Walking in Deauville

I smelled salt in the air and thought for a moment. Sure, the English Channel is made up of saltwater, but I never really thought of it as so. Waves crashed in on the beach an eighth of a mile from where I stood and I found myself alone on the street. It was nearing five in the morning and the streets of Deauville France were decidedly empty.

This was a summer town, I knew. It had to be, what with its boardwalk and harbor full of expensive sailboats. It was the kind of place Hollywood stars came to get away from everything.

And Deauville is quite away from anything. It’s a two-hour train ride north from Paris. When a traveler finally reaches St. Lazare Station, he’s almost happy to pay to go to the restroom. The Charles De Gaulle airport had been harrowing enough. My plane had tried to touch down on the runway, but at the last second, pulled violently skyward. I watched the ground slip away again, like we might be taking off and flying back to Atlanta. Instead, the pilot came on the intercom and said had we landed we would’ve crashed into another plane.

“It happens sometimes,” he said.

Once we found a runway that wasn’t full of lost planes, I made what seemed to be much-too-quick trip though passport control. Given, I’d sneaked into a line meant specifically for Swedes, but the guy at the counter seemed to pay curious little attention to my passport, immigration slip, or baggage. Once through the line, I changed some dollars for euros and started looking for the train station. I would’ve made it there much quicker, but a bomb scare had shut down the walkway leading to the trains.

I sat and bobbed my head to the music on my iPod, a Valentines gift from Mrs. Otis. I watched a happy French policeman hit on two American girls who had climbed atop their luggage to wai out the scare. Suddenly, a crossing guard-style whistle blew and I figured it to be the all-clear signal. What made it all the more odd was that the happy, horny French policeman shoved his fingers in his ears like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Half a second later, an explosion rattled off the marble floors.

So, this is what the French mean by bomb scare. They bring in a bomb and they scare you with it. As the bomb squad and girls with M-16s wrapped up their gear, I wandered by the remains of the suspicous package. It looked like someone had unrolled a case of toilet paper on the floor and charred half of it.

Now, it’s almost a week later and I’m back in this infernal place. I got here early because I’m excited to go home. What I’ve found is a Delta/Air France terminal with metal seats, no hot food restaurants,and some of the ugliest people I’ve seen since I’ve been in this country. Right now, the Asian girl across from me is gnawing on a cold sandwich and trying to keep her fat legs pressed together so I don’t look up her skirt.

Indeed, I hate this airport more than just about any I’ve seen. And somehow, I’ve found that I like France quite a bit. And truly, I didn’t spend 15 euro for Wi-Fi access to ramble on about this place where fat girls eat cold sandwiches and wear those fur-topped boots that seem to be cominig back into style.

I came here to talk about Deauville. Actually, not Deauville as much as that morning in Deauville.

I walked out of the casino, because the security staff had locked the door between the gaming area and my hotel room. I wasn’t overly eager to get back to the room. Most of the TV channels were in French and I’d had a few beers and felt like going out, but knew I had a long day ahead of me. And it was nearing sun-up. I knew when I got back to my room I’d find the wallpaper that was same pattern as the bed comforter that was the same pattern as the high-backed chairs. It was a little spooky. A lot like the bidet in the bathroom that I never got the courage to use.

Still, the room had heated towel racks and the promise of two chocolate-covered almonds on my pillow when I arrived. I’d have a king-sized beds and motorized window shutter to block out the sun. Of course, I didn’t know that when I got back to the room I’d be faced with the only grumpy Frenchman I’d confront all week. He would answer the room service phone and when I asked for au jambon, he would say, “No jambon, only club sandwich.” I would say, “That’s fine.” And he would hang up on me. I would eventually lay in bed for thirty minutes figuring the odds on whether the club sandwich would actually come or the room service guy took my “fine” as some sort of latin-root word for “nevermind.” The sandwich would never come and I would get less sleep and less nutrtion as a result.

Funny thing about the club sandwiches in Europe. If you order a traditional club sandwich, it comes with egg on it. In Denmark, it was a fried egg. In France it was hard-boiled. I didn’t know the Old World had such a great tradition in eggs, but I’m never one to shirk the community standard. And because I rarely found time to eat at reasonable hours, I ate more club sandwiches than I care to admit. Frankly, I don’t want to see eggs again for some time.

But, that would all happen after I took my little walk.

After all this build-up, you might think something interesting happened on the five minute walk around the Hotel Normandy. You might presume some great sea creature crawled out of the English Channel, crept along the boardwalk, worked its way through the fog and tried to gobble me up on the little fairy tale streets. Of course, you’d be wrong.

Nothing happened. Nothing at all.

I stepped off the sidewalk and a wind hit me with the force of a Midwestern spring and the cold of many winters I know personally. It smelled like a thunderstorm, but I knew different. There would be no lightning in this storm. It was a windstorm with much bark but no tree.

I rounded the corner and the wind caught my lapels, turning them up like I might if I were playing James Dean or Count Dracula. The force whipped around me, pushing me down the street, shaking the street lamps and howling like the train the brought me there in the fist place. Up and down the street, most of the little shops were closed up for the winter. The places that didn’t shut down for the season were closed up too, waiting until the next day to charge a willing buyer $30 for a beer. I was alone and so far from home it didn’t even feel real anymore.

When I started on this journey, my cousin told me to keep track of all the moments in which I asked myself, “How in the hell did I get here?”

This was one of those moments.

It would not be the only one. I would feel the same way again when I walked out the next morning–buzzing on celebratory champagne and the wild, sex-soaked discotheque that I visited–and saw snow sliding out of the sky where the wind had been the night before. I would feel the same way when people went out of their way to tell me they think my work is “simply brilliant.” I would feel the same way when I found myself in poker games with some of Europe’s most well-known pros, playing silly games for low stakes and keeping the poker room open later than it wanted to be. I’d feel the same way when I found myself on the train back to Paris with four guys (one of whom had won about $50,000 the day before in a poker tournament) playing Chinese Poker for a euro a point. I didn’t play that one. I just sat back and tried to learn the game by watching. Learning was hard, though, for that earlier snow had painted the French countryside in white and it was impossible to ignore for very long.

No, that first moment is the one I’ll likely remember. Alone on a Deauville street, beaten by the wind, hands stuffed in my pockets, shirt collars turned up. It was about as alone as a guy can be. It’s the first time being alone ever really felt interesting.

Of course, the moment waned shortly after I pushed through the revolving door of the 100 year-old hotel and the old black gentleman said, “Bon soir.” By the time the room service operator was hanging up on me, I’d forgotten about how nice it felt to be walking down that street.

The wind wouldn’t die down for some time and I fell asleep later to the sound of it pushing against my old, wooden windows.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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