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France for the Weekend


The Villa

SCENE SELECTION:

Kelley + Berto Supercut: (KB ffw>>)

Julian's Feats of Incredible Strength Supercut: (JFS ffw>>)

Or just scroll to read the whole thing...


Disclaimer #1: This entire story is mostly fibs.


Before we begin I’d also like to include another disclaimer because as the author and sculptor of this journal I can see how a reader might come away from it with the feeling that my every waking thought is engrossed in an ever deepening romanticism about women. I assure you that this is dramatized. I have simply organized my words in this way to maximize the chances that I might come close to entertaining.


In truth, a meaningful portion of my psychic energy is strictly allocated to building pretty phrases and choosing, with an exacting mind, which details of life are best suited for exaggeration. Another subset of my brain handles nutrition and hydration, issues of homeostasis. A majority of the rest is devoted to – yeah.

 

Kelley and Berto are engaged, promised, espoused, spoken for, affianced, and betrothed. All these words and the years that forged them condensed into a shiny ornament for the fourth metacarpal – and this is the reason for our travels and for our celebrations.


However I wasn’t set to join this party initially.


A day or two into their own private Europe trip, and with this renowned reporter sleeping peacefully in America, Berto and Kelley indeed agreed to wed in a lush green field in Brighton, England, in a scene I may return to later on in this story. The emotions, assuredly, were joyous and overwhelming: Kelley caught in shock and excitement and Berto showing humanizing signs that he is actually susceptible to nervousness. They spent the rest of the day skipping along together, holding hands and eskimo-kissing at traffic lights as newly minted fiancés do. But when evening came, the gravity of what they had agreed to slowly settled onto them.


Upon pledging to spend the rest of their lives together, Kelley and Berto were left with a strange, blank feeling of incompleteness. After sitting down in their hotel room and talking this over for a minute or two they both came up with the only logical solution. In unison they looked up at each other and shouted:


“CRAIG!!”


So they requested that I cross the Atlantic, stat, in order to meet them in France and end their growing loneliness (I feel obligated to again reference Disclaimer #1).


And I learned long ago that when faced with orders from your best friends that involve the French countryside, you don’t dare disobey. (KB ffw>>)


Wednesday, May 25, Los Angeles


This would be the beginning of a 23 hour travel day and it didn’t end up being as terrible as that sounds, however I found myself hallucinating more and more as the hours clicked off.


There was a bunch of traffic on the drive to the airport because Caltrans organizers are maybe the least intelligent group of people on Earth. I really wish they would ask for my opinion on some of these projects. Yet my timing concerns were quickly assuaged because checking my bag was a breeze and the security line only took 5 minutes. The monotone TSA usher guy was yelling out instructions at the ethnically Asian group ahead of me.


“Nothing comes out of your bag keep your shoes on do not put your bag in a tray.”


He got more animated and punctuated when every person ahead of me put their bags in trays, using them all up.


“Can you people hear me?! Why are you not listening?!”


I assume this was his first day working at the international terminal.

 

Any non-fiancé who has been to the airport knows that it is a palace of lust and desire. Each moment of gate to gate eye contact with solo members of your preferred gender is an invitation to risqué fantasy. I try to be ready for these circumstances, but on this particular morning I found myself woefully unprepared.


I have a carry-on sized Rimowa (a dashing little British Racing Green number) but I decided to check it today for the sake of legroom. As soon as I walked into the terminal, I regretted this.


Having that athletic and well balanced wingman by my side is a clear sign to any and all onlooking airport romances that I’m a real capital t Traveler who means business and has the equipment to back it up. A truly well-engineered and handsome piece of luggage places me in an entirely different airport romance category than those guys chasing after their floppy AmazonBasics suitcases or those dweebs wearing shorts or – the lowest of the low – those savages who are denied access to the PreCheck line. I would have given anything now to restore the distinction between myself and these other men, seeing as how this was my only chance with this particular selection of on-the-go women. Within moments they would be flinging themselves to the far corners of the world, away from me, forever. But it was too late.


So I walked through the airport alone, wearing the unfortunate uniform of an amateur, and the comforting promise of future legroom could only fill up so much of this now gaping hole in my self confidence.


In an effort to rebuild myself, I ate a club sandwich that loosely qualified as food and perused the surprisingly well stocked terminal bookstore to soak up my time before boarding. They had some Hemingways, two Vonneguts, and then every book that Murakami ever wrote.



On the plane I assumed my window seat and with an empty middle next to me I traveled in opulence. My favorite part of flights is always when we get lined up and pointed in the proper direction and then the pilot gives the engines the cue for their opening monologues. I usually close my eyes and kind of grin as the big GEs pull with new forces in new vectors, singing their songs. My body succumbs.


