Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Sparkling Holiday in Nantes

There are some experiences that come and go so fast, and are so pristine in their loveliness, they almost defy reality. You look back on them and wonder how much is real, and how much is manufactured by the dream-making faculties inside your mind.

After graduating from Syracuse in the summer of 1986, my girlfriend and I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we lived with her father in his three bedroom home. Just next door lived a very pleasant French couple, Michel and Jacqueline. Michel worked at one of the local universities, and Jacqueline stayed home with the boys, Damien and Antoine, who were about 6 and 4, if I'm remembering right.

Susan and I worked for a little over a year in Boston, so that we could save up enough money to get us to Europe. We were accepted into a teacher training program in London, where we would stay for the first month, before going to Madrid to live and work. It had been decided that we would spend the Christmas holidays with Michel, Jacqueline and the boys at their home in Nantes. (They had returned to France at the end of that previous summer.)

Our experience in London was amazing, to put it simply; I'm sure it will come up in another blog at another time. We arranged to take the ferry over the channel to Le Havre, then a commuter train to Nantes. I did my best to get us around, as neither of us spoke French, but my facility with phrasebooks is considerable. (I chalk this up to being my father's son. He spoke a number of languages.) Michel was there to greet us when our train arrived, much to my relief, at their stop in Nantes.

Nantes was a quaint town, all decked out for the holidays in lights and garland. Michel and his family were warm hosts who made us feel at home and showed us around the town. For Christmas day, they drove us out to Jacqueline's parents' house by the sea. We were fed an outrageous feast that included quail and suckling pig. My best memory from that visit was sitting in the dank basement of their old house, shucking oysters with Jacqueline's father. Neither one of us could speak the other's language, but we laughed and enjoyed ourselves together, in the simple act of shucking oysters. The wine might have had something to do with it.

Man, the wine. It just flowed and flowed and flowed. And it was ALL excellent. Not one bad sip the whole time. This may -- I'm realizing now -- be the reason this blogpost is so devoid of the usual detail. It is a little foggy, as I think back.

Anyway, yes, the wine flowed throughout Christmas, and it flowed on New Year's Eve, when we sat down, back in Nantes, with Michel, Jacqueline and several of their friends. They were an interesting bunch, many of whom were working on the unification of the European currencies into something that would be called the "Euro." I remember thinking it was a crazy idea; no way they would get that done by the year 2000, even though that seemed a long way away.

Michel sat at the head of the table, next to a case of champagne. Every few minutes he would pop a new bottle and pass it around. The flavor of that wine was like none I'd had before or since. So perfect. And the bubbles had the effect of lifting my spirits, filling me with love.

At one point, in this state of euphoria, I looked to my left, where Jacqueline was speaking, in French, of course, about something I couldn't understand. I had always found her attractive; she was petite, with sharp features and fair, freckled skin. Her hair was in fine, sandy-blond curls that framed the edges of her face. But the detail that caught me on this particular night (we were probably into the early morning by this point) was that she was wearing some kind of makeup that had just the subtlest presence of glitter in it. Her face was sparkling. Just like the wine.

I'd never seen anything so beautiful. I considered taking Michel aside and sharing a moment like the one that two of the main characters share in my favorite movie of all time, Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, when the American, played by Peter Riegert, professes his love for his friend Gordon's wife.

Thankfully, I thought better of it and said good-night instead. We enjoyed the rest of our visit and made our way to our new life in Madrid. As I said, I'm not sure how much of what I'm remembering about that trip, and about that moment, is accurate truth, and how much is the fabrication of a romantic mind, but I often think of that family, who I haven't seen since those holidays. Damien and Antoine would be in their twenties now, and who knows, maybe there still might be a hint of glitter on Jacqueline's cheek....

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