36 Finalizing the First Tour Itinerary “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” -Unknown

As the big aspects of the wedding got checked off our list one by one, we turned our focus to the refinement of details…

The itinerary for the post wedding tour that we were planning for our international guests practically arranged itself once we finalized our main destinations. It fell into place specifically because my fiance, Francis’s family was so deeply woven into the fabric of the area and any single choice we made led to a domino-effect-like cascade of connections to the local’s favorite places or interesting people where we must go or who me must see…

For example: my fiance’s choice castle was near the mountain where I wanted to hike along a section of the “Grande  Randonnée 59 that skirted the mountaintop cliffs overlooking Switzerland (and where he had once taken me on a date when we’d first met). It was also where one of the region’s official cheese tasters lived who happened to also be friends with cousin Thiery. (Yes, there does exist in the world a man whose entire life’s work is tasting cheese and giving the best ones the right to wear a green label that increases their value while demoting lesser cheeses to an unprestigious brown label.) So, as you might expect, we were quickly told we must take our guests to a particular cheese aging cellar (rather than a creamery). Then, it was obvious we’d eat in a particular hiker/skier chalet-relay that was grandma’s favorite. And voila, there was one day planned.

Another day Francis knew where we could rent canoes or kayaks to paddle through a riverside village and end at a private castle. Francis had been a canoe guide on the river when he was a teenager. The riverside village was locally known as “the little Venice” because the buildings literally lined the river with their feet right in the water as though it were a Venetian canal. It was the hometown of a revolutionary painter from the 19th century who I’d studied in my Art History classes (Gustav Courbet  was a landscape painter best known for launching the Realist movement by glorifying the gritty un-idealized reality of commoners on monumentally sized canvases –but he was also  infamous for his scandalous painting that hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris of the forbidden area between a woman’s legs wittily titled “The Origin of the World”). I’d visited his house-museum with my study abroad group —of course we’d need to to take our guests to discover his life and work because we’d paddle through his landscapes: limestone cliff escarpment back drops, lush forest, a mirror-like area where the river widened and took a turn causing the water to still and reflect a charming old mill with it’s big wooden wheel. My fiance’s mother, an antique dealer who specialized in regional landscape paintings, knew the perfect a gastronomic restaurant where we ought to take our guests –it had not only refined food including local river trout elevated to a luxurious status by attention to decorative plating but it also featured a fabulous location with a balcony overhanging the river in “the little Venice”. And voila, another day planned.

Day after day came into place like that: a secret he loves, a discovery that exhilarated me add in a few family connections or suggestions… and voila!

I was so exited to share the region with our guests… I just knew they would love it. It didn’t even occur to me that it might rain even if Francis’ entire family was bracing itself for the inevitability of rain for our wedding…

(Those who took some of the first sojourns with the company I would eventually launch called Sojourner tours will recognize our “Town and Country” sojourn which eventually get split into two sojourns so that those who have been traveling with us more recently will recognize our Best Kept Secrets of the French-Swiss Borderland sojourn and our Off-the-Beaten-Path sojourn in the same area. You can click on either link to see the photo slideshows if you haven’t been! :))

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35 Picking a Wedding Dress “Feeling beautiful has nothing to do with what you look like.” -unknown

Talk about romance! From the first moment, I utterly fell head over heels in love with my dress.

I didn’t go to any dress shops or try on a single thing.

I happened to be flipping through a wedding magazine when I saw it.

It had that simple elegance of one of Vera Wang’s “second marriage” dresses. It was very “Jackie Kennedy”: a boat-neck circa 1969 floor length shift-like A-line dress with a luxurious full skirt. Not a stitch of lace. Not a sequin. No beading  nor even embroidery… Just yards and yards of sumptuous silk. There was a bustle and a big bow on the back and dozens and dozens of tiny little buttons but the most extravagant thing about it was the veil. A real princess veil with a thick ribbon trim all around it and a train that dragged a mile behind me… more fit for a cathedral than a village church.

