Archive | May 2014

Champagne Country

We spent the last three days of our stay in the company of friends saying good-bye and celebrating life in the inimitable French way – animated conversations around the table with food, wine and cheeses.   With friends Hélène and Xavier we walked along the cliffs of the littoral.IMG_3219 Later at Hélène’s apartment, we were joined by her friend, Asti, a delightful fellow. We all sat on her balcony, with the cool evening breeze and the soft glow of the setting sun. Delicious apéro, cold Belgian beer and refreshing Alsatian white wine added to the relaxing ambience. Leaving Provence is not easy. After seven weeks immersed in Provençal culture, we became French in our daily activities, our American identity submerged.   Boarding the train in Marseille meant that soon we would be transformed once again into the Americans we really are.   With ten days remaining before returning home, we would be making slight detours to Champagne, Paris and Amsterdam.   As the fast-moving train (TGV, train à grande vitesse) en route to Paris zoomed through flat expansive terrain, the sloping rocky Provençal countryside in its wake, movie frame images of the last several weeks sped rapidly in my mind.  Each frame pulled at the edges of a saddened heart, consoled only by the certitude that we would be returning.  But for the moment, we were heading to Champagne country to visit friends we had not seen in thirteen years.   It was Easter weekend and each train car was packed with travelers like us, en route to visit family and friends. When we last visited our friends, Jean-Luc and Alexandra, they had one son, Victor. Now two additional children, Justine and Louis, and a cute mixed Spanish terrier, Ficelle, add to the brood.IMG_3268 We were eager to see them all.   Alexandra was one of Melanie’s ESL (English as a Second Language students) in California in the eighties; Jean-Luc owns a champagne vineyard in the village of Verzenay. Since our last visit their production and export of champagne have grown.   One of the by-products of visiting the Lallement family is that we get to drink extraordinarily high quality champagne (91 rating by Spectator) as an apéro (apéritif) each evening. To those reading this blog, we recommend highly Lallement champagne; distributors are in the New York and San Francisco markets. Being with the Lallements is like being with our own family. Their children are like grandchildren to us. In our few days with them, we taught the kids a new card game, Kings’ Corners, and we all watched a feature movie, La Guerre des boutons, which included Victor in several scenes.  We took walks and spent time with them individually, listening and laughing. And oh, we enjoyed the parents as well. Alexandra prepared delicious meals; Jean-Luc was happy to prepare some of his favorite delicacies — escargots prepared with wild mushrooms and cream, a separate serving of black mushrooms called trompettes de la mort, and large sautéed white asparagus which is very popular this time of year.  He obviously took great delight in seeing me delve hungrily into each dish. Easter Sunday afternoon, after Mass and a delicious dinner, Justine and Louis took us for a walk in the village and surrounding vineyards. They were actually on their trottinettes, (scooters) and we sauntered along.Verzenay is a small village of about one thousand inhabitants but there are over thirty separate champagne vineyards.IMG_3292   The town, about forty minutes from Reims, dates from the Medieval period in a pastoral setting amidst acres (hectares) of vineyards and yellow Colza(canola) fields. This part of France with expansive, flat open-spaces is a stark contrast to hilly and rocky Provence.  But like Provence, its neatly arranged rows of vines strike an unparalleled beauty.   After sauntering among the vineyards, the children took us to the cemetery to see the Lallement gravesites dating back several generations. The only shortcoming of this weekend en famille was its short duration.  Our bond with the family became stronger. We were honored and privileged listening to the parents speak about parenting. In that respect they are part of that universal parenting club and have concerns in raising children as every parent across the globe shares.   My only regret about that weekend is that we didn’t stay longer. And I’m confident that the children feel the same way. I’ve already received an email from my copain, Louis, as he referred to himself, and from Justine. A highlight of our brief visit with the Lallements was an afternoon visit at the Cathedral of Reims.  In this Gothic masterpiece the Kings of France were crowned.IMG_3230   Built over three centuries, the cathedral remains incomplete, lacking spires on the towers.  We did not have enough time to visit the impressive canonical section adjacent to the cathedral with its extensive sculpture collection nor the city itself.  Those activities are already high on the list for our next visit.

