so here is the new and improved chapter one of the finished product….what do you think??
I press the green button, the door slides open and I step out onto the railway platform like it’s a stage.
Hello Loire Valley, here I am, I want to shout with glee, spread my arms wide and sing. There should be bouquets thrown at my feet. How glorious to have you here, France seems to be saying. How glorious to be here, I smile back.
Except of course there are no cameras flashing in my face, no adoring crowds, no marching bands to announce my arrival, not even the tiniest fireworks display. And why should there be?
I’m nobody. Usually.
But that doesn’t matter, because right now, I do feel Somebody.
I’m in France, you hear me, France. Alone, mind you, heading to a residential cooking school where I’ll probably become Julia Childs. I am practically high-fiving myself in delight.
It’s hello France, hello Loire, hello you wonderful mediaeval village.
It’s hello glorious adventures, hello milestone birthday (gulp), hello, and yes to everything. Yes, yes, yes.
And it’s goodbye Melbourne, goodbye to the empty nest and a marriage that’s been limping along. It’s goodbye to the part-time job in the library where they’ve been ‘awfully sorry to have to let you go’. It’s goodbye to self-doubt, little bouts of anxiety and a nagging worry that time is running out.
The train pulls out of the station and there’s just me. Me and my little red case. Oh, and a empty chip packet that crackles as a breeze catches it and lifts it momentarily. And a pigeon on that bench over there who, as I watch, deposits a big juicy splodge on the ground. That soundtrack in my head winds down and finishes ingloriously. I am now Maria von Trapp; before she was Maria von Trapp and was just a novice nun, when she says, oh, help, and considers how unfit she is for the task ahead.
Oh, help, I say, as I realise there is no one here to meet me.
Where are the others? The cookery school students?
I thought this trip would be like a funnel; the closer I got to the Loire, the greater the concentration of fellow cooking school women would be. You know, we’d glance about on the trains, catching each other’s eye, raising a clever eyebrow in question – are you? I am – until when I got to this station there would be quite a bevy of us, already friends, bound together by this culinary adventure. And we’d be saying to each other, you know I was on your flight to Abu Dhabi and I thought….well, you know…yes, me too….we should have said something…yes, oh well.
So here I am, alone. MIA. Missing in action. Where is everybody? Oh, help.
Two men walk onto the platform on the other side of the track. They look at me and wave. Aha, so someone has come, someone is here for me.
I wave back enthusiastically and then glance around to find a way to the other side. It’s either the long way, down there, across the road and then up onto that platform, or it’s the rebel’s way. I want to be the rebel. Shun the rules. Be bold.
I look up and down the track. Position my little case at the edge of the platform, jump onto the rough stones, grab my case, and quick as I can high-step over the tracks. The men haven’t taken their eyes off me. The taller one, ruddy-faced and looking as though he has had way too much fois gras for his own good, steps forward, takes my case and puts it on the platform. The other one, shorter, and not as thick set, holds out a hand to help me up.
They are not the kind of people I expected to be doing the pickup. These guys in their mid-sixties could be the local butcher and farmer, mates from the pub. Still, maybe that’s how it works here; close relationships between the producer, the cooks and the consumers.
I begin with my best smile and bonjours all round. Five solid years of learning French in high school and I’ve got not much more than a handful of nouns.
Why didn’t we learn useful things? Like, ah, there you are, come to get me, hooray for that, let’s get on our way, shall we? I could use that right now.
The men chatter to me, and then look away abruptly. Again, they stretch their hands out, and I turn to see them help a woman off the track. Where has she appeared from? I didn’t see her get off my train. She springs onto the platform and into their arms. Lots of excitable greetings fill the air; she turns to me and nods and then together the three of them walk towards the carpark.
Right, that’s that then. I’m really alone. Rally, girl, come on. Don’t fall in a heap.
A van was to come. I’ve seen the images in the cooking school’s online gallery. Women laughing and clinking champagne glasses, not even arrived at the school, but already having the time of their lives.
Perhaps it’s waiting outside the station.
At the very least, there will be a taxi. Although, I think with alarm, how much does a taxi cost in France? It’s not like I have buckets of money to splash about. I wasn’t planning on forking out for transport. Or food or drinks, or anything for that matter. It’s all been paid for, Martin had said, when he booked me in. And while no woman would ever turn her nose up at such a birthday present, there was no spending money that came with it.
