We took all backroads through the peerless French countryside, through villages that were breathtaking to behold and past farms that were hundreds of years old. For lunch, we stopped and ate beneath an arched bridge that crossed over a swift stream where trout hunted mayflies. A herd of sheep grazed on a nearby hillside. We ate slowly, spreading the pâté on pieces of the baguette after Frank had cut sausage and cheese with his well-kept Swiss Army knife and Cliff had cooled the wine in the stream before opening it.
"This must be the most beautiful spot in Europe," Frank said.
"You'll say that ten thousand more times before we get to Rome," I told him.
Lunch became our joy and our specialty. We searched out locally produced cheeses, olives, sausages, and breads. We tried to buy wines made in the same district where we purchased them. We lunched on a pier overlooking the city of Geneva, near a waterfall looking at a monastery near Brig, Switzerland, and in the ruins of a portico that extended out into the waters of Lake Maggiore, in Italy. At Maggiore, as we feasted on grapes and olives and prosciutto, we agreed we had come to the most beautiful place on earth.
At one of the beaches near Portofino, Cliff and Frank decided that they wanted to join the crowds who were swimming in the ocean. I issued a warning that I had been robbed my first time in Rome, but the day was hot, and Cliff and Frank were determined they were not going back to America without having swum in the Mediterranean. We locked the car, changed into our bathing suits, and, despite my misgivings, were soon by the water's edge. Frank and Cliff swam out into deep water as I remained in the shallows and tried to keep an eye on the car. I soon grew fascinated by the sight of an Italian man lifting black sea urchins out of the water, disemboweling them, and eating them raw.
When we returned to the car, Cliff was the first to notice that a thief had kicked in one of the windows and robbed us. Frank lost his camera and Cliff lost a gold watch his father had given him. I went weak at the knees when I remembered that my manuscript was in a suitcase in the backseat. If the robber had reached in and stolen all the luggage, my life would be very different today. I could easily have lost five years of my life. But he was discriminating in his desires and had no need for a novel written in a strange tongue.
On the evening we entered Rome, we rented a cheap hotel room near the Spanish Steps and met Jonathan and Susan Galassi for dinner at the Trattoria del Pantheon da Fortunato. I handed my novel to Jonathan, and the next day he called to tell me that he would accept it if I would make one major change. When we met, I agreed on the spot to the change, and we shook hands. For the next two days Jonathan and Susan took us around to explore a city they had come to love as much as they had Paris. Here, in a Roman setting, they seemed even more cosmopolitan, sophisticated, and enlightened than ever, and they treated Cliff and Frank as though they had known them all their lives. Because of fate, the Galassis had given me the city of Paris, which led to Frank and Cliff's discovery of Europe.
On my last night in Rome, I watched the sunset with the Galassis on their terrace in Trastevere. I was full of emotion and felt lucky to have such friends. The sun darkened the enameled, coppery city below us. I raised a glass of wine to toast my friends before I went back to my life in Atlanta, the one I was born to live.
When I had first gone to Paris, almost 20 years before, I had read F. Scott Fitzgerald's broken-down, elegiac novel Tender Is the Night. I had always loved his dedication to Sara and Gerald Murphy in the book, and that is what I wanted to convey as I toasted friends and Europe good-bye. "Many fêtes," I tried to say. I don't think anyone heard me, but they all caught the mood of what I meant.
I LEARNED TO WRITE TO THE RHYTHM AND PACE OF FRENCH RAIN, AND I COULD FEEL THE STORY UNFOLDING INSIDE ME AS I FILLED UP YELLOW LEGAL PADS IN A LANGUAGE THAT FEW IN THE HOTEL COULD READ.
THE MEAL ENDED WITH ARMAGNAC, AND THEN TALK TURNED TO OUR MEETING IN ROME, WHEN I WOULD PRESENT A MANUSCRIPT TO JONATHAN IN PAYMENT TO HIM FOR THE INEFFABLE GIFT OF PARIS.