Oh, how my bouquet of the wild country roses would be the center piece of that dress!

I had it tailor-made.

I also fell in love with a pair of huge pearl earrings that dangled just under my earlobe.

My hair has never been so glamorous. Francis’ step-mother’s good friend’s husband, a hairdresser, somehow teased an poofed my find blond hair into a voluminous mass and then sculpted it into a French twist to which he added three finely braided extensions. He even did my make up. I felt like a magazine fashion plate. Truly, I have never felt so lovely… It was my Cinderella moment –when the fairy godmother waves a wand and transforms her for the ball!

Original Lisa Wedding 2002

34. Making the First Tour Itinerary “Life isn’t about making others happy. It is about sharing your happiness with others” -unknown

My fiancé and I spent hours together planning the tour itinerary for our wedding guests. It had been my idea but Francis embraced it as enthusiastically as if he had thought of it himself. We were both bubbling with ideas of where to go and what to show our international guests. But, there were soooo many things to do! What would we choose for just one week? We wanted to offer a chocolate-box style assortment that would offer our guests a sampling of lots of different things. He loved my suggestions based on the best things I’d done with him and with my study abroad program four years earlier (when he and I had first met). And, he added a few things too. It would include everything quintessentially French: Wine, Cheese, Historic Sites, Architectural Patrimony, and Nature…

UNIQUE WINE TASTING I wanted our guests to discover the unusual local wines –the wine capital had instantly charmed me with its small vineyards nestled under limestone escarpments and the small humble village of ocher stone buildings. But, would they like it? Everything was so intimate and unpretentious, warm and welcoming… unlike big Californian wineries or internationally known French wineries. Here, the wine is made for local tastes in relatively small quantities mainly for the local market. Even French people from other regions can find it surprising. The grapes are varieties that dated way way back to pre-Roman times and it is the first wine region that was officially protected as an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée): the fragile, cantankerous and delicate light pink poulsard, the earthy and tannic red trousseau, the heavy nutty yellow savagnin.  The flavors of the wines here would be a surprise for even the pallet of the best wine connoisseurs in our group! And the order of the tastings would be a shock to everyone. Wines are always tasted from lightest to heaviest which means that usually flights of wine are organized from whites and progress to reds… but not here, here the white wines are heavier than the reds!

CHEESE: I wanted our guests to see cheese being made. I wanted to take them to the mountain where my fiancé had taken me for a romantic date so they could see where the revered local cows graze on alpine meadow flowers and then to see the cheese being made or to an aging cellar.

ARCHITECTURAL PATRIMONY & SALT: Our guest couldn’t miss the extraordinary architectural site of the Royal Saltworks designed by Claude LeDoux with the museum of his mind blowing designs. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. The history of the site is stupefying too… it was a Utopian village akin to being trapped in Hell according to some of the guides.

Francis added…

HISTORIC SITES: Going to see the Eagles’ Nest Castle-Fortress on the Swiss border where the astounding Toussaint L’Ouverture of Haiti (otherwise known as “the slave who defeated Napoleon”) was sent to be imprisoned in a cold dark cell to die. The castle is astoundingly picturesque, perched atop a small mountain.

KAYAKING: Francis’ region draws tourists from throughout Europe for it’s “green tourism” because of the lush mountainous landscape full of rivers, waterfalls and stunning forests of huge forest of Chaux (the second largest forest in all of Europe). The EV6 International bike path which goes from the Atlantic to the Black sea (called EuroVelo Routes) goes along the rivers of Francis’ region of France and the long distance footpath GR59 (called Grandes Randonnées) go over the mountains and through the villages.  Hiking, biking, canyoning, kayaking, rock climbing… we simply had but to choose and it would be remiss of us not to invite our guests to enjoy this side of the region. We chose kayaking because Francis had been a canoe guide when he was a teen.