On the morning of our departure from Verzenay, we all had breakfast together before heading to Reims. After many hugs and bisous, we boarded the train to Paris to see our Parisian son, Louis, who spent a year with us ten years ago as an AFS (American Field Service) exchange student. We had not seen him since. Now he is a chef in a Paris bistrot, God Save the Kitchen.  Although he knew of our visit, it was difficult to reach him. Repeated phone calls proved futile. Fearing that our trip would be in vain, we went to his restaurant only to discover that it was his day off. But we did have a nice lunch there. Finally, after many unanswered phone calls and e-mails, we were able to connect with Louis on the last day of our Parisian stay. He invited us to the restaurant where he works. And what a wonderful three-hour reunion, reminiscing and catching up on his life in the intervening years! When he came to the States, his English and mannerisms were those of an American. Then he wanted to be recognized as American.  He spoke impeccably well having learned English since the age of four in a bi-lingual school.  An obviously brilliant kid, Louis’ only ambition that year was to skateboard. He had no interest in studying and got into mischief at home and at school.   Several years ago, we were astonished to receive a long letter from him apologizing for his behavior.   Though older and more mature, Louis still retains his playful charm. When asked by Melanie what he got most out of that year with us, he mentioned gratitude.IMG_3350 He was thankful for all that we had done for him. In his AFS application, he had expressed a strong desire to be in a family with a father. His mother, a writer, was raising two adopted children, he from Brazil, and a daughter from Russia.  And now we can look back and appreciate his time with us as well. During his year with us, Louis spoke lovingly of his grandfather who told him that ordre et discipline were the keys to success.   Though those were lacking when he attended high school in the States, it is quite obvious that those lessons finally took root. He’s enjoying his success as a chef. “I want to make people happy with the food I prepare,” he chimed. Before saying good-bye, he treated us to one of his specialty dishes, a chili of shredded beef, prepared à la Louis. He’s making a name for himself and gave us a copy of a Parisian pamphlet that featured him on the cover with several of his recipes included.   He also makes a jambalaya that he says the Parisians love. Other highlights of Paris included our visit to the Rodin museum and the Musée du Quai Branly where we met Diane Pinderhughes, a Notre Dame professor and fellow congregant at St. Augustine’s who was in town for a few days to attend an academic meeting.IMG_3338 The Rodin museum and its surrounding gardens is a must-see.IMG_3326   Majesty and power seemed to emanate from the tall dark bronzes spread over the gardens, each a testimony to the genius of a masterful sculptor. Each bronze with its realistic and graceful stature held secrets for the viewer to unveil. I could not resist having my picture taken with perhaps the most recognizable Rodin, The Thinker. IMG_3317  Within the museum itself were other sculptures from which we could follow Rodin’s maturation as a sculptor. Even his earliest work showed indications of a great artist. Alongside some of the pieces was a special exhibit of Robert Maplethorpe whose textual and sensual black and white photography was influenced by the same elements in Rodin’s sculpture. Like Rodin, Maplethorpe’s contorted poses of the body mimicked the forms and shapes of the natural environment. But unlike Rodin whose poses also evoke sensuality, Maplethorpe’s sought to shock. At the Branly museum where we met Diane, time allowed for a visit of only three exhibitions, one on Nancy Cunard, one on the American Indians of the Plains, and the third on the cultures on Oceania. The Cunard exhibit was particularly fascinating. Shamefully, I had never heard of Nancy Cunard, and I should have since I’ve studied the art and literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Nancy Cunard was a rebel English heiress who fraternized with the likes of André Breton, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and other literati and artists. She bristled at global and ethnic inequality and inequity and used her wealth and influence to fight these injustices. In 1934, she published a massive tome, Negro, an anthology of art and letters. The exhibit featured her vast collection of bracelets, period jazz music, and Langston Hughes reciting his familiar poem, “I, Too, Sing America.”   We had initially decided that we would bypass the Plains Indians exhibit because it was a theme far too familiar to us, but at the last minute we decided that we could pass through it quickly. Oh, how wrong we were! To our surprise, it was a large exhibit, tastefully done, respectful, detailed with a rich and accurate depiction of American Indian life. The exhibit in many ways paid homage to the traditions of the Plains Indians while at the same time exposing the horrors of the forced land abandonment and migration by the American government. Unlike most exhibits of this kind, the narrative was told in reverse, from the traditions and modern cultural arts, and the living conditions of the twenty-first century reservations to the period before the Native Peoples’ encounters with the European invaders. The last exhibit — and I could have spent the entire afternoon there — was an exhibit on the cultures of Oceania. The masks, and the rituals in which they were used, were the most appealing of all the artifacts.IMG_3347 Examining the tools, the wooden boats, modes of dress, ceremonial objects, and the like, gave me a perspective on a world I know so little about. To anyone visiting Paris, a visit to the Musée Branly is on par with a visit to the Louvre or to the Musée d’Orsay. Nearby are the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides, where Napoléon is buried. No visit to Paris is complete without a concert of classical music.  In France, and throughout Europe, concerts and theatrical events abound.   Musical concerts are often held in churches at little or no cost. On the Left Bank, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame, in the Medieval church, St. Julien-le-Pauvre, we heard beautiful renditions of Chopin and Lizst. I remembered walking in that church many years ago as a student and happened upon a rehearsal of organ music. The deep tones of the organ still resonate in my brain. IMG_3332In Paris, we also met a colleague whom we met a couple of years ago in Brussels where I gave my talk on the literature of the Louisiana gens de couleurs libres.   Melanie and I met Jean-Marc for a coffee and then a couple of beers at a well-known nineteenth century café, Le Rostand, near the Sorbonne. Jean-Marc had just spent the day in the library doing research; he is working with several scholars from across the globe on literatures of the Atlantic. Our visit to Paris was too short. To appreciate all of Paris’ artistic and cultural life, its architectural splendor, its gastronomic delights, its night life and the joy of walking through its gardens, would require a lifetime of leisure. Alas, our three days were just a soupçon. Luckily for us, this was not our first visit to Paris, and hopefully, not our last. From Paris, we took the train for Amsterdam to visit Melanie’s high school friend, Beverly and her husband, Jan. Details of that visit to follow in the next blog.

