He winked. “I can always spot Americans.”
Luc was accompanied by two others – his brother Laurent – a nice bespectacled fellow with fair hair and Luc’s son Luic who looked to be in his early twenties – his dark hair and eyes fit the description my brain had previously assigned to Luc. The seven of us followed Luc’s brisk pace down the busy street (he had at least ten steps on us, even with Donna’s backpack under his arm). Laurent spoke English well. He unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket and nudged me in the arm “This,” he whispered, showing me our family photo emailed from Carolyn, “is how Luc recognized you.” As we walked, he was anxious to hear all the details of our trip. These guys seemed so happy to see us. Their energy was so addictive it made me happy…giddy actually. This reception was nothing like what I expected.
The girls and Chris rode in Laurent’s car. Alex, Luic, and I squeezed into Luc’s tiny Peugeot. My knees were nearly touching my chin in my spot behind the driver’s seat. Luc jumped in. There was a pause.
“Jeff?” he asked, looking around his seat.
“I think you…have my seat belt.”
Shit! I unbuckled my shoulder strap and handed it back to him. ”Sorry.”
“No problem” he assured, then zipped out of the parking structure like a French bat out of hell. He sped through the streets of Lille, managing to steer and shift gears with one hand, freeing his other hand to point out various places of interest.
The city gave way to countryside. Luc barely slowed his speed for the occasional roundabout popping up in the small villages. Luic was obviously used to his father’s driving. Alex and I grabbed anything we could to fight the centrifugal force that threatened to catapult us out the window. Luc pulled a quick left onto a spot alongside a brick building that I thought was a small warehouse. He pulled his parking brake. “Voila.”
Still shaking and with knuckles whiter than rice, I climbed out. Wooden picnic tables sat among bushy green plants and brick walkways. Two small wings of the building formed a courtyard. A bunch of people poured out of the house and swarmed toward us. A pretty woman with dark hair and a tremendous smile grabbed my shoulders and kissed each of my cheeks. “This is my wife, Mary Ange” Luc said, then introduced the children standing beside her – they varied in age and height. There were six of them including Luic.
“You have so many kids” Donna said. Mary Ange maintained her smile in spite of being clearly confused by Donna’s words. Luc jumped in, “Ah, let me translate.” She turned to us and nodded with an even bigger smile. “Her English is so-so” Luc said with a wink, “but her cooking is good.”
“Your chambers” Luc said, opening two wooden doors off the courtyard. We dropped our bags on the colorful tiled floors and got a quick glance of our rooms. They looked charming and comfortable. The brick ceilings had an arched formation I’d never seen before.
Within seconds of dropping our packs on the floor, we followed the group through the courtyard and into the house. The smell of mud-caked boots took me back to summers I spent on my cousin’s ranch in Oregon, bringing forth a welcome feeling of comfort. In the rustic kitchen sat an old stove with steaming pots and pans. The aroma took me to another world. Everyone gathered around several tables that had been assembled into one for what I presumed was traditional Sunday mid-day dinner. Luc poured Champaign for everybody then raised his glass high. “I’m happy our guests arrived here safely,” he declared with all eyes upon him. He paused, seeming to search for appropriate words. He shrugged his shoulders and blurted out: “ I hope the food is good.”
Donna explained details of our trip to Laurent as Luc translated to Mary Ange. At the other end of the table the kids were active in conversation. It was such a pleasant surprise to see so many kids the same age as ours. They all seemed happy. In spite of the language barrier, everybody seemed to be participating.
I was so excited to try authentic French food. Our first course was pate on toasted baguettes. The kids swallow it without making a face. Next we enjoyed salad of fresh vegetables from the garden. I was amazed at the earthy, sweet flavor everything had. For the main course, Mary Ange brought out a huge plate of roasted chicken atop a bed of fries. My knife sliced through the crackling outer skin into the tender meat, which was more golden than white. It tasted better than I’d imagined – fresh and moist with flavor.
I thought our dessert of chocolate éclairs would end this perfect mid-day meal – but there was more – Mary Ange set a plate of various cheeses on the table. “The final course.” Luc declared, offering me the plate, “It’s good for digestion.” After we’d eaten a few slices of cheese, Luc jumped up from the table and instructed Donna and I to grab our jackets and follow him. “The children go with Luic” he said. “We have chores for them.” said with a wink.