Hélène of St. Jean des Monts
After the war and until the early 50s, Father, drove nonstop each summer over eight hundred kilometers from Chauny to St. Jean des Monts, the most beautiful sandy beach resort we children could dream of. The resort was located on the Atlantic about one hundred kilometers below Nantes, right in the middle of the Vendée region. With his trusted Citroën, father, an excellent driver, would make it in less than a day on small roads winding through little towns and villages.
St. Jean des Monts boasted one of the longest beaches in France. The sea tides came up right to the large canvas rented white tents pitched on the higher part of the beach. As the sea, during low tide, retreated nearly one kilometer, it left plenty of beach area for running and horseback riding. A large avenue led to the center of the beach area flanked by a couple of hotels and a dune area on the left extending a few kilometers. Past and partly behind the dunes, a large pine forest afforded relief from the hot afternoon sun and windy days. A tiny snack bar near the beach provided the best Belgian waffles this side of heaven, so crunchy, sprinkled with icing sugar. Was it the sea air or the sheer delight of a warm waffle after a swim in the cool ocean that provoked this special taste? I still wonder.
An imposing Victorian gray stone building on the main avenue near the beach area had been transformed into a nightclub. Hélène was the owner’s daughter. We both belonged to a private beach club operated by two former European and French athletics champions. Hélène, a ten-year-old green eyes blond girl, raced the boys on the beach, her long blond hair streaming in the wind. Her slender but powerful legs allowed her to beat most boys of her age in the club.
Hélène and I loved to run together up and down the sand dunes. The firm sand at the bottom allowed us to climb fast but as we ascended our feet sank into the soft white sand. Though we were both light and nimble, it was hard to get a good grip on the surface. There was exhilaration in our friendly competition as to who would be the first to reach the top. I would sometimes push Hélène in the back, and she would laugh. We liked to stay on top of the dune for a moment to watch the sea before tearing down the other side facing the pine forest. We were free and happy. At our beach club, the young members also had weekly competition: running, rope climbing, obstacle courses and jumping on a springboard over a huge balloon to name a few. I usually came in first in my category so I considered myself a better athlete than Hélène but she had a precious advantage as she happened to be an experienced dancer.
She pressured her father to allow her to give me private dancing lessons on the nightclub floor. I did not tell mother because she didn’t like the way Hélène straddled on my back on the beach, pretending she was riding a wild bronco. With background music, Hélène taught me waltzes, cha cha cha and tango. A great teacher never scolds you for missing a step or stepping on her toes. She did not grant me a diploma but her easy laugh and the thrill of her hand on my bare back made up for any lack of a formal recognition.
She also happened to be a good nurse. I once cut my toe on a broken glass bottle left in the sand. With the help of a friend, Hélène brought me to her room and cleaned and bandaged the wound. A great nurse also gives you a kiss afterwards.
I lost contact with Hélène after our family emigrated to Canada in 1953; this move put an end to those wonderful summer beach vacations. Later, during dancing lessons at McGill University, Hélène’s fresh smell resurfaced as I was practicing. During the summer in 1961, I travelled to France and decided to visit Hélène in St. Jean des Monts. Being, at the time, a student with limited resources, I found cheap lodging with an eighty-two-year-old widow a few kilometers from the beach front. Stout, lively eyes, a ruddy complexion, wearing a small chignon, she exuded life. Early up, she went to work in her garden. When I got up, she would share strong coffee with me, accompanying it with homemade bread, eggs, and her own marmalade. She had a habit of drinking, after breakfast, a glass of Armagnac, a strong spirit, to give her energy, as she explained, to work in the fields.
A rented bicycle helped me get around the town. St. Jean des Monts wasn’t the same. Our precious sand dunes had nearly disappeared. The beach club had closed. A new boulevard built alongside the beach was being filled with hotels, hiding the charming bungalows my family used to rent during the summer. I went into the nightclub; it looked decrepit. The new owners informed me that Hélène was a waitress in the restaurant of a new hotel. Our reunion there was brief and disconcerting. She looked frail and tired. Her long blond hair was cut short. The former smiling face was now grim and tough. She seemed to be uncomfortable talking about memories. I never went back to St. Jean des Monts.