Once the basic itinerary events were sketched out, we had to work out the logistics: which cheese-maker? where would we eat? which winery? what order would we visit these places? Everything had to be the best, of course! I quickly discovered that working out the logistics was the kind of puzzle that I most love. I love figuring out which days and times things are open, when there are markets that would be a fun bonus, and… I really, really love visiting all the different options to select the best for my guests. So, of course Francis and I started taking excursions all over the place to meet various producers and eat in a wide range of restaurants. It was the very best kind of hard work.

(SPOILER ALERT: Later when I launched my boutique tour company, this would eventually turn into our “Town and Country Tour” which was later divided into two new itineraries when my marketing advisory suggested we develop several different lines of tours…. you can take a peak if you’d like to see pictures of the sumptuous places we visited with our wedding guests: French-Swiss Off-the-Beaten-Path Itinerary & French-Swiss Best Kept Secrets Itinerary. )

 

33. Preparing the French Wedding: The Whole Family Pitches in (or pretty darn close) “Let them eat cake” -Marie Antoinette

So great was everyone’s fear of rain, that my fiance’s father’s family banded together to do everything they could to make sure the wedding would only be a moderate disaster.

My fiancé’s father set to work renting a dinner tent to protect us from the rain and mobilized Francis (my fiancé) and some other men from the family to cut a few branches from the old family plum trees and then erect both a platform (to keep the pointy high heals of us ladies out of the inevitable mud) and a white-canvas “roof” to protect the rest of our splendid outfits and fabulous hairstyles during the meal.

Cousin Thiriet offered to host the cocktail hour and transformed the riverside courtyard of his home into an elegant outdoor venue, with the indoors ready as a backup. With his adorable wife and incredible children, they planned a fantastic menu: Champagne, a brochetta bar, the local favorite cheese puffs (called gougères) made by great aunt Josette and various other traditional French nibblies.

Francis’ mother’s sister took me to a fabric market and bought me yards and yards of heavy white material so I could make table clothes and napkins (which the village still lends out with the public tables we rented to this day). She also offered to make side dishes for our main meal.

Francis’ stepmother setup her sewing machine, which she kept in storage, so I could make the table clothes. She had started out as a fashion designer before life’s path led her elsewhere.

No expense would be spared for the main meal…

My fiancé arranged for a restaurant to make one of France’s most famous dishes for the main course a coq-au-vin made with the most prestigious and expensive local wine called vin jaune. His father ordered the piece de resistance… the traditional French wedding “cake” a croquembouche… I’d never seen one before but I was assured that it was a “must-have” gravity-defying towering pyramid of caramel-praline covered cream puffs. (Actually, I was told it was more than a “must-have”, this grandiose pastry was a wedding obligation… it was mandatory, compulsory, and nothing short of a necessity.  The croquembouche would cost a fortune.  But it was a tradition that could not, should not be broken (especially if it might rain) and this tradition could be traced back to the ancient Greeks who broke bread over the head of the newly weds as a symbol of good luck and fertility. Over the years, the big bread turned into smaller roll-sized breads that were towered as high as humanly possible and then eventually those were replaced by sweet cream puffs with brittle caramel used to reinforce the structure of the tower.  I was led to believe that this cake was THE most important feature of the wedding, practically more important that the bride and groom themselves. Basically, even if it should rain, all would be well if we served a croquembouche. 

made invitations and programs. I made Vietnamese paper lanterns to decorate the garden and float down the river following the meal. I worked and worked. It was a lot of work…

My fiancé and I had to devote and entire day to the laborious job of wine tasting in the local wine capital, called Arbois, to select the wines for the meal. It is one of France’s smallest winecountries and the wines are incredibly unique… you’ll never believe this but tastings start with the reds (because they are so light) and move to the whites (because they are so heavy)! The most extraordinary thing is that most of the wines are made from grapes varieties that date back to ancient times –so (although they do make chardonnays and pinot noirs) the real treats are wines made from grapes that you’ve never heard of before! –My dedication to finding the perfect wine for the meal was unwavering, I was even willing to sacrifice a second day to more wine tasting so we could select a fabulous chateau where we could bring out guests after the wedding when we would tour the region. I mean, honestly, I was going to throw my whole heart into this arduous task. …Unfortunately, we fell in love with a vineyard and its wine on the first day.