As we sped up my eyes opened and the runway’s dark gray lightened and turned tan for a split moment, then into big blue.


Except that’s the wrong ocean, Cap! So we started a gentle about-face as the windows grew cloudier, and within a few moments we were inside Los Angeles’s early summer clothing – that June Gloom. It usually isn’t very thick, and we popped through after an opaque minute or two. Every time I’ve gone over-the-top or flown through clouds, I find myself grappling with the veracity of the idea that they could end.


It’s sort of like thinking about the size of the universe. The notion that the overcast clouds have bounds – that there is a clear, shining sky still out there above them – is somehow more unbelievable than the idea that the clouds extend out to the infinite, not just softly diffusing the sun but also taking up all of the space in front of it.


I always end up with the window seat on the more entertaining side of the plane and it’s just by happenstance. I never actually plan this out. Once we finished turning around, I could make out Van Nuys airport to the north, then Burbank, and then a few minutes later we basically flew right over the Rose Bowl. I looked around to see if anyone else was noticing this show, and they weren’t. It must have just looked like soulless suburbs to them. I know topology and landmarks and Los Angeles in three dimensions, and this is my best approximation of a superpower.


A couple Cessnas and Beechcrafts passed way below us, looking like slow little moths from this perspective. You have to really try to see them. We aimed toward the San Gabriels and the sprawl went away, turning mostly to dust until Vegas came around. I exclusively looked out the window until we hit Nebraska (bad childhood memories), checking on the outside world intermittently thereafter. We flew so fast and so far to the northwest that there were only three hours between sunset and the ensuing sunrise, from my perspective. I won 25 consecutive games of Connect 4 playing against the computer.


Thursday, Paris


No, I don’t sleep on planes. If I did, I'd have already mapped my own DNA, performed some tests and sold the secret to the highest bidder.


Teleportation? Time travel? VR? Way too much work. Let’s put our differences aside and find a cure for being awake on long hauls. Write your local congresswoman.


Europe smells like Europe. Slightly damp, gray. There is a pureness to it. It’s 9am now, about 15 hours in and the visions are beginning. They are just playful to start. My customs officer asked me if I was iron deficient or had any business relations in Malta.


“I don’t even know where Malta is, sir.”

“Good. Let’s keep it that way. Maybe eat a steak.”

“........?”

“Welcome to France.”


I walked over to the train station, my home for the next 5 hours. I probably should have booked an earlier train, or just abandoned mine and hopped on another earlier one, Fugitive style, but I guess part of me wanted the pain of 300 minutes locked in a Parisian rail terminal. It was an internment highlighted by a blistering headache and a general feeling of filth. I won’t bore you with further details of the experience, but know that I am now a more complete man because of it.


I finally made it on the train, texted Berto with my last crumbs of energy that I would be arriving at 5:10, and almost instantly fell asleep – the gently swaying coach emerging as a soothing crib I was happy to surrender to. It would prove one of the most crucial naps of my life. When I woke up a couple hours later, moving at 300km/h through farmland that begs to be captured on canvas, I was baptized anew.


But the hallucinations weren’t quite finished.


At my final destination of Avignon TGV, I sauntered off the train into the windy French air, trying to figure out the best spot to get picked up. A bunch of people were walking towards a parking lot area that had some rental car offices on it and I went with the herd. Then I saw Berto’s aunt Linda.


Sidebar: I once had my own personal Aunt Linda (rest in peace) so it is kind of strange typing the two words out together, but I also think that this shared coincidence is almost assuredly how Berto and I first became friends.


My initial thought, now 22 hours in, was that no thought of mine could be trusted at this time. I figured that it was actually more likely that I’d see my own personal Aunt Linda (rest in peace) at this train station right now than Berto’s Aunt Linda, and after I squinted my eyes a bit I indeed discovered that this woman was not either of the Aunt Lindas but simply a French impersonator. With the order of my universe now restored I continued walking, looking for signs of Berto.


But then I looked back over at the person that I figured couldn’t have been Aunt Linda and she had turned back into Berto’s Aunt Linda again – still staring at me, and now yelling out a word into the wind between us that sounded dangerously close to “Craig!”


“Why the hell did Berto make his aunt come pick me up?”


I could think of no logical explanation. While Aunt Linda has never been anything short of wonderful to me and while I would graciously accept any transportive favors she so offered, I couldn’t come up with any circumstance where she would draw the short stick of having to fetch me from Avignon TGV.


I yielded to the mystery of this seeming reality and walked towards Aunt Linda while I checked my phone. Berto had sent two texts that would obviously explain away the riddle.


