Somewhere around July 10th, just after Cornelia and Emily visited Mr. Wells’ house, they left for France. Which meant it was time for me to pack my bags, leave my lovely London flat, and catch the ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, just as the girls had done 95 years before.
The first half of my journey with the girls was over. It had gotten here way too fast.
On the morning of the crossing, I took a train that put me in Newhaven at 7:10am, and sitting in the waiting room to board the 9am ferry by 7:20am, along with about a dozen others. It seemed that the staff had no imminent plans to let us on the ferry, so I went into the café to order some breakfast. It was too early to manage anything substantial, so I opted for tea and wheat toast. A very nice woman named Anne who had been looking at the menu alongside me ordered the same thing, and we chatted for a bit about our travels. She and her husband, Alan, were going over to look for a second home in the Normandy countryside. In Dieppe, they were to meet their daughter, who was driving up from her home in Paris. I told her about my book project, and she was very kind, and interested in my journey.
When our food arrived, we moved to separate tables which weren’t very close together. A moment later her husband joined her at her table, and I heard her telling him about me, explaining that I was a writer. It took me quite by surprise to hear myself referred to in this way.
Up until then, whenever I had spoken to anyone about what I was doing, it was always in almost apologetic terms, that this was my first attempt at writing a book, it was a new thing for me, I was giving it a try, etc. But Anne had only heard, within all of my spluttering, that I was a writer. That is how she saw me, defined me. To her, I was a writer. It was a lovely, unexpected gift which I hadn’t known I needed.
After I finished eating, I went back out to the waiting room and sat down in one of the long rows of seats. Directly behind me was an attractive young woman with a darling manner and funky style, sitting with her boyfriend who could have come from Central Casting, if anyone had been looking for a nerdy, intellectual type with long scraggly hair whose clothes suggested he had just rolled out of bed wearing them. He was intermittently griping about having to sit around for so long, and was blaming his girlfriend for his present predicament. I could hear her quietly trying to reason with him, and I considered interjecting into the conversation that we were all here way too early thanks to the ferry company’s boarding requirements, but this was England, and I didn’t want to be the pushy American butt-insky. So I kept quiet and listened to him snipe at her until he finally stomped off, stating that he wasn’t going, and she was left sitting there, fighting back tears.
Shortly after he disappeared, a staff member called us all to get on the bus which would shuttle us to the ferry. The young woman remained seated as the rest of us went out to the bus. Once aboard the shuttle, I sat down and watched for her, growing angrier every moment at that stupid guy, if she had decided because of him not to go. Almost at the very end, the sniveling boyfriend appeared and headed towards the back of the bus. A few passengers later, she got on and, in what I considered to be an act of providence, sat down next to me.
Not for nothing had I been raised by strong-minded women and attended a strong-minded women’s college. The idea that a moody, mopey guy could spoil a woman’s travels was a personal affront to me, and I wasn’t going to let that boob in the back of the bus get away with his behavior.
I forced conversation on her, and after a minute or two of polite chit-chat, in which I learned her name was Katie and this was supposed to be a fun, quick (omitting the word “romantic”) getaway, I dove right in.
“I’m sorry to be so forward, and if I’m making you uncomfortable, but we’ve all been there with the pouty boyfriends. And right now you need a girlfriend to have your back about the situation with that guy of yours. I overheard everything in the waiting room. He was so off-base, and I’m glad that you didn’t let his childish behavior stop you from going on your trip.”
Without giving Katie the chance to protest my interference, I continued, “But I’m telling you now, that if he says one more word of complaint at any time – about anything – for the rest of your trip, you need to just leave him where he is. Ditch him right there where he’s standing. He shouldn’t get to spoil your fun.”
This made her laugh a bit. I said, “I’m not kidding. If your girlfriends were here right now, they would be saying exactly the same thing to you.” She agreed, and told me that she was still bothered by him, but that she was going to enjoy her time away. This was supposed to be a happy thing for her, and she was going to make sure it was.
About this time, we got to the ferry and went our separate ways once on board. I figured she had met up with the whiny boyfriend and he was still being enough of a douchebag to upset her, because a while later, as we were leaving the port in Newhaven, I saw her standing alone on the top deck, looking wistful and rather sad. But I didn’t attempt to approach her again.
I, too, was having my own issues as the boat pulled away from the shoreline. I was struck by the sadness of leaving a country which was a home to me. It was that same feeling I got every time I was at Heathrow or Gatwick airport, stepping on a plane bound for another country.
But it was more than that now. I looked out at the chalk cliffs we were leaving behind, and knew that the next time I set foot on English soil, my journey would be over. The girls’ story finishes in Paris, so at the end of July, when I stepped onto the Eurostar train at the Gare du Nord, I would be declaring an end to my travels with Cornelia and Emily. They were not only my old friends at this point, but my close friends. My traveling companions. And, as I was quite certain that I would never replicate this journey, I knew that we would never again travel together.
The weather had grown cold the night before, and it became increasingly gloomy as we headed out across the channel, so I went inside and did some refresher reading on the Dieppe portion of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. It had been a much prettier day when Cornelia and Emily sailed. They wrote,
“Dieppe, with its church towers, its snug, deep harbor, the line of summer hotels bordering the wide plage (beach), and the 15th Century chateau crowning its white cliff, is a charming port of entry into France. It all looked just as it should…” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
It took four hours to cross from Newhaven to Dieppe. Aside from running into Anne from the café in Newhaven, and chatting some more with her and her husband Allen, there was nothing terribly exciting about the trip. There seemed to be a lot of families on board, who were headed over for a few weeks of holiday. They already looked worn out. Nowhere on the boat did I encounter anyone who was teeming with enthusiasm about their upcoming plans.
When we got close to port, I went out on deck to look for Cornelia’s and Emily’s Dieppe. Happily, it was there. One of the first things I saw was a church atop one of the cliffs, its tower rising proudly above the town below. I saw the wide “plage” and the crescent of hotels which lined it. And there, crowning the white cliff was the chateau, somewhat obscured by newer buildings which had sprouted up around it, but still proud.
It all looked just as it should.
I also saw Katie, standing at the rail, this time with her boyfriend, his arms wrapped lovingly around her. She looked a lot happier than she had been. She noticed me looking at them and smiled up to me. I gave her a thumbs-up sign with a questioning face and she nodded. Her boyfriend saw the exchange between us, and if she hadn’t mentioned our conversation to him before, then she was probably about to enlighten him now. Because a bit later, when we were getting off the ferry, he very graciously smiled as he let me off in front of him. I gave him a wan smile in return, just to make sure he knew I had his number, and that I was personally rooting for his girlfriend to leave him by the side of the road the first chance she got.
Next up: Arriving in Dieppe, and my first night on French soil.
Above: The white cliffs of the English coastline slip away.
Below, top row: Cornelia and Emily, beginning to show some wear, arrive in Dieppe; a lovely young woman is wistful and sad over her barnacle of a boyfriend.
Bottom row: The beach and chateau at Dieppe; a vintage poster, just to add a bit of color.