Well, this one's kind of a sailing story... at least it's shot through with sailors:
We had a young friend from France who had just bought a sailboat, had never sailed, and could use some help taking it a ways south. Youth and passion should be encouraged, so we agreed to crew for him. He wanted to sail, as much as possible, which, in that place and season, meant long hours adrift on the tide.
To while away the time, he produced a battered copy of Le Grand Depart Et La Vie Sur L'Eau, from which he read us passages in rapturous and poetic sounding phrases. In French.
Anke and I both failed to catch the essence of the Lange d'Amour despite earnest effort in highschool. We can chisel meaning from basic parlez vous, especially if accompanied by lots of pointing and charades. But with a lot of help, we were getting the gist.
It is the story of Michka, a young, French woman and her partner, who built a ferrocement sailboat, sailed it to Alaska and back, with music and love and beauty on the way. Good advice, recipes and stories interwoven with drawings of the hippy take on the good life. Right up our alley!
But, as our friend constantly interrupted his readings to inform us, "GUYS! You ayre meesing ze POetree! Zee essance! I cannot translate zees!"
He seemed to think it was pretty well written, beyond the bare bones of the story... it was Michka who had inspired him to take to the sea, and this trip was his first voyage and GUYS! Eet ees sooo fantasteeek!
Well, we all got where we were going with only the right amount of excitement along the way.
Years later, as a gift from Anke's parents, we found ourselves staying in the heart of Paris for a week.
Paris, I've got to admit, is a dazzling city, with layer upon layer of chaos and organization. Endless small corners where one delight or another - ranging from homely to exotic - presents itself in a parade of serendipity. We goggled and gawped like the yokels we are.
Lots of little bookshops drew us in. They were everything we could hope for in such a place... towering shelves sagging under the weight of dusty books, ancient and new. Funny little characters in berets going at it, chest to chest over a passage from Balzac. Cats sleeping in the windows. Amelie, would feel right at home. But all in French, of course...
"Hey," I say to Anke, "let's ask around for that book... Le Grand Depart!"
"Noooo," she says, because she's German, and that's a cultural reflex, "That's got to be way out of print."
But I ask around. And indeed, no one's heard of it, but they're all very kind and patient with my dog French and full of suggestions. Eventually, we wander into a shop with a computer.
"Weell, no... eet ees out of preent, but I see ze publisheer ees heere een Paree... whould you like ze address?"
Sure! So we hop the metro and get off, go directement, a gauche, a droit and a gauche encore. GULP! We find ourselves standing in front of a glass and chrome building that looks more like a bank than a publishing house. Suddenly, we're feeling a bit shabby in our 'city clothes' which are what we always wear, but before the paint stains and patches... until now, they'd seemed pretty adequate.
But the address checked out, so we squared our shoulders and marched into... a room about four stories tall, continuing the glass and chrome theme from outside. I've heard that modern urban architecture is designed to make one feel small and submissive. This architect was earning his keep!
At one end, a stylish woman with a severe expression glared from behind a marble desk. We were the only people in the room. We were about to bolt, when she emitted a curt, "Venez." We slunk toward her, and, fear doing nothing for my fluency, explained our mission.
"Pardon, Madame, nous cherchon une livre - La Grand Depart et la Vie sur l'Eau - mais..." But...
She silenced me with a frosty stare. "Attendez." Wait.
She disappeared through what looked like vault doors. We waited nervously, like puppies learning to Sit. Stay. Had she got to fetch guards? Would we become personel disparu??
But then she returned, her face wreathed in smiles, and bearing our book in her hands.
"Vingt Franc, s'il vous plait, e merci!" Five bucks! Sold!
We fled the building, our treasure in hand.
When we'd run as far as we could, we collapsed, and looked over the book. Yup. Still in French. Poetry still beyond us. Still full of great drawings, and... 'ELL-OOO... on the back cover, it says Michka returned to PARIS after her voyage where she now lives!
"Why don't we give her a call???" says I.
"Noooo," says Anke, because she's German, and that's a cultural reflex, "That was published twenty years ago, and besides, you can't just call up a stranger!"
So we look in the phonebook, and there are two Michka's.
BINGO, on the first try!
"Weel, I am a beet beesee, right now, but I can spare some time...", and we set up a date at a certain cafe for the next day.
We were there early, bright eyed and bushy tailed. Michka and her husband (who shot her photo for the back cover) arrived shortly after. We recognized her right away... 30 years don't change the eyes or hide a beautiful spirit.
First thing she wanted to know, was how we found her?
So we tell her the story of our friend and his new boat and the trip with her book. We told her of the hunt through the bookshops of Paris. We told her of the terrors at the publishers. We told her of the phone book... at which point they busted out laughing!
Anke and I looked at each other... they sounded a bit... hysterical.
Turns out, in the twenty some years since Michka had been living in Paris, she had become one of France's leading advocates for the legalization of cannabis. Marijuana. The Evil Weed, itself.
She had published, among other things, an article in Maintenant called "The Crusade of Gabriel Nahas - or the Art of Disinformation". This was a critique of a doctor who had done one of the early and very influential studies of the effects of cannibis, but who has been widely criticized for his methodologies.
Three years earlier, Dr. Nahas responded to this article by suing on grounds of libel. A subpoena was issued to be served, but the Paris police could not find her. They passed the buck to the national security police, who also failed. On to Interpol. They combed the gutters, the dives of Paris, of France, of Europe and beyond!
TWO YEARS after the suit was filed, she was finally located - a suburban soccer Mom living quietly, but not that quietly, considering she was still regularly publishing. Her trial was now about to commence, which was why she was "a beet beesy, right now."
And here we walk in - country bumpkins that we are - and find her listed in the phone book!
Who'd'a thunk it?
Sailor, writer, poet and Freedom Fighter
PS. Michka lost the suit, but in a QB VII manner. She was fined one Franc (about 20 cents). Her book, we've since found, is known and loved by a wide range of French sailors. They all insist, "GUYS! Zees ees POetry!"
PSS. Our young French friend is now a world class sailor.
PSSS. If you are French, please forgive my crude renditions of your delightful accent when speaking my language far better than I speak yours. Both the accent and the language itself are music to my ears!