The surprising delights of second-best choices

The other day we ran out of milk and cream, so I used evaporated milk in my morning coffee, which I consider an acceptable substitute. It took me back to a memory of my first-ever cup of coffee, to the summer I was 16, spent on a French island. Sometimes I have a hard time believing that summer ever happened. 

I loved taking French in high school, so I hoped to be picked for a program to go to France after junior year. I was picked, but as an alternate. That was pretty devastating, because I had a history of being chosen for second place. In fifth grade, I was an alternate for a program that sent kids to an international camp – to promote world peace, I guess. The choice wasn’t based on any objective measure, so I felt I hadn’t quite stacked up as a person. I still feel bitter about that, and also about not getting parts in school plays. 

My mother took pity on me and found a different program – an alternate choice, just like me. It was in a territory of France called St. Pierre et Miquelon, two tiny islands off the coast of Newfoundland. They spoke French, supposedly just like in Paris. A New England French teacher had founded a summer program there for about 30 kids. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

So I flew to Halifax, then with the group got on an English steamer. At dinner, they served overcooked mutton, and everyone got seasick. After the crew came around yelling “Wakey, wakey!” we landed at St. Pierre, the smaller island with the largest town. Then another boat to Miquelon, an hourglass-shaped island with a fishing town of 600 people. 

My host family picked up me and another girl at the port and took us to their modest blue frame house. Offered coffee, it seemed easier to say oui than non so I had my first cup. They used evaporated milk since it was hard to import fresh food. 

Miquelon is mostly wild and uninhabited, and I was thrilled by the wind and water-swept landscape. There were rocky beaches with frigid water. There was a mountain to climb, the Chapeau, covered with wild iris and other fleurs sauvage. The waves hit the cliffs with great spray and splash while birds wheeled about and seals lolled on the rocks. Our maman would pack a picnic for us and her two little girls and we’d sit above the cliff, eating sandwiches of jambon and squares of dark chocolate on buttered baguette. I often wandered by myself, thinking deep adolescent thoughts and feeling like the heroine of a tragic novel.

I kept a journal in perfect Franglais. (Sample: “It was beautiful on the coast, very rugged and rocky, then un plage très plat. Il a commencé de fair bon. Edouard a trouvé un perfect starfish.”) 

We went to French class, helped around the house and played with little Marie Claude and Vivienne. I was a little disdainful of the Miquelon women, who seemed to only cook and clean. “I’m coming back with Gloria Steinem and Adelle Davis,” I wrote. 

There were student shenanigans: one night on the beach, drunk on French sailors’ rum. In the morning, “I ran home across the fields and through the streets where the horses were roaming and chickens were singing, and got in at 6 a.m.” Fishing boats came in and out, though I can’t remember eating a lot of fish. One day, an uncle of the family took us out on a boat in the brackish lake that made up the lower part of the hourglass. We scooped up mussels from the bottom and put them on the outboard motor until they opened and we ate them.

There were dances chez Madame Gaspard, a little restaurant and hotel. The village men would solemnly ask the girls to dance and lead them in waltzes and other antique dances played by an accordion band. I often took second place, too tall for first. My French got pretty good.

I don’t know what the place is like now, adding to the feeling of my summer as enchanted, a different world. My last entry, written on the plane returning to real life: “At the airport, I bought a ticket home, a Ms. Magazine and a National Lampoon.”

It was a great experience – less glamorous than Paris and a little hard to explain – but it left me not caring so much that I wasn’t picked for France. It awakened my appreciation for the second best, for taking the road less traveled by. 

I remain attracted to the alternate choice, voluntary or forced. (And I must say, even my second-best choices in life have been pretty darn good.) Sometimes accepting next-best is called “settling” or rationalizing. But not everyone gets picked for the cool French program. You might not get into the college you want. You will not always get the best job or the best house. So you see what’s great about where you have ended up, and go all in on it. It’s really the only choice if you want any kind of satisfying life. 

Like, if you’re out of cream, you could drink your coffee black, or spend time and effort running out to UDF for cream while the coffee gets cold. Or you can just drink it with evaporated milk. It tastes pretty good.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and welcomes your feedback and column suggestions: editor at moversmakers dot com.

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