We ended up sharing a seat with a man named Philippe. At least, that's what I remember his name to be. Being a writer, I have to admit that I fill in forgotten details with memories of things that have never been. At the very least, I polish and refine those memories so that they make more sense to me. Never sacrifice a good story line for truth.
Philippe was a poet and a playwright. He had flowing brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and lively, hazel eyes. He wore a linen poets shirt, the cuffs of the sleeves turned back over hands that had long, slender fingers that had seen their share of hard work. My husband, on the other hand, remembers a man in a grimy t shirt that was stretched out at the neck, whose hair hadn't been combed in days if not weeks and whose fingernails needed a good long encounter with a nailbrush and soap. He agrees with me that the man, whatever his name, said that he was a playwright.
We talked for a while on books. Philippe was not very impressed with what I had read of French literature. Hugo and Flaubert were romantic hacks. Dumas was quaint and populist. Camus was almost worth talking about. But the writers that he considered worthwhile were people whose names I had never heard. Never mind the fact that I'd read everything in translation. His English was close to impeccable. My French was almost up to what a two year old might produce. It was soon obvious that I couldn't hold up my end of this conversation.
Our talk turned to what we were doing. We told him our plans: living in the country. Biking to the Normandy beaches, to museums, to Caen and Bayeux. Eating locally. Speaking our terribly inadequate French and relying on the goodness of the French people to put up with us and forgive us our ellipses. He told us that he was leaving the Parisian theater scene, which went a little slack in the summer anyway, to spend a holiday with his parents in Normanday.
And then the really interesting part of the conversation happened. At least, for me the talk became interesting because it caused my thoughts to begin gathering. Philippe talked about growing up in a provincial Norman town and why he had been compelled to move to the big city. Normandy was such a backwater, he said, the people so provincial. They cared little for literature or art. They were concerned with local politics, which amounted to little more than petty family feuds that had raged for decades. They thought of little except their cattle and crops, their small shops and businesses, their reputations. And yet, despite all their trivial spats, the Normans were of one mind on one subject; they were better than their neighbors, the Bretons.
At this point, Philippe forgot his urbane, Parisian leanings and began to rant about the people from Brittany: how "unfrench" they were despite years of living on French soil. How uncouth. Uncultured. Foreign. And as he stormed on, the thunderheads of a story began building in my mind. What would it be like to live among these people, who had lived together so long? What would it be like to be a Breton among the Normans?
Ideas began to rumble about like distant thunder.