31 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.

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30 Becoming a Foodie “Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness” –Aguste Escoffier

 

Like I was saying, with Francis as my guide, I suddenly gained entry to the “real” France.

My early months in France spent only speaking French with other Americans, Japanese and German friends were paying off now… but they were nothing compared to the cultural and linguistic immersion Francis offered. He proudly introduced me to his entire extended family. One meal at a time.

You’d think he’d have gotten discouraged when my linguistic shortcomings led to one of my more infamous compliments. His city grandmother had prepared an elaborate Sunday lunch for the entire family and we were all gathered together at the table. She was beaming. Her family was all together, her meal was tremendous: she was in her element. Her face was particularly animated with delight as she showed off the gift the cosmetic brand Ives Roches had sent her for her loyal patronage: pinned to her sophisticated silk scarf was a fabulous blue Egyptian scarab broach. In my most charming voice, I said “What a gorgeous ROACH!”

The smile fell instantly from her once beaming face and her posture turned to stone. Francis, his sister and her boyfriend exploded with laughter. Others stifled mirth. Grandpa chuckled mischievously enjoying my mistake, and reassured his wife in a sweet voice and a wicked turn of phrase that brought the entire table to tears in laughter, along the lines of “Don’t worry dear, Just because the roach is blue is no reason for you to be too.”

I had no clue what had happened because I thought I’d complimented grandma on her “beetle”… little did I know I’d accidentally said “cockroach”. I sat there quite uncomfortably. Later, after we left, Francis explained to me that in French I’d said, “blatte” which, is the short version of cockroach, instead of “scarabée” which means beetle (and of course in hindsight it seems like I was really trying to over achieve by dredging up a different word altogether when in English we call the Egyptian beetle a scarab too). Anyhow, I’d set grandpa up for the perfect punch line because in French there is a colloquial expression for being depressed, kind of like our “to have the blues”, which is “avoir le cafard” or, literally “to have a cockroach” –so grandpa had said to his saddened wife “Oh, C’est rien. Tu n’as pas le cafard!” Francis’ eyes crinkled up around the edges and his laughter once again squeezed tears out of his loving sparkly eyes.

My cheeks burned with embarrassment. My body felt stiff from my bruised pride. But, he put his arm around me and nuzzled up against my neck. He wasn’t laughing at me. He wanted to laugh with me. He encouraged me to laugh, saying “Come on it was an ugly cheep piece of costume jewelry. You just accidentally said what everyone was thinking.” I knew he was only trying to be kind to me. Looking into his jovial eyes, I relaxed. He won. I couldn’t help laughing too.

I still cringe thinking of it now.

Somehow Francis took it in stride. He took me to meet an aunt and uncle who’d just returned from Spain. They lavished us with treats from their souvenir stash of culinary treasures like thin slices of Serrano Jamon, a cured ham similar to Prosciutto that is sliced directly off the leg in chiffon-like slices that practically melted in my mouth in a delectable umami-saltiness. It was accompanied by the most fabulous waxy green olives with a mild briny flavor and homely matte skin. Glissening Marcona almonds. Little balloon glasses of a caramelly aperitif called Banyuls that they’d bought at the winery where they’d stayed in French Catalonia. As we sat in their garden under an umbrella-like shade tree, they enchanted me with tales of the blue Mediterranean, the rugged rocky coast and gnarled olive trees.

One of my favorite encounters was with the cousins who lived in the family home in the village with his country grandmother and great aunt. There were three separate apartments in the house, one for each lady and another for the cousins. These cousins were about ten years older than Francis and I. Technically, it was Francis’ father’s cousin and her husband… but they were about ten years younger than Francis’ father… so Francis had adopted them as his. They had two young daughters and a passion for gastronomy.

Their lifestyle was something I’d never encountered before. They were as natural and forthright as any industrial worker but they enjoyed the sophistication of bourgeois finery. There was no pretense with them, no snobbery. They loved eating the finest foods and the loved sharing them just as much. As I look back on my life now, I know that I have them largely to thank for my culinary education. But I didn’t visit them for the food.  I visited them for the atmosphere. They were warm and friendly. They were passionate about everything. The husband was passionate about food. He was passionate about wine. And he was passionate about his wife. He was always looking for a chance to caress her voluptuous breasts or run his hand over her full bottom. She was equally passionate about playing “hard to get” and smacked his hands ruthlessly with playful upbraidings. They fought just as passionately, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to have heated exchanges which were never unsettling because I knew that moments later he would be kissing the nape of her neck and soliciting “make up sex” and I’d see her face soften as their troubles melted like lemon drops as she was back to fending him off with whips of her kitchen towel. She’d continue to scold him in a high pitched angry tone for letting his hands roam all over her when he was supposed to be cooking… but I could see she was loving every minute of it.

