Traveler’s Advisory: On the Mediterranean coast of France, just below Marseilles, sits the small fishing village of Cassis, where it is very easy to fall in love. It was here that I met Helen. She was blond, pretty, brilliant, English.
I knew that she reminded me of someone, though it would take me some time to figure out that this someone was Sophia Western, the heroine of Henry Fielding’s eighteenth-century novel, Tom Jones. Not that I knew Sophia all that well.
We met at teatime. By bedtime we were hopelessly in love: she with a boy from New England who she mistook for an American cowboy; I with a classic heroine of English literature.
Fueled by one of the most romantic settings on earth, we spent the next two weeks together: weeks dedicated to cliff-side strolls and tours of the countryside; to dining al fresco and endless hours in the bed. I think there was some confusion as to what was supposed to be going on in the bed. I had decided to comport myself as the proper English gentleman; while I think Helen was hoping to get to know the cowboy in me. Misunderstandings of this magnitude were not uncommon in what was to become our relationship.
At the end of the two weeks, it was time for Helen to return to her university in Nottingham. I stayed on in Cassis, pining. I had never pined before; but I seemed to have a natural aptitude for it.
It was only when I got a letter from Helen, saying that her parents did not approve of me, that I decided to leave Cassis. Now that we were to be star-crossed lovers, I figured it was time to put in an appearance. I drove the length of France in record time, crossed the stormed-tossed Channel from Calais to Dover, and rang the doorbell of Major and Mrs. Peter Hooper by noon the very next day.
Helen had been right. I was not welcome.
“May I help you?” asked the priggish little woman who answered the door.
“I’m looking for Helen. My name is ….”
“I know very well who you are, Mr. Handwerjer,” she said.
“Odd name, either way. And I’m afraid that Helen isn’t in. Perhaps next time you’ll think to ring, rather than appearing unannounced.”
I didn’t know what to say, and I said as much. “I don’t know what to say.” I flashed my most winning smile.
Pearls before ,,, well, pearls before a bitchy little Englishwoman wearing pearls. “I shall tell Helen that you called.”
And with that she closed the door, precluding what was about to be my impassioned plea to use her bathroom.
That turned out to be one of the sunnier interviews I would have with Alma Hooper, soon to be a.k.a. Mom, that summer.
I was not used to being disliked for no apparent reason; and I made it my mission in life to win over Helen’s parents. Major Hooper, while an altogether more amicable sort than his wife, did have something of a subjective prejudice against Yanks, especially those of us who were not at least two-star generals. In the end I prevailed; but by then, as things were to turn out, it was a hollow victory.
Ten days after my arrival in England, I, an imbecilic, twenty-two-year old boy, asked Helen to marry me; and she, a fragile and emotionally immature nineteen-year-old girl who wanted only to be carried away, accepted. We had known each other, on and off, for nearly five weeks.
The wedding was held in the garden of the chapel at the University of Nottingham. The Reverend Paul King officiated. At the reception that followed, Paul’s three-year-old daughter, Sophie, began to scream at the top of her lungs. She had been stung by a bee.
“This is not a good omen,” the Reverend King opined.
We honeymooned on the isle of Crete. The promotional literature for the hotel where we were staying had failed to mention that the place was still under construction. In the early morning of the day after our arrival, an explosion on a cliff just below our bedroom window killed four Cretan workers. I wonder what the Reverend King would have had to say about that.
Other than the explosion, and really good olives, I don’t remember much about the honeymoon. Shortly after our return from Crete, we moved to the States.
Helen was disenchanted with an America that turned out to be not at all like the place she’d been expecting from having watched the occasional episode of Dallas. My parent’s suburban home topped her list of disappointments. Where were the cattle? Where were the wranglers? Where was J.R.?
At this point the odds-makers chimed in, laying eight to five against the marriage lasting five years. The honeymoon, they said, was over.
But I was determined to beat the odds. If Helen were not happy in America, we would move back to England. No, to France, where we had first met. So it was off to France; back, in fact, to the very spot that we had fallen in love, Cassis.
The magic had left Cassis. Nor was it to be found in Aix-en-Provence, Nice or Paris. We returned to the States.
Now I encountered a Helen whom I had never known before: litigious Helen, who, though she no longer seemed inclined to want to spend the rest of her days with me, was not adverse to the idea spending as much of my money as she could get her hands on.
So off we went to family court, where we proceeded to spend alternate Fridays for the next several months. By this time the betting odds had slipped to six to five.
Still, I was able to make $2,000 on a $10,000 bet, which helped to defray my legal expenses.