“we will be there 8 minutes late white jeep compass

“kelley’s fault”


I shook my head, rubbed the eyes. Aunt Linda was still standing there but had pivoted, and I could see that she had 4 suitcases stationed around her. This would seem to suggest that she couldn’t be a helpful friend offering a lift to the villa, and rather was indeed some other traveler fresh off my very train. An imposter all along. I understood the true extent of my hallucinations.


Before I could begin scrutinizing the reliability of every memory floating in my head, I walked quickly towards the parking lot, seeing each white automobile not as a car but as a private infirmary – a place to regain control.


Unfortunately, none of the twenty white cars roaming around this area were Jeeps, and none of them were driven by my friends. The pessimist in me briefly worried if this travel day would ever end. The optimist in me then considered the harrowing alternative of seeing all twenty of these white cars as Jeeps driven by my friends and was content with this current, rational vision, however lonely.


Berto and I then played phone tag for about ten minutes, searching futilely for a Parking Lot 5 until our twin telepathy kicked in and we found each other on the backside of some tall fern trees, completing the rendezvous. Kelley exited the vehicle, bowed gallantly, took my bags, and opened the passenger door for me, gender norms be damned. Sanity restored. We three were whole, again.


“Alright love birds, details…NOW!”


They proceeded to tell me the whole story and Kelley let me ooh and ahh at the hardware.


“Kelley, my lady… I’ve never seen its equal.”


The finer details of Berto’s proposal are not mine to share, but it is fair to say that Kelley was truly and dramatically surprised – a shocked, caught off guard, remember-to-breathe type surprise. I feel like when most people get engaged it’s kind of a surprise but it’s an expected surprise, and they still cover their mouths with their hands but a part of them is just relieved.


But I’m pretty sure this was an unexpected surprise. Which admittedly was a nice little finishing touch by Berto. Regardless, I will say that his proposal was perhaps missing a bit of the grand-scale romantic flair that I look for in a good proposal. There were no airplane banners. I saw no evidence of rose petals. They definitely weren’t on the big screen at a Dodgers game.


I just read that Halley’s Comet is coming back around in 40 years or so. I think I’ll incorporate that into my own personal proposal. Imagine seeing that thing up in the sky and then you turn around and I’m down on one knee, making all of your dreams come true. Now that is a romantic gesture. I hope it doesn’t rain.

 

After a twenty minute drive we arrived at the villa. Big Bert was there with Jmoney as well as Kelley’s parents. Kelley didn’t know that her parents were coming (the title of her diary for this trip is: A Surplus of Surprises <3), and the story of how Diane and Mickey ended up at this house yesterday is particularly hilarious, involving poorly timed electrical issues, Kelley asleep on a lawn chair, and Diane using skills from her special ops days to high jump over a seven foot tall steel wall. The only part of the story that is not in the least bit surprising is how Julian threw two trunk suitcases clear over the aforementioned wall, hopped the wall himself, and then caught both suitcases on the other side before they ever landed. (KB ffw>>)


“It’s all in the core,” he says. (JFS ffw>>)


I quickly showered to wash the Paris train station off of me before the 7 of us piled into a surprisingly spacious VW mini van. Now, like I said, Berto and Kelley had invited me to come on this trip, and while I’m a low maintenance, self-sufficient traveler, I did wonder if Big Bert had greenlit my joining the group with a particular responsibility in mind.


The VW had three pedals.


Bert can drive stick. He was the one who had gotten the van here to this villa, and he’s driven manual cars for far more miles than I have. But he’s…a bit rusty. He didn't make me take the wheel tonight, so we were all free to critique his technique as we made the short drive through narrow farmland streets into the local town.


“Easy there LeBert, let’s not end up in the ditch.”

“You sure that’s first?”

“Smells an awful lot like third.”

“Don’t stall now.”


Bert wasn’t appreciative of the pedestrians that kept crossing an uphill street, putting him precariously close to having to stop on a hill. He kept the wheels moving and we arrived safely at a parking spot with no stalls to speak of.


The first order of business before sitting down to dinner was to secure bottled water, and I strolled into the grocery mart with my linen shirt unbuttoned and my hair still suavely damp, ready to impress.


“Bonjour mademoiselle, j'ai 24 de vos plus belles eaux. L'argent n'est pas un objet,” I smoothly delivered to the cashier, having picked up a lot of French when I studied abroad in New Orleans.


She looked at me askew and didn’t respond. I raised my eyebrow and bounced the sideways look back to her, offering my good side.


“Anglais?” She asked.


