Typically, when we meet another couple over breakfast at a B&B, we exchange polite conversation, divulge a bit of our backgrounds, comment on how fine the croissants are, and then carry on with our respective days, never believing for one moment that we’ll ever see each other again.
With Harry and Heather, it was different.
Over full English breakfasts at the Gate House in North Bovey, a picturesque hamlet tucked away in a wooded valley on the edge of Dartmoor, we met the Calverts in late August of 2001. There was another couple at the table that day – at least that’s what Harry and Heather told us when we visited with them this summer – but while they (reportedly a German couple subjected to a Fawlty Towers-style reference to the Luftwaffe courtesy of Heather) have been resigned to the recesses of my memory, the Calverts have remained steadfastly in view…even when that view is slightly clouded by Calvados.
We clicked. That’s the quickest way to describe it. We found common ground on most topics, and treated each with a heavy dose of irony. Perhaps one way we found favor with H&H was that Diane and I are proud purveyors of irony, which they believe is eschewed by most Americans. With a heavy sigh, I believe they’re right, having witnessed jaw-droppingly inane responses by my countrymen to irony for years. But I digress.
I secured their address in Wales, and started a correspondence with Harry, who would wittily muse over literature, travel, history, food, wine, and politics, with Heather often scribbling a humorous postscript. I just tried to keep up. It was equally fascinating and depressing to learn that our British friends were more familiar with the American political landscape than most Americans.
Our transatlantic missives would taper off, only to be re-energized in advance of one of our return trips to Great Britain, though it wasn’t until April 2012 that our overseas wanderings brought us to their door in Pontypridd. It was a brief yet mirthful visit, the highlight being a dinner that lasted seven hours and involved the consumption of numerous bottles of wine and multiple courses of a delicious home-cooked meal (the centerpiece of which was a fish that stared at me until I cut its head off). When we left, I was confident we’d be seeing them in less than eleven years.
Normandy was a key destination ever since I started planning our grand vacation last winter. And since Harry and Heather own a stone cottage in between the D-Day beaches and Mont St. Michel, it wasn’t long before we were invited to stay as long as we wanted. A dangerous invitation, by the way, since we had yet to spend more than two days and one night in each others’ company.
We had been told that no other guests had been able to drive the tortuous route to La Groudiere (the Calverts’ vacation home) without getting lost first. I pride myself on my cartographic skills, and with Diane serving as navigator, we steered our rental into their driveway with not one wrong turn.
I rolled down the window and crowed to Heather, “Made it on the first try!”
Her response: “It doesn’t pay to be smug, you know.”
So began five days and five nights of our vacation-within-a-vacation. Before we could say Comment allez vous? the patio table had been laden with bowls of snacks and glasses of wine. We were off.
For dinner, Heather prepared salmon, broccoli, and potatoes, followed by a raspberry tart topped with crème fraiche. So damned good. And, not unexpectedly, the lengthy repast was preceded by two bottles of bubbly and accompanied by two bottles of red and one of white. I attained a level of inebriation that allowed me to fight a pitched battle against the biggest wasp I’d ever seen, a menacing beast buzzing around in our bathroom as we prepared to go to bed. Seriously, its body was the size of my thumb. One well-aimed swat of my baseball cap and the monster disappeared behind the toilet. But I digress.
The conversation we had begun at the Gate House continued all week. But with a twist. The second evening, Phil and Hillary arrived. Diane and I were apprehensive about having to share Harry and Heather with two of their friends (from Bristol), but those selfish fears were dashed as soon as the six of us got to talking around the table (the surface of which, again, was covered with food and drink). We all got along famously, and such was the level of comfort immediately established that in between bouts of activity, we would each do our own thing in and around the house. For example, Harry was outside tending a burn pile while Hillary milled around, Diane and Phil read their books, Heather mopped the kitchen floor while humming “Across the Sea,” and I observed as much in our travel journal.
A couple of times Diane and I took daytrips on our own – once to the American Military Cemetery and Omaha Beach, and another time to Mont St. Michel – but our paths would all lead us back to La Groudiere, where the six of us would regroup for dinner.
Europeans know how to enjoy a meal. They take their time. Wait staff do just that – they wait. They know to stay the hell away from the table. They take your order, bring your food, and disappear. For hours. They don’t swoop in every few minutes to ask how everything’s going. They know not to interrupt a conversation. That’s what spouses are for.
“That’s not what happened,” Heather would say to Harry during one of his amusing anecdotes.
“I am not about to let a piddling little thing like the truth get in the way of a perfectly good story,” he’d respond.
There were some issues with the menus, particularly with certain Americans none too fond of snails, goose liver, and other animal innards best left to the slaughterhouse floor; however, there was always the item or two that appealed to us, such as filet mignon and ill-tempered sea bass, which we ate with great delight. Nonetheless, we – not the French people who came up with slug larva paté – but we quickly earned a reputation for having bizarre eating habits. And we were put to task for coming from a country where the main course is called an entrée, even though the very word indicates that it is intended to precede a main course (which they call a plate). And don’t get them started on appetizers. I mean starters. But I digress. Again.
While it’s gratifying to have open invitations to the homes of our old and new European friends, we have come to the point where we can no longer delay adding a bathroom to our first floor. I suppose we can put a bed in the dining room.