I suppose that in all of our lives there was a childhood friend.
Someone who, usually about the time you went off to kindergarten, or as the French say, “la materrelle”, gave you comfort when first you ventured away from home and family. Maybe she walked to school with you. Maybe he put his “blanket” down on that linoleum floor next to you during “rest time” after lunch.
You know the one. It’s the person whose name you list when prompted by a “security” question to access an internet site. The name that comes so readily to your memory that you use it to verify you-are-who-you-say-you-are to an indifferent digital world.
No metaphor there.
My first friend was Mike Brown. In 1961 Mike had just moved to Marshall, Michigan from Birmingham, Alabama, spoke with a thick southern accent, wore his jeans rolled up by about four inches (I suppose so his folks wouldn’t have to buy new ones when first grade started a year later). Mike came straight out of central casting for To Kill a Mockingbird and might have played Walter Cunningham. We were both scared as hell.
I have not seen or spoken to Mike since the sad day my family moved from Michigan when I was ten.
For Suzanne, it was Judy Bellis. I met Judy just last week. She still lives in San Luis Obispo. Though they seldom see one another, she and Suzanne remain, to this day, very close. You can tell. There’s a comfort in their interaction that I suppose comes with so much shared history. They try to see each other when they can.
For my French instructor and friend Evelyne, her childhood friend was Claude Fontanet. He still lives in the small village of Marthod where they attended “la materelle” together in 1954. They have not seen one other , have not spoken, have not written in over sixty years.
Well, not until the past few weeks.
When I first started my French lessons with Evelyne shortly after my first trip to Paris, she asked me why I wanted to learn the language. Business? Travel? No, I told her, half jokingly, “I always wanted to spend a few weeks each year, as I imagine Charlie Rose does, in a small French village where I could eat pastries each morning, watch the old men argue politics while playing petanque, and write.”
She said I should go to Marthod.
This is Marthod. It is a drawing by Evelyne of the church in the village. I don’t think there is a patisserie. I doubt old men play petanque. But, it is small and in the mountains and, I suspect . . .I hope . . . it is not frequented by tourists.
There is a French expression Evelyne taught me, “bit by bit a bird builds its nest.” She usually invokes this as reassurance when I am frustrated at what little progress I have made. But it seems apt here.
Bit by bit, as we spoke more and more, I learned about France in the wake of the war, her sister Dany, her father the postman, the school where, in the winter the boys would bring wood to feed the school stove. And of her friend Claude.
So when I hatched this wacky plan, Evelyne wrote to Claude—the old fashioned way– to tell him of her goofy middle aged student with plans to bicycle into the town square of Marthod. And, after a week or two of uncertainty, to her joy, Claude wrote back.
Yes, he has stayed in Marthod his whole life though his work with an NGO has taken him often to Africa. Yes, he is married, has children, and yes, grandchildren. Yes, many classmates in these photographs still live in Marthod
Last night, standing in the dark outside the Musee d’Orsay, poaching off the museum’s free wi-fi, (since my airBNB host Jean Christophe seems unable to answer the riddles of the interface between his new service provider and the router in my aparttement) I received an e mail myself from Claude Fontanet and his wife graciously inviting me to join them for lunch tomorrow.
Evelyne has given me a letter to deliver. I bought a box of chocolates in the Gare Lyon just now as a thank you.
I plan to bike from Annency to Marthod. It’s probably 20 kilometers. In his letter, Claude cautioned me that there is a final 1.5 kilometer climb to Marthod from the main road. Evelyne tells me it is quite steep.
Won’t be my first hill. Or mountain. Hell, I can walk my bike that far. I’ll know I’m close when I can see the church steeple.
I’m not worried about my legs. I’m worried about my mouth. I hope that when I open it, words . . . French words . . . come out. I know Claude speaks English. That’s not the point. I want to deliver a letter from childhood and relay kind regards from a friend not seen in over sixty years.
I’ll practice what I will say on the ride.