Drats! I had been thwarted, found out, culturally tarred and feathered. Must have mixed up some conjugations.


“Bonjour mademoiselle. I’ll have 24 of your finest waters. Money is no object.”


She pointed me towards the back of the store where we grabbed four 6 packs of huge water bottles. I told my friends not to worry, this round was on me.


She rang me up for a total of 4 euros. 4 euros. For 24 liters of water.

 

We sat for dinner al fresco at a table veneered with yellow tiles. This was the beginning of a weekend of really top notch cold cut boards. Over appetizers I made everyone retell their perspectives of their travels to this very table, where we now dined in unison as a family. I told everyone about my hallucinations seeing the Aunt Linda imposter at the train station. Big Bert tried to pull a fast one on me.


“Oh but that was my sister. She was on your train.”


I smirked back his way. No one out-sarcasms me.


I’m not a food critic and I’m finding that my stores of culinary adjectives are not well stocked, so suffice it to say that we all shared huge bacon mac and cheese plates that were nearly a religious experience, and after coupling those with a cake/pie/chocolatey dessert thing, we all struggled to stand up from the table and moved only at a slow pace thereafter.


Julian had a goal for the night of locating a rare, mythical type of mint gelato that he had recalled having in this town when he was a kid.


“It’s like white gelato, it’s not the green mint gelato. It’s white gelato with mint flakes in it.”


There are 37 gelato stands in the quiet town of Saint Remy, and we found that the mint chip offerings of the first 36 were a disappointing green color. We had one still left to screen when we ran into Berto’s Aunt Jane eating dinner with her husband. They were sitting directly under a sconce outdoors with the other side of their table shadowed and dark.


We all exchanged hellos, and after a couple gin fizzes I was feeling properly charismatic so I gave Jane my whole Aunt Linda imposter story as well.


“And so I’m like losing my mind, asking myself ‘why the hell did Berto make Aunt Linda come pick me up?’ when I finally realize that it just was-


When suddenly the Real Deal, Honest To God, In The Flesh Aunt Linda emerged from the shadowy end of the table.


“That was me! I saw you! Bert said that I was on your train. I was shouting your name!”


I gave Aunt Linda a hug to make sure that she existed and then took a few moments to process this information. Unfortunately, the 37th and final gelato stand could only spare a green mint chip as well, but we figured when in Saint Remy, and filled whatever intestinal space was still unoccupied with gelato. We walked towards the car, strolling past old, old buildings bathed in flattering, warm light. The sky out was a deep blue, maybe close to indigo, accented all over by clouds so dark that they didn’t really stand out from the sky but more so blend into it. Like a really gloomy lava lamp.


Bert drove us home, or rather to the next house past it – slowly reversing us back the last few feet to our actual villa to make sure that the night didn’t end too soon.


Friday


Our villa was delightful, sandwiched between two farms and with the bugs to show for it, including those big black bee/fly things. The ones that look all fuzzy yet still lethal and sound like military helicopters. Only one way roads to and from the place, with 3 foot irrigation trenches carved on either side to discourage drunk driving. Even to the daring, they would be an adequate deterrent.


To enter the compound, you walked through a large metal door that looked bunker-certified, and it slammed shut each time with a ferocious bang that made everyone take inventory of their fingers. Under a vined porch you looked out to the backyard that seemed to extend farther than most people would intend to walk, with the main house and extra apartment flanking your either side.


The interior of the main house was quaint and comfortable, with old metal doors that I caressed and examined daily, worldly decor, and remodeled bathrooms. Not a shower door in the place. Water splashed everywhere.


My cloister home

We each had our own bedroom upstairs, with mine looking quite monastic with two twin beds and some Catholic wall art that I didn’t understand the symbolism of. The real reason Berto proposed last week was because otherwise he and Kelley would have had to sleep in this room in the separate beds (Disclaimer #1). The carpet upstairs was made from some amalgam of jute and lava rock, meaning that that stuff was sharp as hell. Barefoot steps were a small taste of self-flagellation, leaving me to wonder if the interior decorators had taken the monk motif a bit too far. (KB ffw>>)


By midmorning Julian and I found ourselves alone in this country abode, the rest of the team off to the local markets to acquire goods and take in the customs. I sat outside to read in a wicker chair while Julian did some pushups in the sun.


His first one hundred were just regular old horizontal push ups, but for his second hundred he kicked his feet towards the sky and pushed up from the vertical position, and for his final exercise he removed one hand at a time and did fifty one-armed handstand pushups on each side. I felt that his form was perhaps breaking down a little by the end. (JFS ffw>>)


A bee kept buzzing up to my wicker chair, thinking it a flower, desperate to pollinate. There are indeed lots of bugs out here. At first glance they seem just like the bugs back home but then you look more closely and see that they’re wearing little striped shirts and have pencil mustaches and funny accents. I can’t help but feel that they are more cultured too, these European bugs.


