the last garden in france

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.”


635435bb-24d2-407d-a2f3-ab8f5ecfe99eI 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.

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group date on the DL: adventures in digital friendship, pt ii

When making a questionable decision, it is always reassuring to have an innocent friend to drag along with you. After several days of glumly searching On Va Sortir (a French website for platonic meet-ups), I decided it was time to act.

Over dinner one evening, I showed the website to my friend Rémi. Like me, he was immediately skeptical.

“It gets worse,” I said. I read him an article from a French dating and “séduction” website where a young reporter decided to see if love could be found via OVS meet-ups. Over a year in Paris, she went on dozens of outings.

She never found love, but she did meet a lot of strange people, and could even sort them into types. In any group, she said, there was sure to be the Divorcée, who would monopolize the evening with tales of lost love, recounting the innumerable ways her ex had wronged her. There was always the Shy One, the Weirdo, and the person who was new in town and knew not a soul.

The writer did not mince words with her OVS roast. After we finished cringing, I thought I should tell him.

“By the way, I reserved two spots for an event Friday night.”

T’es sérieuse là ? He laughed nervously.

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Ben oui, I said, cucumber cool. I knew Rémi would never do something like this alone, and I was confident that while he would complain, he would ultimately be a good sport about it. Plus, I had found an event that I thought sounded pretty fun (bowling with Bob just didn’t make the cut).

I had signed us up for a photography expedition. Participants were instructed to bring their camera and “eye.” We’d embark on a walk around the city with the objective of taking themed photos: “winter in Cannes.” Afterwards, we would get a drink and discuss everyone’s shots. There were ten spots to fill.

I teased Rémi about it for the next week. “Can’t wait for Friday when we’ll meet our new best friends!” Really, though, I was looking forward to it. If nothing else, I’d get some good photos.

The day came and I double-checked the event details. Luckily. It turned out the soirée was intended as a discussion of the photos that people had taken at the last event, several weeks ago. No need to bring my camera, in other words. And no night stroll around Cannes. We were meeting directly at the wine bar. Oops.

Somewhat predictably, Rémi tried to beg off, citing post-work exhaustion.

“Ahh, you cannot do this to me,” I said on the phone. I was straightening my hair and applying lipstick. “Pokemon” and “Dave” would be there and I needed to make a good impression.

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He groaned and sounded positively miserable, but I had come to understand, through scrolling OVS, that not showing up to an event at the last minute was an unforgivable sin. It seemed these people had ways of finding you out and getting you back. Like the Mafia.

An hour later, we stood shivering in the dark outside the wine bar, peering in the windows. Inside it was bright and cozy, but we were both buzzing with first-date nerves.

Après toi, Rémi said, holding the door. “You got us into this.”

“But…” I looked for an excuse. “You’re French! It’s less awkward for you.”

He wasn’t convinced.

The place was packed, but I didn’t see any signs advertising “group of people who just met over the internet.”

I leaned towards a bartender with gray hair and hipster glasses and said under my breath, “Um, we’re with a groupe d’OVS ?”

“A what?”

“On Va Sortir.”

“Huh?”

I wasn’t at all sure how this kind of thing was perceived in France, but it felt like a secret. My instinct was to keep it on the DL.

I cleared my throat. C’est un site de rencontre. He then proceeded to ask every group in the place if they were awaiting two strangers who just might be Rémi and I.

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We found them, a small and friendly group of five people, and exchanged cheek kisses. A pretty woman in her late 30s, Rebecca, had organized the event. An expat, she spoke with a Spanish accent and seemed completely enamored by photography. She talked like a professor, discussing the philosophical and aesthetic values that make good photos. For her, it was all about the story. I felt like taking notes.

We procured glasses of Merlot and a charcuterie plate, and then everyone took turns showing off their work via USBs and Rebecca’s Macbook.

Apart from the man sitting next to me, who showed me his collection of professional portraits, everyone was an amateur. So I was stunned to see that these photos were good.

In the series, all five of them, each person had captured Cannes in a different way, though they had all taken the same walk. The professional photographer focused on people on the street–musicians playing for euros, little kids–as well as his fellow photographers, capturing them in the midst of shooting pictures of other things.

A quiet older woman had put together a black-and-white series of what she described as Cannes ‘behind the scenes.’ She showed photographs of construction near the beach, litter, the jagged wood of a boat in need of repair. She had taken extreme close-ups of a single feather, a length of rope coiled on the sand, pigeon droppings. And they were beautiful.

I was perfectly content to sip wine, munch on salami, and admire everyone’s work. At the end, Rebecca gave her opinion on each series, explaining if she thought it worked as a cohesive set.

I was surprised and pleased by all the consideration given, this frank feedback. I’ll take passion over small-talk any day.

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I had halfway hoped for a funny horror story to share.

But there was a bigger surprise in store: I had a perfectly pleasant evening. (So did Rémi).

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I don’t think, though, that this marks the beginning of a thriving OVS-sponsored social life. I might be motivated to try again, if only the website wasn’t so clunky, archaic, and frustrating.

It’s not you, OVS, it’s me and my reluctance to spend hours clicking myself back to the late 90’s.

Better sometimes, anyway, to quit while you’re ahead.