Innocence Abroad: Chapter 9



All the way out on the limb

St. Malo, France: June 8, 1991...




don't know about the other channel crossings to France, but the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St. Malo is the perfect adventure opener. The sea-going vessel stands off the French coast until the earliest light of dawn and then moves at quarter speed, silent as a raider, through the dense gray-white of a morning fog - heedless, it seems, of jagged rocks and tiny islands that loom suddenly into visibility at what appear to be perilously close distances.

I was alone on deck, roused by daylight from five hours of fitful sleep there, after choosing open air over the crowded interior where everyone else without a stateroom spent the night. Captivated, now, by this eerie dream-like waterscape, I was suddenly aware of another passenger alongside, a woman I'd already met on the Portsmouth bus from Victoria Station and had not seen since boarding the ferry.

Together, we watched the rampart walls of a great fortress materialize from the grey mist as we edged into the harbor, and I found out she knew more about St. Malo and the Brittany coast than I could have learned from any guidebook. She had grown up here right after the war and then married a Welshman, moved away, and become so thoroughly anglicized that only her name -Reneé - revealed her roots. I had stumbled upon a bilingual guide to ease my entry into France. Could the gods have any better responded to my uncertain confidence in this venture?

Grey-blue eyes glimmering in a field of freckles that softened features firmed by middle-age, Reneé was clearly excited about her first return in more than a decade. The demands of a high-skill trade - restoring oriental ivory carvings - had kept her too busy, she said. It had grown from a hobby and there were too few good practitioners to fill the call for it. Even with clients in Paris she never had time for the slow, easy ferry to St. Malo, which accounted for the early-morning enthusiasm she was sharing.

I followed along to meet her brother when we docked, and they took me to a brasserie in the old harbor section just opening for the day's trade, where we talked awhile longer over morning-fresh croissants. All of my remaining British coin and paper had been converted to francs back in London, but I hadn't yet any sense of value for the coinage. Reneé insisted on paying as I awkwardly dallied over it - a native's welcome, as she put it. Croissant with coffee, 11 francs . . . $1.80.

Most of St. Malo, they told me, had been rebuilt after the war. The ancient fortress town had come through the first four years of conflict intact, but it was ripped apart by American bombers clearing the way for Ike's invasion of the Normandy coastline, quite some distance away - an aspect of the war we never hear about when its exploits are told. The rebuilding was done as nearly as possible to original form, but one can easily tell the new from the old by the textural difference in the stone. Still, it had stylistic integrity, and strolling the streets of the old walled-in section provided a charming image of Medieval France.

I parted from my briefly met friends soon after that shoreside bit of breakfast, later wondering if I should have been so hasty. I might have had a first-night host had I stayed with the conviviality. But I was too excited to remain in one place on this first day in France. I knew, furthermore, that the longer I should cling to such easy security, the harder a full plunge would become.

Marjory had loaned me excellent maps of the area, and my plan was to head for Rennes, forty-five miles to the south, a commercial hub with Brittany's largest cluster of Good Neighbors hosts - in fact, the largest selection of them in any one place this side of Paris. A walk out of St. Malo for several miles would bring me to the village of St. Servan, where rail and road took different paths to Rennes, and I could take my choice.

In London, of course, everything looked crystal clear on the map. Reality was not quite so clear. Here I was, walking down a road that seemed much like any other, except I couldn't read a thing - neither road signs or billboards, nor anything in the shop windows. I ambled along as though I knew exactly where I was, and where I was going, when every step took me deeper into a world where I could no longer communicate. It all felt very unreal.

I recalled a strange fellow I once met named Henry Seventy-seven. Henry had just ended a voice-fast, as he called it - five years of `unspeakability,' during which he had said not a word to anyone. He told me how easy it had been to relate to everyone, and thus get by: he would just smile, point to his mouth and shrug his shoulders.

I was in the midst of these musings, and hardly beyond the port area of St. Malo, when a big stylish car pulled alongside driven by a fellow who spoke to me in Italian, as near as I could tell. I thought at first he was offering a ride, but it seemed he was instead trying to give me an expensive-looking leather jacket that went to nearly knee-length. In severely broken English he let me know that it was fresh from the Milan factory for which he was a sales rep, and he had pulled over just to give it to me . . . free!

