Première partie: Les chaves-souris
My arrival in Carcassonne, France began with a scream. Yep, that’s right, a scream. Well, also, one, long, drawn out, “What…the…fuck?” en anglais. The website stated that there were only two blocks to walk from the train station to my hotel yet that same website failed to prepare me for the most frightening five minutes of my life. This was a far cry from the pastel colored, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg MGM inspired musical sound stage I had expected to stroll onto singing the Academy Award nominated song “I Will Wait For You” followed by a triple cheek kiss from a young Catherine Deneuve.
THANK GOD for Mark Zuckerberg, because without him I might be mort. Seriously. The only thing that kept me alive (other than my children, right?) was my mission to write (when I could finally get a decent internet connection) a Nietzsche themed “that which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” zero star Expedia review, titled “You may as well have told me to wear a head scarf at a Trump rally” that I would most definitely post on my Facebook page.
So, there I was, in the South of France, near Les Pyrenees half dazed and cranky from spending all day riding rails beside exquisitely dressed men and women. I mean, even the Dame de Billets was wearing a Louis Vuitton scarf and Joy Eau de parfum. Yes, the French were a people that I envied not only for their good looks, svelte figures and depressing, realistic filmmaking, but - more importantly- for their far superior (at least Bernie tells me so), Socialist system. You mean I didn’t have to work eighty hours a week for a decade to pay off my student loans? Is France where the Four Hour Work Week guy grew up?
Suffering from jet lag, I was forced to walk around like a zombie because of my fear of hallucinating on Ambien. It was dark outside, I hadn’t had a sip of Bordeaux in a whole thirteen minutes, and I was starving. One of the hardships of European travel, don’t you know (Frommer’s always omits this) is feeling self-conscious about eating a lot - in front of people. Especially fresh, mouth-watering delicacies impossible to find back home – many, without pasteurization! I believe, on the European continent at least, les Americains are forced to adopt binge eater behavior. Like, you buy dinner pour deux (or so you tell the serveur) and shove it, truffes and all, down your throat with your bare hands, in the lift that you barely fit into, alone, before someone sees you. Or, you knock over un petit enfant in better shoes than yours in the train aisle in order to sit next to a blind, eighty year old Madam granting you a few uninhibited moments of cramming chocolats noisetiers into your mouth with oxygen breaks, undetected.
A complete one hundred and eighty degree turn from how they approach meal portions is when it comes to drinking alcohol. In this instance, excess is not only okay, it’s celebrated. I mean, if you’re not slurring your words while a guy named Guy funnels aperitifs et digestifs down your throat (or basically the French version of an upside down Margarita), you will stick out like a sore thumb(note to Frommer’s – something else you’ve missed.) One person, regardless of waist size, can guzzle down Champagne, four bottles of vins de Bourgogne and a Cognac and nobody bats (foreshadowing) an eye! They give no fucks. Are you starting to understand the impetus behind the New Orleans credo Les Bon Temps Rouler?
Another place you can be uninhibited in France is in the bedroom. Their tricks of the “tongue trade” made them the hit of English aristocrats back in the day. You may as well indulge in this area, too, granted your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/life partner/soulmate/boo/Dominant will let you. May I remind you that history’s most famous “home wrecker” Anne Boleyn was trained at French court before meeting King Henry the Eighth?
When it comes to insulting my home country, America, the French are also quite skilled. To be fair, I enjoy reminiscing about the good old days of the Vichy regime and the colonizing of Africa and Asia. Thanks for the Vietnam War, guys! I say. They really like to hear that. Nobody’s innocent here, I tell them, wagging my pointer finger at them like Napoléon making a speech in front of his troops before being exiled to Elba(where the hell is that place, anyway? Is it on a map?) America, is place where you can be un cochon, anytime you want, in the comfort of strangers, also les cochons. My own gastronome version of liberte fraternite egalite. Evidence of why America is still great.
Back to my story – okay, so, it’s late evening, I’m tired, and all I want to do is relieve myself in the privacy of my hotel room. “This toilet has been sanitized for your protection” is one of life’s great love letters, isn’t it? After a few minutes in my room, I figured I’d be drooling on stiff, bleached bed sheets dreaming of French actor/filmmaker Guillaume Canet, lover of Edith Piaf star - Marion Cotillard. I like to imagine Guillaume sur un cheval(he’s a famed equestrian), sneering, in that special way only a French man can, in tight taupe pants with a riding crop in his hand…I’m reminded of the French designation, ”experts in the tongue trade” and get all Molly Bloom Irish, “Oui , je l'ai dit oui, je veux dire oui ! » Note to self : Download Belle De Jour and The Story of O from Criterion tonight.
So deeply was I enjoying my own fantasy world (what’s new?) that I failed to notice the, um, oh, one or two hundred blood thirsty bats (or so it seemed - nothing at all like those benign Looney Toons crows I grew up with) huddled together and scheming on long, thin branches above me, licking their tiny, sea lamprey lips who, after a single, large gust of wind, race toward me, en masse, thirsty for my sang americain.
I rolled my suitcase quickly across twelfth century cobblestones, like a Cathar running from torch wielding Catholics, while simultaneously dodging sub-standard French automobiles (you might get cheese and wine right, but cars, I don’t think so!) With these cascading black creatures only a few feet from my head, squeaking loudly and contemplating their obvious kill shots (there’s a lot of meat on me, fyi) I almost went so far as to jump off the medieval bridge I was hyperventilating/panic attacking on and hide beneath it. Luckily, I remembered how Pablo Picasso’s mistress Marie-Therese nearly died from an infection from river rats. River rats. Scratch that, I told myself. I could never pull off Anne Hathaway’s Fantine short hair. Nope, bats over rats. It sounded cooler.
