A long time ago, six or seven years out of college and disillusioned about a hard-earned commercial pilot license that would not get me hired anywhere, while hair still wreaked havoc on my head and for main traveling portfolio I carried expired memories of childhood family outings throughout western Europe, I decided that staring dreamily at a wall-sized map of Australia was not going to get me there, and I joined Club Med.
For four years, the timid and introverted young adult I was ricocheted from one exotic resort to another, reluctantly learning to get out of my shell, diving to my heart’s content, earning my fins as a respected dive leader and eagerly consuming every drip I could squeeze out of our wonderful, wide, wild world.
Soon after landing on some tropical airfield and being greeted by the utter silliness of Club Med’s “crazy signs”, I began keeping a journal. I was going to write non-stop through fifty months of extraordinary adventures. It all began late at night on a simple notepad in a humid Mexican room, the stone tiles cold under my feet but the air warm and fragrant. Then Saint Lucia and the famous Pitons, while I learned to drive dive boats. Eventually, I left terra firma behind to board Club Med 1 and Club Med 2, five-mast sister sailing ships, largest of their kind, more beautiful and graceful than anything I had known before. I sailed through the Caribbean, then the southwestern Pacific Ocean and on to South East Asia, back to the Caribbean and across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Sea, having long traded my notepad for a second-generation laptop and Windows 3.1.
It was not all smooth sailing. I could say I left the Club for good twice. The first time, a righteous fight against neolithic authorities saw me quit my role in a rage and disembark the ship in Guam at dawn, a tear in the eye and a long trip home ahead. Back in Montreal, I was given a slight slap on the wrist by the powers that be, and sent on another assignment. The second and final departure from Club Med was even more ridiculous and a fistfight got feisty, but it proved I had had enough. It was time to escape.
I gathered all my notes and decided to turn them into revengeful memoirs. All eight hundred pages of them. Then I got sidetracked with daily chores such as making a living and paying bills, and I lost the urge for revenge.
Eventually though, as time passed and the memories remained, the idea of publishing a book about my first four years in the tropics took shape. I was still living in the sun, on Little Cayman this time, and after much editing and rewriting, I came up with a four hundred fifty page manuscript I believed to be French-editor-ready. Oh, I guess I had forgotten to mention this minute detail: I had written the whole thing in French.
Now the editing business in France is, to put it mildly, stuck-up, lost in traditions, full of itself, incredibly saturated, ridiculously limited and ruled by an archaic, dinosaur-like cast of troglodytes who, having somehow failed at earning a literary Légion d’honneur, now make a living from denying others the same privilege.
From my Little Cayman rock across a vast ocean, the French publishing industry seemed just about as well defended as the Bastille on an average day. But said fortress was once taken and I figured I would attempt my own revolution. I pondered my options. When printed on single-sided pages with double-height line paragraphs as requested by the Establishment, my trimmed 400+ page manuscript was no less than a brick and weighted enough to be usable as ankle weights on unlucky lake-bound Mafiosos.
My two choices for submitting the manuscript were either to have it printed somewhere close like Florida and shipped very expensively but reliably by FedEx to various publishers in France, or to bite the bullet and assume both printing and delivery locally, in other words to get myself to France on a cheap ticket and do everything there.
The latter was more adventurous, it passed a financial comparison with the former with flying colors, and seemed more personal as I could probably deliver some of the manuscripts in person. I backed up my work on a disk and flew from the Cayman Islands to Paris with a total of six days to pull it off.
Once in Roissy I rented a small Peugeot, circumvented the bulk of the busy capital and checked into a cheap but practical Etap Hotel in the southeast, near Bois de Vincennes. My room resembled that of a Holiday Inn but with even thinner walls, a bunk bed above the main single mattress, a boat-like spill-proof bathroom and so cramped that it reminded me of my college dorm room.
On day two, I drove into the heart of Paris and found the printer I had contacted by email earlier. No, the Word document I had sent them had not been readable, and so no, they had not gotten a head start printing my thirty manuscripts. They were busy, I was told, but a week probably would do it.
I bailed, furious, and found a walk-in print shop that looked like a U.S. Kinko and offered to turn my print job around in forty eight hours. I said OK. We do say ok in French, too. We pronounce it like this: “Au quai” which would mean at the dock, and that is where I went next, the Seine River docks to be precise, and I ate a steak tartare with fries and a beer.