I stood there laughing at the complete absurdity of such an introduction to the French countryside. I had no idea what the scam was, but the very thought of adding such a heavy piece of wear to the already sufficient burden on my back brought on further waves of laughter. He kept insisting it was a free gift, but then there was something about giving me a ride all the way to Italy . . . if he could only get the gas to make the journey. It finally emerged that he wanted me to sell a second jacket, somehow, somewhere, for the gas money - the very thought of which sent me into another round of hilarity. He finally drove off, with a sorry smile at my rejection of his offer . . . and with my free jacket as well.

A further distance along, I spotted a laundromat and took time out to dry my damp sleeping bag, managing, with a feckless mix of polyglot and finger-pointing, to learn from a woman and her son how the dryer operated. After I had gone on, her teen-ager caught up with me to return the map I absentmindedly left on a table - probably in a flash of subconscious resentment over its seeming uselessness. Nothing I had come to, after leaving the old walled town, had any apparent relationship to what was on the map. I used it, finally, to show a shopkeeper where I was trying to go, and he assured me I was on the road to Rennes. St. Servan had apparently grown into this endless stretch of shops and services. But the railroad was nowhere to be seen.

Somewhere along the way, under a steadily clouding sky and convinced that I was never going to get into real countryside, I lost my enthusiasm for the walk. Picking a likely spot, I made a roughly-lettered destination sign and started doing my thumb thing. It was nice to be facing traffic on the proper side of the road again.

I stood there a full frustrating hour. Plenty of traffic went by, and people were curious and interested in me but nobody would stop. The boy from the laundromat zipped by on the back of a motorbike, and then again, flashing a hand-wave each time with a wide grin. The natives were definitely friendly, but . . .

Then a car pulled over, so deliberately that I suspect he might have doubled back for me. He was a school teacher who spoke a very little English and seemed to be saying that he taught French - which made no immediate sense to me, since we were in France. Until I sheepishly realized that we have English teachers at home. When we reached Rennes, I said I had to find a phone. He promptly insisted on taking me to meet his sister, who apparently spoke English and also had a phone I could use.

It was her husband, Raphael, however, who spoke English and spoke it quite well. A doctor, with an air of quiet authority and seriousness about him, he looked to be well into his forties. But what I learned in conversation suggested a somewhat younger age. We talked as he was trying to help me find a local GN host.

He had taken the list of names right out of my hands, once he understood how the system worked, and begun calling people on it, despite my insistence - possibly half-hearted - that I could handle it myself. I stood there helplessly listening to a pair of intense conversations, with not the vaguest idea of what was transpiring, before he gave it up and returned the list to me. I called the next one myself. It was a French response, of course, which I quickly converted to a thickly Gallic English by saying I was a GN traveler looking for lodging. The fellow hesitantly told me he'd consult with his wife and call me back.

It was during this wait, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes, that Raphael began to reminisce about having hitch-hiked himself, when much younger, around the United States and Canada before he entered medical school. He spoke wistfully of it, as though he hadn't given it any thought in years - yet he instantly located his old road-journal and a few souvenirs from then. I was struck by the circumstance that he had been on his journey, in 1971, at the very time that I broke free of my old world. We found the precise date in his journal when I quit my last job in San Francisco, and Raphael had been in Santa Fe on that day heading for California.

The journey so deeply affected him that he'd had a hard time returning to a routine of study; and ever so slightly there was a sadness, even a hint of regret, in his reflection on that - though he denied it when I asked. By now, the host I had called was phoning back to tell me it was perfectly all right and I should come by at once. Before driving me there, Raphael gave me a small French tricolor, the very flag that had been his backpack emblem on that journey of twenty years earlier. It was the perfect ritual welcome to Europe, as if that hour's roadside wait for a ride in St. Servan had been necessary, on this first day, for just the right one to come along.

MY GN HOST was not to be found on a street, but on a canal, a branch of the Vilaine River that runs through the heart of this sizeable town. And quite literally on the canal: it was an old haulage barge, a huge hundred-footer by fifteen feet of width rocking gently at its moorage. Roland, the host I had spoken with, had been fifteen years at the slow job of making it livable, as he could find the time from his main preoccupation with film production. It was cozy and spacious at once like an old country cabin, complete with wood-stove and vintage furniture. Portholes were just above water level, louvre windows a bit higher, and the headroom was sufficient as long as one took care to sway down a bit at the gangway entrance - over which hung a turn-of-the-century photograph of this very same barge in its former incarnation.