It’s Melanie again in italics. Leaving Provence really changed the nature of our stay in Europe. In the Toulon area we had a home base rooted in a small town outside the city. We took day-trips and came back home. Only once, when we went to the Antibes area, did we stay over night before returning. We didn’t feel like tourists. We felt like long-term residents, albeit non-French ones. Once we left our car in Marseille, we were on the road staying only three or four nights before moving on. Even though we felt that we had not learned everything possible about the Toulon area, we stayed long enough to revisit places that we liked, to go dancing three times, to go to the movies, to shop at the open-air market on Fridays and get to recognize our favorite vendors, to have a “carte de fidélité” (a grocery story frequent shopper card!), to invite friends to dinner, and to explore the smaller, more intimate sights that weren’t at the top of the tourist agenda but which gave us a deeper understanding of the rhythm of everyday life. Alfred got his hair cut, we had a flat tire repaired, we sat in cafés sipping a drink and reading as we watched the ocean and the people walking by, we had long conversations with people about their health care and their politics. We feel so grateful to have had this time to explore one place in depth. Of course, it was also wonderful to visit people whom we haven’t seen for years. My former 19-year-old ESL student, Alexandra, has grown into a lovely mother of three, who manages the family business while her husband works the land and produces champagne.

IMG_3254 She speaks 5 languages, so she can handle exporting champagne all over the world. It was so much fun to see her brother in Juan-les-Pins in his restaurant and then bring greetings and photos of that reunion to his sister in Champagne. And visiting with our former exchange student, Louis, in Paris was a great three-hour review of where he had been when we knew him to appreciating the young man he has developed into. What a treat to see his excitement about his culinary creations and his growing confidence and maturity. This short but intense meeting made our quick travel to Paris worth it.