I step outside the station and while there is neither van or cab, there is a chateau. Have I walked onto a movie set? How can this be real? The chateau is simultaneously taking up the whole space, demanding attention, and yet also managing to look just part of the landscape. How does that work? I feel strangely protective towards every National Trust property I have visited in Australia with its sub-200 years of existence. And embarrassed. This is what you call history, I think, taking in the grandiosity of the chateau, its huge rounded walls, its towers and slate covered turrets.
In the absence of anything else to do I begin walking. My small case makes a large racket as I drag it along the cobblestones. A car drives past. The shops are shut for the early afternoon rest, and the streets are deserted. The noise I am making is deafening, embarrassingly so, I might as well be touting a jack hammer. I imagine people behind their shutters, disturbed by my arrival in town, muttering to whoever is lying there beside them on the bed, ‘c’est quoi la merde’. Which roughly translate as, why doesn’t she go back to Australia with her ridiculous dreams and noisy luggage. I feel lonely at the intimacy behind the shutters but also exhilarated by the architecture. Where are the cameras rolling for this wonderland of magic? Slate roofed houses right on the footpath, exotic names on impossibly divine shop windows, little steps up to tiny porticos and intriguing narrow lanes winding into dim shadows.
I pull out my phone and not for the first time since I left home, I try calling Martin. Surely, he will know what to do next. He’s the one whose organised all of this. Still, he doesn’t answer. I left home 40 hours ago and for all that time he is unobtainable. What the hell?
I see a café with some movement and go inside.
‘Hola’, no wrong, ‘bonjour,’ and then I gabble. Stop myself. Go with a noun. ‘Ecole?’ School. ‘Gastronomy ecole? La Vie est Belle?’
I ignore the stream of French coming back at me and take note of the finger pointing. Okay, so it’s up the hill, that hill there. Either quite a way up the hill or not that far up the hill.
‘Merci beaucoup,’ and I leave. I drag that damn noisy case behind me until I eventually come to the ecole. Which is also a guesthouse, says the sign. La Vie est Belle: Gastronomy Ecole and Chambres d’hotes. Well, I guess it would be, given that a bunch of us are going to be staying; crafting our croquembouche, perfecting our patisserie, and bettering our boeuf bourguignon.
The big black wrought iron gates are closed. A smaller pedestrian gate on the side opens on my first attempt. The two-storey house sits side on to the road, each of the windows opens to a little private balcony overlooking the garden which could do with a little attention. The house looks friendly.
I peer inside the open front door. It’s dark and hard to make out much after the intense sunlight.
After a while an old dog appears, announced by the clink clink of his claws on the flagstones. He makes a small grumbling noise in his throat.
‘Hello, old fella,’ I say bending down to nuzzle him as he wanders over. ‘What’s your name?’
In the half-light, I can see his eyelashes are white and his fur has lost its lustre.
‘You’re an old dog, aren’t you?’ I bend down and rub his ears and he flops on the flagstones with a big sigh. It feels good to be making this connection with someone and he responds with a little rumbling sound deep in his belly. I sit down beside him now talking quietly and rubbing away. ‘Who’s a good boy?’ I ask, and we both know the answer to that.
I look up when I hear footsteps coming from within the recesses of the house. My eyes have acclimatised now and I see it is a man, maybe in his 70s, his hair greying but his figure, apart from a small stoop, still thin and quite agile. He looks surprised to see me.
‘Bonjour,’ he says, his voice questioning.
‘Bonjour. I am here. La Vie est Belle gastromy ecole?’ Mm, I kick myself for that kind of pidgin English non-speakers of whichever language is required, employ. I am here. Yes, I am here, indeed I am.
The man has a lot to say, none of which I understand, and then he disappears up the stairs. I can hear muffled voices and a few minutes pass before a woman comes down and walks towards me.
She’s a bit younger than me, and manages the casual chic of a jumper tossed around her shoulders like she was born with its soft pink cashmere sleeves in position.
I stand up, brush my hands, now coated in a kind of doggy sheen, on my jeans and take her outstretched hand.
‘I’m Penny, this is Gerard, and he is Roger,’ she says, jerking her head towards the dog.
‘My name’s Farr. Kate. I must say I was surprised no one was at the train station. And where are the others?’
I look around as if I expect them all to leap out from behind the heavy velvet drapes and shout surprise.
Penny’s frowning and Gerard is looking at her anxiously. The dog chews away at its foot, the only one completely nonplussed by my appearance.
‘You didn’t get the email, then? The one about the class? It’s cancelled.’