A Meal in France Showed Me the Brilliance of Simplicity

It was late June, and the sun would not set. The hotel room had two beds side by side, “each just slightly wider than the human body,” I wrote in the diary that I kept for that week and that week only, then buried in a box for many years. The bathroom was hot and airless; the towels were thin. The one window looked out on a roof heaped with rusted scraps. And so I found myself on the Côte d’Azur.

Recipe: Salade de Chèvre Chaud (Green Salad With Warm Goat Cheese)

In the other bed was a young woman who looked about my age. We each created ads for a living. Our agencies had sent us here, to the Cannes advertising festival, on a heavily discounted package designed for ill-paid 20-somethings early in their careers. The mission was to learn something from our elders, those men (they were still mostly men) who wore T-shirts with suits and wrote copy like “The necktie is society’s leash” — an ad for Harley-Davidson — and who I imagined were in the fancier hotels on the seaside promenade, bathing in Champagne.

Hotels were my specialty: I worked in Hawaii, where I had become a poet of tourism, championing beach resorts as sites of liberation. The target audience was the older woman I would one day be, longing for youth, forgetting that it had been a state of near-constant desperation. Once I tried out the line “Remember who you were before you had a permanent address.” The client scoffed. “Everyone has a permanent address,” he said. At the time I lived in a converted garage by a cemetery, the third place I’d moved in a year.

My roommate, Chantal, was from Switzerland. I tried to describe her in the diary: “Cropped hair the color of a calm fire. A face like Audrey Hepburn’s, neatly arranged bones, eyes quick. Lean as a soldier, with a tattoo along her side and half her lower back.” It was 11 p.m., and I’d eaten nothing all day but a greasy croissant from the hotel’s minimalist breakfast buffet. She was meeting friends for dinner. Would I come?

In the maze of the old quarter, we sat at a table outside, on stone stairs descending from another century. Her friends were all Swiss but kindly spoke English. Here they are, spilling from the diary’s pages: Olivier ducking to disguise his height, talking about all the things he wanted to do with his life, and all at once; Lukas with his grazed head and face long and serious behind fine-tuned glasses, pausing to search through words, wanting only the precise ones; Sasha, burly and cheerful, expelled twice from school for pranks — including throwing a chair out a window, on a bet, because he needed lunch money — whose dream was to buy a camel for the commute to work; and Mark, who was quieter, so I had to lean in as he talked about riding a motorcycle from Thailand to Myanmar, and who was handsome enough to make me nervous.

The restaurant was unexceptional — plastic chairs, coarse tablecloths, low guttering candles — and perfect. I ordered salade de chèvre chaud, a careless toss of greens under rounds of goat cheese with the sheerest veil of bread crumbs, gently crisped in a hot pan. The greens were fresh and cool, and the cheese was still warm. We talked for hours. They drank three bottles of wine; I sipped. When the bill came, they told me, “You owe nothing.”

How did they know how to live like this, giving themselves to the moment, this murmur of voices, these reflections off glass, with no need for it to lead anywhere? Always I had this longing for plot, motivation, story — some shimmer to chase through the night. I wondered if this was the American in me, a compulsion to conquer. I did not understand simply being in the world.

The next three nights, Chantal took me down to the promenade, to the parties in tents along the beach. They were all the same: “Bad, loud music and bad, thin wine,” the diary reminds me. Sometimes we ran into Americans so drunk, their eyes were full of tears. They bragged about their expense accounts: “All the receipts say ‘Heineken!’” Everything they said, they shouted. I stayed with the Swiss.

At one party, the bouncer wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have an invitation, so Mark slipped me his over the fence. When I made my way through the crowd to thank him, he was suddenly shy. I had dismissed him as a pretty boy, not fully given to any cause. But at 4 in the morning, the two of us were still there, talking about the French political scene (of which I knew nothing), mandatory military service and Switzerland’s policy of neutrality. Maybe, in that moment, I wished for a little less neutrality.

In the fall, I would meet the man who would become my husband. Not again would I be so adrift in a strange city, in the night’s smallest hours, when it’s no longer clear that time is running forward. Now as many years have passed as I had lived back then. I found the diary when I was cleaning out boxes this spring, and these people — whom I never thanked properly for their kindness, whom I never saw again — were returned to me.

I like to think I learned something from them. How to be at ease with the present; to drink wine just for its lightness on the tongue; to linger over an ordinary, unfussy meal; to not want, want, want without end.

Recipe: Salade de Chèvre Chaud (Green Salad With Warm Goat Cheese)

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