Fifty Plus One

My birthday was the other day. It was easier than last year.

Last year was fifty - that involved a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Fifty was "goodbye to all that" and "what was it all for?" (see one side of that new Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby single).

This year's birthday was a nice break towards the end of a long dark month. A month not made any better by knowing it was a long hard month everywhere, for everyone.

Have I suddenly become the most negative person in the world? Or have I always been this way? Having passed that watershed year last year, am I just settling into my role as full-time crank?

But the birthday, that was fun! Nothing bad to say. It started with a haircut. I decided to try this new hairdresser, an English one. I felt a little disloyal, being in France, but I thought maybe he'd be good and he was. He greeted me at the glass doors of his converted barn, in the middle of the deep countryside, impeccably dressed in a pin-striped suit and Beatle boots, speaking in a full-on Manchester accent. So for that alone he got my vote. His wife does coloring and he cuts the hair, Michael William is his name for anyone wandering lost in rural France who just realized their roots need a touch-up.

Then came the installation of the woodburner. Newly coiffed, I hurried back to help Eric finish heaving this cast iron stove into place - he'd been slaving all afternoon to box in the pipe, determined to have the glowing log fire of my dreams in place in time for my birthday - what a nice man.

We'd decided to go to Rochefort and or La Rochelle for something good to eat and a movie. Three hours is kind of a long drive for lunch, but we've fallen in love with that part of France, the Charente-Maritime, and will use any excuse to go there. Heading west toward the Atlantic, as soon as you pass Angouleme the light becomes clearer, brighter, the buildings change to a lighter stone, and there's sky everywhere.

Typically, we were kind of late for lunch but we found steak frites and strolled a little in Rochefort. Then we went to the old port in La Rochelle: gorgeous white stone buildings, boats, lots of shops and cafes. We found the only version originale movie playing - City Island with Andy Garcia, a film pretty much on par with the crappy DVDs we buy for 4.99 at the local supermarket. In other words, we enjoyed it immensely. We were the only people in the whole cinema, except for the projectionist. When we left at the end even the cashier had gone home, and it was only eight o'clock.

We'd spotted a nice-looking little restaurant near the water and went in for some oysters. I asked if there'd been some catastrophic event that had wiped out the entire population of La Rochelle, but the waiter said it was just the cold weather, honest. We ate oysters fresh from L'Ile de Re, a half hour away. Eric joked that my family and friends were all supposed to have shown up in the empty restaurant, to surprise me. If it had been last year, for my fiftieth, I might have fallen for it.

Back to the hills and forests of the Limousin. I know it's kind of canned, the whole Facebook birthday wishes from everybody thing, but it still pleased me to go online and see that. The virtual equivalent of a roomful of pals - true, they all came for the open bar but they still mean it, don't they? And the fact that no one actually emails anymore made it that much more exciting to open my Gmail account and find that rarest of things - a sweet note from my daughter. In the warm glow of the log fire and computer screen, I reflected that as birthdays go it had been better than okay.