town, along the harborfront. (I think my geography is right) I wish I could remember the name but I know we pissed off the owner royally because we skipped a couple of meals without letting her know in advance. I didn't mean to be rude but things came up and this was way, way before cell phones. And to tell the truth, I was 20, in France for the first time in my life, and living. It was amazing.
Every day Nancy and I walked to the same stall opposite the waterfront and ordered a litre bottle of Coke and two jambons. 'Everyday' sounds like we were there for ages; it could only have been 3 maybe 4 days at the most. Funny how it had that settled-in feeling. My sister was proud she learned to say 'sans beurre s'il vous plait' under the tutelage of the ham sandwich vendor. And everyday we took the big bottle of Coke and the ham-on-crunchy baguettes (I liked mine with butter) over to the beach, just around the tip of the bay, west of the town. (Again, the geography?) I would watch from my beach mat as vacationing families sat eating lunch under the awning of the Golf hotel's beachfront cafe, catching snatches of French phrases here, a smattering of German there. Seeing young couples navigating paddle-boats in the little bay I couldn't help wishing I had more money for extras. On the other hand I had the glorious French Mediterranean skies, fascinating-looking people to watch, the best company I could hope for. And French boys.
We never got to the dance; we stopped to kiss alongside a high rock wall. It felt very dark, very quiet. And suddenly in the middle of my first real French kiss, I remembered that I was a young, defenseless woman alone in a country where I could barely speak enough of the language to get a hotel room. I couldn't even scream effectively in French. Should I scream 'Fire' instead of rape? Is that a global imperative? Someone told me later that "Vous mon bette!" is a good starting point. If I've got it right, it's supposed to mean 'leave me alone!' I also remembered that I'd left my sixteen year old sister alone with what amounted to strangers, no matter it had only been a few minutes. What the hell was I thinking? What the hell was I doing?!
I recall Michel being a tad annoyed when I broke off the kiss to say I had to go back to my sister. And the hazy memory is that the evening ended early and badly although I couldn't tell you anything else at all about it. He may have called me a name but if he did, it was in French and I had no idea!
The next day Michel found me and told me he was sorry for being such a jerk. At least that's what I assumed he was saying. He made very contrite faces and sorry gestures and he looked so cute doing so! So we kissed shyly and made up. As these things go, said goodbye. And, I assume that's when Nancy took the picture of us. He wrote his address out for me in my notebook so I could write him when I got back home. I honestly don't remember if I did and if so, whether he wrote back.
I returned to Bandol with a friend about fifteen years later. We stopped off for a couple of hours on the way to Nice and the little sleepy town I remembered had changed quite a bit. There was still the hilly road down to the town but the town had crept further up the hill too. Its essence remained though, Bandol was still a fairly quiet French beachside town especially in comparison to the more popular and touristy St. Tropez, Nice and Cannes. After our brief visit where I pointed out the sidewalk cafes along the waterfront, and we walked over to the beach and took some sun, I'm not sure my friend Linda really understood my affection for it.
It wasn't the same for me the second time, of course it wasn't. But Bandol was still a beautiful place to sit on the beach, skim the sand with your toes, and wonder whatever happened to that French boy you jokingly called "Michel, my belle" on the label in your old photo album. And still that same glorious Mediterranean sea lay before you, that same French blue sky surrounded you, and that same steep hill back up to the train station had to be climbed again.
Thanks, Paulita, for your Dreaming of France post of Bandol. It was good to go back again.