(Here is a link to “Bon Apetit” magazine’s recipe for the croquembouche from which you see the picture featured in this chapter.)

32. The French Wedding: “In summer, the song sings itself.” ~William Carlos Williams

The date of our wedding was already limited to a small window of time when the roses would be in bloom. The only flowers I wanted at the wedding were those wild roses.

After the roses, our guests were the primary consideration. I wanted them to have a distilled experience of everything I’d experienced and loved in France. So, I’d convinced Francis, my fiancee, that instead of going on a honeymoon, we’d spend the days following our wedding guiding our international guests around the region. And that is what we invested most of our time and energy planning. But, would they enjoy it as much as I did?

Having convinced Francis to play guide instead of spending a romantic week away somewhere, I began to fret. If our guests didn’t enjoy what we planned this would be drudgery. He might lord it over me until death do us part!

We chose the date to kick the tour off with a bang.

We would get married on the day after the summer solstice: June 22nd 2002. (It seemed like the perfect date to celebrate our couple with all those twos!) In France, the longest day of the year, June 21, is the occasion for a national celebration of music. Free concerts by professional bands and orchestras are organized all over major cities: bars and cafes schedule local bands; amateurs set up venues on the street corners; concerts by big bands are put on in concert halls and parks… and the festivities often continue way into the wee hours of the morning. In 2002, that fell on a Friday, which made it the perfect prelude to a Saturday wedding. Or so I thought.

Every member of Francis’ family warned us in earnest that the festival of music had been spoiled every year in recent memory by rain. But I was not to be deterred.

Miraculously the church AND the town hall hadn’t been booked. Francis’ family didn’t find this the least bit surprising given the date.

My sweet future father-in-law volunteered to host a farewell dinner for our guests. If it rained, he would be able to hold the dinner in the rooms that would eventually become the reception area and breakfast lounge of his charming hotel. They were some of the few spaces in the manor that required little repair. I was ecstatic. The windows from the breakfast lounge overlooked the elaborately carved stone buttresses of the neighboring cathedral. It was extraordinary. And the interior was just as sublime with 17th or 18th century carved wood paneling all around the room and inlaid wood mosaic floors. It would be like having dinner in one of the most sumptuous rooms of Paris’ Carnivalet history museum.

And — on the off-chance it didn’t rain– he said he’d ste up tables outdoors on the third tier of the inner courtyard with the incredible cathedral bell-tower towering over us. From the courtyard there was a perfect view of the cathedral’s handsome blue “moon” clock. The courtyard was a delightful “curates garden” with an odd collection of plants scattered about in a wild lush jumble and fenced in on two sides by the vine covered stone walls and on the other two by the L-shaped stone manor house with it’s iron gated windows, wooden shutters and red-clay tiled roof.

It was a delectable dilemma: I didn’t know if I should hope for sun or rain! Both would yield marvelous results.

 

 

31 Red-tape and a French wedding “Stupidity is also a gift of God but one mustn’t misuse it.” -Pope John Paul II

The first tour we organized to for guests visiting France (five years after I’d met Francis and fallen in love with the culture) was when Francis and I decided to get married. I wanted to capture the magic of that first few weeks I’d spent with him and share it with our friends and family who traveled from as far as the States, Japan and Australia to be with us on the special day. And I’ll tell you all about the tour I designed for them, but it all had to start with our big event… the wedding! And so, first I’ll tell you about that…

There was no debate, we both knew from the moment we’d decided to get married that the setting would be in Francis’ grandmother’s village. I even knew the window of time when the wild roses would be at their peak. I wanted a very simple French country-side wedding.

