When I was twenty years old, I made a literary pilgrimage to the island of Jersey, to Gerald Durrell’s zoo. I no longer remember how the idea came to me. I’d read all of his books, some multiple times. My Family and Other Animals was my favorite. These stories of the Durrell family were recently popularized on television. But I was a fan of Gerald’s and Lawrence’s books long before that.
At the time of the trip, I was part of a study abroad program in France. We students were given a week or two break between the intensive language course in Pau and the beginning of classes at the University of Bordeaux. Most of the other students had already made plans. I hadn’t formed any strong friendships yet, and neither had another student named Jo. She and I decided we would travel together.
Jo had the face of a fox, reminiscent of Jodie Foster: pointy nose and chin and a thick shock of chestnut hair. We hitchhiked out of Pau, catching a nightmare ride in a sports car with a young Frenchman. I scrunched up in the back—no seat–while we rocketed through the night. I asked him to slow down, and he just laughed. It felt like the devil was at the wheel.
We landed, rattled but safe, in La Rochelle. The youth hostel there was closed for the season, but they kindly gave us beds. The heat was off. Luckily, we had sleeping bags. The next morning we had bowls of café au lait and bread for breakfast.
Eventually we made it to St. Malo on the English Channel. A storm had just passed through. The sea was still rough. We bought tickets to take the hydrofoil to Jersey. Knowing my sensitive stomach, I swallowed some Dramamine. The trip across was a rollercoaster on waves. It seemed like everyone but me was seasick.
My memories of this pilgrimage are sadly slim. Jo and I found a pension to stay in. Then we made our way to the Jersey Zoo. Durrell wasn’t in residence. The zoo was small and clean; the animals well cared for.
We met the person in charge, a man with the wonderful name of Quentin Bloxam. I recall sauntering along the narrow country roads in beautiful autumn weather, eating wild blackberries off the bushes. I fantasized about tossing out my French studies and working at the zoo.
Durrell opened the zoo in 1959 with the intent of preserving endangered species. Today it is a much larger operation than the zoo I visited in 1971. You can check out its website at
Unfortunately, Jo and I were ill-suited traveling companions. One problem for me was that she liked to “share” the food that I’d ordered for myself. Who knows which of my habits irritated her? Yet, after we returned to Bordeaux, we never willingly interacted again.
How I would have loved this opportunity!