(MCT) — My old friend Diana was in town recently for a reunion at Lake Forest High School and just before she stopped by to visit, I rummaged through a drawer and pulled out an ancient typewritten letter addressed to the two of us. It began:
Thank you for your letter received this morning, concerning the trip we propose onboard my 40 foot sailing yacht “BOUCANIER” from La Rochelle (or Bordeaux) to the Mediterranean.
The letter requested that we meet at the Cafe de la Paix in Paris to discuss the trip. It was signed by a Commandant Jacques Dore.
Diana Goulding and I met on a semester abroad in France and as the program ended, eager to stay on, we answered a small ad we’d found on a Parisian bulletin board asking for American female cooks for a yacht cruise.
We knew nothing about this Commandant Dore or his two “mates,” described in the letter as a jet pilot and the general manager of a prestigious Paris hotel, but we went to the cafe on the appointed evening. We smiled. They smiled. We got the job.
Diana was 19. I was 20. We were innocents.
Soon — this was long before tourist barges crowded the Canal du Midi — we were bobbing over the Atlantic Ocean toward the 17th-century canals that run through the French countryside out to the Mediterranean. We’d barely made it to the first canal lock when it became clear that our employers expected more than cooks.
Diana and I — plus our friend Pam, who’d come along — were astonished. So were the three middle-aged men: Had we really thought cooks meant cooks?
To make matters worse, they really did expect us to cook, which we’d assured them we could. In truth, we knew nothing, though just before departure I’d bought a pocket paperback called “La Cuisine Francaise.”
Within a few days, our mismatched crew had a routine. Diana, Pam and I helped navigate through the locks, pausing while the wrinkled peasants who lived on the canal banks slaughtered our daily chicken, picked our vegetables and brought us local wines.
Our employers taught us to make coq au vin and a good vinaigrette, then, in the warm evenings, with food and wine and cigarettes, we explained why we could not concede to their sexual wishes.
The jet pilot, Pierre, got off in Toulouse, muttering. “Not the vacation I planned.”
The rest of us cruised on, however, in a tense truce that grew into a kind of friendship.
The Commandant, a jowly man in his 50s, made light of his miscast cooks by writing out a daily “ordres de service.” I still have the paper. It begins with reveil, petit dejeuner and travaux maritimes, directions we followed. It concludes with the services we refused:
education sexuelle (theorie) and education sexuelle (pratique).
Things could have gone terribly wrong for Diana, Pam and me on that journey. But they didn’t, and when we reached the Mediterranean and chastely told our employers goodbye, the Frenchmen cried.
“Oh my God!” Diana screamed when I showed her the letter the other night. “Can you believe we did that?”
Hardly. And that’s the beauty of it. We were too young to be afraid, naive enough to take a risk that would become one of our great steps toward adulthood.
Diana and I live far apart now and rarely see each other, but that trip bonded us for life. It also taught us the difference between an adventure and a vacation.
A true adventure is an event that makes you think afterward, “I can’t believe I did that.”
Mary Schmich is a writer for the Chicago Tribune who can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org