The gang came back with pizza and wine and vegetables and meats and some pretty roses and then several little to-go boxes of ice cubes. Tonight we would salute the fiancés with a fine, French barbeque.


The rest of the Centofante clan (Aunts+Uncles) rolled in during the afternoon, commencing the festivities. We all gathered outside in a horseshoe pattern around some expensive bottles of champagne. Kelley and Berto were at the bottom of the horseshoe, with Diane, Mickey, Big Bert and then J and me next to them in a counterclockwise succession. The Aunts and Uncles made up the other side. It was time for toasting.


Kelley and Berto raised their glasses and thanked everyone for coming out and keeping the secret. Julian and I were laughing to ourselves and making fun of their word choices when Bert knocked us over the head and told us to pay attention, because now Diane was toasting.


“Wait it keeps going?” J whispered to me.


We all stretched our glasses out to the heavens now for the third time. Then it got serious. Mickey was up. Julian and I were starting to understand that this bombline of toasts was progressing in our direction, and fast.


“This is the last one right? It’s just like the girl’s parents talk?”

“Has to be.”


Bert knocked me over the head again.


Mickey’s toast was admittedly wonderful, earning aawwws from the crowd and watery eyes from his beloved daughter. With such a perfect bookend to the toasts now given, we were sure that we were in the clear and that the ceremonies were over.


Then Bert cleared his throat, earning the attention of the horseshoe.


“We’ve got to go.” “There’s no time left.”

“Jump!”

“Oh God!”


And just as Bert was finishing his own rather thoughtful speech, Julian and I had successfully jumped to the other side of the horseshoe, barely evading the complete destruction that would have met us had we stayed idle one moment longer.


For dinner we filled up a 10 foot oak dining table with Italians and recreated various scenes from The Godfather. In France. Then we jammed out to Bert’s curated selection of classic rock tunes until 1 in the morning.


Saturday


The only thing I knew about Saturday was that we had some schmancy lunch at a chateau and that I would have to ditch my hangover by 1pm. At 9am that seemed like a tall task, but what better place than my monastery to hope for a miracle.


While the rest of us dealt with liver punishment, Kelley and her parents strolled around town one more time, as Diane and Mickey would be leaving for Portugal the next morning. The photogenic alleys and gentle slopes of Saint Remy are distinctly French, distinctly European, with mostly cobblestone roads and the open gutters running through them that remind you that these buildings were erected before modern plumbing was a thing. The town is extremely clean, with no decrepit buildings and fountains on most corners that take advantage of the aforementioned gutters.


Exploring around this morning, Kelley and Diane found the croissant to end all croissants and a charming little store that sold absolutely huge straw bags. There they befriended the keepers of said store, Diane regaling them with the story of how her delightful, youngest daughter – yes this one here – is now promised. Kelley then held out her hand and pointed her fingers towards the ground with the confidence of someone with a ring on it, and the shopkeeper couple admired her diamond.


“Si belle si belle. Beautiful”


You can imagine Kelley now blushing.


“Where is he? The man?”

“Oh he’s, he’s not here right now.”

“Oh, oh. Si belle si belle.”

 

“Duddddddddde I am so hungover right now,” Berto told J and me in our shared upstairs hallway, back at the house, at probably around the same time. He went and jumped in the pool, said it made him feel a lot better.


I was enlisted to drive today, to captain our mini van in style. I’m perhaps the slowest driver you could ever imagine, but what I lack in speed I make up for in smoothness and just general affability. I leisurely steered us into town to pick up the Hawkes. The winds were torrential. Probably 30-35mph. I’m not sure what that equates to in celsius.


Big Bert was in the passenger seat as my navigator and he didn’t earn top marks. Late deliveries, missed directions, just a general unprofessionalism. Berto knew that we were in trouble and so he stepped in. If he were in the passenger seat right now, we could drive this VW to Australia – but he was stuck in the back, so he just called out my directions and we settled for the Chateau de Alpilles instead, only 10 minutes outside of town.



The driveway to the Chateau is a runway sized dirt road lined with strikingly large sycamore trees. They are each 130 feet tall, with their massive, bare trunks combining together to look like the legs of a Jurassic centipede, and their leafed branches swayed and hissed in the Mistral winds. You get the feeling that if the trees weren’t super happy with you on the day, they’d lean into each other and interlock, barring you from entering.


