Usually, travel to France for me revolves to some extent around mealtime: the planning of the meal, the anticipation of the meal, purchasing food for the meal or choosing the restaurant, and of course, enjoying the meal. A little obsessed, perhaps. I’ll admit it. But, traveling with a packed schedule and staying in hotels, as well as traveling with a group that consisted largely of teenagers whose gourmet tastes ran towards the latest iced beverage offering by Starbucks, meant that for the most part we really did not eat well. Oh, how I hope that the adults in our group who have never been to France before do not judge French food by the odd assortment of brasseries that we dined in! (Dear friends, please go back and try Cafe Constant, please?) And to make matters even worse, my recent very necessary tightening of the gluten restrictions meant that patisseries and boulangeries were out of the question as well!
What??? France without a single good restaurant and no pain au chocolat? France without a kitchen? Quelle horreur.
But there was still wine and cheese. Thank God for wine and cheese. And olives, and red currants, and all of the other beautifully fresh offerings on hand at that most divine destination of food lovers in France: the open air market.
Now, it’s not quite the same, going to a market when you’re staying in a hotel, not a house, meaning that you have no kitchen to bring things back to, and no refrigerator to store the ridiculous amount of cheese that you’ve just purchased. But, looking is free, and (almost) as enjoyable. And I did get that darling sun hat and hot pink blouse, which by fabulous luck was a perfect fit even without trying it on…
Paris. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m enamored with this place. This hasn’t always been the case; we rarely stay here when we travel to France- we’re always on our way to someplace else in country, and I confess that I am a little crazy about the rural parts of France. The fresh, cool air, the green fields filled with cream-colored cows, the vineyards and their grand crus… I’m describing my beloved Burgundy now. But Paris is special, and this last trip reminded me of just how unique this city is in the world.
While in London, it was easy to focus on the educational part of our trip. Travel in the name of education and all that. Yes, a tour of the colleges of Cambridge, a tour of the British Museum- fabulous. Christian Heritage! Love it. Please, teach me more history. But it’s not so easy to maintain that serious educational outlook when I hit the border of a place I love so viscerally. When my brain switches into French speaking mode, I feel like part of me has come home. Which is strange, I know. I’m not French. I’m from Texas, for goodness sake.
So I’m going to have to try to reign myself in so I can describe our educational trip from a more objective point of view. And we did learn a lot. Oh yes, the tour of the city by bus was wonderful. I highly recommend it. I also recommend the tour by boat; I got some amazing photos of the Ile de la Cite, in particular Notre Dame. It is so clear from the water that the Ile de la Cite is in fact an island.
But that same day, I got the chance to go off by myself on the pretext of needing to find a pharmacy for some headache medicine for my daughter, and that walk alone was one of those moments that make your breath catch in your throat. Strolling those leafy streets, so residential and yet so close to the Eiffel Tower, was a treat of the best kind for me. You walk along, and then suddenly a side street opens up a view of the most iconic image of Paris that there is: La Tour Eiffel, in all its glory. Sycamore trees, les platanes, shade these streets that are lined with cafes, bistros, brasseries, and yes, people’s homes. And here I am, digressing into the sensual feel that the city has for me…
Okay, I can’t do it. I can’t separate the feel of the city from what I am supposed to have learned about it.
So instead, here’s a list of images of Paris:
An omelette, a galette, and a bottle of sparkling water in an underground wine cellar turned restaurant near our hotel in Bercy Village… A carafe of wine as well, of course.
Accordion players in the Metro, so quintessentially French, playing Edith Piaf just in case they aren’t already Gallic enough to make me cry.
Montmartre- even though it’s crowded and dirty and touristy, I love it anyway. I love Sacre Coeur, perched on its hill. A glass of wine and a dish of pistachio ice cream in a café in Montmartre with my daughter while the rest of the group shopped.
Versailles, with its over the top, crazy gorgeous gilding and painting on every possible surface… Fountains, gardens, glass, mirrors, extravagance. Extraordinary.
The Louvre. What is there to even say about the Louvre? Except that it’s overwhelming and astonishingly beautiful, with its strange, modern pyramid juxtaposed against 17th century palaces and filled to the brim with art of every kind (except modern. And those crazy Impressionists).
Market day, on Saturday, where we shopped for ripe red currants and cherries and bargained for linens and scored inexpensive yet stylish lace tops and sun hats (10 euros each, thank you very much), drooled over cheese that cannot be taken home, and then took a lunch break where we had the most amazing glass of Beaume de Venise. If I close my eyes I can still taste it. Who really cares about the rest of the meal when there is Beaume de Venise?