Every time we visited it was the same. Francis calls this the “latin” life. He says they have “savoir vivre”, which means that they know how to live. They enjoy the simple things. Passionately.

Every time we visited he had had a new culinary revelation. He was as zealous about sharing his epiphanies with us as a born-again Christian. And I was an eager student. There was always something sumptuous we had to eat, something sinfully delicious we needed to drink. They would transform their home into a fine dining establishment… You should have seen their collection of dishes and glasses! With their daughters, the four of them would recreate the kinds of decadent multi-course meals they enjoyed in France’s finest Michelin star restaurants.

And the best part was that they were always ready for another pair of hands in the kitchen. They put me to work, and taught me as we went.

I didn’t just learn recipes and techniques for cooking that month. I learned the important role that food plays in French culture. It’s more than a sensual pleasure, it is part of the fabric of society. Sharing food, enjoying food together, spending time around the table together… that is a big part of what it means to be French.

28 Creating a Dream “It is not down on any map. True places never are.” -Herman Melville

A daytrip to that mountain would be a must for my tour guests. It was one of the most breathtaking moments of my year in the Franche-Comte region and I absolutely had to offer that to guests of my boutique tour company.

Over the years Francis and I have gone back there many times. Sometimes with an aunt or his mother, other times with guests from abroad and once with the grandmother who had taken him skiing here when he was young.

Everyone loved it.

But, for my tour company, I wanted to kick things up a notch. It was a great place to visit but I wanted it to be a truly exceptional experience.

The chalet restaurant where we usually ate was not, in my mind, exceptional. But, when we’d gone with his grandmother, her balance wasn’t up for a hike along the cliffs. Instead, she was nostalgic for a restaurant.

When Francis had been a child, he’d spent ski vacations at the little apartment his grandparents bought in the village at the foot of the ski-slope. So this grandmother knew of a special place to eat, also hidden away at the mountaintop.

It wasn’t easy to find, though once we got close enough the restaurant had put up a few little signs at various intersections of the otherwise unmarked gravel roads.

As we rolled up, it appeared in view: a big dark farm-like mountain chalet with a tractor in the back and a swing set on the side. To me, it didn’t look particularly promising.

We entered a dimly lit space with rustic hewn wood, probably dark with age. It was smoky. There was lively chatter.

Then we were seated.

We walked through the front room where a man was grilling all kinds of meats over an open fire flanked by statues of morel mushrooms. It looked like duck and beef and pork, there was meat on shishkabab sticks and more. The hostess apologized that they were rather full, if we’d had reservations we could have sat there.  We rounded the wall with the grill.

On the other side of the wall was a bigger open chimney with the embers of a fire glowing and crackling. She seated us at the thick wood table just in front of it.

I peered into the embers. Around the edges, there were dozens of little balls wrapped in aluminum foil. His grandmother caught the direction of my gaze and offered the simple explanation, “potatoes”.

We started with the house fois gras served in a little French canning jar with the lid flipped open, the kind with a wire gasket. It was delicious.

The chalet had started out serving hikers, snowshoers and skiers. It became a favorite among the locals and now serves snowmobilers, mountain bikers and people who drive from surrounding cities just to enjoy an afternoon in the countryside. The owner dropped by our table and explained that he had loved this place as a boy, and it had always been his dream to own it… so now he did. He was struggling to get the roads plowed in the winter to broaden his business.

We’d each ordered a different meat. The server assured us that everything was a good choice because they only sourced the best meats, preferably local ones. And while the meat was being grilled, we had a croute de champignons, toasted bread covered with sautéed morels. Again, delicious.

I was full.

The main course was a very generous portion of whichever meat we each chose, for me it was duck breast, served with some of the potatoes that were roasting beside us. My duck was so smoky and gently charred on the outside that I swooned with delight when I sliced it open and found it was a beautiful deep red, perfectly rare and bathing itself in sumptuous juice.

I was really full.

But, there is always room for dessert. So, I shared a slice of blueberry tarte with Francis which came with two slices of lemon, “for afterwards”, the server winked.  We tasted the tarte, it too was delicious.

I was really, really full.

Satisfied with the meal, pleased with the luscious tarte, Francis flashed me a blueberry-stained smile. I laughed and he gasped, “your teeth!”

We each ate our lemon and our teeth returned to normal, like magic.

That restaurant was where I wanted to take my tour guests.

