Knoxville in My Pocket: A Sojourn to the French Riviera

Last February I found a list of websites for summer work-study adventures abroad. By May I had two months of savings and the choice between nanny in Mexico City or "domestic help" in Southern France. I thanked God for French class and Xanax as the Air France plane took off July first.

Until the drugs kicked in, I fiddled with a toy puzzle Mrs. Vickers Johnson touted at Emery's 5 & 10. She calls her collection of toys by the register Little Sillies because, "They brighten the day." Handmade in Arkansas, the 3-inch pine sarcophagus had a Plexiglas top revealing two chambers. Each contained a miniature ramp with one hole and one marble. The mission (should you choose to accept it) was to get the marbles in their holes at the same time. Eventually, Vickers revealed that solving the puzzle required physics. Once I embraced my inner Isaac Newton, the Little Silly became wondrous.

It was a perfect gift from Wonderville for my French employer, Captain Alain. My Skyped job interview revealed he had received the French Legion of Honor, survived three wars, and had rented the St. Tropez villa to celebrate his 92nd birthday with his family. He said, "Eh, war liked me. You Madame, are très charming and hired."

I slid into the Cote d'Azur routine with military precision: The marché at 0700 for baguette, vegetables, and discussions on perfecting a ratatouille. I served coffee, croissants, and apricot confiture on the terrace at 0830. I announced "La Table!" sharply at noon. I cleared the al fresco lunch table at 13:30 while the Captain took his daily siesta. Until dinner preparations at 18:00, the day was mine to enjoy as I pleased.

By week three my Wonderville detox was almost complete. The Little Silly stayed in my pocket as a reminder that Wonderville was reality and this was all a temporary dream. Despite hurried jaunts to Antibes (No way! It's DiCaprio!), I hankered for a Cardin's dip dog and extended adventure beyond the Octogenarian set. When the Captain announced, "Tomorrow we take operations to the beach," I was thrilled.

The villa's beach cove was surrounded by awkward ramps of boulders that sloped down into angry waves and white sand. Captain Alain dove in head-first before the rest of us had set down a towel. I followed him only to discover a wicked undercurrent. My lungs snorted out icy seawater. Alain was floating strangely near the boulders.

Like a fish... on its back.

Then I realized the waves were slamming him into the slope of jagged boulders at the cove's edge. He could not beat the cruel inertia of the undercurrent. This can't be happening. I screamed for Alain's son and swam harder towards the Captain. The son and four men popped up from the waves and held Alain steady. After much cajoling, he agreed to be hoisted up over the rocks and on to the sand."No hospital. I will not go."

Alain slept while the Little Silly held vigil on the terrace with his family. No one could figure out Vickers' little, silly, marble game. No one could figure out how the Captain escaped a stroke or heart attack. I did not know enough French to discuss inertia or the existential puzzle of an aged major domo determined to go to battle with an angry sea.

At sunrise I climbed gingerly around sleeping bodies, left the Little Silly on the terrace table, and went to market for baguettes. I returned to find the only one awake was Captain Alain. He was alert, ready for his café alfresco, and delighting in the Little Silly. "Cheri, this is a magical toy! It needs the physics. Oui? Look, I made the inertia and the marbles jump into their homes. You know Cheri, it is like the sea: The challenge calls you. But if you forget the inertia, ooh la la, then the adventure begins. I must remember this when we go swimming tomorrow."