And it probably should be addressed before we get too far along:
How the heck did this happen? How did it come to this?
The answer has convinced me that you simply cannot foresee what even the most insignificant occurrences can have on your life. And I’m not talking about pieces of falling space junk; I mean the most mundane, everyday events that turn the path of your life in an unexpected direction.
We were “regulars” at the Cafe de Paris, in Columbia. Some would say residents. One night when we arrived, Erik Rochard, le Patron, dashed up to us and told us there was someone we needed to meet in the bar.
“He’s French, you’ll love him” says Erik. And that’s when Anthony entered our lives.
Anthony Blot (strangely, for Americans, pronounced BLOW), sat at the bar, alone, early-thirties, a classic dark Frenchman. Turns out Anthony had been in the US for some time, and was just about to return to his wife in France. Karen and I were still working, and our trips to France had been limited to two or three week vacations, during which I spent a lot of time on my photography in France, especially along the WWI Western Front. Anthony wanted to know all about it.
Where did you go? What did you see? Where are you going next? And he told us about his home in France; oh, just some little place that goes back to the 16th Century.
We hit it off on the spot. And as he was about to leave, he said, “When are you coming next? You have to come visit us. Give me your email address”.
Well, that went well. So Anthony headed off to return to his wife, and we headed back to our work lives. But soon I started getting emails, “When are you coming?” Not, I had to tell him, for a while, because we can’t take vacation yet.
Next trip to France, the following year, we arrived in Paris, got our car and headed south, towards Le Mans, in the region known as the Sarthe. We were headed for a village called Thoree les Pins, about 50 minutes south of Le Mans. When we arrived he was standing outside, wearing a big grin that Karen and I have come to love.
Anthony greeted us like old friends, and his beautiful wife Celine, who had no idea who we were except that Anthony had told her two Americans were coming to visit, greeted us in the same way. It was an amazement. They just swept us up and made us part of the family. We had planned to spend a night, maybe two, then be on our way. Instead, we were there almost a week, and when we left to go to Normandy for a street festival we wanted to see (we had been there the year before and it provided some great photo ops), they decided to join us, get an Airbnb near where we were staying, and go to the fair together. And our stay ended predictably.
“When are you coming back?”
We came back, over and over. And each time we were absorbed gradually into that most impenetrable of entities, the French Family. It just happened. We met Anthony and Celine’s parents, partied with them, played petanque with them, lord knows we drank with them, and it was all a bit confusing, because it’s not the sort of thing that’s supposed to happen…especially in a tiny hamlet in the provinces. Just ask anyone, and they’ll tell you the French are rude, they are not friendly to foreigners, and they never invite you into their homes. But they do. Our French is primitive, and with the exception of Anthony and Celine, none of the family speaks a word of English. And we get along just wonderfully.
Karen and I fell in love with the region, with the people, with our friends. We had already long since come to love France and the people. But this was on a whole different level. This was something special. And we talked about maybe finding a place to rent for months at a time somewhere in the area.
Then one day when Anthony and I were hangin’ out, I said something like, “Anthony, you and Celine have grown up here, your folks live here, your family has roots here. Surely someone knows someone who has a place that maybe we could rent for a few months at a time…”
He barely took time to draw breath. “Oh yeah.”
“Oh yeah? Like who?”
“Yeah, Celine’s parents.”
Celine’s parents? Like, what house?”
“The one you were in,” says Anthony.
I’m kinda stammering at this point, “What? What do you mean the house I was in? Where are they going?”
“Oh, Michel is restoring another house in the village and they’re going to move in, in May.” And so it was done.
Next July we arrived for a 4 month stay in the house called “La Boullai”, replete with a garden, chickens and fresh eggs, and a host family that simply adopted us as their own, made us part of every family event (and my Lord, the French have lots of events), and when we walked into the house that first day, there was a basket of fruit and vegetables, a bottle of Suze (that’s a story for another time), and a framed plaque that said, “Welcome Home Tom and Karen”.
We were retired at this point. It was a sunny, warm August day and we were in the kitchen at la Boullai. The windows were open, and we were both reveling in the day, when I said to Karen, why don’t we just stay? Why don’t we just do what we have to do to live here? And the lady said, “Why not?”
And so it happened. We returned home to the U.S, faced with an enormous task in obtaining the Long Stay Visa, but the die was cast. And delayed, but not defeated, here we are.
We think they view us as their pet Americans. And years later that plaque has a prominent place on our kitchen wall.