The process of getting married in France is a bit different from what one is used to State-side. In the States and Hollywood movies, there is usually (but not always) a big ceremony in a religious structure like a church, lovely outdoor setting or family garden with rows of identically dressed women in attendance of the bride and men standing up for the groom. The whole theatrical production (which has been rehearsed and celebrated at an intimate dinner amongst only those close enough to the bride and groom to be included in the wedding and the new couple’s extended families) is followed by a lavish meal and dancing with guests galore and costs the price of a down payment on a house.

In France, however you must usually get married in the city hall. Any other service is optional. Then there is a cocktail hour to which all the couples various friends and relations are invited, followed by a meal for just a select group of the most intimate guests.

I knew about this difference.

When one of my dear American friends from high school had married a French fellow, all the guests had to stand out in the street and take turns peeking through the window of the tiny town hall while she and the groom swore the oaths and signed the papers.

That wouldn’t do for my guests!

To the protests of my husband and mother-in-law (and an adamant uncle who practically caused my husband an emotional break-down when he launched a “peaceful protest” by stating in no uncertain terms that he would boycott the event), I insisted we get married in a church so that our guests could take part in the event.

Of course, church in France equals Catholic.

The fact that the church would be Catholic didn’t strike me as any sort of obstacle because –even though my father’s family was English (Episcopalian) and Swedish (Lutheran)– my mother’s family was the very best kind of Catholic, the Irish kind. So, I’d been through first communion.

I envisioned a storybook wedding for my guests. Not a fairy princess wedding but a simple rustic French-country wedding that would give my family and friends from the four corners of the earth a taste of the rich simplicity of French “savoir-vivre” (the way to live).

I’d set my heart on Francis’ grandmother’s garden way back in the first weeks that I knew Francis, when we’d laid in the grass by the riverside gazing up at the blue sky above the old tollbooth building, intoxicated with love and the perfume of that wall of light pink wild roses.

I envisioned the whole thing. The church was in the village square: after the service, we’d walk through the village in our wedding outfits to the garden followed by a parade of our guests. In my mind’s eye it was like an old Robert Doisneau picture I’d once seen of French newly weds followed by a procession of family and friends called “Paris Wedding 1950)… except I’d wear a more contemporary dress, of course.

There was no need for decorations or purchased flowers. I would be completely content with a bouquet made of the old-fashioned wild roses from the garden and the architectural charm of the 18th century church and it’s grandiose early 19th century paintings. The cobble stoned streets lined the vine covered buildings. Then the garden with all it’s glorious stone wall covered with those climbing roses!!!

I was Hell-bent on having this church wedding and nothing was going to stop me. Not my mother-in-law, not the uncle… Just one obstacle stood in my way. I had come up against my most formidable adversary –the village priest.

My fiance had his cousin (of fancy food fame) arrange the interview with the priest because his house shares a wall with the priory, or clergy house. Actually, it wasn’t really quite that simple, his cousins went over to “broach the possibility of our being married in the church.” Somehow, and in retrospect I believe the correct adjective in this situation is “miraculously”, they obtained an interview for us which I can only say (now that I know what would follow) was quite a remarkable feat.

For the interview, my fiance dressed in a nice button down shirt with a nicely starched collar. I wore nothing special. We were exactly on time. Not a minute to early, not a minute late. In fact, my husband had us wait on the door step about a minute while he watched the second hand advance toward the decided hour and then he leaned in close to whisper in my ear while pressing on the door bell “I’ll let you do all the talking.” This was, needless to say, less than ideal since the entire interview would be conducted in his mother tongue and in a culture that I was only about to realize was profoundly foreign. His timing was impeccable because the door opened before I could protest as though while we were waiting on one side watching the time, the priest had been on the other watching his watch as well –So (whereas I was on the verge of making a sour and imploring comment) my face shifted into a sunny smile to greet the small silver haired man clad in a long black gown who appeared inside the door frame.

He invited us in for tea and we followed him through the cool, stone building which was austerely furnished with sober wooden antiques until we finally came to a tall ceiling large stone room -ascetic and dark- with only indirect light filtering in the tall old windows overlooking his vegetable garden and the river beyond.

