Travel Stories: In a lake house near Rodez, the wine was flowing and party-goers were immersed in a rugby match on TV. Terry Ward was chatting with locals, enjoying the moment. Then the telephone call came from home.
04.10.06 | 10:20 PM ET
Biarritz was winning. Or perhaps it was Paris. Either way, I was the only one who didn’t care. I wasn’t even sure whether we were tuned in to rugby league or rugby union—a major point of differentiation, I’d been told, in a sport I had yet to grasp.
That I wasn’t watching the game probably didn’t help. My focus was on a boisterous woman named Marie, a 40-something blonde with the energy of an A-bomb and that quintessential French fashion sense that turns a pair of retro sneakers and a loosely knotted scarf into something otherworldly stylish. She was expounding on the virtues of sipping rosť at this hour of the day, when the sinking sun glows a similar raspberry hue—speaking in French and getting drunker by the minute. I was taking it all in as one big lesson. After all, I was here to learn the language, and what better challenge than to attempt chatting with a local past her limit?
Marie pulled me around the party at the lake house in a rural area in the south of France, introducing me as “the only American I’ve ever liked,” assuring me all the while that she’d encountered plenty of others.
“And who does the American support?” called out a clearly buzzing Biarritz supporter. To which I responded, in my best French accent, “Mais Paris, monsieur,” to a howl of boos.
“No,” he continued, in French, “je veux dire—I mean to say—who did you vote for as your president?”
A hush of anticipation fell over the crowd. I was used to this sort of directness as an American abroad.
“Kerry,” I responded, back in favor with the crowd, though wondering if I should have lied just to stir them up.
Surely Damien was wishing he hadn’t brought me along. He’d more or less been ignoring me all night, after announcing somewhat accusingly during the train ride here that I was only the second girl he’d ever brought to his hallowed hometown (“So you better not embarrass me,” was implied—we Americans can be so faux pas). That was after he’d nearly derailed me at the train station in Toulouse, aggressively pushing his baggage down the escalator ahead of mine. “I guess it’s not ladies first here,” I’d joked, to which he’d snarled his surly grimace, “Non, pas du tout.” Not at all.
Oh no, this dude was not living up to the Stateside stereotype of the romantic Frenchman. Pas du tout. And that was just how he wanted it.
“Pretty girls are used to hearing nice things,” Damien had told me, “I break the stereotype of the romantic French man, I am the real French man.” Ah yes, indeed, what a noble ambition—and a good thing, I’d thought, since I was already involved with a real American man.
It was all in good fun.
The wine flowed, and tomato and basil topped pizzettas from the local boulangerie were passed around.
When my cell phone vibrated in my pocket, it caught me off guard. “Private number” blinked the screen. My heart jumped. News from home, no doubt—either my boyfriend “checking in,” or the dreaded, unpredictable bad news I always fear will come to pass when I am far from the familiar embrace of home.
It was my father. “Grandmom died last night,” he said, and I pretended not to hear because of the noise around me, hurrying off to a dark corner of the lawn to listen to his cracking voice.
“Are you sure?” I asked, a ridiculous attempt at denial, before bursting into tears. My grandmother had been one of my best friends and a confidant all my life.
I sat alone for a long time, trying to collect myself before re-entering the party, determined not to let anyone know what had happened—determined to be the antithesis of the over-emotional American, to be cool and collected. My boyfriend called from the States to console me. He had known Grandmom and said all the right things. It was at that moment that Damien appeared, asking why I’d gone missing from the party. I abruptly hung up.
“Oh, merde,” he said when I told him what had happened, using the ubiquitous French curse word.
Something softened in Damien’s face at that moment, as he covered my shoulders with a blanket. He told me I was beautiful when I said I couldn’t possibly return to the party, my eyes swollen as they were—but I was a million miles from him and here. “You are lovely,” he said, pulling out all the stops with a compliment that rolled off me like the oily attempt at flattery and forgiveness that it was.
I went back to the party and focused my eyes on the TV screen, feigning fascination to avoid conversation. Biarritz won. Or perhaps it was Paris. Everyone danced on the deck under a moonlit sky into the wee hours to old French songs and an Arabic-French ballad called “Aisha” that I adore.
“Aisha, Aisha, ecoutez- moi…” Listen to me.
The music swirled around me as I sprawled on a banquette near the lakeshore and stared at the stars. I thought of my grandmother, finally at peace. To slip away, to just die, was what she had wanted for years—this woman who had admired the unconventional in life, yet had grown so depressed in the end. I would live the rest of my days with her unflagging acceptance of my mode de vie, my way of life.
The thrills that night had originally emerged from the exotic, from being unique and from causing a stir. But the comfort, as ever, came from home.