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In My Next Life: Tales from our European Vacation

Posted By Karen Young On September 14, 2010 @ 11:31 pm In Featured,Features,In My Next Life,spotlight | 7 Comments

(Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of a series about writer/producer David Nichols’ adventures in his next life.)

BY DAVID NICHOLS

They say if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. So allow me to pilfer these words from A Tale Of Two Cities to describe a few days of our trip to England and France last month: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Actually, ours is a tale of at least three cities, with plenty of peril, suspense, and unexpected twists, just like Dickens. And even though there wasn’t an actual guillotine involved, there were a few moments when I came dangerously close to losing my head.

Eiffel Tower at dusk

The Eiffel Tower at dusk. Photo: S. Rickwood (aka The Boy)

When N. and I met one of the first things we found we had in common was a dream of one day living in the south of France. Another thing we had in common was that neither of us had ever actually been to the south of France. Together we decided that paying a visit before buying a chateau online would probably be a good idea. It’s shared wisdom like that that makes us a good team. Provence seemed like a logical place to begin our exploration so we started stocking up on guidebooks. In fact, with what we spent on guidebooks we probably could’ve bought one of those fixer-upper farmhouses they’re always peddling on “House Hunters International.” But that’s okay. I didn’t have to worry about installing new plumbing in the guidebooks, and they were full of useful information. One piece of useful information they all agreed on was this: Don’t even think of coming to Provence in July unless you’ve reserved weeks, preferably months ahead of time. And when I say they emphasized this point I mean they emphasized it the way a Marine sergeant emphasizes that you should remove that smile from your face. Fortunately we were making our plans in February so we felt pretty secure.

N., The Boy, and I had settled on the beautiful Roman-era city of Aix-En-Provence to serve as our homebase. From there we could make forays into the countryside or stay in town sipping Pernod and Orangina all afternoon according to our mood. Further research convinced us that renting an apartment for a week would be the most economical and flexible way to go. (Or stay, actually.) After numerous neck-stiffening hours spent crowded around the family laptop we found a place we all agreed was perfect. A roomy two-bedroom on the Cours Mirabeau, a gorgeous tree-and-fountain-lined boulevard that is the heart of Aix and looked as if it could be the heart of our Provencal dream. Friendly e-mails were exchanged with Liz, the apartment’s owner. Funds were transferred electronically. And voila! We were set, months ahead of time, just as the guidebook drill instructors demanded.

With that centerpiece established we began figuring out the rest of our trip. After juggling a bewildering array of potential travel dates, accommodation possibilities, and transportation options we finally fixed an itinerary. We’d start with a week in London, followed by a week in Paris, all building to a grand finale in our perfect apartment in Aix.

Millenium Wheel Photo: S. Rickwood (aka The Boy)

Now, a European vacation is always a treat, obviously. But for N. and me this trip had a certain special significance. In many ways it would be a celebration of renewal and fresh possibilities for both of us. Yes, it would be expensive. And no, the height of tourist season might not be the ideal time to go. But one truth I learned during the time of my late wife’s illness is that life doesn’t wait around for us. If there’s someplace we want to go we’d better jump on because the bus will not be coming to a full stop to allow passengers to board safely. Here was a journey N. and I had each imagined separately. This was our chance to take it together.

London was the perfect place to begin. N. and I have each lived there at various times in our lives and it feels like home away from home. We spent our time catching up with family and friends, letting the jet-lag subside, having a few casual but productive business meetings, and easing into the more spontaneous, serendipitous rhythm of life along the Thames. So there I was, kicked back in a chair, watching a group of young women rehearsing a dance routine on the plaza of Somerset House, a stately old pile near the Savoy, when the first ominous e-mail came in.

The writer in Maison D'Aix Lobby. Photo: S. Rickwood (aka The Boy)

It was from Liz, the landlady of our perfect place in Provence. “I’m looking forward to meeting you at the apartment this Saturday,” she said. I sat up. No. That was wrong. Saturday would be the beginning of our week in Paris. Aix-En-Provence would be the week after that. Praying that the international cell phone service I’d signed up for on Ventura Boulevard would actually work on the Victoria Embankment, I dialed Liz’s number in France. “I think there’s been a bit of a mix-up,” I said, trying to keep my voice from quavering. She quickly called me back, armed with five months worth of e-mail evidence. To make a long painful story short and painful, we (and by “we” I mean “I”) had somehow managed to book an apartment in Paris and an apartment in Aix for the same week. And, as Liz sympathetically explained, shifting our reservation just wasn’t an option. There was now a seven-day hole blown right through the middle of our dream. Liz promised to help us try to find an alternative, “but this time of year…” The guidebook drill sergeant’s voice echoed agonizingly around my brain. “Don’t even think of coming to Provence in July unless you’ve reserved weeks, preferably months in advance…in advance…in advance…”

Lady Bobby Photo: S. Rickwood (aka The Boy)

N. took the news calmly. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. We began to spin out possible solutions. My first suggestion was to bypass Paris and use the perfect apartment in Aix when it was available. It might be easier, I thought, to find substitute lodgings in Paris afterwards. But N. sensibly pointed out that would necessitate forfeiting several rather pricey train reservations. Also, staying in Paris as planned would give us a full week to find another place to stay in Provence. So on to The City of Light we went.