Strolling along the cliff just to take in the beauty and then hopping in the car to drive to the restaurant was fine. But I wanted to offer another option that tied the two together, because I suspected I might host some guests who would enjoy a longer hike.

I looked in hiking guides in local bookstores, and scoured the French internet. I learned that the cliff front path was part of the number five Great Footpath (or GR5: Grande Rondonner in French) which starts in at the North Sea in the Netherlands and crosses Belgium, Luxembourg and France to end at the Mediteranean! Of all the long distance trails in Europe, this one is considered one of the most beautiful thanks to the Alps and this sub-alpine region.

Finally, to my delight, I discovered there was a little local hiking path leading between the chalet and the cliffs. Now I could offer my guests the option of a long hike, or a pleasant ride depending on their preference. Perfect!

 

Memories “Traveling. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller” -Ibn Battuta

When I think back on it, it was amazing how much more magical the region where I’d lived for almost a year became with Francis. Even though I had been adventurous about exploring on my own, I suddenly realized I’d only scratched the surface. He was peeling away layers of an onion to which I’d been blind. I had thought French culture was something like an orange… and that I had peeled it and found the sweet juicy center… but there was so much more hidden beneath the surface than I would have imagined!

Falling in love with a local offered me chance to plunge deeper into the local traditions and customs and it opened doors that are closed to outsiders.

France had been breathtaking and enchanting on my own… but once I feel in love with a Frenchman it was suddenly a captivating new world. Francis gave me priceless intangible gifts like an understanding of the rich historic significance of places and things I’d been seeing. Foods I had once found delicious and places I had once found stunning suddenly became meaningful too, as the cultural background and historic significance enabled me to see them in a new light. Francis was offering me entry to the local’s favorite spots.  He was expanding my experience of France beyond the superficial tourist contact by giving me entry to authentic encounters, events and places. He was letting me live like a local: it was like being given keys to hidden doors I hadn’t known existed and never would have found on my own.

With my study abroad program, I’d gone wine tasting amidst the hill covered vines and ochre-stoned buildings of the local wine capital, I’d gone up to the mountains to see the local version of gruyere cheese being made by hand in a tiny local dairy. I’d even been to see a fascinating architectural structure by Claude Ledoux, it was an 18th century saltworks which was a peculiar factory where the employees worked and lived in what was called a “utopian village” but it sounded more like a prison with everyone spending their salary in the company store. I really had wanted to make the most of my year and tried to see the major sights. One of my favorite was a stunning castle-fort perched on the top of a precipice like an “eagle’s nest” near the Swiss border: it was stunningly beautiful seen from below, and once inside the austere cool stone structure I learned the heart wrenching fact that one of the world’s most extraordinary revolutionaries, Tousant Louverture, had been imprisoned and died there. Before meeting Francis, I’d gained an appreciation for the breadth and depth of region’s history, an understanding of the local culture and an appreciation for the unique flavors that distinguished the traditional cuisine.

But, Francis wanted me to discover the places that were meaningful to him. With each excursion I felt like he was inviting me into his world and sharing the places where he had spent special childhood moments: places tourists don’t know about or think to go. It felt like finding the door to the secret garden.

With Francis, I suddenly had entry to the real France.

I have a lot of favorite memories from that period in May when Francis and I first met and were madly in love, memories that rank right up there with our biking trip. Another one of my best memories is the day Francis borrowed his mother’s old, dying Volvo station wagon to take me to the subalpine mountains where he’d skied as a kid.

It was late spring. The snow was long melted and gone.  So, we could drive right to the top of the mountain.

As the car strained up toward the summit, I gazed out the window. We’d been driving through a dense fairy-tale pine forest: imposing trees with sweeping branches draped in delicate needles. The trees ended abruptly and we drove out into meadows dotted with grazing brown and white local cows were. The local, montbelliarde, cows seemed to be wandering about freely in the alpine meadows filling the air with an arrhythmic melody of tinny clanging.  The number and variety of flowers was delightful. Pink, yellow, purple. And green. Luscious, voluptuous verdant fields undulated into the distance as far as I could see.  The cows were oblivious to us. Some wandered lazily across the road forcing us to idle several minutes. They turned their heads to take long uninterested looks at our car and moseyed along. Each slow step seemed to invite a pleasant flat clank to rise from the large and small copper bells they wore as necklaces. I loved it! It was so charming, so quaint, so outlandish. Have you seen a Ricola cough drop commercial? I was exuberant. This was… wow. I looked at Francis with glee, he looked, well… bored.

Cow traffic jam. Clearly an everyday occurrence in the mountains.

Our destination was the top. Our objective, a hike.  Our journey was every bit a part the experience.