The Chateau was just one awe-inspiring sight after another. A soccer field size flat lawn that could probably house some pretty serious public university grad ceremonies, a clay tennis court, the marble and hardwood interiors you would expect. Exclusively brass door knobs. We sat to dine outside as the sun was just starting to get blocked out by the trees, with Kelley and Berto heading the table.


The Chateau de Alpilles is owned by a three generation grandmother, mother, dual-daughter female superteam, and the mother was our main steward this afternoon, sharing with us facts about the grounds and her relationship to them. She asked what brought us to France and Big Bert spilled the news. “Those two right there are now, as you say, promised.”


The mother then turned to the celebrities.


“Oh, you are engaged?”


They responded back, in unison, “yeah.”


And then while maintaining an almost evil eye contact with Berto, and with no discernible sarcasm, the mother replied.


“O no, a shame. I have two daughters.”


“........?”

“...............?”


What a wild thing to say.

 

Now unfortunately you can’t have it all, and so the Chateau, coupled with the prevailing winds, brought about a comedy of allergies. This was a three hour, seven course meal, and I don’t know if a full minute went by without one of us sneezing. Everyone had to condense their stories into bite size packages or else they would get irrevocably disrupted by our immune systems. By the 5th course my eyeballs had lost their self-cleaning capabilities and I wondered if my lids would ever fully open again.


The best of the seven courses was either this buttery fish thing or the strawberry shortcake. The worst was the liver. Liver. I don’t even know what animal it came out of. I hope it came out of an animal. We crashed into afternoon naps back at our own villa before sending the Hawkes off with one last Provencal dinner in town.


Walking on a narrow sidewalk, the group was talking about how French people kind of don’t smile a lot, like they have a sort of RBF, and an older couple was approaching us on the sidewalk that seemed to be another great example of this. As we parted the seas to let them through, Diane lit up.


“Oh hello! Hello!”


The couple looked up, kind of confused. Diane grabbed Kelley.


“Kelley look! It’s our friends! Hello!”


And now suddenly the couple’s faces brightened into wide grins, and they responded back in a truly joyous amalgam of French and English.


“Oh! Bonjour! Hello! Si belle si belle!”


Diane now grabbed Berto and pulled him towards them.


“This is him! It’s him! The man! Engaged!”


The couple then treated Berto like he was Da Vinci himself, the wife lightly and appreciatively tapping his cheek with her palm, the husband shaking Berto’s hand with fervor.


“Hello…? Oh yes. Engaged.” Berto offered in a confused surprise.


The shopkeepers then looked to Kelley and gave their appraisal.


“Wow, l'homme. Si belle si belle.”


The French pair then said a final goodbye to their new friends before disembarking towards the rest of their lives, leaving with the unmistakable notion that all couples from California were young and beautiful and had a certain serendipitous magic.


Sunday


We had no plans for the day so we started out on a bar crawl around noon. The first stop was the backyard bar at a hotel the Centos had stayed at 10 years ago. Every hotel and villa in this area had very well laid grounds, always with rectangular pools outlined by grass lawns and ample space between everything to let it all breathe. There wasn’t anyone else near the bar back here, so the tender was relieved to have us come and entertain him.


Bert showed him pixelated videos from the last time the gang was here, back when Julian was about 4 feet tall and was grooving up on a stage with 12 teenage girls as his background dancers. After going bottoms up we adventured around the hotel property some more. One of the rooms has a cantilevered bridge coming out of its window that leads to a treehouse. Berto and J once slept in that very tree.


On the other side of the lot was a labyrinth, a full on maze. We scuttled through it, the five of us, finding the center but then getting stuck and turned around, very much lost. Bert asked where we were. The only answer I could give was France. Kelley even hid behind one corner and jump scared me. She was feeling bold. With our BACs settling, we walked back towards the hotel lobby, where a few celebrities were hanging on the wall. The last photograph was a black and white of a man wearing two different hats and a pair of ill-fitting sunglasses, these summing to a proper disguise. We all stared at it for a minute trying to figure out who it was.


“Peter Sellers?”

“Paul Reubens?”

“................”

“It’s Dustin Hoffman. The nose.”


As soon as we exited the lobby and turned on the sidewalk we saw it. That big, red Michelin star.


“Hey, guys look.”

“Whoaaaaaaa”

“You know this is the place, Jane has a reservation here tonight.”

“Should we try?”


Now, prior to this trip I essentially knew nothing about Michelin star restaurants but now I am something of a local expert, so allow me to fill you in. Basically, Michelin star restaurants have like really good food and you have to book a reservation for them six months in advance, I guess. That’s pretty much it. This one was named Alya’s.


