A poor boy from France journeys across the sea, has a hodgepodge of adventures, and holds on to his essential optimism. Does this remind you of Voltaire’s 18th century novel Candide? It should, but this modern-day saga removes Voltaire from the story. As you’ll recall from your 12th-grade English class, Voltaire pokes fun at his protagonist’s faith in a divine plan. For Roger Schilling, 51, adoring husband, father of two of the cutest kids ever, and owner of the 21-year-old gift store/boutique C’est la Vie in Oak Bluffs, he sees the Plan in everything, and never ceases to be grateful for it.
The star feature of Roger’s cosmology is the specialness of Martha’s Vineyard. His conversation constantly circles back to it. “This Island binds us all together,” he says. “It’s that feeling you have as you cross over on the boat; you’re drawn in. You feel it, I feel it, everybody is involved in a love story with this place!”
You wouldn’t think that someone from Paris would find anything better than his hometown. But Roger was born in an outlying northern suburb of Paris, Val-d’Oise, which, like so many of the banlieues of Paris, has its limits as far as charm goes. Roger’s dad was black, his mother white; he has an older brother and two younger sisters. He studied at the University of Nanterre with the intention of becoming a physical education teacher, but somehow at an early age, he already had happy feet about leaving France.
“I always knew I’d be successful,” he says, “but I sensed that wasn’t going to happen in France.” In 1986 he found a sponsor at the American embassy to vouch for his worthiness to emigrate to the U.S. He headed straight to New York, booked himself into a room at the YMCA, and through a job site, found a gig as a dishwasher at the Oyster Bar in a place called Oak Bluffs. He asked another Frenchman, What was this place Martha’s Vineyard? His compatriot said, “It’s the American Riviera.”
Somehow he found his way onto a bus heading for Woods Hole. Once there, he was surprised to learn his Riviera was also an Island. As he sailed across the sound, pure exhilaration overtook him: “It was so beautiful as we approached the shore!” On terra firma, he boarded a taxi and rode with a clutch of other passengers to their destinations: Chilmark, then looping back to Edgartown, and finally Oak Bluffs. The sumptuous sights fueled his state of bliss.
“The Oyster Bar was a hot spot of music and people. My brain was a camera, constantly snapping pictures.” In the Vineyard manner, he added landscaping to his dishwashing job. One of his co-workers invited him to join a house-painting crew. Roger demurred: “I’m not certified to paint.” The man burst out laughing, and said, “This is America, man! You don’t have to be certified! You just do it!”
And all at once Roger had an epiphany. Here in this country he could do whatever he wanted (with the exception, of course, of brain surgery). In France everything was codified, certified, and stamped by a minister in some dingy office in the 19th arrondissement. From painting, Roger opened a restaurant on Pequot Avenue. He also started a horse farm, where customers rode the trails. Finally his larger destiny called to him: He entered retail, first with a gift store in the Nashua House, then beside the Lampost; then C’est la Vie was born at the Circuit Avenue address that now houses the Lazy Frog.
In 2001 an opportunity arose to buy the building that billets the present shop. When the season opens, you’ll see a rack of adorable cotton frocks and floppy sunbonnets outside the door. Inside, you’ll behold a mad array of everything you’ve never needed but are now aware you urgently desire: Vintage sink strainers, caps with the 02557 ZIP code, self-help and picture books with such fun titles as Don’t Forget to Sing in the Lifeboats, calendars, Inkwell sweatshirts and tees, hippo ceramics in blue, fuchsia, green, and red, and a nifty collection of sandals, canvas totes and garments with a romantic-bohemian flavor.
In the early oughts, Roger met the pretty and vivacious Jennifer Rodgers on her gap year from college in Pennsylvania. They fell deeply in love, and yet Roger, ever the pragmatist — in addition in being an optimist of the first order — advised her to return to school. “I’ll wait for you,” he said.
She did, and he did. They’ve now been married for 11 years, and their mutual admiration society still shows up at roll call. On a recent evening in their home, Roger said, “I’m a pretty nice person, but I’d put my kindness level down here” — he indicates the seat of a chair — “whereas Jen is up here” — his hand reaches high over his head.
Now added to the mix, in their home far enough outside of town to give them a breath of country air, are 8-year old Roger Jr. and 4-year-old Bella (short for Gabriella; “I don’t like the name Gabby,” she tells you sedately). The back of their light and bright house overlooks a woods as virgin and unspoiled as the trees of the early colony.
During the season, Jennifer is home or out and about with the kids, and Roger mans the store. “Early in my career, I asked Primo Lombardi [former owner of the Chilmark Store and many other Island businesses] for his secret of success. He told me, “O and C”: open and close. Always be on hand, so that people put your face with your place.”
Roger reflects on how well that works for him and other merchants who cleave to the same imperative. “People come back year after year because they feel this same deep attachment to the Vineyard, and part of their experience is coming to our stores to see us!”
Go see Roger, and he’ll tell you all about it. “Stop talking!” his wife will often (fondly) scold him. But he wants you to know he came from a tough banlieue of Paris to the beauty of Martha’s Vineyard. “When people call this paradise, I correct them,” he says with a grin on his African-French McDreamy face. He points skyward. “We’re only halfway to Paradise.”
This lucky man, in the best of all possible worlds, has never lost that state of grace conferred on him when he first traveled across the sound to this, his brave new world; not exactly America, but better.