Friends in France
Sonia Choquette
 
All my life I had fantasized about going to the south of France, and these imaginings conjured up the most profoundly warm feelings deep within my soul. The more I imagined going there, the more I felt compelled to do it.
 
When I was a flight attendant, I met a fellow flight attendant who had lived in Aix-en-Provence during college. I told him of my dream, and he jotted down the name of the family he had lived with eight years earlier. He handed me that paper and said, "If you ever do go, call them and give my regards."

That piece of paper was a catalyst to my dream. The moment I received it, I decided I would simply have to go. I imagined renting a room in Aix from these people and living there for as long as I could. My images were intoxicating lavender fields, herbes-de-provence, wine, cheese, baguettes.
 
I knew I had to go, but I didnít want to go alone. I decided to convince my friend Heidi to come with me. By now, my imagination had completely taken over; I was forming plans.
 
ďHeidi, come with me, I said. I have friends we can stay with. Itíll be a great experience! I wasnít really lying. I had that piece of paper, and it felt very friendly.
 
I seduced Heidi with my imaginings, and with the assurance of friends, it didnít take much to get her to go with me. I took a leave from my job, and two months later we were off. I had studied French in college and told Heidi I could speak it (although the truth was that I didnít speak it very well). It didnít matter. My imagination was filled with such lovely images of friends and fun that I felt what I knew was enough to get by. We packed our Sportsac suitcases and left with $500 a piece, a small fortune to us.
 
We were in a romantic, adventurous whirlwind until we hit Paris; Paris is very romantic, but very expensive and very overwhelming. We decided to leave after only one day.
 
"To the south, where the good life is!" we chanted, boarding the express train at the Gare de Lyon.
 
Halfway between Lyon and Marseilles, Heidi, now suffering serious culture shock and jet lag, asked me about my friends. Uh-oh. I was in trouble. I explained that I ­hadnít met them yet, but not to worry.
 
She was horrified.
 
Clinging to my imaginings the rest of the way, I moved to the other side of the railroad car and looked up a cheap hotel in my Michelin guide. We arrived in Marseilles at midnight, and our taxi took us to the Hotel Martini, my one-star choice hotel. It was a seedy flophouse two blocks from the train station. Starving and grossed out by the hotel, we stuffed our money in our pockets and went looking for a place to eat.
 
Three blocks from the hotel, we happened upon a street fight between local drug dealers. We startled them, and they started chasing us, knives flashing. We ran screaming down the street, in fear for our lives.
 
As we raced around the corner back toward the hotel, a police paddy wagon shined its bright lights on us, and three cops jumped out of the wagon.
 
ďArretez-vous! (Stop!) they shouted, guns pointing right at us.
 
We had only been in Marseilles thirty minutes, and already we had been mistaken for druggies or prostitutes and thrown into the back of a police paddy wagon! Not quite what I had imagined, but what an adventure! Heidi was in shock. I must have been, too, because I started laughing. The whole experience had become too weird for even my imagination.
 
Heidi demanded that I explain who we were, that we were lost and hungry and scared and . . .
 
"I canít," I finally admitted. "I donít know enough French!"
 
After a few more scary minutes, I managed to say, "We are lost!" in French. The cops conversed wildly, guns still pointed at us, eyes darting back and forth to us, to each other, and then . . . the guns went down.
 
In broken English, one policeman said, "Americans, no? You lost? Need a room? Yes?"
 
"Yes, yes!" we screamed. "Oui, oui!" Our heads bobbed like apples in a bucket of water.
 
He took pity on us. He bantered back and forth passionately with the three other cops for a few more minutes, and then said, "No worry. I help."
 
We were whisked to the safety of a beautiful country manor in Aix, our original destination! The policemanís grandmother fed us, and we were given a wonderful room overlooking a hillside of lavender, just as I had imagined.
 
"See, Heidi?" I said, finally drifting off to sleep in my cozy bed after our exhausting thirty-six-hour ordeal. "I told you we had friends in the south of France!"
 
Such good friends, in fact, that I ended up living there rent-free for six months! I love France.
 
Sonia Loraine Choquette © 2005
Chicken Soup for the Soul
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Friends in France

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