There we busied ourselves visiting various sites of historical interest, many of which were boutiques featuring sale prices which N. assured me were historically low. Between touristy forays we continued looking for a place to stay the following week. No luck but we did our best to stay positive. Anyone passing us on the street would’ve seen a happy little trio, cheerfully taking in the sights. But I couldn’t help thinking of us as one of those clueless families in a cheesy ’50’s horror movie, naively oblivious to the disaster about to occur. “They say the swarm of radioactive mosquitoes has gotten as far as Oakville. But that’s fifty miles from here. I’m sure the State Police will stop them soon.”

Finally, with seventy-two hours to go before we’d be sleeping on the Rue d’Nowhere, N. and I sat down and started pounding away on our respective computers, determined to find a place, anyplace in the south of France. I wouldn’t say the dialogue between us was testy, but it was crisp and a little grim. Sort of like those Mission Control guys in Apollo 13.

“There’s a place called Petit Bed and Breakfast in—”

“Checked it. Not available. The Best Western in Marseilles—”

“No rollaways.”

Cezanne's House in Aix de Provence. Photo: S. Rickwood (aka The Boy)

Whenever the online information was ambiguous I called. I’d explain that we needed accommodations for three people for a week and that we’d be arriving in three days. But I might as well have been saying “Excuse me, but do you happen to have telepathic healing powers that you could send through the phone to cure my arthritis?” The responses were all a Gallic-tinged variation of “I’m sorry, I can’t possibly help you,” with a strong subtext of “and I suggest you seek immediate psychiatric help” thrown in. The last place I called was Maison d’Aix, a tiny luxury hotel N. found on the Town and Country website. It wasn’t listed anywhere else, which seemed a little iffy. But at this point if the Bates Motel had had an opening we would’ve bought an extra padlock and hoped for the best. I didn’t even get a bemused desk clerk, just an answering machine. The outgoing message was, not surprisingly, all in French. In English I explained our dilemma and left the number of my cell phone, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Not that it mattered much. For all I knew I’d gotten a wrong number and had just asked an auto body shop if we could stay there for a week.

Having played out all our options we closed the laptops and set the guidebooks aside. For the first time N. acknowledged the possibility of defeat. “Maybe I won’t make it to the south of France after all,” she said. Her tone was brave, but her eyes were moist. I felt like the Tin Man when Dorothy’s about to go back to Kansas. Hollow, with a broken heart. Then my phone rang.

View of the British Parliament from the Millenium Wheel. Photo: David Nichols

It was a woman speaking English with a charming French accent. “Are you Mr. Nichols, who left the message about a room for next week?” she asked. Ah. The body shop calling to ask what the hell’s the big idea. “My name is Alexandra. I’m the manager of Maison d’Aix. You need a room for two adults and separate bed for a child? A suite?” “Yes.” “This Saturday? For one week?” She had a nice voice. I wondered what it would sound like when she actually burst into laughter. “That would be best,” I said. “We have just four rooms in the hotel and one suite,” she said. “That is the only one that is available.” Was I hearing what I thought I heard? “You have a suite and it’s available. Next week.” “That’s right.”

I asked the price, but it was just a formality. For all I cared she could’ve morphed into Dr. Evil and said “One million dollars!” and I would’ve happily signed up. Instead she quoted a rate that by now I knew was typical for a top-notch Provencal hotel. Then she added, “But since you’d be staying for a week I can give you a discount of 300 euros.” “There really is a God,” I thought. “And He’s a Frenchwoman running a hotel in Aix.” Then another thought occurred to me. “The hotel is right in Aix-En-Provence, is that correct?” I asked. All I needed now was for her to say “Oh, no. We’re located in Aix-En-Albania.” “Yes,” she assured me. “It’s a two minute walk to the Cours Mirabeau.” The Cours Mirabeau. Just when the dream appeared to be over, we’d found it again— only two minutes away from where we (and by “we” I mean “I”) had lost it.

There are a lot of ways this story still could’ve ended badly. The hotel could’ve been a dump. The other rooms could’ve been occupied by a biker gang in town for a Satanists convention. The breakfast that was included with the room might’ve been stale brioche and instant coffee. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Put simply, the Maison d’Aix was the most beautiful, elegant, welcoming hotel either of us had ever stayed in. All the ultra-chic modern décor N. adores (including the bathroom of her dreams) tucked exquisitely into an 18th century townhouse with a delightfully salacious history. “We bought it from a 92-year-old woman,” the friendly young owners told us over wine and cheese in the gourmet kitchen. “She had many lovers, male and female— including Coco Chanel.” And if the other guests were devil-worshippers, we don’t know. We never saw them. We tracked down our original destination on the Cours Mirabeau, of course. Lovely, but might’ve been a little noisy. Perfect as it was, the place where we ended up was, well…even perfect-er.

As N. relaxed in the steam room and The Boy and I splashed each other in the miniature swimming pool set among the stones of the Maison’s original 1790’s foundation, I figured this is probably how a lot of journeys go. You think you know where you’re headed and then stuff happens. And sometimes really bad stuff somehow leads to really good stuff. Which is why you stay on the bus.

I started by stealing from Dickens. Let me end by burgling The Stones. “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find…” Well, you know the rest.

David Nichols is a TV writer and producer who has worked on such shows as “Caroline In The City”, “Grace Under Fire”, and “Evening Shade”.

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