We passed a chalet designed to welcome hikers and skiers.

Francis and I eventually reached the end of our road. He parked and we hiked a very short distance to the edge of a limestone escarpment. From the edge where we were standing the earth just dropped straight down opening up a panoramic view over Switzerland. The sheer cliff was breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Beautiful. And the best part was that he didn’t tell me what to expect so it was a total surprise for me…. Like when they open the curtains at the theater and you see the set for the first time, like when the waiter reveals your meal from beneath a big silver domed plate cover with a flourish, like when you open the wrapping paper on a present and discover it was exactly what you wanted.

There was no safety rail, just a sheer drop of several hundred feet along a perpendicular limestone precipice… and then Switzerland. It was breathtaking. The sky was so blue. The air was so fresh.

Francis and I were precariously close to the fall, our arms intertwined and clinging gently to each other’s waist. With his free hand, he gently brushed my long hair away from my neck. He leaned in and with his soft lips and kissed my tenderly sending ripples of sensation over my skin. A kiss in the crook of my neck, on my collar bone. He pulled me toward him and pressed his body against mine in a warm engulfing embrace. My abdomen fluttered with delight as a thrill rushed over me and he took me in a long loving kiss.

Still holding me in his arms, he pointed with his chin to make sure I notice the vague silhouette of the Alps and the Mont Blanc in the distance.

I tore my eyes away from his face briefly but all I wanted to do was stand and look deep into his eyes. And so we did.

This was my first time one the GR5: Grande Rondonner hiking path.

 

The number and variety of flowers was delightful. Little gold ones. Bigger violet ones. Huge green leafy ones. Lots of tiny white ones. The local variety of brown and white cows, called montbéliarde, seemed to be wandering about freely in the alpine meadows near the summit grazing on the flowers and grasses.

That cow is probably more sacred than the cows in India: the locals revere it because it produces the milk used to make France’s number 1 artisanal cheese called “Comté”. Laws lavish pasture land on the hallowed montbéliarde to ensure they produce the highest quality milk. Owners bedeck them with the bells so they can wander and graze freely yet still be found easily.

We hiked along the length of the cliff and found a spot to just sit. We just sat holding each other in our arms. Just looked out over the beauty. Looked out and savored the moment. Savored the warmth of the sun, the crisp air… It was close to heaven as you can get in life.

Time rolled by unnoticed by us.

Sometimes doing nothing, in just the right spot with just the right person, feels like the most significant thing you could possibly do. That was the case for me that day.

And then it was time to go. Reluctantly, we strolled back to the car.

We needed to eat.

We stopped at the chalet. The meal was as rustic as the wood-hewn furniture: a hearty cheese-potato-ham dish called “tartiflette”. Francis explained that it was made with locally smoked bacon and a roblochon cheese. He loved it. I loved watching him enjoy it.

We then rolled back down the mountain. In neutral. To save gas… and the breaks.

26 Third Try is a Charm? “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” -Oscar Wilde

My plans to create a boutique tour company were fueled by my nostalgic memories of discovering France, young and in love. It is a rare and truly special experience to gain entry to another culture, another country and it requires a guide, a gate keeper. For me it was my love. He opened doors that I didn’t know existed.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to immerse themselves in another world. It isn’t tourism. I’ve done A LOT of tourism and what I’m talking about here is very different. As a tourist, I only get a romantic superficial view of a place: I see the sites. I taste the foods. I have tons of fun and I love it. But, THIS is something that goes beyond the typical tourist trip. THIS is deeper. It is about being open to a different way of life and accepting someone’s invitation to enter places and practices that are not readily open to outsiders. THIS is as much about learning what defines my own culture as discovering new ways. Immersion.

There is something infinitely more extraordinary and life changing about doing what the locals find completely ordinary than going to the Eiffel Tower in a cultural bubble of my fellow countrymen.

It is unusual for travelers to gain access to the usual while visiting a foreign country. Many of my fellow study abroad students remained outsiders during their entire year in France. So, how on earth could I share what I had been so lucky to experience with people who would just be visiting for a short time? And might not even speak French? Was it even possible?

I wanted to fill the gap between what true travelers seek and what bus tours and cruises actually offer. No “drive-by photo shooting sprees”. No tourist restaurants.

This was a puzzle. This was the challenge I had been looking for. What a brainteaser! Puzzling over it brought me out of my funk like a rocket out of quicksand. I had found my new direction!!!