He asked us to sit at a heavy wooden table and we waited alone in that cold room in a very pregnant silence while he slowly puttered around making tea (which I might add is not a particularly French thing to drink as usually one is offered an espresso in similar circumstances).

Once we had the tea, we engaged in what would be a very long, painful and drawn out interaction that was only made more torturous by my non-native French, his advanced age and my fiance’s total lack of desire to be there in the first place.

The first thing we established was that it was a problem that I’d had first communion. Then we established a second problem: I’d never been confirmed. The next thing to be established was that it was totally fine that my fiance never even attended church, never done first communion, never been confirmed, never been to confession… because he had been baptized right here in the village church so the priest would be happy to marry him… but not to me.

The priest had thrown down the gauntlet!

I was incredulous that he was content to marry someone who’d only been baptized and little more whereas he treated me, who’d actually attended church and studied for my first communion –me, who had earned the right to sip “the blood of Christ” and taste “the body of Christ”, like a pariah.

Okay, so (truth be told) I didn’t consider myself particularly Catholic and I’d probably spent more time within the walls of the Episcopal church… but he didn’t know that and I get his angle.

It was only a decade later that I learned in the States when I had my son baptized (because to pull the wedding off I basically had to promise the village priest my first born child) that each Catholic church, apparently, keeps a record of its parishioners’ life events in order to ensure no faux pas (such as marrying more than once in the church) are made and since this priest didn’t have my record or access to it, it was a concern.

Somehow, we were granted a second interview.

Several miserable interviews, promises to baptize my children, and a “donation” to the church later, we gained the right to look through the booklet of possible formats for our service. There were half a dozen choices of Vatican-approved vows I could make: all but one included a variation of “I will obey and serve this man.” I noted that my fiance didn’t even have one choice that enabled him to swear servitude or bondage to me.

My sweet fiance reminded me that this was my idea, not his.

 

 

30 Becoming a Oenophile “In victory you deserve Champagne. In defeat, you need it.” -Napoleon Bonaparte

How was I initiated into the world of wine?

On a day like any other, when we went to visit Francis’ grandmother and spend the week-end camping in the old tollbooth garden, which they called “Le Pavilion”. Francis’s grandmother sent him down to the cellar to get a particular bottle of wine she’d bought last week to go with lunch.

Now, at the time, this was no proper wine cellar. It was more like a musty old cellar that had accumulated hundreds of years of jumble, bits and pieces, dust, and spider webs. What bottles were stored there were stowed away quite haphazardly. (Of course, since then Francis’s gastronomy-loving cousin has cleaned it out, constructed a proper storage system and he stocks a modest collection of well categorized wines there.) Back then, it was as though she’d sent Francis on a treasure hunt.

He was gone a long time. Which meant a lot of variety tv for me. When he returned, he had three grimy bottles and a big grin.

Mamie, his grandmother, quickly reproached him for bringing the wrong bottles. He smiled patiently and brought one over for her to see. I watched him gently rubbing his thumb across the disintegrating label to remove the dirt so she could see more clearly. Her eyesight was poor.

He read her the label with the aplomb of the announcer of the next Nobel prize winner. You could almost hear the drum roll by looking at the expression on his face as he paused, pregnantly, before triumphantly revealing the name: “Montbazillac…. 1942!” (It was 1997.)

He looked at her face with pleasure. I looked at her face to read the situation. Astonishment. Euphoria. Clearly, this was a standing ovation announcement.

They examined the condition of the bottles. One cork was wet which apparently meant air had gotten in and it was undoubtedly ruined. Corked. Badly corked, no doubt, from years of macerating with the bottle stopper as the alcohol and flavor evaporated.

The other two bottles were declared to be in good condition.

So, it was decided that when the cousins finished work, there would be a special “aperitif” to try it.

Francis raced around the house and even to the cousin’s insurance agency to announce the event.

