Gift From a Stranger How a woman outside a coffee shop gifted me a journey through France

Gift from a stranger: Bormes les Mimosas - Pyragraph

Bormes les Mimosas, South France.

Buy the ticket, take the ride. —Hunter Thompson

In early February, 2008, I couldn’t withstand the desire any longer and bought a plane ticket with my student loan money to Paris.

I was set to leave the day after Spring semester at UNM. I didn’t know where I’d stay or what I’d do—only that I was so in love with the art movements and writers and artists in modern French history that I had to get over there as soon as possible, or my heart and brain would explode.

I was telling someone about the plane ticket on the patio of Winning Coffee. An inconspicuous woman in a muumuu overheard me a couple tables away. She said her name was Penelope, and she had an artist nephew in South France. Maybe she could set something up for me. I gave her my email address but thought nothing would come from it. She seemed sweet, but maybe was a little nutty or lonely—she didn’t know me at all and had no reason to help.

A few days later, I received an email from her which proved how wrong I was—Penelope had hooked me up beyond the call of humanity. I couldn’t believe it.

Her nephew lived with his artist wife in a succulent village with cherry trees and magic and boulders the size of Alaska, which he had to drive over to get into town.

For two weeks I lived on the second floor at Paris’s Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, working two hours a day for lodging during its literary festival.

I met Paul Auster, and sat on a bench next to the very aged and pale-eyed Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Then Penelope’s nephew picked me up at the train station in Hyeres, South France. I stayed in my own little casita on his property in Toulon, and we ate dinner with the baron next door. After dinner I’d play them songs on the ukulele.

His neighbors had goat farms, and I ended up living with one of them (“neighbor” is relative out there; their home is on a neighboring mountain called Bormes les Mimosas). I made goat cheese every single morning for two hours exactly, and then the rest of the day was mine in, again, my own casita.

French families in rural places don’t just let strangers from America stay with them and make cheese, but they thought I was the muumuu-ed woman’s nephew’s niece, through some lost-in-translation miscommunication, which I did not correct them on. So in that sense I was practically family, in their mind, being related to a neighbor. None of this cost me one penny.

Actually, I made money.

One of the members of this family worked with the Chamber of Commerce in Bormes les Mimosas. They gave me a weekly gig playing ukulele in the village at night. No one knew what a ukulele was; it was amazing. And I made between 40 and 100 euros each time.

I then went on to stay with another member of this same family in a different town—a regional wooden boat captain expert who took me sailing a few times with the family.

The whole thing was like a dream, looking back on it. A gift from a stranger across the street from UNM.

This story illustrates my favorite Zen saying: Leap and the net will appear.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Avatar photo Eva Avenue on December 11, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    I know what you’re thinking: How do “inconspicuous” and “muumuu” go together in the same sentence?

  2. Bwana Hamadi on October 4, 2014 at 2:52 am

    Maisha Z Johnson….does Z stand for Zolleyn?

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