So our walk-in hail mary had little hope of succeeding. To maximize our chances, we sent Kelley up to the maitre d to put the schmooze on.


“Hello, hi, we were wondering if we could possibly get a table for 5.”


The maitre d was a tall and cold woman, wearing a white summer dress and a sharp bob haircut that was not to be trifled with.


“Is not possible.”


The layout of the restaurant was a little weird, with the tables set up outside in the entrance courtyard of a small hotel. There was a nice bar there just next to the maitre d stand, but instead of bartenders it had 3 chefs behind it, white hats and all. It wasn’t just a bar but also the full on kitchen, right there out front. Kelley walked back to us, dejected.


“She says no.”


Big Bert sprang to action. He walked up to the maitre d himself as we four watched on from afar.


“Hello there, anyway we can -


And then Bert interrupted himself as he looked towards the bar/kitchen thing, noticing someone. He approached the bar and started talking to one of the chefs.


“Hey, how’s it going, you know I just read a full article about you.”


The chef guy kind of gave a polite smile and nodded at Bert.


“No, I’m serious, my sister sent it to me. She’s eating here tonight.”


More polite nods but no response. Bert pulled out his phone.


“Here it is, just read it this morning. So here is you with your mom, back in Pakistan. Look at you, you’re just a little kid. And this is you with your brother in Paris.”


“Where did you find this?”


“Well I didn’t find it, my sister sent it to me. I read it all this morning. Look here’s another one of you in Pakistan. How old were you here? 10?”


“That’s me!”


“O yeah, you’re all over this thing. It’s about you. Talks about how you…”


Back on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, the four of us started to have hope.


“Is he actually gonna pull this off?”

“I think he just might.”

“Where do you learn to do this?”

“Lots of schooling.”


The maitre d looked at the brightening mood of the chef and knew that she might be undermined. Bert motioned for us to come over to the bar.


“...but anyway yeah so my sister sent me this article this morning, she has a reservation here tonight, and it’s just all about you. Read it this morning. And now here you are.”


“Incredible. I didn’t know this. Paolo, get these people some rosé. Can you email to me?”


And so while the two new friends exchanged information, Paolo poured five glasses and we sipped slowly while the maitre d straightened up our table. We were in.


The food consisted of parmesan naan bread, fried vegetable stuff, lambchops, and these spicy sweet potato things that were somewhere between a french fry and an elongated tater tot. And lots of dessert. Gourmet, yo.


With this new feather in his cap, Bert couldn’t contain his excitement and his main goal now was to tease his sister, seeing as how she had painstakingly made a reservation for this place months ago and yet Bert still ate there first. We walked over to the villa the Aunts were staying at, just in the heart of town.


Their layout was super nice, similar to ours just smaller. I’m telling you, every single pool in France is surrounded by grass. Even the Olympic ones. While Big Bert was narrating his triumph, the rest of us took in some more rosé but Berto’s spirit quickly soured when he learned of Ferrari’s crowning failure in the Monaco Grand Prix.


“It’s over. It’s all over. Ferrari has screwed Charles again.”


Any rightfully God-fearing man or woman, including all of the ones at this villa, is a Charles Leclerc fan, and so the overall mood here did take a brief melancholy turn.


We stayed at the Aunts’ villa for a few more hours, soaking up the sun and testing the highest audio frequencies the older generation could register. Seems that their limit is about 12,800Hz. Our youthful ears can still rock out at 15k. (KB ffw>>)


We then had our final group meal together, the five of us, as J and I would be beginning our travels west tomorrow morning. We walked around town until we found a cafe that was open. Food in Europe is just so much better it’s sort of unfair. Pizza as an appetizer and then carbonaras all around. Our waitress seemed about my age, with the pale skin and oily hair indigenous to the region. Pretty bad tattoos. Decent English. For some reason I found her very attractive, and decided I might as well try and get my +1 for the wedding settled early. Big Bert was my wingman.


“Hello, yes so he [pointing to me] has a question for you. We are here staying in a house together because these two [pointing to K+B] are engaged, and so he [me] has a question for you.”

“Ok.”


Then I came in.


“Français ou anglais?”

“Anglais.”

“What if I don’t want them to know what we’re saying?”

“Anglais.”

“Will you come to their wedding with me, next year? In California?”

“In California?”

“Oui.”

“And to travel there?”

“Oui oui.”

“With you?”

I nodded.


“Only if you have Rimowa suitcase,” she said with a sly smile. I told you.

“c'est dans ma chambre d'hôtel, voulez-vous le voir?” I responded back.

“I thought he says that you were staying in a house?”

“Have it your way.”


And she rolled her eyes and walked away thinking “silly American.”


