In a sense, I had waited 35 years for the opportunity of seeing Mont-Saint-Michel - a desire fulfilled yesterday. But at the end of the day, it wasn't seeing the Mont that made the day special; rather, it was the lunch I had with two strangers, an experience I'll long remember.
It was another early start as I left my flat in the Marais around 6:00 and walked to the meeting point in central Paris. The driver was waiting for me, and we then left to pick up a couple who were staying near the Arc de Triomphe. They climbed into the back seat of the car, and we set off for Normandy. We all dozed and didn't talk much - except for the driver/guide. He launched into a monologue after picking up the couple, giving us some basic information about the Paris region and about Mont-Saint-Michel, and I immediately thought how much he sounded like Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.
After a 3-1/2 hour drive, we arrived at our destination. I have to say it was thrilling to see when the Mont first came into sight.
I say I had waited 35 years to see this iconic location because I made my first trip to France in the spring of 1982, when I came to Paris to see a college friend who was studying there his senior year. I then returned 2-1/2 years later on a Mormon mission. Though I lived in and visited many parts of France while a missionary, I never made it to Mont-Saint-Michel because of its relatively remote location. And though Mark and I visited France twice during our years together, we were in other areas of the country.
Our tour included lunch at the (apparently) famous restaurant, La Mère Poulard, and by the time we arrived after having crossed the causeway from the mainland, we had about 25 minutes to walk around the village at the base of the Mont before meeting up for our lunch reservation.
It was only after sitting down to lunch that I got to really talk to and get to know my tour-mates, Miesha and Paul. I had assumed they were a couple, but found out that they are merely friends who were spending a few days in Paris. They had decided on a lark the previous day to take the tour, and I'm certainly glad they did; otherwise it would have been just me, and they day would have been far less interesting.
Paul is from a small village north of Manchester, England, and Miesha had met him while going to university some years ago. She is from Malaysia and was back in England on holiday visiting friends. They were quite the crack up. She was relentless in teasing Paul and was downright funny in her irreverence and exuberance.
Paul was more reserved, but frankly is one of the most interesting, remarkable people I have ever met. During the course of the conversation, I learned that he is a firefighter in a city in central England, though he is looking to possibly move into another field of work in the future. He described how he had been extremely lucky to obtain his position right out of school, as firefighting jobs used to be highly coveted because of job security and pension benefits. He hadn't expected to get the job when he applied, especially when he found out he was up against a decorated war veteran; but he did.
It became apparent as Paul talked that he is an extraordinarily hard-working young man who currently, in addition to his main job, takes on extra shifts in London in connection with the aftermath of the recent Grenville Tower fire. He also works other part-time jobs - and the principal motivation for doing so is to provide financial support to his parents, who apparently recently went through a bankruptcy.
It was this desire to help his parents that led to his current living accommodations: an old camper van. He had made plans to take a nine-month sabbatical from his work, having saved enough money through his frugality to do so, and had sublet his apartment during his time away. Just as he was getting ready to leave, however, he discovered the extent of his parents' financial problems and cancelled his trip.
He went on to describe -- with much prodding and laughter from Miesha -- the troubles he had had with the travel van - how he discovered shortly after buying it that it leaked like a sieve; how he had planned to park it on fire station property but ended up having to park it on a vacant piece of land; how his back-up plan for power was solar panels, but how the place he had managed to find to park the van was completed in the shade; how he therefore had to cart a portable generator to work at the fire station every day to charge it up so that he'd have power in his van. It went on and on, a sort of comedy of errors that made for a fascinating story and would, I told him, make for an interesting reality TV series.
But one of the things that made Paul seem even more remarkable to me was that, as he told his stories throughout the course of our lunch, he was completely self-prepossessed, unassuming, guileless and utterly charming. And authentic. During another part of the conversation, again in response to prodding from Miesha, Paul talked about how he had taken finance and accounting courses in his "spare time," thinking he might like to work in those fields. But at the end of the day, he decided he didn't want to go in that direction. He wanted to find something he truly enjoys doing and in which he can be who he is.
Throughout it all, Paul struck me as an exceptional young man (I say young because I'm easily old enough to be his father), and I could happily have sat there at that lunch table for hours talking to him and Miesha. (I'll admit, too, that the experience gave me renewed hope of finding a special someone someday with whom I can share my life.)
Another beautiful day, another beautiful experience. Grateful.
Today, off to Champagne ...