February February, ugh. Trudging through cold porridge towards a distant Spring. The grim month in Northern Europe. Just once, the year I was 20, I travelled South in February into the sun, and every year about this time I remember and feed on it.
A train and a boat and an overnight train and waking in the early morning to blue sky over the Mediterranean. At Cannes station a lanky nervous woman in a swirling cape picks me up in a clanking Renault 4 with a hole in the floor and we go bumping inland along narrow roads where the driving style, I note with sleepy alarm, is to keep to the middle of the road, stare the oncoming motorist in the eye, and the one who blinks first shoots to the side at the last minute.
In the hallway of a pale house, with tiled floors and little furniture and so much light, stand two tiny girls. They’re 2 and 3, but look more like twins, in miniature ribbed sweaters and checked dirndel skirts about 6 inches long and baggy woollen tights. Two mops of hair, one blonde, one dark, with the birds-nest mussiness of toddlers who fling themselves at life head-first. "Angele, Julie, dites bonjour". Two small mistrustful stares.
As the clanking car zooms off again to deliver them to school, I’m left alone in my bedroom to unpack, with sinking heart at the strangeness of everything and little feeling that this could be home, but find myself drawn to the window, standing in the light that climbs brighter and brighter over the hill.
Then we size each other up over coffee, Michelle and I, talking shyly and wondering if we might be friends - and she, no doubt, if this stiff English girl will be kind to her daughters. My eyes must be drawn still to the window, for soon she suggests I take a walk around the neighbourhood and I find myself dawdling, tiredly but with dawning happiness, up a hillside lane, smelling for the first time growing aromatic herbs and seeing everywhere… mimosa, clouds of flowering sunlight.
My senses open in the mid-morning warmth and my heart opens in hope. It’s not a vain hope, for we will be good friends. Michelle's loping elegance hides a gentle, wounded woman in much need of a friend on hand, and I am less immature and conventional than I look. It is perhaps the most important friendship of my youth, because I learn from her what I most need to know: that troubled people who find life difficult are not for that less lovable. If I can love her, with all her inadequacies, for her warmth and honesty and vivid mind and the many tastes and feelings we share, perhaps I too can be loved, although I am odd and struggle with life and fear I’m mad.
And the children wind themselves quickly around my heart, which has never known little children and heard for 20 years that I’m selfish and unfeminine… and believed it. I easily find the wellspring within me of nurturing love for very small, vulnerable people. I never knew. I had no idea. And all this in the bright, bright light around us and inside me too. The next six months are full of sunshine.
The arriere-pays, the Riviera hinterland, nearly became my home, but in the end I didn’t stay and there’s never been another Spring so bright. But once you know, it lingers always just behind the eyelids.
¶ 1:06 pm
What a beautiful story to hang onto in the dark February month of the North. Intriguing actually.
This has to be one day my quote of the day: "It is perhaps the most important friendship of my youth, because I learn from her what I most need to know: that troubled people who find life difficult are not for that less lovable."
Why wait? I'll make it today. So beautifully written it takes my breath away.
This is so beautiful, so heartfelt and powerful for a 20 year old to feel, and to hold in your heart as a golden memory for all these years! It sounds like the basis for a wonderful novel. Have you kept in touch with them?
Twice in the past week (today and on Feb 14th) you have spoken eloquently of some things that are so current for me that I can't believe you haven't been listening in on my thoughts ... ' ...that troubled people who find life difficult are not for that less loveable' - this is wonderful (amongst other things in your entry) not least because I don't think I have learnt this about myself. I'm very glad that you did - and chose to speak it on this dark (in more ways than one) Scottish February Monday ...thank you so much
Oh, this is so beautiful. What a wonderful memory to keep in one's heart. And I loved the part of learning one can be lovable with all one's troubledness - after all, we love them! - something some of us have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.
Delurking to say how beautiful this is, and how beautiful other posts are too: you have been a comfort to me through a long slow winter. I too had a jeune fille au pair heart-opening, and this brings it rushing back with all its surprises.