Lifestyle · Travel

Crossroads: “Nice Was Nice, but . . .”

Reflecting—that’s what we all tend to do in the second half of life. As we indulge in our routine reflecting, we find ourselves pausing at the crucial places . . . the places where we made choices with life-changing consequences. This is part of our series on such forks in the road.

2787520058_22dc8cc723_z“Blue Sea, Nice, France.” Image by Natalia Romay via Flickr (Creative Commons license)

As a little girl I loved writing letters to my international pen-pals—Hisae in Japan, Mona in Sweden, Xavier in Ecuador, Swifty in England. And as I grew up, my fondest dreams were of the beautiful and exotic foreign places I would visit someday. So when faced with the possibility of actually living in one of those places, why did I suddenly start feeling more American than Yankee Doodle Dandy?

Here’s the story. Right after graduating, my college friends and I wanted to live abroad so much that we nabbed summer jobs in London working as clerks (or clarks, as the British say). My job was typing petroleum licenses in a government office on the banks of the Thames. My friends’ jobs were similarly stultifying. We lived for the weekends, hoping to meet our match among the dashing blokes of London. Then we saw that Led Zeppelin was playing at a big outdoor concert three hours from the city, in Shepton Mallet. What luck to be able to worship Robert Plant, the British rock god, in person! But on the day of our pilgrimage it was raining cats and dogs and cows and sheep. By the time we got there it looked like Woodstock all over again. Hundreds of us were slipping and sliding in the mud. Before we heard even one note of “Good Times Bad Times,” my friends and I regretfully decided to reverse course.

We could barely keep our footing as we trudged to the train station in defeat. I must have looked particularly soaked and sad, because a brown-eyed man in pink corduroy jeans stepped out of the crowd, smiled, and silently offered me an orange.

Now here’s where my story starts to sound too good to be true. The following Monday, returning from work, I alighted from the tube station and saw him again. The man with the orange. “It’s you!” he said in accented English. I couldn’t believe it either.

We stood there on the sidewalk, trading bits of personal information. Michel was from the south of France and he was taking a London course that would complete his studies in eye surgery. “I have an extra ticket to see Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park tonight,” he said. “Would you like to come with me?”

After sharing that magical night in the park with Puck and Titania, Michel and I kept on seeing each other. I wasn’t even that surprised when he suggested that I go home with him to meet his parents in Nice. Things had not gotten serious yet. We were taking things slowly. Yet we got along so well, had so much to talk about, that this next step seemed natural somehow.

I packed a bathing suit and a few other things for the trip. But there was really nothing I could have done to prepare for the things I was about to see. Rainbow-colored fish. Wine-colored vineyards. Stained-glass windows and vestments in a chapel designed by Matisse. Possibly the most stunning place of all was the terraced hillside where Michel’s family had built their home overlooking the city. “Le premiere on the hill!” his father told me proudly. Citrus trees, olive trees, palms and bougainvillea were everywhere. The air was so soft, so fragrant, I felt constantly embraced. No wonder Matisse came to this land and never left.

One night as Michel and I were walking in the garden, shooting stars began putting on a show, streaking across the black dome over our heads. Would life ever get more beautiful than this?

Yet when I got back to my room that night and looked in the mirror, I knew who was looking back at me in the glass. An American girl who loved her family too much to have them an ocean away. An American girl who wanted to be a journalist and write about the American scene. An American girl who could never spend her days doing what Michel’s mother did—shopping each morning, cooking each afternoon.

Michel did me the honor of following me home to America after that. First he visited me at the grad school in North Carolina where I was studying that fall. Then he followed me to Maryland, where I’d grown up in the cornfields, to share Thanksgiving dinner with me and my family. My parents loved him on sight.

Still, I would not be detoured. I was waiting for someone else. I was waiting for Michael, the Boston bean I would meet and marry soon after finishing grad school. Michael was a journalist like me. He became my co-author. He became my co-parent. And always, always he was my heart’s desire. In the end, all roads led me to Michael, and, happily, I was still there, ready and waiting for him.

For this story’s companion piece, see “Crossroads: She Moved to Paris for Work—and Stayed For Love.”

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  • Teri Linscott August 12, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    What a beautiful chapter in your life, Susan! Thank you for sharing.

  • Trinjia Dell'Aglio May 13, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Love is home, no matter what we have planed “home” to be…

  • Nora Brossard February 12, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Great story, Susan. Brought back so many memories of my time in Europe, single and married to a Frenchman. Oh, how I’d love to go back, but like that, not as a tourist.

  • Liz Ribbins February 12, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Susan, this is a terrific piece and a lovely reflection. Warm, funny, moving and wise.

  • Mickey February 12, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    Oh, Susan, the roads not taken and you were so wise and Michel so, so what? Wise too! Because you are collaborators in the journalist walk of life. Oh, bless you. Bless you both. Sigh.

  • Tish Jett February 12, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Wherever one finds love, that is where we belong, n’est-ce pas?