Marseille’s shoreline glitters under the Mediterranean sun. Legend has it the first messages in bottles were sent in these very waters a couple thousand years ago by a Greek fellow named Theophrastus who hung out with both Plato and Aristotle.
If the legends are true, there must be potsherds somewhere out on that ocean floor from some of his “bottles”. I imagine walking this same shore in an earlier time, stumbling across a sealed clay jug, and opening it to find a note from Theophrastus. If he was really clever, he’d have inscribed the jugs themselves. In that case, we may find evidence yet… But today, July 12th, 2015, I have a different mission. I find myself once more in a foreign land, chasing a chance at friendship.
I’ve been in touch with Clinton and Gwen since I found their bottle, and we’ve decided to meet here in Marseille. They tell me, via Facebook on my friend’s phone, that they have reached the beach. But which one? As more clues and descriptions of nearby statues tumble into my inbox, I wind my way along the coast to them.
Finally, I spot a little bar on the beach–they must be there!
“You found us!” Clinton and Gwen say.
I quickly realize that I’m in the presence of yet another pair of star-crossed lovers.
It all started, they tell me, when Clinton was a young man working in the mines of northern England. One day, walking to catch the bus to the Easington Pit coal mine, he saw Gwen looking at him from her bedroom window.
He said, “Hey beautiful, what you looking at?” and she responded “You!”.
Clinton goes on, “So I said, ‘Well, come on down and you can walk me to my bus and if you want you can meet me off it when I finish work.’ So she did, and we both fell in love.”
And that was pretty much it–they were hooked.
Clinton tells me the story like this:
“We used to love going for midnight walks in the summer. We would look up at the stars on the beach. One night we both saw a shooting star. Gwen said, ‘Make a wish—it will come true.’ So I made my wish. She said ‘Don’t tell me or your wish will not work!’ The only thing I could think of to see if it would work was asking her to marry me. You see, Clint, that was my wish. I could not tell her but ask her (clever devil!). So she said yes.
I had to ask her father for permission because she was too young. Everyone thought she was pregnant but she was not—it was just old fashioned love. Two people who fell in love and are still going strong. Anyway, on our wedding day, my stepfather did not approve it and he put me and Gwen on the streets that night. But our love for each other was too strong, so we just went for a midnight walk that night and we ended up staying at my brother’s. So anyway, Clint, we are still here and still in love. But the next thing is to go to Mexico and have a proper wedding! So when we make the date, you are invited so you can bring your guitar and play us up the aisle, Clint.”
Well, I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico…
After they met and fell in love, they persevered through Clinton’s time in the mines, the harrowing years that followed, and they worked hard together to build a successful family business that started with one shop and has since grown to three, including one Clinton oversees in Peterlee, one Gwen oversees in Seaham, and one in Sunderland, overseen by their son–also named Clinton!
Clinton’s family does a million things at these shops! Everything from fixing shoes, to fixing watches, to engraving–the family has many talents among them.
Knowing their love story, it’s not hard to understand why they are such good business partners. Their resiliency sets a strong example.
Suddenly we are discussing the terrorist attack at the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba in Tunisia in which 30 British tourists were killed and 26 wounded on June 27th, 2015, just two weeks before our meeting. Clinton and Gwen stayed at that exact hotel just a couple years before. All three of us are a bit nervous traveling in Europe at the moment–in addition to the dangerous heat wave, there are also growing terrorism threats from the east, plus the migrant crisis building as folks pour from Syria into European countries and England. Some migrants, desperate to reconnect with family members in England, take the mind-boggling risk of sneaking through the Chunnel from France to England.
We talk about the many things to fear in the world, and how a life lived in fear wouldn’t be worth living. Clinton says he won’t let such things stop him. Gwen notes she’d be a little nervous if it was her son traveling foreign lands, meeting strangers, as I do. But here we sit–total strangers who choose to be inspired by friendship rather than fear.
Clinton and Gwen tell me about their weekend adventures in England’s Lake District. The place sounds so beautiful that, despite basking in the glory of a Mediterranean beach, I find myself wishing I could be there, walking among the lakes, drinking from waterfalls like Gwen and Clinton. This Lake District is, after all, the land where William Wordsworth “wander’d lonely as a cloud” before stumbling upon a flock of daffodils “Fluttering and dancing in the breeze” beside a pond–a dreamy place I hope to visit one day.
Of course, sitting still is tough for adventurous folks, so we get up and stroll along the beaches packed with families and couples canoodling in the sun.
Somehow, on our walk, climate change comes up–perhaps because we are mired in a serious heat wave covering most of western Europe at the moment. While I have no idea what Gwen and Clinton personally believe about climate change, I learn from them that in England, the issue isn’t quite as politically charged as it is in the US, though people do disagree about it. It seems that the divide in the UK is rooted more in geography. Basically it sounds like folks who live along the coast and can see the coast eroding as water levels rise and storms increase understand that the climate is indeed changing, whereas folks who live inland and can’t directly observe the effects of climate change (well, other than record heat in July), don’t seem as convinced. The British Geological Survey explains how climate change affects England’s coast in the videos on this page. What Clinton and Gwen tell me about this aligns with what other folks in Britain tell me as well: Seeing is believing…but also: Out of sight out of mind. Serious research even supports this idea–Check out this study by Cardiff University which explains that people affected by unprecedented severe weather events are more likely to be aware of and concerned about climate change than others.
Here’s the basic difference in perceptions of climate change between America and the UK, as far as I can tell:
Anyway, we walk along. We don’t even talk about climate change much, honestly, maybe 2 or 3 minutes. And we don’t offer our individual beliefs–that’s not the point. The point is that we have been brought together here by the things we have in common: a love of family, of adventure, and dedication to the people we hold dear. It is such a joy and a gift to meet people like Clinton and Gwen.
Strolling along the beach, we find a storm wall where we can snap some photos. Now, as if there weren’t enough weird coincidences with our story so far, it turns out that Clinton and I wore the same outfit on the day of our meeting! Well, almost:
Finally we wander back to the beach bar and we say goodbye. I watch them walk off into the crowds of people on the street, and, just like that, they are gone.
But, the bond we created endures. Just like the bonds within Clinton and Gwen’s family, between them and their children and their children’s children, just like the bonds in my own family–but this bond transcends culture, distance, and time. As I turn to rejoin my friends on the beach, I am heartened to realize that even as tragic events unfold around the world, as we are taught to fear, hate, and discriminate–still, against all this, there are people like Clinton and Gwen who live with open hearts and minds, refusing to live in fear, and embracing the wonder and complexity of life on our little blue marble. There is hope yet, friends and neighbors. There is hope yet.
We only get one trip on this earth, and Clinton and Gwen make the most of every day. I think of them when I can’t seem to do anything right–and I know what they would do. They would get up, kick it into gear, and keep working toward their goals, loving each other, loving their friends and family openly and with pride, always chasing the horizon.