Two afternoons later, with a single day to go before flying home, I showed up at the printer and took delivery of my thirty bricks which had been conveniently packed into standard A4 paper boxes, six manuscripts per box – or five boxes. When I finally rolled the load back to the Peugeot on a borrowed trolley, there was a parking ticket on my windshield. Paris authorities wanted to charge me for having parked my car “en double file” where everyone else routinely did it too. The street was absolute chaos. Incredibly narrow and theoretically one-way, it had cars parked in both directions – a fact I have never fully understood. I tore the aggravating paper into the wind and challenged said authorities to come and find me in the Cayman Islands, with a few French expletives added for good measure.
Time was running out and I needed to wrap, label and send my manuscripts where they were going. The idea of dropping them off in person all around town was turning into a wasteful utopia. I did not bother driving back all the way to the hotel. Instead, I stopped on the side of the road somewhere in Bois de Vincennes, opened the trunk, and went to work.
The Bois de Vincennes is infamous for being one of Paris’ regular pick-up spot. Prostitutes were strolling along the road, seemingly bored and unmotivated, looking curiously at my packing activities. There were also little shady business vans parked here and there, but I must have been the only person in the woods with publishing in mind. Having pre-printed thirty adhesive address labels, I wrapped each manuscript in brown paper and threw them in a La Poste shipping box (the French national postal service). These were not too expensive and would get to their destination somehow safely and within five or six years…
My work complete, I drove to the nearest post office, offloaded the thirty packages into a corner, waited in a line full of grumpy Parisians, paid my fees, submitted said packages and walked out, a little breathless.
Granted, I had not delivered any manuscript directly as I had dreamed of doing it – that would have taken two or three more days I did not have. But I was done, the rest was up to them. I could breathe. I had a few hours to kill before the curtain dropped on my Paris expedition. I was on vacation. I would never write a book again. I think I had a beer. Another steak tartare. And frites.
Then I slept poorly, drove back to Roissy Charles de Gaulle, surrendered my Peugeot and left France behind on an American Airlines flight to Miami, distractedly hoping I would be back soon to sign a contract.
I was not. Instead, I stayed in the Cayman Islands and visited our little post office by the grass airstrip, daily, for months. I had a small postal box there, like all Little Cayman residents. There was no postman on the island. With one hundred and fifty inhabitants, there was no need for one. The post-mistress opened shop a few hours every day but I could get my mail at any time. We had a bank counter, too. The two clerks flew in from the Brac, our sister island, twice a week for a few hours. They wore shoes but I never did.
About thirty percent of my thirty manuscripts generated a polite reply, something in the lines of: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Some were even sent back. The rest seemed to have disappeared into a French black hole. There were two exceptions. One day, a letter arrived from a dodgy publisher I had sent my baby to a little foolishly, having run out of serious contenders. There are only so many publishers in a country the size of the State of Texas.
That letter got my heart going. The very first words said it all. They wanted me. That was it. I was getting published. Then I re-read the whole text a little more carefully and picked up on a few small details, like the mention “à compte d’auteur”, which basically meant they were willing to publish me if I paid for the whole process. I looked them up. They were featured at length on an authors association site as one of the many devils not to be trusted. I sighed and filed the letter.
The second exception got my heart pumping too, but this time out of anger and frustration. Some imbecile at a mid-size publishing company (I have forgotten which one and my letters are safely tucked inside of an old box in Quebec) had decided to reply for the simple pleasure of insulting me. He or she must have been having a bad day, or maybe just a normal one.
The formula used was rather blunt: I was accused of having written a piece of s**t labelled as “un tour du monde autour de mon nombril“, a round-the-world trip around my own belly button. The French can be such pompous morons. I only say that because I am one. So I did what an aspiring author should never do: I replied and insulted back, loudly and sharply, knowing full well that even if their criticism might have been justified, the tone was not.
I never heard back, of course. But I have kept that letter. It was a painful lesson into the reality of rejection as a routine curse of most artists, writers especially. It was also a reminder that while my ego might be slashed open and left bleeding by a few words of disdain, I should never give up. There might be thousands of fish in the ocean, all ignoring the bate, all it takes to make a fisherman’s day is a single bite.
Some six years later, disillusioned about the French market and weakened by distance, I decided to self-publish. The three hundred ninety page result is called Les aventures d’un GO désorganisé (no, we don’t capitalize all the words of a title in French) and is available at the bottom of this very blog, from Amazon. It’s in French. But there will be an English translation. Belly button or not.