I’m on an airplane at the moment, headed to Southern California where I’m due to speak at a Friend’s luncheon for the Newport Beach Library. I’ve been invited to do so three years in a row. Twice the event was canceled by Covid. This time I’m definitely going.
This week, my hostess, Pam Crook, heard from a member who will be unable to attend the luncheon because she’s currently traveling out of the country. Last week she was in Paris. Having just read the book, The Paris Library, she decided to pay the place a visit. While there, on a whim, she went to see if they carried any of my books. As you can see from the accompanying photo, the answer was a definitive YES.
I thanked her, of course, but, as so often happens, that set of email exchanges sent me on a trip down memory lane and gave me a topic for this week’s blog.
In 1997, Bill and I booked two back-to-back tours of France with Rick Steves’s Europe Through the Back Door. They are guided tours with buses where travelers’ accommodations are in second or third-tier hotels. Guests are allowed to bring a single bag and a small back pack, and the hotels involved generally don’t include air conditioning. If you’re traveling in Europe in the summer, as we were, that’s a big deal. So included in Bill’s and my individual bags were small, battery-powered fans.
We flew in by way of Copenhagen. When we stepped off the plane, we were blasted by 33 Celsius heat which translated to a very humid 91 degrees Fahrenheit. At our also-second-tier hotel with no AC, the fans stirred enough air to allow us to go to sleep, but they ran out of power long before morning. When we arrived in Paris a day later, it was the hottest temperature on record in 200 years. Naturally, that hotel, too, was without air-conditioning.
Our first stop after leaving Paris was in a town called Albi. There we ditched the walking tour in the destination part of town and went where tourists seldom venture. There, in the town’s only hardware store, we located an electric fan with a France-based plug, but buying it wasn’t easy. The store couldn’t use our credit cards and wouldn’t cash our Traveler’s checks. The owner of the hardware store finally had to take us to his bank in order to facilitate the transaction.
For the remainder of the tour, I dragged my roll-aboard luggage into one hotel after the other with that fan strapped to the handle. There were people from our tour who offered us money to let them sleep in our rooms.
One of the first items of business on the tour was introducing ourselves to our fellow travelers. When I said I wrote mysteries, no one had ever heard of me. Big surprise there.
We quickly made friends with Jean and Truby Jones, a couple probably twenty years our senior. Like Bill, Truby was a retired EE—an Electronics Engineer—who had ended his career as an executive for Florida Power and Light. He was also a Shriner and delighted in dressing up to drive clown cars to raise money for the Shriner’s Hospital. A raconteur par excellence, he filled our evening hours with tall tales while Jean, a southern lady to the core, looked on smiling from the sidelines.
Once we purchased our electric fan, we passed our battery-powered ones along to Jean and Truby. In exchange they shared their airline-tax-free Scotch with us. Jean didn’t partake, but her Rick Steves bag contained its very own bottle of single malt Scotch for the rest of us. Bill and Truby took theirs neat. I’m a rocks girl, and rocks are hard to come by in France in the summer. At least they were back then. Three cubes was generally the per-person limit, so Bill and Truby ordered rocks, too, and then gave me theirs, thus allowing me nine rocks per glass.
When we returned to Paris for the last day of the tour, Bill and I went to the English section of a famous Parisian bookstore where we found a single copy of Until Proven Guilty. When I signed it for Jean and Truby, I said, “So long and thanks for all the Scotch.”
Naturally, within weeks of our arrival home, Jean sent me a gracious thank you note telling me that she had enjoyed reading the book and was now looking for more “at every garage sale I see.”
We corresponded for a while after that, and they even came to visit us once. Then Jean was diagnosed with lung cancer. The tumor was removed by way of a 21-inch incision in the middle of her back. Within days, however, the incision was attacked by necrotizing fasciitis forcing her to spend weeks in the hospital in both a hyperbaric chamber and the ICU.
While she was still in the hospital, Truby sent me the following note:
I have just finished reading all of your wonderful books. I don’t know how I would have gotten through all these weeks in hospital waiting rooms without your stories.
It’s by far best fan letter I’ve ever received, and the only one I can quote verbatim. By the way, Jean recovered completely, and they were able to take two more Rick Steves trips together before we lost them—Jean first and Truby several years later. But that’s what the photo of those books in the Paris Library did for me—they brought back all those wonderful memories.
And now I’ve been able to share them with you.
As that old song says, memories are made of this.