At first it was like staring at a blank wall blocking my path. No way up, over, or around it. It seemed impossible. And… I like the “impossible”. VERY MUCH. The seemingly impossible usually inspires me to dig deep for a solution. In my heart, I believe everything is possible, the only trick is figuring out how. I really enjoy the way my mind is engaged by finding solutions and figuring out these puzzles.

I couldn’t figure out a way to solve the whole puzzle at once, so I started small by just trying to figure out how I could I share with other people something like that amazing bike trip I’d taken with Francis to his grandmother’s village. And this is how that thinking process unfolded…

First I thought about that big hill. It had been formidable. We couldn’t do that. And the gravel pathes… they had been really rough.

What if we biked out of the city of Besançon along the river in the other direction?

I did some research and was delighted to discover that the path along the Doubs River happens to be a segment of one of the most popular bike routes in Europe, called the EuroVelo 6 which goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea! (Who knew? –Not me!)

Even better, the path leading out of Besancon in the other direction is ranked at the “family” level of difficulty.

Francis and I decided to test it out. It is eleven miles to the first major village. One morning, Francis and headed out at a leisurely pace riding alongside the river on the smooth paved path that winds through the flat valley. The scenery was nice. Green hills rise up on either side of the valley… but, I was a bit disappointed by the industrial aspect of the area. We stopped at a half-way point in a village. His mother recommended a riverside restaurant there where she likes to go on nice days for a countryside lunch outdoors with friends.  There with an attractive terrace, but the food was rather “ho-hum”.

It was definitely ordinary… but it didn’t have that kind of magic that I was looking for. That was when I realized that I wasn’t really after the banal everyday kind of ordinary… I was really after enchanting simplicity, the beauty of imperfection, the time-tested and beloved. I wanted to share the kind of thing that is charming and endearing even for locals. I suppose I would liken it to the American difference between going for a burger at a McDonald’s chain restaurant verses that old mom & pop diner with peeling paint and a patina developed through decades of wear. The difference between shopping at the generic supermarket and buying products directly from a producer. That kind of thing.

But that wasn’t all. No, that wasn’t enough.

I realized that I wanted to capture more than just the everyday charm of living in France, I wanted to let people experience those special moments that occur once or twice a year… like the celebratory outing to a really fancy restaurant, a special hike, getting to know an artisanal producer on a family farm, seeing scenery or architecture that is really mind-blowing.

It’s like that Oscar Wilde quote” To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” –I was looking to share what it meant to really LIVE in France.

I didn’t want the banal. I wanted to share THE BEST, most authentic, most local experiences possible. I wanted to share the full range of life’s finest from the greatest of the simple everyday type experiences to most excellent special occasion of the year type experience.

I wanted to condense all the best of authentic France life and pack it into a week-long itinerary!

So, back to this bike trip…

Now, when you go another eleven miles to the next village, I discovered we pass along a stretch that is really picturesque because of the wooded hills with limestone escarpments. There was still industry, but most of it had the charm of earlier centuries unlike what we’d passed just outside Besancon. Later I would read that this is one of the “most beautiful” sections of the EuroVelo6 bike route! Perfect.

Except that  44 miles round trip was too far for casual cyclists to ride. Too long of a day. Too much work. I was looking to strike that perfect balance and hit the pleasant level of exertion which is rewarding.

Forty-four miles. Not perfect.

Francis said I should forget it.

But, I love this kind of challenge. I knew there must be a solution. I wasn’t going to give up that easily.

I thought about getting a driver to pick us up… but there were the bikes. What about a bus? Nope. Eventually, I found a local train that we could take back to Besancon that would let us bring the bikes aboard!

And restaurants? I found a place to eat well: a hotel-restaurant recommended by the Michelin guide… (I trust Michelin infinitely because they have high standards and they have not let me down yet).  When you walk through the door, you have the impression of having stepped through a time machine and gone back about half a century… what outdated decoration!  The food was done with care. There was dining on the terrace, so my guests could enjoy the weather and the village setting. This was my French equivalent of the “mom and pop” diner but with high quality, refined food. Yep, that would work.

From there, the planning was just fun child’s play… After lunch I would allow time for my guests to stroll around the village and peek in the church before hopping the train back to Besancon where they could rest and relax.

Now Francis was back in the game, he saw that when I put my mind to something, I make it happen (or go down fighting)…

Francis contributed by finding electric bikes we could rent if some of our guests were hesitant about the 22 mile length of the ride. I smiled when he confided that he might rent one for himself, just for the fun of it, of course!

 

 

25 Romantic France “C’est a partir de toi que j’ai dit oui au monde.” Paul Eluard

 

Within a week, he’d introduced me to his sister and mother, he took me to have lunch with his grandmother.