The Latin Quarter, early on a Sunday morning after seeing the exterior of Notre Dame and its sculptures for what they truly mean… Quiet, pensive, the feeling of the serious spiritual learning that is its history not so far away.
A waiter, kissing my hand as our group departed after a good meal and a delicious bottle of wine, near the Tuileries and the Champs Elysees. I don’t know why he kissed my hand, but who needs a reason for such things when you’re in Paris?
Breakfast in our hotel, of all places. I’m always happy to start my day out with a slice or two of Comte. And a café au lait.
An early morning, insomniac walk through the Paris streets, just me and the folks cleaning the streets. Most Parisians do not wake early. But the city was sparkling and fresh, and I’m glad I got to experience it this way.
Paris, with friends, and Paris through the eyes of young people. And all the joy that comes along with those things.
I think that, at last, I’ve forgiven you. I feel that we’ve made up, or at least a one-sided making up has occurred. I realize you are completely indifferent to me, but I don’t care. It’s been far too long that I’ve been annoyed with you, and I’m so happy to have reconciled. Because even though I claim to be indifferent to your charms, it’s not true: I am just as in love with you now as I was when we first met.
Why have I been so angry for so long? I felt that you had let yourself go a little. Gotten a little out of control, a little untidy and unkempt. And while these things may be true as well, there is so much more to you that I haven’t been able to see in my headlong rush to be clear of your city limits in recent years on trips to France. This time, though, I didn’t just drive your perepherique on my way to rural France. This time, I took a train straight into your center, and experienced your beauty the way it should be experienced: On foot. Silly me, what was I thinking, judging you by your airport and your (horrific) traffic?
I should know better than that.
The things I dislike about you are still true. You are not well-organized or efficiently run. Your metros caused a near meltdown in my teenaged daughter when her ticket refused to work. She took it as a personal affront, which I understand. I’ve taken many things about you as a personal insult as well. Many parts are crowded, and your metros take the idea of filth to new heights. Come on, now, would it hurt to do a little sweeping up?
But your beautifully planned out streets, thank you, Baron Haussmann, are like nothing else in the entire world. I see that now. Your boulevards, especially when the sun is shining like it was this last week, are like no place else on earth. I see that now, too. The history that has happened on your soil, the art, music, and poetry that has been inspired, it all makes me feel full to overflowing.
Maybe it was seeing you with new eyes. Maybe it was being with a group of young people and feeling their energy, or perhaps it was having a guide to walk me through your extraordinary spaces and tell me about the things that can’t be seen at all.
Whatever the reason is, I think that a serious love affair has been rekindled. And I can’t wait to get back to you again.
Last year, another of the places I loved and wanted to get to know better in the Burgundy region was the city of Beaune. I was able to visit several times, but it was always, of course, with at least my own kids in tow and often several others as well. And this does not lend itself to participation in the one activity I had really wanted to indulge in while in Beaune: Wine tasting.
You see, Beaune is the “capital of Burgundy wines” , and as such, there are loads of wineries in and around the city. It would take a very long time to visit them all, and since we only had 4 days we had to be very selective. In the city itself, you can walk to any number of places selling Burgundy’s wares, from wine shops that promise that they can ship anywhere in the world (ha- I challenge them to try to ship to Georgia!) to wine bars where you can just have a glass. Outside the city, but very nearby, a number of caves await. But my mother and I did not begin there. Instead, we found a little shop that was offering classes that would teach you about the wines of Burgundy, and promptly signed up. We wanted to know what we were doing for our short 4 day tour of Bourgogne wine country!
Our instructor delivered the “lecture” in beautifully accented English- our fellow classmates, as it turned out, were Brazilian, and English was the common language. And in that short two hours, we learned quite a bit. One comment she made really stood out to me: “If you want to know French wines, you must know French geography. And if you know French geography, you know French wines.” When you consider that the plots of land considered worthy to grow grapes labeled “grand cru” or “premier cru” have been selected over the last thousand years, you can begin to understand how right she is, and truly, how connected the land and the wine are. And when you realize that the French don’t label their wines, as we Americans do, by the type of grape but by the region, or the village, or the exact plot that those exact grapes came from, that geography connection makes even more sense. And that is how it works, in a nutshell: To name a French wine, you name it by where it comes from. In fact, it would be silly to name Burgundy’s wines by the grape, since nearly every grape grown there for red wines is a pinot noir, and nearly every grape grown there for white wines is a chardonnay. (There are a few exceptions: the gamay grape and the aligote, but those grapes are very minor and they don’t do much with them besides using Aligote mixed with creme de cassis to make Kir. As for gamay, I believe it is what gives us Beaujolais. But these are relatively minor players.)