I wondered what kind of marvelous experience awaited me. I’d never heard of this wine, and I had certainly not tried enough wine of any caliber to appreciate this one. But this seemed like one of those once in a lifetime moments and a fantastic occasion to “develop my palette.” And, what fun to open a sort of time capsule containing something lovelingly made decades before my birth. Made during World War Two!

In the early evening, we went down to the riverside courtyard to wait for the cousins at the outdoor table with Francis’ grandmother, his great aunt and six glasses.

Francis made the time pass quickly by pointing out how parts of the stonewalled port couchere were recycled bits of a church that had been reduced to rubble during one of the World Wars. Mamie told me the whole story about the American GI who had promised to marry her, and the horrible day she got a letter from his parents explaining he’d already been engaged before the war and they were forcing him to honor his promise to the American girl.

And then the cousins arrived. We heard their laughter before they entered through the port couchere. They were all smiles. Anticipation: the Montbazillac.

There was a shower of perfunctory greeting kisses. Then to business.

Francis’ cousin examined the bottles and he mused over the level of evaporation. The sediment in the bottom. The color… and various other things. His wife served fois gras, which they kept on hand… because you never know when such an occasion will arise unexpectedly, now do you?

The honors of opening went to the cousin. A cork of this age might require wisdom and experience for proper extraction. He carefully wiped the mold, dirt and dust from the rim of the bottle to reveal the cork.

We all took our seats.

He was poised with a twin prong cork puller called an “Ah-So” in English: it was a tool I had never seen before that I love to use now. I was befuddled by how anyone could possibly remove a cork with the two thin parallel blades attached to the pull that was loosely hooked over his fingers like brass knuckles. He was worrying the shiny metal of the pull mindlessly with his thumb as he studied the cork.

I’ve learned over the years that corks like this one tend to be fragile. They can crumble under a careless hand even with an Ah-So. Terry knew the sanctity of the task at hand and took position.

Then the plumber arrived.

The plumber came in abruptly with a bustle of energy, just making a quick stop on his way home to collect on a bill.

To my utter stupefaction, they casually invited him to join us for a drink. (I didn’t know at the time that in this small village everyone knows everyone else and a plumber isn’t just a plumber he’s a friend or a friend’s friend or someone’s brother or son… you get the picture).

He made a polite excuse, “My wife would kill me… I’m already running late for dinner.” …To which Francis’ grandmother said that he should really see what they were drinking before dismissing the invitation.

The bottle was extended so he could read the label.

In a single motion, and without saying a word, the plumber pulled out a chair and sat with a HUGE smile on his face. The hustle-bustle demeanor, gone. His wife, forgotten. He relaxed and laughed with us about how hasty he had been.

Like an artisan, we watched Francis’s cousin delicately see-sawed the cork pull into place. This was not a low-pressure task. All eyes were on the cork. Breaths were held. It was the utter calm before seemingly eminent disaster.

The slender blades neatly straddled and clasped the cork tightly. I heard him release his breath and the tension in the air lessoned a bit. I sensed that a win was near. Then in a steady motion, he simultaneously twisted and pulled upwards. The cork emerged in tact and released a stream of lively, happy chatter and laughter.

Any traces of cork that could have potentially remained in the bottle neck was carefully wiped away with a cloth.

Francis’s cousin smelled deeply. His eyebrows arched in intrigue. He poured himself a splash, swirled the glass, attempted to stuff his entire nose in the bowl and huffed the aroma. Euphoria spread across his face. He tasted and nodded and grinned.

An extra glass was produced for the plumber. All the glasses were filled full, one third full. We clinked glasses looking each other carefully in the eye (to stave off the bad luck superstition: to clink glasses without looking someone in the eye brings on one year of bad sex). Then, I brought the glass to my lips and took a sip of the revered liquid.

Others were holding their glasses to the light to look at he color, swirling the wine artfully in the glass and taking deep whiffs of the bouquet, doing a strange gurgling thing with it in their mouths. They talked about the effect of the years on the alcohol and sugar content.

The only word I could find to describe it was… ephemeral. That was precisely what it was.