As far as we were concerned, as a couple, he had clearly decided: this was the real thing.

Of course, I eventually asked him why he’d kept inviting the Irish girl out and having me tag along. He replied “You don’t have a telephone and I could hardly call her just to ask you out.” He had a point.

My poor friend. Lucky me.

Francis and I were inseparable… for one month.

It was my last month in France.

During the month, I told him about my plans to travel around Europe with my Eurail pass and he reluctantly listened to me dreaming of leaving him to visit my family in Sweden, friends in Estonia, etc… I was nervous but ready for the escapade. For me it was an entirely magical month filled with love and eager anticipation of new countries to discover. I would start in the city of Amsterdam and working my way up through Scandinavia and then down to Italy and back to France via Austria.

During the month, he was conscripted to the army. In those days all French men had to do a compulsory year of military service. The letter came while I was with him. He would be stationed in Germany. I was thrilled for him,an adventure in another country! He was devastated; it would be hard to visit his family on week-ends. For him the month was an anxious month: our looming separation, the impending enlistment…

We were both on the verge of growing up. Learning we could do more than we believed we were capable of doing. Frightened of the unknown. And, we clung to every moment with each other knowing our time together was going to be too short.

That month was intensified by my knowledge of the scarcity of time. I lived every moment in the present, savoring each experience like I might slowly enjoy a sugar cube melting on my tongue. Everything was Technicolor. Everything was 3-D. Everything was new and stunning and fleeting. I was drunk with infatuation and the simplest things became bigger than life.

One evening, Francis and I climbed the hundreds of stairs up to the citadel together. He took the lead and turned around occasionally to look in my eyes and smile. Once at the top, breathless, we dared mount the crumbling steps of a rampart. With the foolishness of those who have not yet tasted their mortality we climbed atop a wall designed to protect defenders from attacking arrows. He knelt down and I used his thigh as a step. I crushed him under my weight and he only smiled up at me as I looked down apologetically.  Then he hoisted himself up to join me on the ledge with the ease of a swimmer rising out of a pool.  We sat there with our legs dangling down over the height with the city stretching out before us. He borrowed my camera and stole a picture of me. Always the photographer, I felt shy and awkward with the lens turned on me. We sat there for hours just watching the red-tiled rooftops fade into the darkness at dusk, watching the streetlights and windows gradually light up with the warm glow of incandescent bulbs. We leaned against each other. He wrapped his arm around me. We kissed. Love made time disappear. Doing nothing together with him was the only thing I wanted to do. Just being together, it was enough.  The city looked like a fairyland of lights amidst the deepening cobalt sky. We had been enveloped in a Maxfield Parrish image. Contentment.

Twenty years later, Francis still has that picture. It is on his desk at the university where he teaches.

The weeks slipped slowly by during that one month we had together back when we first met in France. We must have seen each other almost every day.

On the week that my classes finished, he borrowed dusty, old, cobweb-covered, gearless city bikes and cleaned one up for me and the other for himself. And, one beautiful sunny day at the end of May when the sky was a beautiful blue and the temperature could only be described as perfect, we set out on the bikes with a change of clothes and a picnic lunch headed for his grandmother’s village.

We left the city along the river valley, passing through little villages and along tiny old roads used so rarely that some sections were gravel, I breathed it all in: all the lush green fields and forests, the hill top forts, the little steeples, the shimmering light of the sun dancing across the water in flashes and sparkles, the blue sky and cotton candy clouds. The perfection. The bliss. It was like a dream.

The ride was a bit rough because we were riding city bikes with thin racing wheels along gravel paths, but the path clung to the river bank for the most part and thus remained pleasantly flat. barges floated lazily by with flags from France, Holland, Germany…

It was a four to five hour ride. So after a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch.  Sitting on the side of the riverbank we ate sandwhiches that he had prepared; baguettes generously buttered with creamy duck liver mousse au canard and peppered with the miniature French pickles called cornichons. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious.

After a long day of riding, a tall hill was all that stood between us and our destination. Besancon is set in a subalpine mountain range called the Jura mountains. So when I say hill, it was no little thing.

I made it about one third of the way up before dismounting to push the bike up the switch-back road that cut across the steep incline. Francis was well ahead of me, still riding, standing on the peddles to give extra push to each effort. As soon as he noticed I wasn’t with him, he dismounted and waited for me to catch up. Pushing his bike alongside me, he kept me company for the long ascent. And it was long.

And it was worth every effort.

At the top, a medieval village awaited us, complete with a feudal castle and sweeping views out over the valleys below. Each valley seemed to have a little village from whence rose a church steeple, always with a unique dome some metal, others made of brightly colored mosaic tiles.