Before ever arriving at my writers’ retreat, completing my masterpiece, and getting reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, I would be eaten alive by a swarm of stylish (they are French) bats. You never know, my gambler’s fallacy voice told me, having read far too many Young Adult books as an adult - these might be vampire bats and - listen up - you might live forever! Remember Only Lovers Left Alive? Maybe one of these blood suckers is actually smoking hot vampire/British actor Tom Hiddleston? You could star in a Jim Jarmusch film!!!
What tortured me at that moment, other than the thought of having all of the blood sucked out of my body from tiny bat teeth – was how my story would be told on the evening news. Would I (much skinnier without the blood inside my body, obviously) make the glossy cover page of Hello magazine next to the God of mischief himself Tom Hiddleston? Or - would a TV producer drop "A Medieval Town Massacr"e for a story on Khloe Kardashian’s overexposed workout routine? Will the Kardashians ever let the rest of us hard working people (I know, I know, Oprah said they work a lot) win the news hour? Was this my coda?
The Doors’ Jim Morrison (he’s buried in Paris you, know?) began singing…”This is the end…Beautiful friend”…
I imagined my thirteen year old son, a scholar and lover of all creatures both real and supernatural saying, “I mean, what are the odds? EATEN ALIVE? How diverse does my family seem now? My mother was EATEN ALIVE BY BATS. IN FRANCE. ON HER WAY TO A WRITERS RETREAT. That woman just wrote my Harvard application essay for me. Thank you, Mother!”
And then I saw Alfred Hitchcock, or his ghost probably, walking his tiny ghost dog who took a real shit on the sidewalk, making a mandatory appearance in the Hitchcock film that was now my life. Hey, where was a phone booth when you needed one? So that I could run into it, and hide? Then it hit me - there are no more phone booths. I’m dating myself even suggesting a phone booth. Vieille femme! You’re done for!
I made it all the way to the glass windows outside the Hotel Terminus restaurant where I watched couples eating dinner over candlelight. I read on the train that this area of France is packed with people who escaped Franco so I start yelling, “Ayuda! Ayuda!” hoping they speak Spanish. The hotel appeared super “old timey,” as my daughter likes to call it, and, slightly sinister, like - a good place for Mia Farrow to give birth to Satan. Nothing glamorous. They scrimped on the velvet and did a half-assed job cleaning what I presume are blood stains in the marble foyer. Alright, F. Scott Fitzgerald may have taken a leak here, on his way to a much better hotel. Hemingway may have killed a man and then wrote a few misogynist passages. Henry Miller may have slept with a Chambermaid and not paid her. Alice B. Toklas may have stolen a recipe for her cookbook.
Screaming outside the restaurant window, I was like a Gerard Depardieu (post Le Dernier Metro) homeless guy who has a heart attack on the New York City subway platform and who everyone assumes someone else will give mouth to mouth resuscitation to. All of a sudden, hipsters don’t like beards for some reason(?) and not one of them wants to go near the guy because he smells like urine and looks like poverty. He’s been broke ever since losing his car window washing business on the Bowery during the Giuliani administration. Now he can only afford the ninety-nine cent menu at McDonald’s, hence the clogged arteries. Not one person will help him.
Absolument the hotel diners think, cutting into their rare steak au poivre with a fancy Laguiole knife, watching thick red liquid slowly ooze onto their plates while sampling the wines of the Languedoc region. Someone else will save this enormous, hysterical Americain before her eyes are feasted on by bats.
Trying to cover my face before it’s nibbled on – I suddenly remember Box Office Giant of American Seventies Cinema – the blonde haired, blue eyed, man of few words, the actor Steve McQueen. That’s right – Steve F’cking McQueen. He shot the racing film Le Mans in France in 1971. Supposedly having snorted all of the cocaine available in France, he woke his wife up in the middle of the night with a pistol in his hand, talking crazy, like any six pack ab sexy/reform school survivor/war hero/Stella Adler student/Paul Newman rival/Sam Peckinpah muse high on drugs might do. And you know what saved their lives? BATS. That’s right, the chateau they were staying at was filled with bats, flying squeaky squirrels who all of a sudden, out of nowhere, scared Steve and brought him to his senses. Without les chaves souris there would be no Bullitt, no The Getaway, and no Towering Inferno (ok, maybe that shouldn’t have happened.)
I stopped screaming. I was en route to a writers’ retreat. In France. For a week. Avec du vin. Avec beaucoup de vin. Sans enfants. Without any responsibility other than to decompress, restore, and write. Located in what is known as the “Rainbow Valley,” I was going to see and hear a waterfall every damn day. Fresh, mountain, spring water flowed here. Words flowed here. Could anything be more magnifique? For a mother? A writer? After forty?
Inspired, I pulled hard on the brass handle of the giant door of the Hotel Terminus. Fighting off gale force winds, I began to taste the Duck Fat Dinner for three that I would eat, while guzzling aperitifs, digestifs, and three bottles of wine, sitting down, in front of witnesses, at the restaurant that night, not giving any fucks. Un beau cochon americain.
With my hard earned cli in my hand, and wide, still intact eyes, I gazed lovingly at the old timey lobby, missed my children, and welcomed my next, aventure spectaculaire.