Roland and Armelle were having an informal party that evening - the reason he'd been hesitant about inviting me to stay. Before long, friends began to gather in the large central section of this homey barge, perhaps six or seven adults and as many youngsters, who looked after themselves as the party got underway. There was not much I could understand, so I remained - in the style of Henry Seventy-seven - a smiling, silent guest, nibbling at pizza and various cheeses as an endless flow of wine gradually made language less and less of a barrier.

Roland did fairly well with English, though I needed his frequent reminders to speak more slowly. Armelle had a much slimmer grasp. One guest, Phillipe, turned out to be fluently bilingual and gifted as well with a fine sense of humor, and he became a catalyst for me as the evening got merrier, so that I finally felt I was really 'there.' At least until I'd had more wine than I could handle, which was impossible to avoid in that setting. The bottle wasn't just passed, it was poured, and nobody, not even Phillipe, understood me when I said, "enough!"

The kids, the older ones, seemed a bit in awe of me and wouldn't engage with my efforts at exchange. Until it was time for their departure, when I got shy farewells - salutes to an image of hippie adventure that I suppose I conveyed. One young fellow, the very picture of Sean Connery's youthful apprentice, Adso, in the film version of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, proudly tossed at me, "Peace and Love," in perfect English from the gangway, and then fled quickly into the night.

From Reneé, to Raphael, to Roland - three 'R's to match the alliteration of Halliburton's Royal Road to Romance, and to initiate my own on this incredible opening day of it. I was given a bunk bed, and the soft bobbing of the barge worked nicely with my woozy condition to send me gently and swiftly into my first night of Continental dreaming.

Next morning, I went with the family - Roland, Armelle, and their perfectly impish little girl - for a Sunday excursion to visit Armelle's parents in a rural setting about twenty miles west of Rennes. We left the highway at that point and journeyed south another few miles on a narrow road, passing cottages that begged for artist and canvas, until we came to a smaller trail and finally the secluded hermitage we were seeking, almost invisible from the roadside so shrouded was it by vines and shrubbery.

Armelle's father, Emile, was an old Maquis guerilla, the resistance group that fought Hitler's four-year occupation of France - and I suppose I regarded him with the same awe that the kids, the night before, had for me. Marie, his wife, was a robust, classically Gallic woman, in striking contrast to the svelte Armelle. Her particular pride that day was a great table overflowing with country-style foods for us: salads, pastas, all sorts of vegetable dishes - artichokes much larger than any I had ever seen! And bottles of wine, of course, made right there on the farm. It was becoming clear that I might not get out of France with any sobriety left. I relied on Roland for translation, but Marie was an absolute wonder at communicating her rich sense of humor without benefit of language. She used her eyes, with head and body movements, and I swear some of it had to be pure telepathy.

Eventually, I went off with Roland and Emile on a drive along back roads to the north, past the sleepy villages of Paimpont and Concoret, to take in tow an old Rover that Roland meant to cannibalize for one that he was refitting. I didn't realize what I was getting into. The Rover had no brakes. They lashed the two vehicles as closely together as possible, but had to leave some slack for a turning radius, which meant that the Rover - in which I rode with Roland - became a battering ram. It didn't seem to bother Emile, and we went lurching and zig-zagging with the abandon of an old Keystone comedy, pounding Emile every time he hit the brakes. I was a bit surprised that we actually made it back.

The day ended with Roland and I and the little imp taking a walk in the rural countryside, in the gathering dusk. Around us were old stone cottages cloaked in vines and distant treescapes in silhouette, timeless like a framed Monet. The little one sat atop Roland's shoulders part of the way, clearly no burden in his regard for her. This was the quintessential easy-going, casually charming Breton. He wore the traditional loose scarf around his neck, could not sit in a chair without lounging in it, and attended to conversation with slightly raised eyebrows whatever the topic - suggesting a bored competence rather than skepticism. Roland was instantly likable, and as fine an introduction to French style and sensibility as I might have found.

