Our first night, we found ourselves so deep in conversation in a stranger’s living room in St. Tropez that we forgot to listen to J. Cole rap, “Roll up and smoke my sins away / I’d like to go to St. Tropez / Maybe I’ll go, maybe I’ll stay / Maybe I’ll stay.” We spoke about how just yesterday there was a need for clocks, a need to be places on time, but how today, since landing in Milan and taking on the roads that led us to that living room, time made no sense. Then we reflected on the day and smiled at the adventure to come.
The ten-hour journey that would have been five hours had France not been so beautiful, and had our eyes not lit up when we emerged from the tunnel and saw Menton, a small town on the French Riviera that winked at the four of us, calling us closer. I remembered the conversation between Robert and Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County:
Well, from Italy to Iowa — that’s a
Whereabouts in Italy?
Small town on the Eastern side no
one’s ever heard of called Bari.
Oh yeah, Bari. I’ve been there.
Oh, yeah. Actually, I had an
assignment in Greece and I had to go
through Bari to get the boat at
Brindisi. But it looked so pretty I
got off and stayed for a few days.
You just… got off the train because
it looked pretty?
We got off the highway because it looked pretty. Because I would have hated myself had I not at least smiled at a stranger or eaten a crepe in this beautiful town. We skipped the crepe, stuck our toes in the Mediterranean, and stumbled into a Thai restaurant with six seats and prices we loved. It was decent enough food to keep us there talking about spontaneity and the man with whom we’d just shared a bottle of Get 31 Mint Liqueur on the beach while his girlfriend snapped photos. Yesterday, Julia was a lawyer, and today she’s a wanderer, drinking behind strangers along the Mediterranean coastline, watching the sunset under the earth, all because the city looked pretty.
We bonded over James Vincent McMorrow, Janis Joplin and why Michelle refuses to use white lighters until after her 27th birthday. When I told the lady at the car rental agency there would be four grown people in the car, she dropped her head in shame as she handed me the keys to the Fiat 500, apologizing for not having anything larger. This car brought us closer. We made it work with Victor in the passenger seat, Julia behind him, Michelle behind me, her knees in my back, massaging me through the beautiful parts of the continent.
Monte-Carlo, Monaco sat still under what could have been a haze or what could have been my eyes glossing over. In my mind were all the titles I’d use for whatever piece of writing would come from that stillness. “From my father’s Monte Carlo to my own,” I kept repeating, thinking of how ashamed I was when he’d drop my brother and me off at school. Undoubtedly, this was the most beautiful city I think I will ever see. I didn’t want many photos and decided against poetry. I’d just tell people about this place, and finish with, “you just have to see it yourself.”
I drove along the road while the others slept, admiring all the beauty following Monaco: Nice, Antibes, and Cannes. I wanted to holler when we came across Villefranche-Sur-Mer, thinking about An Affair to Remember when Nickie Ferrante took Terry McKay to meet his grandmother Janou. My passengers wouldn’t have understood.
We reached St. Tropez in darkness, so the artistry, charm, and grace it showed us waited until morning. We used the night to walk through dimly lit alleys suitable for lovers, fighters, and boys and girls who meet in bars and just need a few moments of privacy. We danced at Chez Maggy on Rue Sibille and ate burgers, crepes, waffles, and fries at a kiosk not much farther. The walk back to the car was breezy, and we tried making out the shapes across whatever body of water was in front of us; mountains or high houses or low clouds. We needed sleep.
We woke, dressed and moved out of the stranger’s home. We played on the beach in the sand with the cool breeze and cold water. The things from the night before, across the water, were mountains and cliffs, and we loved them all. I pretended to know Yoga poses and Victor meditated. Michelle and Julia wandered the beach, taking photos of their toes buried in the sand and their hair blowing in the wind. We reunited and sat silently long enough to finally listen to J. Cole’s St. Tropez, and like him, we had a decision to make: do we go, or do we stay? Having to answer to no one for days, the decision was ours. We chose to go, to explore more of the country. Forward to Lyon.
Families sat out along the road eating cheeses and breads and drinking wines. We bought wine and toasted to this exciting life. We toasted to new friendships in new countries and a car strong enough for a full trunk and us.
Dinner in Lyon was at McDonald’s, across from a table of the first English speakers with American accents we’d seen in a while. Three men, Matt, Bryan, and John, from California cycling their way through Europe, and us, talking about the strange things about America, being out in the world, and the beautiful things we’ve seen by car and by bike in this country, having almost the same road plan. We laughed, shared tips and travel hacks, extended invitations to meet up in the Netherlands, and parted ways. It was a serendipitous time.
We made our way back to our new apartment, drank wine, and shared thoughts parallel to the words of Oriah Mountain Dreamer, “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.” Jobs, like time, did not exist. We were doing the heart work, and it felt good.
We woke the next morning, walked through the Grand Parc de Miribel-Jonage, getting lost and relaxing in the bushes. We lunched next to the Saone River before crossing it on the Gateway College bridge to see the street art and compete with children on the playground who wanted to see if we’d get stuck on slide or actually make it all the way through, and caught up with strangers who were protesting police brutality in France and subsequently the world. Then we left for Paris.
Paris was Paris as it will always be; ravishing, brilliant, remarkable, and fine. Paris drained us.
Any additional karma we needed to gain before continuing our trip through Europe was obtained at a gas station just outside of Geneva, Switzerland. A family in a van, out of gas, sitting at the pump, where they’d been for six hours, waiting on someone to come along, willing to help, asked if I could. The father explained how countless others had come, but refused to help him. He had cash, but his card was not working. Believing most people in the world are good, I helped. “Are you going to Milan or near there,” he asked. “Yes,” I replied. “Do you need to follow me?” He was happy.
The four hours we were able to spend in Milan before our flight to Amsterdam were spent eating pasta, pizza, gelato, and watching the rain fall on the fashionable Italians with soft accents and hearty laughs.
We dropped off our Fiat 500, laughed at the clerk asking, “How did you all fit,” and made our way to our terminal to start our next adventure. France owes us nothing.
And should you find yourself driving through, pull over every time you see something pretty.
Darnell Lamont Walker, a self-professed traveling foodie, has been found sitting at tables eating baby goat sweetbreads, drinking tequila, and laughing loudly with strangers. The writer, filmmaker, artist, and sometimes photographer puts happiness above all.