We parked the bikes and explored on foot, daring to wander mischievously into the private gardens of the castle. The thrill of the forbidden. Then strolling along the road to find the best view. We took a break and sat looking out over the sweeping subalpine meadows dotted with wildflowers and grazing cows. The balmy breezy carried the strangely musical clunks of cow bells as the cows slowly shifted their weight from one leg to another, the tinny clunk when one lowered her head to graze and another raised her head. Birds peeped and piped and tweeted. Francis’ hand felt warm and soft in mine. I turned his hand over and drew lazy figure eights on his palm with my index finger. He leaned in cupping my jaw line in his freehand and tilting my face up toward him for a gentle kiss, such soft lips. His other arm glid lithely around my waist as he pulled me closer.

“Je t’aime” he whispered in my ear.

“I love you, too.” I replied.

And he pulled me toward him and held me in his arms as though he never wanted to let go.

We shared a bottle of water. The time passed slowly. We were in no hurry. To the contrary, we dawdled as though we could somehow make time slow down.

Eventually, we mounted the bikes and started to coast down the hill.

The bikes picked up speed at a frightening rate. Francis whizzed down the hill enjoying the speed. Fearless daredevil! The hill was steep. The road was narrow. Fortunately there weren’t many cars or turns. I road the breaks constantly to keep my speed under control and clamped down hard on them so I could handle the turns without careening over the edge.

Suddenly, my breaks gave out.

My bike picked up speed quickly. It picked up so much speed that I quickly caught up to Francis. I passed him just as quickly. There was a turn coming up. I was going too fast to stop the bike with my feet. Francis peddled frantically downhill to catch up with me. It must have been clear that I was out of control. I was fixed on steering the bike, so filled with terror that adrenalin had taken over and made me numb. I was acutely aware of the occasional car slowly ascending the hill with it’s motor groaning against the effort. I didn’t’ want to wipe out in front of one of them.

My heart was in my throat.

The village was below, so tiny. I took my eyes off the road for a fleeting fraction of a second to see how far I had to go. The village was so tiny down there. I couldn’t look. I shouldn’t look.

“Oh Man”

I kept my eyes glued to the edge of the road. I clung to the handlebars so hard my knuckles were white. All I could hear was the rapid rhythm of my heart pounding in my ears. I think Francis may have been calling to me, but I don’t know for sure, all I really heard was “Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub”.

I couldn’t do it anymore. A huge hairpin turn was coming up.

I managed to get my feet down without sending the bike off balance or hurting my knees. I applied pressure gradually. Heat developed under my feet.

Francis managed to catch up to me. He rode next to me while I slowed the bike.

I managed to bring the bike to a hault before the turn. Francis stopped next to me. I explained. I looked at the bottoms of my shoes. I had nearly worn the soles off.

I told him I would have to walk the bike down the hill.

Instead, he traded bikes with me and told me to meet him at the bottom.

I slowly made my way down the hill riding heavily on the breaks and savoring the invigorating sensation of elation.

But I also watched in horror as his figure got smaller and smaller in the distance until he disappeared around one of the switchback turns. When I rounded the corner, I just caught sight of him rounding the next. By the time I got to that turn, he was already out of sight.

When I finally reached the bottom, he was safe, lying in the grass waiting patiently for me.

He led me to his grandmother’s home. She was expecting us. We rang the buzzer at her apartment. When she didn’t answer, he took me straight down the street along the walled riverside gardens until we got to a wooden door that was ajar.

We slipped in. He offered no explanation.

It was like The Secret Garden. All brambles and weeds of a forgotten place amidst which there was a solid wall of wild roses. The roses burst with the lightest and darkest pinks and shades of pinkish-white. Pink, pink, pink. It was charming. The grass had been mown, so that there was a fine expanse of lawn. There were nubby, gnarly fruit trees and an ivy covered building. A little river, the one that started in the painter Gustav Courbet’s hometown had wound its way all the way here, and flowed green along side the garden. Canoers and Kayakers paddled by. A man with wading pants was fishing on the opposite bank.

Francis’s grandmother, mamie, was sitting in the garden cutting potatoes into thick sticks to fry. He went over and kissed her affectionately and she scolded him equally affectionately for being so dirty and sweaty, calling him by her son/ his father’s name as though the sight of his face transported her back in time. She upbraided him for bringing me on such a long dusty ride. Which I took as a welcome. A welcome of the best kind, the kind when you are treated like an old acquaintance even before you’ve met. Then her face broke into a huge smile. She was clearly delighted to see him.