I WANTED TO STAY awhile in Rennes and get grounded, before charging off toward Paris. It was 225 miles, from here to there, and I wasn't yet sure I could handle such a distance so sparsely settled with hosts. But I didn't want to overstay my welcome on the barge, so I phoned and found another host couple in Rennes. Roland tried to dissuade me when he found out, but the deed was done and he was kind enough to drive me over - I think he really wanted to check them out, in a protective concern for my well-being.

Eric and Marie occupied an austerely furnished, immaculately kept duplex, a complete contrast to the bubbling disorder of life on the barge. I had misgivings about the change, at first, but these were charming and attentive hosts. Living simply was a major focus of their lives, which included growing much of their own food. Eric, quite fluent in his English, was a computer engineer with a passion for solitary sailing voyages. Marie, whose English was a halting, uncertain affair, was a medical librarian who spent part of each week in Paris at her job - a half-day commute by train.

Now I took the time to explore Rennes, an ancient city of captivating charm. In the old section at its heart were two and three story buildings so old that they had lost their absolute respect for gravity and its demands. They seemed to lean casually on one another . . . sort of like Roland lounged on chairs. But none were in danger of collapse: they were too tightly packed to allow it. Here, for the first time, my budget was seriously threatened by food temptations. Cheeses were remarkably cheap, and breads, baked fresh twice daily in the small bakeries, were quite impossible to resist.

It was all too tempting, in my dread of the open countryside, to cling to the least bit of security. Eric easily persuaded me to return from a side-trip to Mont St. Michel and stay with them an extra night. That became, for me, a first venture all over again, for it required a train ride, forcing me to cope with the language issue. Eric softened the blow by taking me to the station - the gare, they call it. The morning's only train was about due, as I fumbled for the right amount in francs. Eric came to my rescue, paying the $9 fare for me in the tight-schedule rush. A new twist, perhaps, on Henry Seventy-seven's method of `getting by.' I tried later to pay it back, but Eric wouldn't hear of it. As a last contribution to my welfare, before hurrying off to his own affairs, he made sure I was waiting on the right platform.

The railroad, however, pulled a track switch at the last minute, diverting the train to another platform. I would have missed my journey entirely, but out of the smoky haze where I waited at the railside came another angel, right on schedule, to hustle me off toward a further platform. He was a young law student from Tunisia who had apparently heard my final exchange with Eric, about which train I was supposed to get. I was almost ready to take these rescues as a matter of course.

Visiting Mont St. Michel checked-off a lifelong dream. Marie had managed to convey that it would be filled with tourists, so I was prepared for that aspect. The rainy day reduced the throng and lent more atmosphere to the visit. A $2.75 senior fee took me all the way up into the cathedral area, where I was just in time for the day's noon mass, an impressive experience in that setting, beneath stained-glass that towered to an incredible height. A choir of visiting school children enhanced the effect, and at just the right moment the overcast sun burst across hundreds of colored panes high up in the vaulted interior, as if some Hollywood production manager had a hand in it. I silently blessed all the Michaels who have enriched my world in recent years. Then, to balance accounts with the more heathenly spirits that motivate me, I found a nicely secluded spot in an outer yard and took my relief there. In a Pantheist's world, all things natural are sacred.

B ACK AGAIN IN RENNES, Thursday dawned with a bit of threat in the weather, but not enough to delay my departure. I bused to the outskirts, bought a fresh croissant in a nearby bakery for 23 cents and found my hitching spot. I waited only twenty-five minutes, this time, for a ride with a teacher of English. Once underway, he told me he was headed for the town of Vitré, and I remembered that I had intended to reject any ride going there. Vitré was several miles off the main route and I was concerned that I might get stranded there. As usual, however, my mind had gone completely blank the moment a car stopped for me.

Looking at the map as we rode along, I saw that I could yet avoid Vitré. I showed my driver how he could help me by continuing on the main highway until we reached a 'T' crossing that could take him into Vitré and leave me in a good position for my next ride. It seemed clear enough; but my map didn't indicate the entire situation. There was also a 'Y' avenue, several miles short of the cross traffic I was hoping to tap into. And sure enough, that was where he dropped me. It only dawned on me as I watched him speed away on the 'Y' road, toward Vitré. There was virtually no eastbound traffic coming onto the highway here - the same sort of situation I had blundered into on leaving Cambridge. Compounding it, there happened to be road repair going on at this point, bottlenecking the highway traffic into a one lane flow. Slim chance, here, that anyone would stop for me. But my more immediate concern was that the clouds had now become ominous . . . dark, lumbering masses obviously getting ready to disgorge.

