Dialing the TV channel years ago, I stumbled upon a Katherine Hepburn movie. In my memory, this movie is in black and white, perhaps because the TV was black and white. What a silly movie, I thought at first, expecting it to be yet another romantic comedy. But then the movie grew on me. All I remember is Katherine Hepburn wandering through the lovely streets of Venice, popping into little glass shops, and longing for, what else, love. When I finally went to Venice a few years ago, I was disappointed that Venice did not quite look like it did in that particular movie, even though it was fabulous. Maybe it was in color, and not black and white. Maybe there were too many people compared to in the movie. The Venice of my imagination will always remain Katherine Hepburn’s Venice, even after seeing the real thing.
Suddenly, I thought of Katherine Hepburn today as I walked by the seaside of this little town named St. Jean de Luz in the Basque region of France. I was returning home from the beach to the hotel at about 8:30 PM when I thought of exploring a side street which seemed to have quite a few shops. So I walked, carrying a zillion bags with me. I had taken to the beach a towel and a water bottle and a computer and a Kindle. In my hand I had my dinner in a plastic bag; I had been hoping to eat it at the beach but then I just hadn’t felt hungry. I also had a bag with some cheese I had bought at a store and another bag with some face lotion I bought at a pharmacy because I forgot mine at the last hotel. I need to be careful next time I pack. I managed to leave my adapter there too; thankfully I had brought two with me.
It is this darn sleep that I am having so much of here in France. I seem to sleep ten-eleven hour nights at times and on top of them, need a nap in the afternoon. Perhaps it is the constant change of weather from place to place. Or it is just the emotional exhaustion of traveling alone.
So with my heavy backpack on my back and three bags in my hand, I ventured out into the strange street. Slowly restaurants gave way to hotels and hotels to a promonade. I kept walking. I just did not know that on the other side of the beach was this path along an embankment. It rose slowly up to a hill and beyond, to a little grassy area and then a park. I did not go all the way because it was getting to be past nine. But when I looked over my shoulder at the curve of the bay, my heart stopped. For, in the distance were the Pyrenese mountains and in the foreground white buildings of St. Jean de Luz hugging the bay. It was a sight so moving, that my loneliness became larger than life. And suddenly the image of Katherine Hepburn jumped into my mind. I was Katherine Hepburn, longing for love. Why I thought of Katherine Hepburn in that moment, how her image came to me, I don’t know.
Why? Why did I not have love? Walking past a window, I caught my reflection. My new colorful sundress enhanced my figure; I thought any man should be lucky to have me.
All I remember about the movie is that she found out she was in love with a married man. Venice was her fantasy. How poignant she was, so vulnerable, so genuine, so human.
In that moment, overlooking the Bay of Biscay, a place I had never planned to visit, I became Hepburn. Yet, deep down, I knew that I was Hepburn and I was not. Because I have not been a spinster. I have had love. I still have love. I have two sons who love me very much. Ravi and Sebastian are always telling me to have a good time; they are happy when I am happy. And I have had the love of my parents. Such selfless, endless love.
A few years ago, I did a workshop, you know one of those self-help new-agey, California type workshops. It lasted for two and a half days over the weekend and on the last day, we did a guided meditation. The leader’s voice was very deep, very powerful. He asked us to lie down on the floor, close our eyes, and imagine that we were leaving this world; we were dying. Slowly, I saw myself saying goodbye to everyone I loved, Slowly, my soul left my body. I looked down upon myself and saw what unfinished business I had left behind me. The workshop leader played the tape in which a man says “I have been loved.” My body began to shake, so violently that the man next to me had to hold my hand. I cried and cried and cried. I was crying for the opportunities I had lost to love. But I was also grateful that I had been loved.
Yes, I have been loved. Which is perhaps why I can do such a journey by myself. I have the inner strength to love what I see, because I have been loved, because I love myself.
So this evening, as I began to think of Katherine Hepburn, I also saw the woman I had met in the Bed and Breakfast in Amboise in my mind’s eye. At day’s end, I was sitting in the garden as usual with my computer when slowly the other guests began to stream back in. The American military man, his wife, and two small children returned. I asked them what they had done that day. We started talking. The man and the children finally went away but the young woman lingered. I don’t know why but I mentioned that I was glad I was alone because if I was with someone, I would have to negotiate. This time, since I was by myself, I said, was satisfying my own desires and fancies.
Suddenly, the woman blurted out that she had to compromise a lot with her husband. He was a military guy (stationed in Germany) she said and was gung-ho about seeing all the military museums and installations. So after making a one day token visit to the Loire to satisfy the wife, they were planning to stay for 3-4 days at the D-Day beaches. As the woman spoke, I could see the sadness inside her. The man seemed pleasant enough but I could tell he was perhaps a bit hard to deal with. I wondered if, behind the closed doors of their house, he was like the Great Santini, played by Robert De Nero.
Yet, when they had first arrived, I had been a bit envious of their beautiful family. Now I knew that perhaps there was trouble ahead.
The next morning, I heard a sound outside of my window and saw the military man dressed up in his riding gear, uncovering his bike. He was gone for several hours, leaving his wife in charge of the kids. I don’t know if I would want to be with such a man.
I thought of all of this tonight as I walked up the bluff overlooking the bay. When I came upon the top of the rise, I saw that on the other side, a vast ocean stretched ahead of me. Suddenly, I knew why I was alone. Because I was supposed to learn something precious, something that would carry me into old age and death.