I gave her the “bise”, the traditional French greeting, in Francis’ region it was just one kiss on both cheeks and I delivered them shyly as she simultaneously kissed my cheeks vigorously.  She continued cutting potatoes and launched into her story of the handsome American GI who had broken his promise to marry her after WWII because he’d already promised to marry another girl back home. Oh, the heartbreak.

She went in to heat the oil.

Francis and I laid in the grass and naively talked of marriage. He was a Sartre-ist who didn’t believe in marriage. He was all about co-habitation. I was more of a traditionalist. I argued that if we were going to live together for the rest of our lives, wouldn’t it be nice to have a fabulous party first to share the joy of that decision with our friends. Anyhow, we weren’t from the same country, I pointed out. There were practical issues. We needed to get married if we were going to live together in the same country: there were VISA issues. But neither of us were serious. These were just the dreamy talks of young lovers. I didn’t want to marry him now. It was just fun to imagine, to debate, to fantasize about a long distant future that could be spent together. He concurred reluctantly and then we day dreamed together about what a marvelous party we could have right here in the garden when the roses were in bloom. He told me about some of the wild parties he’d hosted here with his friends.

Mamie was preparing dinner for us in her summer kitchen, adjacent to the riverside garden. We would eat outdoors and savor the weather. I would savor the setting.

While the potatoes fried, Francis walked me around the small space and explained how she’d bought it from a friend long ago. The garden was walled on one side and bordered by the river on the other. Mamie had filled it with hydrangeas, fruit trees and the cascade of verdant wild roses that concealed the wall.Her kitchen was in a funny little stone building which Francis said had once been a sort of tax or toll booth for those entering or leaving the village.

“Philippe!” She called him over to help her once again addressing him by his father’s name. She salted and peppered three steaks, browned them in a pan and removed them. She couldn’t see very well. On her signal, Francis tossed into the pan a shot of Armagnac, which is a really nice version of cognac and equally high in alcohol. He deftly set it ablaze with a quickly lit match. The blaze reached the low ceiling and danced momentarily against the smooth white painted surface. When the fire was almost entirely quiet, the last little whimpers of blue and orange flame were drowned in cream to make sauce that turned out to be heavenly. It was rich and creamy, a bit spicy thanks to the freshly ground pepper and the perfect foil to the savory meat.

It was a wonderful day and we slept well that night alone in the garden in the dilapidated room upstairs in the toll house.

The next day, while Francis was helping his grandmother move some heavy furniture back at her apartment, I walked around the little village and poked my head in the little shop they called a “conquillerie”. It was full of everything from anvils and cement to LaCreuset cast-iron enameled cookware and china cups with saucers. I had greeted the shopkeeper with a warm “Bonjour” upon entering but it was quickly clear that he found it as peculiar as his neighboring grocer did when I said that I was “just looking”. Why would anyone come to a shop if they didn’t need something in particular?

On the road leading out of town, I spotted a huge vine covered old building. Perhaps it had once been a barn. Now, it housed an antique shop with a sign on the door which I didn’t see as I went in to browse that read “by appointment” followed by a phone number.

I barely got a glance at anything when a little woman with reading glasses and silver curls began to interrogate me. She wanted to know who I was. She wanted to know why I was there.

Her tone warmed when I mentioned my boyfriend’s family. Obviously, I’d come to her shop to pay her visit. Because no one would just drop in a shop to look around, now would they?

She offered me a seat.

I accepted.

I mean, I wasn’t going to be rude! She clearly didn’t expect me to do any browsing… so taking a brief moment out of my unhurried day seemed the thing to do.

Half an hour later, I noticed the sign on the door as I was leaving.

She must have been lonely. I’d said barely a word. She reminisced about how talented Francis’s father had been, even as a child. He had become an antique dealer too. “He has a gift” she told me. “He has ‘an eye’” she told me as though it was a mystical thing, “he sees beauty where others cannot and he has the skill to reveal that hidden beauty to the world”.

Francis and I spent the week-end canoeing and enjoying the garden.

 

 

 

24 It Was Simple

On May fifth, I was early. I usually am.

He was sitting in the window watching for me.

When he saw me a huge smile crept across his face. It made me feel shy and self conscious. I looked away and my eyelashes fluttered involuntarily. Again.

I waited in the street.

He came down to meet me.

We walked to the Gard d’Eau park and sat on the riverbank chatting and watching the occasional boat go by.

There was no flirtation, no build up, no suspense. He kissed me and I accepted.

I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know him. I didn’t know how well I liked him. I kissed him back.

Some people on a sightseeing boat whistled and waved.

I blushed.

He smiled.