My International Driver’s License photo is one step removed from Mr. Nolte’s famous mug shot. All I lack is the mullet. Both of us look like 70 year old escapees from lock-up, bad-boys gone much further south. If I am stopped by a motoring Flic’ somewhere in the French countryside, maybe I can avoid the ticket by offering an autograph: “Je suis Nick Nolte, un great American star de cinéma!”
I love maps but find that the driving map of France, a 4 foot by 5 foot behemoth, disorienting. France of the hexagonal shape is a strange place. Provincial that I am, and a lousy man with a pencil, even I can draw the outlines of the great peninsulas of Florida and New England, the pendulous Great Lakes, and the straight line borders of North Dakota to Washington and the visually balanced curves and sharp cuts of their southern sister states beginning with Arizona and langurously stretching out to Louisiana. I carry all that in my head. I had better learn to see clearly France’s solid blocks of greens and whites and the red of highways in some metaphorical way for soon we will be dots on that landscape hurtling out of the mother city of Paris toward Normandy and the most electrifying and thought provoking beaches in the western world.
When I would set out on road trips as a young man, I felt as if I were stepping away from my identity. I was a no name kid with goofy hair folded into the tiny back luggage space of a Triumph convertible, top down in freezing October, headed north to Syracuse to visit a friend on a whim. Or I was another skinny American tourist pitching a tent on a windswept jagged glass of Scottish land outside Lossiemouth on the North Sea. But I was smiling, I was always smiling because everyday brought the possibility of the miraculous event — a staggering, laughing walk through midnight Edinburgh with the momentary love of one’s life, the warning from the Irish physician about hitch-hiking in IRA territory, the sublime taste of corn roasted in its husk by a poor Mexican farmer 30 miles from the nearest paved road, the thrill of watching Tarbert, a port village in the Outer Hebrides, come into view through fog and rough seas, reminding me at first glance of Skull Island from King Kong. I had no name, and for a brief span of days, I had left everything behind, all the gluey entanglements of the what-you-must-do-life that we often silently ache to make disappear.
It is not too late. France is almost in my sights. There can always be another skin to don, another life to try on. How about this instead: J’ai eu un bout de la folie. Je suis tombé et nuire à ma tête de nombreuses fois comme un garçon voyageant avec le cirque. Je ne suis pas Nick Nolte. Je suis Nick Nolte le jeune frère voyageant dans le déguisement. Voulez-vous mon autographe? * I like the bit about being the younger one.
*A translation: I had a bout of madness. I fell down and hurt my head many times as a boy traveling with the circus. I am not Nick Nolte. I am Nick Nolte’s younger brother, traveling in disguise. Would you like my autograph?