Monday


Jmoney and I began our trip home. I was going back to Paris to spend the night in a hotel at the airport before flying out in the morning, whereas J had to get all the way to London to do the same thing. We would be on the same train together from Avignon to Paris.


The Alberts dropped us off at the train station and we picked up some cold ham and cheese sandwiches that turned out to be delicious. The food here, man. We were in different coaches on the train, so before we boarded I bid my brotha adieu. I was in the furthest coach in the back, he was a few further up.


When I squeezed in back there, I saw that my seat was in the middle of an 8 person family section, with 7 French amigos taking up the reserves. They were really cool however and gave me the aisle seat, my NATO pact brethren. Boarding didn’t go as smoothly for my brother J, as he had sent me 3 texts:


“How u livin

“They over booked this area I don’t have a seat.

“There’s also no ac.”


This was set to be a 3 hour train ride for me, with Julian stuck with about 3 more hours after that, so I could only imagine how awful the proposition of standing up for a significant portion of that time must have seemed to him. He walked back to my dead end coach, which was full.


“Mane, this is kinda booty.”

“I can’t believe – do you wanna switch off? You can sit here?”

“Nah no it’s fine, I’m just gonna go to the dining cart.”


And poor trooper J, the man capable of incredible feats of strength, the protector of the weak, voice of voiceless, just overall great guy had to sit on the floor of the dining cart for close to an hour before the train stopped at Lyon and most of these Frenchies got off and he snagged one of their seats. And that wasn’t even the end of his travel troubles.


For me, the train ride was smooth sailing, especially after Lyon. J and I would play a text game back and forth trying to point out the dirtiest lines we could find from the latest Harry Styles album. He was always slightly better at this than I was.


I find it kind of shocking on these high speed trains when another one passes, quickly emerging in a blink and then just as suddenly disappearing. Coupling this phenomena with the evenly spaced power line poles rhythmically flying by seems to give me an approximation of what schizophrenia would probably feel like.


Arriving in Paris, I checked into my hotel while Julian had one final test. He and I both thought that he could just stay on the same train and carry on to his next destination of Lille, and so he relaxed for a few minutes in his commandeered seat here at the Paris TGV station, waiting for the train to depart again. Except the train was now completely empty, save for him and a couple behind him. The couple understood the eeriness of this isolation and started talking about transfers and train numbers and the city of Lille. Hearing this commotion, and seeing for himself the strange eeriness of this empty train, Julian obeyed a well honed intuition that told him to follow these flustered travelers behind him. They all hopped on a different train, behind this current one, a train that indeed led Julian to Lille, and by way of a few transfers and a flight, eventually home. (JFS ffw>>)


Tuesday


My flight was departing at 8:30am, and I grabbed one more of those ham and cheese sandwiches (they’re everywhere) early this morning before I could let Europe go. I had picked a seat in the very back of the plane so that I could recline my backrest with no moral quandaries, but unfortunately no windows were available so I was on the aisle. When I boarded and got back there, no one was seated in the window yet and I thrilled myself on the idea that I might have this row to myself. Then she arrived. A young woman.


She was wearing a bright blue jumpsuit, head to toe, with those well manicured French nails. Naturally, I assumed that she was another solo artist, submitting her application to me for soulmateship. She loaded her bag into the overhead bin and then politely asked me if she could climb into the window seat. I obliged. She spoke to me in French and I answered back not in English nor French but mainly just with finger points.


As soon as she sat down she started texting really demonstrably and with some attitude, the way that only girls with long, clicky nails can. Then the texts turned into some type of calls or voice memos, in French, but with the English word ‘business’ popping up at a consistent rate therein. A woman of mystery.


During our flight we fell hopelessly in love. She struggled with attempting to recline her seat and I showed her how. Her airpods flew off her lap when she awoke from a nap and I solved the scavenger hunt, pointing out the buried treasure. When turbulence threw our heads towards the ceiling and our laps hard against our belts, I emanated the calm tranquility of a man who had been there before, shooting her an artful facial expression that made it all okay. If I didn’t look at her too much, and only from certain angles, she appeared, without question, exactly as Marion Cotillard – a bright blue Marion Cotillard, nestled next to me as we traversed oceans and continents, together. If I looked at her too intently, the notion kind of fell apart.


As we came in for landing, she opened her window and I saw Riverside airport poking through it, then Knott’s Berry Farm and eventually Long Beach. For a moment, I thought about trying to point these out to her, my seat partner, considering which language to use and which landmarks she would find most fascinating. But I suppressed the urge, instead letting her explore the space for herself while I just sat there quietly, typing these notes on my phone.


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