Today’s post is a little different. I’m sharing the essay I wrote for a World Nomads travel writing contest (effectively the contest of my dreams). The prize includes a fully-funded trip to Argentina and a workshop with NYT contributor Tim Neville. I wrote on the theme “Making a local connection.”
I never imagined gardening could produce such passion, fervor, and urgency. Then I moved to Montluçon and next door to Monsieur C, a man who speaks exclusively in exclamation points, wears overalls and a sun hat, and jabs his finger at you when he speaks–and he’s usually talking about his garden.
For a week he had beseeched me, in his apocalyptic way, to come visit his backyard, “the last true garden in all of France.”
You must see it! Before it’s too late!
In early spring, the yard burst into white-bloomed glory. I could appreciate the view from my kitchen window, but Monsieur C wouldn’t relent. I followed him to the garden.
He showed me the white cherry tree that produced delicious fruit–and was crawling with bugs. C’est pas grave, he assured me: when you eat it, just close your eyes!
He bemoaned the plucky little birds that peck at his asparagus, and he revealed the leeks, hidden under a screen to keep flies away. This way, he said, I can enjoy them longer than anyone else! Aha!
He spoke often of his superior methods. I didn’t have to wonder if the neighborhood rivalry ever got ugly: I already knew. The cheery white cherry tree was enough of a reminder never to underestimate Monsieur C.
He was giving me a ride in his sputtering Citroën when he slammed on the brakes in front of a house several blocks from our street.
See that cherry tree? Finger jab. That is one good-looking cherry tree, he said. I agreed. He then told me a story. He had once asked the gardener to let him have a branch; start his own cherry tree. The man refused. I offered to pay him, Monsieur C cried, and he wouldn’t take my money!
One late night, he crept through the fence, snipped a branch from the tree, and roared off.
An older widower as traditional as Norman Camembert, Monsieur C was set in his ways. His ways were the best! But hidden behind the ornery exterior was a sweetness.
I’d see it when he would knock on my door, offering a couple of ripe clementines or a boxed éclair. He had a budding friendship with a crow. His face lit up when he told me how “Coco” had swept away the bread he’d left for her on the patio. The cats that assembled, eager for scraps, weren’t treated as kindly. Oh! He’d yell, hitting a pot with a spoon.
My French neighbor presented his garden like a proud parent. And he was proud: of his land, his home, his cherry tree. I don’t know about the last true garden in all of France. But I think I met one of its last true gardeners.
Some details have been changed due merely to space constraints. Capping a story at 2,500 characters was hugely challenging for me. (2,500 characters is what I need for like a grocery list)
World Nomads announced the winners today, and I was not among them. I knew it was a long shot. My story is quiet. It doesn’t benefit from taking place in one of the sexy destinations du jour. Is it even “travel”? In the traditional sense, maybe not. Still, I dared to hope.
I hoped that someone would take a chance on me, believe that I have something worth saying. Hoped to be frolicking with Argentinian llamas in one short month.
Disappointment hurts, it really does. But what I also know is that hope and effort are worth the risk. I wrote “The Last Garden in France” in February, at a time when I was feeling down about pretty much everything. I dragged myself to work and back like I was underwater. I wanted– I didn’t know what I wanted. Having a deadline and a word limit gave me something to focus on and care about.
I started writing more, getting into a solid routine. I slowly whittled down my story into a lean piece of around 480 words, a wonderful exercise in concision. My parents read each draft, suggesting ways to kill the odd extraneous adjective.
I read “The Portable MFA” and Stephen King’s “On Writing” and the David Sedaris collection “When You are Engulfed in Flames.”
I wrote everyday, edited old stuff, mined my memories. I took myself seriously. I rediscovered a passion.
It’s interesting how finding out that I lost today felt like a punch to the gut.
I am reasonably happy, reasonably healthy, and I still don’t know where I’ll be in the next 6 months. In other words, nothing has changed. (Except for me, just a little).
Maybe the sudden pain is the feeling of hope evaporating. But maybe that’s what hope does when you don’t need it anymore.
This contest got me writing, and that’s one place I’m hoping to stay.