To the sober person, adventurous conduct seems insanity.— Aristotle
I awoke to the same rhythmic rocking that had lulled me to sleep seven hours earlier. I could hear David stirring on the bunk above, an indication that it was safe for me to open the blinds and let the morning light fill our cabin. We dressed and brushed our teeth, folded the top bunk to reveal a decorative reproduction of a Victorian-era sketch of Paris, and converted the bottom bunk into a couch. We were relaxing, watching the landscape flash by, when there was a knock at the door. It was the steward of our first-class car delivering breakfast. He seemed to be avoiding eye contact. I presumed it was because I had inadvertently made him blush the night before, when I had asked him about a white container kept in one of the cupboards. There was a hole at the bottom of the cupboard that drained to the ground below. The vessel turned out to be a chamber pot, or, as the man had explained while turning rouge, a receptacle “for in the night.” Breakfast consisted of espresso and a pastry sealed in a plastic bag. I downed my espresso, but refused the rest. I had been served stale pastry for breakfast three mornings in a row at the Venetian bed and breakfast we had left hours before. I’d slept better on the train than I had in three nights, and I was feeling optimistic about the day ahead. We’d soon be pulling into the station in Nice — I could wait for real food.
By the time we’d collected our rental car, found our way out of a crowded and hectic Nice (with the help of several moped-riding locals and the map given to us by the rental-car agency), and reached Chateauneuf Villevieille (a small village in the mountains), it was lunchtime. We decided to stop for food, as check-in at La Parare, the B&B that was to be our home for the next two nights, wouldn’t be for another few hours. In the village, we chanced upon two restaurants — one on the main road and one behind a crumbling stone church. We chose the latter, having found a parking spot near its entrance. A few children, their mothers looking on, laughed as they played among olive trees. Red flowers dangled from pots on the ledges above.
We followed the signs to the restaurant one floor up. A woman greeted us at the top of the outdoor staircase. She had the weathered face and scraggly hair of one who is accustomed to a life of hard work. She smiled, revealing a few missing teeth, and gestured for us to choose our seats. I glanced into the dining area, where two older men were drinking and smoking at a bar while a television blared, and then, shrugging off the steadily increasing chill in the afternoon air, I chose one of the pre-set tables on the outside terrace.
I turned a blind eye to the layers of dirt on the white plastic chair and took my seat. I had decided when I woke up that morning on the train that this would be a good day, which meant I could hardly allow myself to get worked up over a little filth before taking my first bite of French food. I turned over my plate, which looked as though it had been face down on the canvas tablecloth for weeks. I could sense David watching me carefully, the way someone might eye a priceless vase teetering on the edge of a shelf.
“This is great, isn’t it?” I said, wondering if the high pitch of my voice gave away my encroaching sense of panic.
“I particularly like the ceramic animal statues,” David said, showing his dimples.
“I mean, we’re at a restaurant in France , where even the simplest food tastes great… Right?” I was looking for reassurance. Before David could give me any, the woman appeared at our table. Between David’s high school French, the woman’s rudimentary English, and my mediocre miming abilities, we managed to order a charcuterie plate, cheese board, and two glasses of white wine.
When I realized we’d be drinking from the dust-covered glasses on the table, I told myself that everything was going to be okay — after all, I was in another country, and people in other countries lived differently, so I had to be flexible. David had forewarned me that in France, not everything comes sterilized and shrink-wrapped. I tried not to tremble when I noticed a spider climbing the tablecloth to my left and forced a stoic expression as I used my napkin to wipe the terroir from my glass. Because the air was humid, my efforts resulted in more of a smear than a wipe. I tried to convince myself that the French dirt would add complexity to the flavor of the house wine we’d ordered, an inexpensive Montrachet.
“How are you doing?” David asked after wine had been poured into my dirt-streaked glass and the food was set before us.
“Are you kidding me? We’re in France , beh beh. I’m great! We have fresh, French mountain air, real French cheese, and–“
“Hey there,” David said, addressing the two mangy dogs that had rushed him. The smaller dog, its long shaggy hair matted with burrs, resembled a homeless Benji. While David showed the mongrels some love, I seized on his distraction to douse my silverware with the hand sanitizer I keep in my purse. I tried not to think about the grease and organisms living beneath all that fur that David was touching . I wanted to insist that he disinfect his hands before sharing the food with me, but I was trying so hard to prove to him that I could adapt, that I could be flexible and cool, that I didn’t always have to freak out over something “so silly” as a few germs. I kept my mouth shut but my eyes wide open, memorizing every place his fingers touched and taking care not to eat anything within the vicinity.
A man who appeared to be the chef showed up with our check. I strived not to count how many times he wiped his running nose with his bare hand. I kept a smile plastered to my face all the way to the car, and let it fall away only when I was sure David was focused on the road.
Our room at La Parare was perfect — tucked into a hill, nature’s splendor on display outside, but not inside (meaning I would not have to contend with creepy-crawlies), and linens that were plush, white, and clean.
“I knew today would be splendid,” I said, kicking off my shoes and falling onto the bed with a book.
“Hey, there’s a little scrapbook here,” said David. “It’s a guide compiled by our hosts.”
“Yeah? What’s it say?”
After reading tips on places to visit in the surrounding area, David came upon a section about local restaurants. “It says the place on the main road has good food, but, ha! — that the poor decor should be overlooked. And then… huh .”
“Nothing,” David muttered.
“No, really. What is it?”
“It says here that they strongly un-recommend the place behind the church.”
“What? Why?” My heart was pounding with apprehension, but a grin remained pasted on my face. “Really, it’s cool, I don’t care what it says. I mean, the food was good and we had a great time, right? Go ahead. Tell me.”
David studied my face for a moment, decided to believe me, and said, “It says not to go there because they don’t meet basic hygienic standards.”
“Oh, that’s it?” I said, wondering if my grand shrug had been a bit too melodramatic. “That’s nothing.” To keep from gagging, I thought happy thoughts about glitter, unicorns, and Prada, while conjuring images of the sparkling clean dining establishments I’d dined at in Tokyo. Then, changing the subject so as not to give in to an overwhelming urge to vomit, I said, “What do you say we go have an espresso and pretend we’re French?”