Saturday the French Winophiles recount their favorite French memories – either long-ago trips that we’ll never forget or those we imagine when our wanderlust kicks up a fuss. Like most people who have been to France, I have both in my repertoire; but today I’m going back to 1993 and my first visit.
My French boyfriend took me on a two-week vacation that began and ended in Paris, with stops in the Loire Valley, the Massif Central, Cannes, and Burgundy in between. The occasion? My 30th birthday. Things got off to a great start, with a proper celebration at his sister’s house: friends, family, lots (and lots) of Champagne. We spent a few days skulking around Paris before packing up the rental car and heading for the open road.
The Back Story
At this point I need to tell you a little more about my boyfriend, D, who is now my ex-husband. For any of you who follow #winestudio and participated in the rosé program this past June, you might remember one particular bottle of wine we sampled, called Arrogant Frog. Well, that’s my ex.
He has been described by friends and family as an enfant terrible; an artiste with a notoriously artistic temperament; or, more bluntly, a trou de cul (look it up.) Fortunately for him, D was also blessed with an inordinately generous dose of charm. Women swooned over him; men wanted to hang out with him. But his magnetic personality could change within seconds. Mercurial, some would say, if the charm were winning out; infernal, impossible, if it were not.
Lucky for me, charm took the driver’s seat on most days, as we motored through the countryside. D explained the art and architecture we saw, understood the history of each village we visited, knew which wines to order with our meals. It wasn’t just the knowledge he imparted that bowled me over, it was his ability to feel at ease everywhere we went. Confidence oozed out of him, and I felt its warm glow settle around me as well. It was like a legal contact high, I guess – a glorious feeling!
Now I need to tell you a little about me. At the time of this trip, I was still fragile from the break-up of a long-term relationship. If you had wrung me like a dishcloth, nary a drop of confidence would have trickled out. I was in what sports teams call a rebuilding phase: sharpening the offense, tightening the defense, and at least a couple of seasons away from contending in the league. Easy to see why I enjoyed basking in D’s Aura of Awesomeness.
On our way back to Paris we stayed for two days in Vézelay, a medieval town in the Yonne department of Burgundy, southwest of Chablis. It’s a picturesque, hilltop village that dates to Roman times, and boasts a magnificent 11th century basilica honoring Sainte Marie-Madeleine (aka Mary Magdalene). Vézelay was also the departure point for the armies of King Philippe-Auguste and Richard the Lionhearted, as they launched the Third Crusade in 1189.
D’s family history was part of this larger picture: his father had grown up in Vézelay, and he and most of his immediate relatives were buried in the village cemetery. We spent a whole afternoon walking among the tombstones, talking about the family members he knew about, wondering about those he didn’t. Afterward, we were spent; totally exhausted. Oh, and we were hungry. So hungry!
Back at the hotel we cleaned up and got dressed – a blazer and jeans for him, slacks and a jacket for me. We looked pulled together but hardly fancy – the way we often went to dinner at home, in Washington, DC. Ready for a good meal, we jumped in the car, and off we went, in search of the closest restaurant.
Driving French Country Roads in the Dark
If you’ve never navigated the back roads of Burgundy in the dark (without GPS, mind you) I’ll try to explain. Imagine walking a cross-country trail blindfolded, with no one to help you, and you’ll get the gist. As smoothly as everything had gone thus far, our voyage into the black almost unhinged both of us! Careening around a corner we saw a country house/restaurant, and we cruised right up to the door.
I took a quick look at our surroundings and felt my stomach tighten in anxiety. This place was fancy. The other guests looked fancy – men in suits, women in cocktail dresses. My eyes swept the lobby, looking for any clue as to where we were. And then I saw them: three stars on the glass dining room door. We had stumbled upon L’Espérance de Marc Meneau which, at the time, had been awarded three Michelin stars. I looked for D, wanting desperately to grab his hand and sprint back to the car. But he was striding confidently toward the maître d’.
He took one look at us, whisked a menu from his stack, and briskly cut the distance between himself and D. “Would you like to see the menu, monsieur?” he asked quietly, his way of inquiring: Do you have any idea where you are?
Ready to go, I looked at D and realized he wasn’t budging. Instead he took the menu from the maître d’ and closed it. Then he cocked his head to one side and said with a smile, “Well, can we eat or not?” Immediately the man escorted us to an impeccably set table in the dining room. It was like walking into a movie set: glass walls sparkled, reflecting perfectly polished silver, brilliant crystal, and golden candle light. Even the guests radiated a glow of sophistication. We didn’t fit in, but we felt right at home.
D and I drank Chablis with our meal, each of us ordering a different fish for the main course. After the first course, our waiter wheeled a cart to the table, so he could put the finishing touch on our dishes. He whisked and whirled, adding a dash of salt to one pan and a few flecks of pepper to the other, then plated the fish before drizzling each one with the appropriate sauce. Quite a production, and I enjoyed every second of it!
My dish was exquisite – I think it was bathed in a buerre blanc – and I really wanted D to taste it. I cut a small bite and put it on his plate. But before he could get his fork into it, our waiter teleported himself to our table, wagging his index finger and shaking his head. Apparently, I had committed a serious L’Espérance dining infraction!
“Non, non, non! They do not have the same sauce,” he said, pointing to the two incompatible morsels of fish on D’s plate. “I will return.”
Was I about to receive a citation from the restaurant police? Thank goodness social media hadn’t been invented yet – the shame would have followed me for years!
My thoughts were interrupted by the re-appearance of our waiter and his trusty sideboard. He plucked the tiny piece of fish from D’s plate, placing it on its own full-size dinner plate. And then he went to work, mixing a new sauce for the morsel. Dining crisis averted. (All that for a bite of food no larger than my thumb!)
We sampled a few items from the cheese cart, and enjoyed coffee before heading back to the hotel. I wish I could remember more details: the name of the wine, the description of the dishes. But this was before I became passionate about wine (sacre bleu!) and there were no cell phone cameras either, to help fill in the blanks. But maybe it worked out for the best. Rather than capturing a photo of this dinner, I captured my feelings about it, tattooing an emotional image of the entire evening on my heart.
The Moral of the Story
Any story featuring an ex-boyfriend who became an ex-husband has an obligation to teach a lesson, right? For me, the takeaway was the realization that, for all the pain that came later, our first trip to France was a wonderful experience. My world view expanded, my lust for learning burned that much brighter. Twenty-plus years later, I appreciate how my eyes and heart were opened over those two weeks.
But there was something else I realized, as we walked out of L’Espérance: confidence trumps all. If you believe, deep in your heart, that you fit in, that you’re accepted, you can dress however the hell you want! I was ready to flee the scene, jump in the car, and go hungry rather than feel out of place wearing casual clothes in a fancy restaurant. My ex never had a doubt, never questioned his “appropriateness,” and the world bent to his will. Confidence doesn’t need an outfit – it IS the outfit! A big revelation for my broken, 30-year-old self. It’s a lesson for which I’m eternally grateful, and one that I’ve tried to internalize (without the artistic temperament, of course!)
The French Winophiles
Our cast of wine and food bloggers convenes the third Saturday of each month, to share ideas, tips, and discoveries on a particular theme. Here’s what the rest of the group will contribute this month:
Jill from L’occasion tells the tale of A Château in Provence.
If you’d like to follow the conversation, join us on Twitter at 11 am ET, this Saturday September 16th. Make sure to add #Winophiles to your tweets so we’ll know you’re there. And tune in next month, when Jill Barth takes us to Languedoc-Roussillon. November is Beaujolais month, hosted by Jeff Burrows of Food Wine Click, and in December we set our sights on the dessert wines of France.