Back in 1980, the year Lennon was shot and Reagan was elected for the first time, it was still fairly safe for teenage girls to hitchhike around Europe. I hitched to the South of France and later Paris with my friend Monica, who was the only other au pair girl at La Mhotte. She was a placid but intrepid girl from Leeds, also eighteen, who earned several times more than I did from the family she worked for, taking care of one small baby instead of four energetic, demanding boys.
Our hitchhiking trips together were weekend adventures, larks. Often a trucker stopped for us, a genial, bored Frenchman who wanted to bask in the company of two girls for an afternoon in exchange for driving them a few hundred kilometers. We understood the deal. When a truck pulled over and stopped for us just up the road, we ran to it so the driver wouldn’t have to wait long, hopped up into the cab, and introduced ourselves with profuse thanks to the driver. We were a good team – two fresh-faced, pretty, friendly, seemingly innocent teenagers, both fluent in French. We were also good at gauging people. We were smarter by far about the world and men than we looked. We obligingly flirted and chatted with our truck drivers, shared our picnic lunches with them, and always arrived safely, exactly where we wanted to go.
In Provence, in the lilac and sunflower fields near Aix, we stayed with an older couple on their spread of land that included an orchard, a garden, a vineyard, and a goat pen. Acquaintances of Monica’s parents somehow, they fed us rounds of their excellent homemade goat cheese of three different ages, young, middle-aged, and old, that they took from wire baskets hanging from trees in their orchard. I had never eaten chevre before; at first it tasted strange, and then, all at once, it was unbelievably good, gamy and creamy.
The sun was hot there, early in the spring. We ate meals outside, lunches of chewy, crusty bread and chevre, salads made with the lettuce they grew, and for supper, a soup or stew, and once, a leg of lamb. We sat at long wooden table in a shady arbor of grape vines. Our hosts were great cooks and had good wine, not that I knew anything about wine, but their local red vin de table tasted fantastic to me. Their stone house was cool and dark and sprawling. I never wanted to leave. I wanted them to adopt me.
During Monica’s and my trip to Paris a couple of months later, we saw a man jump off the newly-built Centre Pompidou. I saw him standing up on the roof. Before I could wonder about this, he fell and hit the courtyard with a hard, wet crunch. We watched as an ambulance came screaming into the courtyard to pick up his corpse. Dazed afterwards, we didn’t say much for a few hours.
It was a strange trip. We walked through the city all day, crisscrossing the Seine. We stayed in a tiny apartment that a guy we barely knew had generously loaned us while he stayed with his girlfriend. We couldn’t afford to eat any meals in restaurants; we lived on those excellent staples of the young backpacker, baguettes and cheese and tomatoes and cheap red wine.
We were attacked by two men, on our last night there, in a deserted side street near the Place de Pigalle. Each of them took one of us by the arm, firmly, and tried to pull us into an alley. I protested in French; they answered in Arabic, which scared me even more for some reason – we had no common language. Monica went passive and quiet, but something exploded in my head, some surge of pure red-hot rage that enabled me to throw my attacker sprawling into the gutter and then to slam Monica’s against a parked car. I grabbed her hand and pulled her, sprinting, back to the apartment, where we both collapsed into bed in hysterical tears.
The next day, having completely run out of money for a train home, I was going to hitchhike alone back to la Mhotte; Monica was going on, by train, to stay with friends in Dijon. It was my first solo hitchhiking expedition. I was too scared to sleep that night, imagining various scenarios, the attempted rape naturally fueling my already paranoid imagination. I had no other way to get back, though, and I was expected on Monday morning, early, to make breakfast for the boys. Just after dawn, I took the Metro to the end of the line, got out, found the highway south, took a deep breath, and put out my thumb.
After a few minutes, a Citroen full of boys about my age pulled over. I got in with some trepidation, but they were a nice bunch of rambunctious French mecs who treated me like a kid sister, lecturing me about hitching alone, teasing me about my bravado when I protested that it was no big deal and complimenting me on my French. Because I had not one sou, they bought me lunch in a roadside place, a ham-and-cheese baguette I ate much too fast, since I was ravenous. They left me off about an hour from home and drove away honking and waving. I was sad to see them go.
My next ride was a lone middle-aged man in an old Deux-Chevaux. I was even more worried this time, but there was only one of him, and he was grey-haired and slight. I was cautiously, warily confident that I could fend him off. I’d beaten two strong would-be rapists last night, after all. So I got in.
My new chauffeur turned out to be even more protective and solicitous than the boys. He was a sociology professor at the Sorbonne, a deeply kind and fatherly man who gave me a very frank, touchingly agitated lecture about traveling alone.
“Not everyone is like me!” he said. “There are bad people in this world.”
“I know,” I said. “Believe me. I can’t thank you enough.”
He went more than twenty-five kilometers out of his way to drive me to the front gates of La Mhotte so I wouldn’t have to take my chances with another ride. He waited until I had walked halfway up the long driveway, I suppose in order to make sure no one attacked me before I was safely inside, and then he drove off down the little country road lined with poplars, back toward the highway and wherever he’d been headed.
Flageolets en pissenlits
I love the French word for dandelion greens, which means bedwetters, probably because of their diuretic properties. Our Provencal hosts made this beans-and-greens stew to serve with a rare, tender, garlic-studded roast leg of lamb.
Soak a pound of dried flageolets or navy beans in water overnight and then drain them. In a Dutch oven, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil or bacon fat (I might throw a handful of lardons in, too, if I had some on hand) and sauté a mirepoix (minced aromatics — onion, carrot, and celery) with two crushed garlic cloves and thyme. Add the beans with enough water or stock to cover by one inch, plus a bay leaf. Cover and bring just to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for two hours, adding additional liquid if necessary to keep beans covered. When the beans are soft, add 2 cups of chopped pissenlits or other bitter greens and continue to cook for another half hour, until the beans are creamy. Stir in 2 tablespoons of butter and season with salt and pepper to taste. Eat immediately.