However, the only grapes that mattered that day were the ones that were waiting for us to taste there in their lovely bottles. We began by tasting the reds, and learned about color and what it means in a red wine. We also learned how to detect and describe the different aspects of each wine (whether it was acid or tannic or mellow) and the flavors (which are too numerous for me to even begin to remember). Then we did the same thing with five whites.
I have to say that it was the best school day for me ever.
No, I’m still far from being an expert, but that doesn’t matter. What mattered was that it was great fun, being there in that tiny shop with my mom and four lively Brazilians, with our teacher and her gorgeous accent, sipping wine and talking about the geography of France. Really, does it get much better than that? Wait, talking about and then tasting the geography of France. Because really, that is what you are doing. And that makes me smile.
One year later, almost to the day. I not only made it back to France, but to Burgundy and even more specifically, Vezelay. One of my absolute favorite places, anywhere in the world. And I was able to share it with one of my favorite people in the world, my mother.
Last year, when we were in the region for three months, my parents intended to come over and stay with us for a bit. But, life got in the way- my grandmother had to have surgery on the arteries in her neck which were very blocked (yes, kind of a big deal) and so instead of a trip to France, mom got a trip to the hospital to take care of my grandmother. And that was only one of many trips to the hospital to take care of others for her over the last year. It has been a rough year, to put it mildly. And so, we decided to take a week off from everything and escape.
We flew into Paris straight from Atlanta and rented a car and headed for the A6 towards Beaune. But we were going to arrive one day earlier than the reservation in Beaune began, and as it turns out, Vezelay is somewhat on the way between Paris and Beaune. A little out of the way, but as I saw it, that would only provide an excuse to take the back roads, through Chateau Chinon and Autun, into Beaune. I booked a hotel at the aptly named Le Compostelle, and off we went.
The drive out of Paris was bad but not as bad as it could have been, and once we cleared a ridiculously long bouchon (traffic jam) in the Parisian suburbs, we were on our way. I actually really enjoy driving in Europe, despite my rather loud complaining about driving in Paris traffic. People seem to follow the rules, and traffic flows fairly smoothly. And for a country that seems incapable of directional signage, France does a beautiful job with signs along the autoroute telling you what lovely historical buildings or towns or points of interest you are passing. And suddenly, there was a sign for Vezelay. We exited, paid our exorbitantly priced toll, and wound our way along the backroads towards our destination.
And it was so worth the trouble of getting there. This is a place where it feels as though life has flowed on in the same way for thousands of years, and just for a passing moment, you can step into that current and become part of it. There is a deep silence to the place, and a feeling of calm. The air, that early October evening, was still and cool and scented with lavender. We checked into Le Compostelle, where we were helped with our luggage to our tiny room on the third floor by a slender French man who proclaimed himself to be a “French bull.” We took a moment to freshen up from our long voyage and then stepped out into town to find dinner. And oh, what a dinner we found.
Last year, my children and I came repeatedly to Vezelay. They probably weren’t so thrilled about it, but you’re getting the message that I really love it here so we came often. We never, however, ate a good meal here. There was a restaurant about halfway up the hill that had intrigued me, but I naively thought that the mention on their door that they were in the Michelin guide meant I couldn’t afford it or that it would be fancier than a 9 year old could handle. However, I now understand more about restaurants in France, and also this time it was just me and mom, and so in we went without a moment’s hesitation. Silly me- my kids would have done just fine- nothing fancy about this place, but its simplicity belies what is going on in that kitchen. I can honestly say that this was the best meal we ate the whole time we were in France, on that very first night there in Vezelay. This tiny little place, in this tiny little town, serves up some pretty incredible food. I had duck, thinly sliced and medium rare, in a sauce made from currants, with a gratin of potatoes on the side to further soak up the deliciously tart sauce, followed by that wonderful French invention: The cheese cart. Where you get to choose several and then they tell you what order you should enjoy them in. My mother, however, was the smarter of us that evening. As much as I love cheese, the cherry clafoutis with a dish of homemade cherry sorbet on the side was the hands-down winner. If you’ve never tried a clafoutis, I suggest correcting that situation as quickly as possible… And the sorbet? A stroke of genius.
And thus, full, happy, and exhausted, we climbed to our third story room, opened the windows as wide as possible, and both fell immediately to sleep. There is nothing like fresh, cool air to help you sleep deeply, which we both did, and were awakened the next morning by quite possibly the best combination of sensations in the entire world: The smell of freshly baked bread, and the sound of bells ringing in an ancient basilica. Of course, by the time we actually got up and out the door, it wasn’t exactly early (jet lag, you are a cruel mistress), but we managed to get pain au chocolat and cafe au lait anyway. We did a little shopping at the local brocante and wandered into a few art galleries as we made our way up the steep hill towards the basilica. As we neared the basilica, we could hear the sound of singing coming from inside, and as we entered, we realized that the monks and nuns were gathered and some type of mass was going on. Another incredible treat: Listening to monks and nuns chanting together in worship of God. Again, that feeling of stepping, just for a moment, into an ancient current…
France, darling, you know I love you. But we need to talk*.
