“I was looking up. It was the nearest thing to heaven.”
~Deborah Kerr, An Affair to Remember
Like the character from that classic film, I wasn’t looking where I was going. I was too engrossed in the way the sun was splashing across the beautiful old limestone buildings, with their green shutters and wrought iron balconies catching the light, to notice the cobblestone streets and ancient trough-like gutters beneath my feet. We had just finished a walking tour of Aix-en-Provence in the south of France and were heading to pick up some lavender soap and have a coffee at Les Deux Garçons when my foot grazed the edge of a gutter. And I fell. It was a slow-motion, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening experience that was over in a moment, but seemed to last forever.
I was face-down on the cobblestones, my camera thrown from my shoulder, sunglasses an arm’s length away with lenses knocked loose from their frames. “My teeth!” I remember crying to my husband Herb, who assured me that although there was a cut above my lip, my teeth were still there. But above my left eye, blood was flowing.
A group had gathered around me. People from our tour had stopped to see what had happened. And then, in one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had, people seemed to appear out of nowhere. Someone brought me a chair. A woman showed up with a box of tissues to help control the bleeding. A man spoke to me in French, saying he wasn’t a doctor, but that he worked at a hospital and that I would be okay. The strangest part to me was that I understood him – clearly – even with my limited three years of high school French. It was as if my senses were in a heightened state of shock.
Someone called an ambulance, and I was put on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. An attendant asked me a few basic questions, and except for mixing up “cinquante” and “soixante” for the year I was born – making myself 10 years younger! – I answered with surprising clarity. I was taken to a small exam room and was greeted by a young woman. “I am the doctor,” she said. Finally…someone who speaks English! But that was the only English she spoke.
Her stitching was quick and efficient. A local anesthetic, five sutures and I was good to go. Herb had not been allowed in the exam room, and my request for “mon homme” – I didn’t know the word for husband, so I substituted man – had been politely rejected. But it turned out he had been working behind the scenes and had found a woman who kindly made a call on her cell phone to our tour guide, asking her to hold the bus. Another stranger in the waiting room had called us a cab. It was truly remarkable to me how people I didn’t know and would never see again had stepped up to help.
The taxi dropped us off in front of the Paul Cézanne statue on Cours Mirabeau, where our bus was waiting. Everyone applauded when I stepped inside, but all I wanted to do was sink into my seat and disappear. It was an hour’s drive back to Marseille, where our ship was docked. As we rode back to port, I tried to process everything that had happened. The fact that we made it back in time to catch the bus made the whole experience even more bizarre. I’m going to pop over to the hospital and get some stitches before we leave. See you at the Paul Cézanne statue!
Marseille was the final stop on our Mediterranean cruise before disembarking in Barcelona the next morning. We had plans to stay there for two nights and had booked tickets to the Museu Picasso, Sagrada Família and Casa Milà. With stitches in my forehead, bruises around my eye and a cut above my lip, I was a mess. But a determined mess. I just didn’t want to miss Barcelona.
The next day we checked into the Hotel Alma as planned. I repeated the tale of my French fall to the desk clerk, who sent up fresh ice every hour so I could make compresses for my swollen face. We kept our plans and saw all the sights, and even though the skies were overcast, I kept my sunglasses on. I didn’t want to frighten anyone!
I’d like to return to Aix-en-Provence one day – to go back to the flower market, wander around the lovely old squares, admire the architecture, have a coffee at Les Deux Garçons and maybe find that lavender soap. But most of all, I’d like to go back to the spot where I fell and say “merci beaucoup” to all the strangers who stopped to help an American tourist who was busy looking up.