I had to get out of here, and that meant I had to walk out, the threat of a downpour giving me no time to linger over the issue. Rather than walk the five miles into Vitré that I might so easily have ridden, it made more sense to stay with the main highway. I couldn't be much more than three miles from the 'T'. I took off at a forced-march tempo, hoping at least to reach some cover before the heavens let loose. There was none at all, anywhere nearby.

Road markers every hundred meters, sixteen to the mile, paced my progress as I raced the clouds. But it was no good. Thirty-four markers out, I lost the game. My poncho was out as fast as I could manage it - for what little good it did in the stormy rage that came down on me. There was nothing in sight, absolutely nothing, for a moment's cover. I could only carry-on and take the soaking. And reflect on how easily I might have been comfortably dry in Vitré.

By the time the crossing came into view the rain had passed. I was so wet that it made little difference anymore; but it was good to be done with it - done with the walk, and at a place where I could resume my hitching. And then I saw the fellow who was already there.

He was a black from Martinique - as I could barely make out, for he only spoke French. He pointed on a pocket watch how many hours he had been waiting for a ride. I knew, from his obvious down-and-out condition, that he could be there for many more hours, and I knew I had not the patience to wait with him. The situation, for me, had become hopeless. After giving the fellow a ten franc piece ($1.60) in place of the cigarette he begged, I set out on the only course now left: walking down the 'T' into Vitré - but not so low in spirit, after all. There comes a time when one has to bow gracefully to the sovereign will of the Universe. Once that occurs, the burden of purpose is lifted and everything feels pretty good again. In the hour's walk, I turned the whole business over in my mind, considering it from every side, and decided that the lesson it held for me was to take the ride as it comes. The trail always goes to the right place, according to trail philosophy, and no good will ever come of second-guessing or trying to manipulate it.

In Vitré I headed for le gare, the rail station. An English-speaking ticket agent told me I could make it to Chartres that night, most of the way to Paris, by a complicated three-part passage, changing trains at Laval and Le Mans. Should I dare it? The four hour journey would put me there at 10:45 p.m. But what to do in Chartres at that hour?

In a park across from the station I pored over my resource material. My options boiled down to a GN host in Le Mans or a hostel in Chartres, and I could hardly make the choice without placing a phonecall to assure it. With two hours before departure time, I set out in search of a pay phone; and in that timespan, I found out why Vitré was worth all the trouble I had come through to get there.

Seemingly hidden behind a maze of narrow streets close-packed with ancient half-timbered structures was easily the most enchanting castle of all that I had come across. A chateau it was, here in France. Up high on the hill, a massive wall of dark stone surmounted by turreted towers of the same murky hue in a fairy tale arrangement - the whole of it a stunning blend of Medieval power and French temperament. Seen from below, its dark mass hovering over the village structures with a fearsome, brooding dominance undisturbed by any evidence of modernity, it was a sudden peek into the long, long ago, and I halfway expected to see the glint of flashing armor on its battlement, or a maiden's surreptitious look from one of the high turret windows. Nothing in the entire scene, down to the very street I stood on, suggested the twentieth century.

In the time I had, I couldn't find an entrance to it, though I very nearly circled its perimeter. But that first view, the complete surprise of it, was all I really needed and it left my impression of the chateau entirely untarnished by touristic debasement.

When I finally found the pay phone, I had circled right back to the rail station. Had I merely gone the other way, to begin with, I would have found my phone and never have glimpsed the wonderful chateau at all. I called the Chartres hostel and they did have room for me - and alerted me that the doors would be locked at 11 p.m., fifteen minutes from train arrival time. A further element of tension added to the already tight schedule of connections. As I bought my ticket, some strange fellow was babbling to any and all in the vicinity - and of course, I could understand nothing of it. Nobody paid him any attention, but I did, simply in order to stay out of his way. For no reason that I could tell, he suddenly insisted on giving me a ten-franc piece. The very amount that I had earlier given the black fellow from Martinique, out on the highway.