It’s your airports. And your signs on the autoroutes around Paris. And, well, your overall organizational skills.
Or perhaps I should narrow that down to Paris. Sigh. Yes, I want to love Paris, I truly do. And I do love it, once I am there, and on foot. But it. Is. Such. A. Mess. Getting there.
Alright, so I got to go back to my beloved Bourgogne this last week, and of course, it is every bit as beautiful, as fresh, as clean and idyllic as I remembered. Nothing there has changed; my love remains undiminished, and I will be capturing those memories (mostly for my own benefit) in writing over the next week. But right now, I need a little therapy. Some recovery time. From my drive back from Burgundy into Paris, yes, but mostly from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport.
What, are you trying to push people away?
Or are you simply so convinced of your worth that you know people will come, no matter what? Well, so, you’re right. They will. I did, knowing full well what I would experience. And here is what I did experience:
– A complete lack of directional signs, of any sort. You have to accost people and beg them for information about where they hide the rental cars or the shuttles to hotels. This is not a third world country. They could afford some signs.
– Surly people, for whom the customer is always and forever a nuisance. I accepted this long ago, so it really doesn’t even bother me that much anymore. I’m not asking for nice. You don’t even have to give me civil, really. Just do your job. That’s all.
– Complete and total disorganization of all sorts. I actually had one woman tell me that “we don’t use the system on the computer. It would be too complicated to train people.” To use a computer system? Are you kidding me? Could someone please remind me again what century we are in? And then having to go completely out of the airport and back in because my flight was overbooked and I had to rebook on another? Seriously, I have an impressive amount of customs stamps just from being at the airport that one day. No kidding, they kept stamping it as I went around, through customs repeatedly. On the fast train to crazy town.
Oh, there are so many things that you do well, dear France. Bread, wine, cheese, art, architecture, history, to name just a few; It’s why I forgive you repeatedly. But, there are things we Americans do well, also. Would you consider, please, asking for help with putting signs up (that make sense) on your autoroutes around Paris and in your airports? We Americans do the efficiency thing very, very well, you know.
It wouldn’t reflect poorly on you just to ask for a little help. I promise.
*I read an article many years ago that began this way: “Dear Europe, you know I love you, but we need to talk. It’s your bathrooms.” I can’t find that article anywhere now, but I’ve always wanted to write France a letter that began the same way. I think it’s helped- I feel a little better now. Purged somehow… But I’m still planning to figure out ways to get to France without having to go to Charles de Gaulle airport. Possibly from now on. Hey, you know Germany isn’t that far, and the Germans have that organizational thing down. And I do love driving on the autobahn…
That’s French for dinner at home, in case you were wondering. Which is what we do most nights- we don’t eat out that often- but last night’s dinner at home was special. Eating well is part of the story of our time in France, a very important part of the story, and so I just want to write this little bit down so I can remember it. And so, you get to know about it too.
We’ve been hanging on to this one particular bottle of wine for two months now, waiting for the right moment to open it. Our time here is getting short, so we kind of decided it was now or never and made our own special occasion. This bottle of wine is special for several reasons: our Norwegian friends bought it for us while they were here, and spent WAY more money on it than we usually do. And, this particular bottle was a grand cru, the best wine made from the best grapes of Burgundy. It was a 2006 Echezeaux, from the Caves Réunies du Couvent des Cordoliers du 13eme Siecle, in case that means anything to you. It does now to me.
We didn’t do much- who needs to, when you have a wine this good? I simply warmed a round of Mont d’or cheese, sliced some baguette, cooked some of those skinny little French green beans, and sauteed a couple of steaks (the local charolais, of course) in a pan. I did cave to the Pilot’s wishes and make a blue cheese sauce (and it turned out delicious!), but that was it. As far as I’m concerned, we could have stopped at the Mont d’or and baguette.
I’ve often thought that the world of wine can seem a little pretentious. I’m not a wine snob, and I really don’t know that much about it- I drink what I like, and think you can find a perfectly good wine for a reasonable cost. But then, a wine like this comes along to show that you do get what you pay for. There are no words to describe how delicious this was.
The French certainly do know how to live…
I feel the same way about this that I do about the Mont d’or cheese: if you are a wine lover, then do yourself a favor, at least once, and try a Burgundy grand cru. You won’t regret it.