Make Lillet Out of Lemons

"I am deliberate and afraid of nothing."

Audre Lorde, writer, feminist, and civil rights activist

James Baldwin's Villa

Ever been punched in the face? Ever been punched in the face after scrimping and saving, planning and scheming for the better part of a year…on two hours of sleep after an all-night flight across the Atlantic? I have. Well, sort of.

It all began with a missed connection and a phone call, as these things do. My flight from NYC to Paris was late, causing me to miss my train to Nice. The charming port city wasn’t my final destination but rather the way station before Saint-Paul-de-Vence. I was on a pilgrimage to the South of France, to the home of James Baldwin my literary and Civil Rights hero. It is a trek many have made before and after me.

We lost our North Star in 1987, to cancer, but dozens of established and fledgling scribes still made the trip throughout the years like supplicants on their way to Mecca or Our Lady of Guadalupe, drawn to the place where Baldwin had written parts of Just Above My Head (1979) and Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985) after finding success and moving into the two-story brick villa with views of Alps to the north and the Mediterranean to the south in 1970.

Baldwin Supplicants wanted to soak up the power and purity of his prose by osmosis and witness where he held court with, among others, his brother David, his Swiss lover, Lucien Happersberger, French writer Marguerite Yourcenar, who translated Baldwin's play The Amen Corner, actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier who were regular house guests, and the modernist painter Beauford Delaney who made the property a second home and enjoying painting in the garden---I dream of owning one of Delaney’s melancholy paintings of Jimmy.

He had been gone thirteen years by the time I had saved my pennies. Struggling with a stalled writing career, having absorbed nearly his entire oeuvre, and in need of creative replenishment, I had decided to make my way to his three-hundred-year-old farmhouse. To pay homage. To say thank you. Or at least that was the plan.

As I said, my plane was late. I had missed the morning connection south. I was to be trapped in the station for 10 hours as I waited for the afternoon train---in my early days of solo travel I was neither bright enough nor adventurous enough to venture outside and use the time exploring.

So, with no French, no sleep, irritated by the delay in my trip, I changed a few dollars into Francs and Centimes and somehow figured out how to call the hotel where I was staying. I explained my predicament and promised that although I would be hours late, arriving way after the 2 pm check in and way after dark, I was coming and please don’t give my room away. The owner was as cheerful as he had been when I initially booked my room, reassuring me that there was no problem. It would be expensive but I could just take a taxi up to the hotel and in the morning he would help me rent a car. I was relieved and then confused. A car? My sleepy, anxious brain, on U.S. time and half dedicated to keeping a watchful eye on my bags, didn’t at first register what he was saying. I declined his offer with a merci, but he repeated his plan again.

“No thank you, I don’t need a car.”

And then came the pause and then the saddest three sentences I’d ever heard up to that point in my young life came across the line:

“Oh mademoiselle, but of course you need a car. We are only accessible by car. You won’t be able to get around Saint-Paul-de-Vence without one.”

A car. During the three, expensive long-distance phone calls we’d shared, the proprietor had never mentioned the areas inaccessibility. True, it was a farmhouse in a medieval village in the South of France, but none of my research or guidebooks had hinted at a vehicle being an absolute must. My tender heart dropped.

There I was in the gorgeously gothic Gare du Nord train station mere hours away from the destination I’d dreamed about since I’d discovered the existence of James Baldwin, his French villa, and the travel bug, and I couldn’t go. The trip was off; dreams dashed all because of poor research and a staunch belief that as a NYC transplant I didn’t need a car to access all the wonders of a city with a 24-hour subway so I hadn’t bothered to get a driver’s license when I’d moved there in the early 90s.

The hotel owner apologized profusely. My eyes welled with tears and I cancelled my reservation.

It was 10 am, a freezing mid-October. Passengers rushed by embarking and disembarking all around me. Paris’s main terminal is a partially open-air affair and pigeons flew around the station like Allied bomber pilots. A glass half empty kind of gal, on the verge of a pity party to rival a Bastille celebration, I called my mother. I hadn’t lived with my mother in over a decade, but I reached for the phone and following the operator’s prompts I called Michigan.

Now my mother is a smart woman who, at 24, on her own, moved our small family across the country for a fresh start. But even though she had made this huge move some twenty plus years before, young and alone, she isn't a traveler. She has the interest but not the gene. She’s a homebody and a bit of scaredy cat, so when I told her what had happened and how I was standing in the middle of a Paris train station with no hotel room, no French, no friends, and no place to go, her reaction was immediate, defensive, and oh so mom-esque. As if it were the most natural, sane thing in the world, she said,

“Come home. Come to Detroit. Change your ticket and come here.”

Now, I hadn’t lived with my mother in years and I hadn’t lived in the Motor City in even longer. My mom, aunts, and uncle are from Michigan, but I had been raised in Northern California and had never considered it my home even though I lived there briefly from age 16-18 before heading off to college. But this isn’t what made me laugh out loud.

Remember my face punch question?

Well, I think there are two kinds of people: the kind that takes the hit and goes down with a whimper and the kind that takes the hit goes down with a whimper, but then after some wound licking and a lot of bourbon gets up and figures shit out. This trip was 18 years ago and at the time, and I’ll admit even up to about five years ago, I truly believed I was the first kind of person. But when my mother’s words wiggled past anger, confusion, and the pity party busy setting up the horn section in my brain, I finally came to my senses.

Jimmy At Work & Delaney

To this day, I see my mom’s words suddenly visible over the transom as they morph into a sort of animated ice bath of snap the fuck out of it.

So, I laughed out loud (My mother was offended). I promised I would figure it out (My mother was worried). I’m pretty sure I said something about being grown (My mother was offended all over again). I promised to be careful. I promised to call her the minute I decided on my next step. And then I hung up the phone, dragged my suitcase to the nearest café, and pulled out my Frommer’s Guide to Paris. Over cappuccino, I thumbed through the travel guide trying to decide what to do, where to go until it occurred to me to stick with my initial plan, or at least part of it. My dream of communing with Baldwin in his sacred space had died a sorrowful death but that didn’t mean I couldn’t bask in the famous Southern Light and the stomping ground of Scott Fitzgerald, Nietzsche, and Brigitte Bardot. At least I would be in the vicinity of greatness. Flipping to the back of my travel book, I found a hotel that seemed centrally located and affordable and quickly hurried over to the phone bank yet again.

I may not have made it to James Baldwin’s beloved Saint-Paul-de-Vence, but I did make it to the Riviera. And I believe the ability to face my fear and disappointment, to turn things around, to make Lillet out of lemons are some of the many lessons I have learned from reading Another Country and If Beale Street Could Talk, among Jimmy’s many cogent works. And so, in a way, I did get to say,

“Merci, mon ami.”

Thanks for stopping by! Be sure to come back next month when I’ll share my Nice shenanigans which includes flying snails!

Remember, be kind to one another, keep on traveling with a feminist eye, and keep on being Feminist AF!


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