The train connections marvelously came off without a hitch and I arrived in Chartres right on schedule. The hostel was a mile away, leaving me no choice but to take a taxi. It set me back $5, and the hostel another $9, both of which added up to my day's allowance - yet it was only half of what I spent on this strangely mixed day. But in later looking back on the whole adventure of miscalculation, I realized that it had brought me through the barrier of all my fears about traveling Europe. I was doing a lot of singing out there in the rain, once it had begun, and hadn't been at all concerned for what might eventuate in that wild situation. Just taking each development as it came. So the price of passage was hardly exorbitant.

THE CATHEDRAL at Chartres, standing on a rise, lords it over the entire town, as much as any chateau possibly could. This was evident when the morning mist and rain gradually cleared, to reveal the cathedral's impressive stature about a mile from the hostel. It would not take much of a detour to reach on my way out of town.

Quite by accident, I took a route that led me to an ancient Roman church by a quiet stream at the foot of the cathedral hill. Nobody was around, but it appeared to be open for entry and I wandered in. There was not a bit of furnishing or decoration, just an immense open space dominated by several huge stone columns. Something unavoidably imposing and serene about this great, solemn emptiness moved me to an unintended bit of meditation before I continued on toward the Cathedral. The place was called the Abbey of Sainte André.

Mont St. Michel's cathedral had stirred hope that the French retained a more reverential attitude for their great church structures, than the tourist focus I encountered in Britain. But I found there really wasn't much difference at Chartres. Among other disabusing impressions was the sight of a priest sitting in a brightly lit confessional, waiting for penitents to drop by, almost like a concessionaire at a street fair. All it lacked was a sign, "Lighten your burden for twenty francs." In the end, I valued my moments in Sainte André's Abbey more than my experience of the Chartres Cathedral - though it is certainly a magnificent structure.

I walked from there to the Paris motorway, perhaps another mile or so, and soon had a ride with a pair of fairly young German fellows on their way home from a channel crossing, both of whom spoke good English. They were going to bypass Paris, and offered to drop me at Etampes, for a straight shot into the underside of the city on a lesser highway. But then they asked if I'd rather be dropped at the motorway turnoff, about twenty miles short of Etampes. Faced with a choice, and having no better guidance than the lesson of the Vitré episode, I decided to stay with the original suggestion.

It had become a sparkling day by the time we sided off the motorway toward Etampes - the whitest of puffball clouds drifting lazily through a brilliant blue sky, reminiscent of idyllic days when I hitch-hiked as a youth in long-ago California, before the advent of freeways or smog. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time before smog in California, when traffic was gentle and the Open Road was a refreshing two-lane adventure . . . and I am lucky enough to have been there.)

Etampes was a pleasant but unexceptional little town, by the growing extent of my French countryside standards. It was on a rail line into Paris, but the day was too bright to consider that, even though the highway at this 25-mile distance was a roaring mass of juggernauts. I made the brief mistake of trying it full-strength, and then backed off to the access road, where I waited hardly fifteen minutes for a young woman going right in to Paris. A golden-haired angel, I should add, for even though she spoke almost no English she managed to insist that I give her the exact address of my Paris host, the one I had written to from London, and then drove me right to it!

I had been chauffeured to all three hosts for my first week in Europe (not to mention the taxi in Chartres). Not at all bad, for a stranger in a strange land . . . a `pennyless' innocent who doesn't know the territory and can't parler the language.

And rather amazingly - even with Thursday's transportation expense ($21.75) and the $9 hostel night - I managed to hold my week's costs very near the budget line, at $101.31. It was a good fiscal omen for the journey and enabled me to approach a week in Paris with an open attitude as to its possibilities.


"the budget line" Each of these week-long chapters of the journey through Europe will close with a brief budget summary. For the sake of comparisons, the week's accounting will cover the specific seven days from Monday through Sunday. The text, however, is more loosely arranged for episodic interest and may cover a longer or shorter 'week' that ends variously on Friday, Saturday or Sunday, as the tale may warrant.

"definitely friendly, but..." I was later advised that the French are rather shocked at someone my age hitch-hiking; that this accounted for the many curious and interested looks I received, as well.



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