Perdu at Mont-Saint-Michel
The first of these was to Mont-Saint-Michel, a magnificent monastery built on a rocky outcropping just off the coast. The narrow causeway that connects it to the mainland is often flooded by high tides, leaving the monastery and the small village that huddles at its base an island. Mont-Saint-Michel was one of those things that had been on my bucket list since I first laid eyes on it in one of the many architecture books I pored over again and again while growing up in suburban Charlotte, and it did not disappoint. The town and the monastery were simply stunning.
What did disappoint, however, was missing the bus with the rest of our group as they went on to the day’s other destination, Saint-Malo, Brittany. To be honest, I was never quite sure how it happened. I had spent almost the entire day with a small group of friends, but got separated from them at the end. Not to worry, however: I knew the time we were supposed to be back at the bus, as the tour director had told us when to be back before we got off. But somehow in my mind, even though I understood the French perfectly well, the time I got in my head was an hour later. When I went back to where the bus was parked, I couldn’t find it. Suddenly a panic set in: had I missed my bus? I went to the small tourist office to ask if anyone had left any message or notification about a bus full of students, one of whom didn’t make it back. Nothing.
Fortunately, at times like those, my initial panic has a way of turning into rational, clear thought on what to do next. I had no way of getting in touch with anyone — though a number of students had purchased mobile phones to use during the study abroad, I was not one of them — so I was on my own. My best bet was to make my own way back to Tours. I took a bus from Mont-Saint-Michel to the nearest town with a train station, Pontorson. I went straight to the ticket office and inquired about the next train that could get me back to Tours. The very helpful and friendly staff person informed me that the last train had already left for the day and that the next one wouldn’t be until the following morning. Nothing more I could do, so I purchased a ticket for the train and set out to find accommodation for the night.
There was a Best Western hotel in the town, but it was too expensive. I located the youth hostel, but it was full — of old people. Along the way I had run into a group of college students who had somehow been abandoned by their tour group; I told them that, since we were in the same boat, we should let each other know if we found accommodations. I started wandering around town asking anyone who was outside if they knew of any place I could stay for the evening. An older couple down the street from the youth hostel informed me that a couple from Britain had recently moved into the house at the end of the street and opened a chambre d’hôtes. (The fact that this was entirely conducted in French was a proud moment for me.) I thanked them and promptly went to the house at the end of the street and knocked on the door. When a man with a British accent answered, I asked if I could stay for the night and he said to come on in.
It was a remarkable find. The house itself was three stories connected by a tight, twisting spiral staircase that, as I recall, the host told me was carved from a single piece of wood. I was led to a plain but very tidy and absolutely perfect room. As I hadn’t planned on spending the night anywhere, I had no luggage of any sort to leave in my room, so I thanked my hosts and went out to procure some dinner. A short distance away I ran into that same group of college students. I’m sure that they had had no intention of helping me out, but I was so elated about my find that I informed them that my hosts had additional rooms and that it looked to be a great place to stay for the night. So they went to the chambre d’hôtes and got rooms for the night. Then we all took a taxi back to Mont-Saint-Michel for dinner and to make the most of an unexpected evening. The village at the foot of the monastery was virtually deserted by the time we got back. Only a few cafés were still open though mostly empty; we chose one and got a small meal. We then mounted one of the walls and watched a gorgeous sunset over the English Channel. As I went to sleep that night in my cozy room, I couldn’t help but think what an adventure it had all been.
The next morning, a Sunday, I took a shower (notably, my room did not have an en suite bathroom) and put on all the same clothes I had worn the day before, because they were the only ones I had. I went down for breakfast — a typically continental affair, mostly consisting of croissants with butter and jam. After breakfast, I went to my host to pay for my room and my petit déjeuner. The cost? A mere €29.00. What a fortuitous find this hébergement had been!
As it was Sunday morning and I had some time before my train departed, I thought I could find the local ward or branch and attend church. I somehow found out the number of the missionaries who served in the area2 to ask about church. They informed me that the nearest ward met in Cherbourg, at the very northern tip of Normandy — nearly 175 kilometers (109 miles) away. Clearly church was not going to happen on this particular Sunday. I thanked the missionaries for their time and, as I got off the phone, pondered: Their area covers all of Normandy?!3 That was in stark contrast to the tiny areas — sometimes mere blocks — to which I was accustomed in my own mission in Salt Lake. So I wandered around town a little before sauntering over to the train station a bit earlier than I had planned to catch my train.
On the platform waiting with me were an older couple. Striking up a conversation, I learned that they, too, were American. He, in fact, was among those soldiers who had landed on the nearby beaches on D Day in 1944, and he and his wife had come to participate in some of the commemorative events taking place that summer (it was the 60th anniversary of the landings). He spoke about how grateful everyone he met in France had been — that six decades later they still remembered what had happened on those beaches at the beginning of the Allies’ final, victorious assault against the Nazis who had conquered and divided France in World War II. He spoke of how gracious and hospitable everyone had been — they had even stayed for free with a French family during their visit to the country. For me, this chance, unexpected encounter with living history had made getting left behind at Mont-Saint-Michel worth it.
Eventually the train arrived and I had a five-hour (really?! the bus had taken only about three) train ride back to Tours. The only thing I had to do was to look at the beautiful French countryside through which I was passing — a very worthwhile activity in and of itself. But eventually my mind got to working, and I returned to the topic I had fallen asleep thinking about the day before. It felt really stupid to have simply missed the bus. I needed a better story than that. So that evening in my quaint hotel room and then on the train I came up with a tale. It had something to do with witnessing the aftermath of a murder — as I was walking down a side street in Mont-Saint-Michel I saw the perpetrator walk quickly out of a shop and then away, and I was detained by the police for questioning. That would make a much better excuse for missing the bus, right? But what really surprised me when I got back to Tours was … that everyone believed me! That evening after my long, arduous journey back, I got together with the friends I had gotten separated from at Mont-Saint-Michel. They, of course, had been wondering what happened to me. They said that the bus had waited for me but they eventually had to go on. When I told them about the murder, they all let out a collective gasp. At the end of my tale I asked, “Now, you don’t really think that happened, do you?” They looked at each other and then at me — certainly they had believed it. They would have no reason to doubt me, and I had been very convincing. So I immediately fessed up that I had simply missed the bus because the time was wrong in my head.
The next day I recounted my tale to my class at the Institut and they, too — all these level 7s — believed it. Even the teacher — so much so that she went to the Institut afterwards to suggest that they refund my money. I was dumbfounded. I had always been an awful liar; I couldn’t believe everyone was believing this outlandish tale. Apparently a five-hour train ride had given me more than enough time to perfect my story and my technique. But I confessed to my class a couple of days later that it was just a funny story I had come up with to make up for my missing the bus, and I apologized for leading them astray.
Still, it was a good tale, though. And an even better adventure — those friends who met me after my return to Tours told me that I had gotten the better end of the deal, with my evening adventure in Mont-Saint-Michel and spectacular sunset. Saint-Malo hadn’t been nearly so interesting.