When the time came to leave England my wife and I boarded a train in London and soon were speeding across the English countryside towards a large hole, into which we plunged and emerged less than twenty minutes later, and at almost twice our previous speed, flashing across the French countryside. At first, everything seemed the same. In a matter of a few hours however we were immersed in all things French; French language, French culture, French food, the works. We spent a few days in Normandy and then travelled across France by bus, slow train and very fast train to a small city and then a tiny hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. After a few days there we climbed back onto a bus which would take us back to the train, which in turn would take us to Bourg en Bresse, a small city in Eastern France.
Bourg en Bresse was the place on our itinerary that I most looked forward to visiting because there is no real reason for a tourist to go there. The area does in fact enjoy a small amount of local notoriety for the very tasty chickens that are raised there, and if one is desperately seeking a ceramic chicken with which to decorate one’s kitchen or a kite in the shape of a chicken for the delight of one’s grandchildren, or any other conceivable use that one could wish to make with the image of a chicken, it could be found in Bourg en Bresse. Unfortunately we did not at that moment have any use to which we could put the likeness of a chicken nor room to carry it if such a use presented itself, so we had to find other attractions to bring us to Bourg en Bresse and keep us there for two full days.
Fortunately those attractions did exist. For my part I wanted to see a French city or town where the only attraction was French people being French. Nobody in that city would be seeking to separate me from my tourist dollars any more than they would want to separate anyone else from their French Francs. Except for my rather longish hair and beard which was somewhat uncommon in France at that time I did not look very much unlike any of the citizens of that city who thronged the streets and sidewalks and shops and parks. That was exactly what I wanted to see, and I got my money’s worth.
My wife was on another mission. Decades earlier when she was a teenager she had a pen pal in Bourg en Bresse. My wife was taking French and a French girl, Edith was her name, was taking English. They would write to each other in their native languages so that the recipient of a letter could practice reading real English and real French as real people speak and write them. Now, almost thirty years later, we were standing on a sidewalk in front of the house which shared the same address as was on the letters in the bundle which was tied up in a ribbon and resting in my wife’s hand.
“Go ahead and push the button” i said, pointing to the button at the gate entering into the property where the house stood. “We’re never going to be here again so why not?” My wife is a cautious person and ringing the bell of a house owned by somebody we do not know in a city half way around the world from home is not the kind of thing that she would normally do. This time it was different however, and so to my surprise she extended her digit and the button was pushed. Nothing happened. Nobody was home, apparently. “Ah well, we might as well get a picture of you standing in front of the house”. She agreed to that and I backed out into the street to get a decent shot of my wife and the squarish front of the large white house where Edith once lived.
These actions were very much out of the ordinary in Bourg en Bresse and we were noticed by an older woman who lived across the street. I guess French people are not shy about asking slightly shaggy strangers in their neighborhoods why they’re taking pictures of houses, and so this inquisitive neighbor emerged from her house to enquire after our business there. She spoke French and French only and I do not speak French at all, so the lot fell to my wife to use her high school French learned thirty years earlier to explain our purpose. She failed miserably in that task. Apparently there is no easy translation of ‘pen pal’ into French. We were getting nowhere until my wife hauled out her beribboned bundle of letters, one of which contained a picture of Edith when she was a girl of sixteen.
Understanding flashed across the elderly neighbor’s face like fireworks over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July. You could see this neighbor, who had lived there when young Edith was showing neighbors the letters that she had received from a girl in the U.S., connect the dots; that this was the very girl! She practically dragged us into her house and we waited as she got on the telephone. I could hear a sporting event on a television or radio somewhere in the house and soon, as the woman was making her calls and explaining her mission, an older man appeared around a corner to see what was going on. He was a great looking guy, wearing khaki colored trousers, what we call a ‘wife beater’ undershirt, a day’s growth of stubble on his face and a bit of a pot belly topped off with suspenders.
In French he asked, in a few words as is customary with men everywhere, what was going on. His wife answered, in French and also in a manner which is customary with women everywhere, and told him in excruciating detail what was going on. I will never forget his reaction. First a slight lifting of the eyebrows. Then an ever-so-slight pursing of the lips and a barely noticable tilt of the head which said, as clearly in French as in any language, “Whatever”. He then retreated back into the interior of the house, presumably to enjoy the rest of the sporting event which I could still hear. I really wished that he would have opened a bottle of wine and invited me back into the house to watch or listen to the sporting event with him. Language, I am certain, would not have been a problem. By the end of our visit with the old neighbor and her disinterested husband my wife was in possession of Edith’s new address and they remain in contact to this day. I am deeply envious of them and have already written the story of my own still-lost pen pal.
We spent the rest of the day seeing the city; eating delicious snacks, doing laundry, and by early evening we had enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and withdrawn to our very comfortable hotel to relax for the evening. We showered and made our plans for the next day and then turned on the television to see what the the French people of Bourg en Bresse were watching that night. By far, the most interesting movie on the tube that evening was Forrest Gump. We had already seen Forrest Gump in the United States but now we were watching it in a spacious continental hotel on a huge bed with a bottle of extraordinary wine. Also, we were watching it in Italian. Now Forrest Gump is a very good movie and the actors all turned in marvelous performances, and soon it didn’t matter that the movie was in Italian. Between our memories of the general plot of the movie, the magnificent performances and the bottle of very good French wine we were all in with the movie and blubbering along with Forrest as he was talking to Jenny at her grave site under the big tree which they had climbed as children.
Soon after that Forrest saw his son climb into the school bus which brought the movie around full circle, sat down to await his return, and we watched the feather take off and begin to fly to wherever the winds would take it, just as we all do in our turn. We gave our noses a final blow after the sad scene and then turned the lights off, resting to prepare for the tomorrow’s journey to wherever the winds would blow our feather that next day.