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Defeated By Lunch

The wine, food and friends from my travels in France

Bob Perkins

Brighton Publishing LLC

435 N. Harris Drive

Mesa, AZ 85203

www.BrightonPublishing.com

ISBN13: 978-1-62183-519-6

Copyright © 2019

EBook

SMASHWORDS EDITION

Cover Design: Tom Rodriguez

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgements

Dedication

Preface

Introduction

Part One: Discovery—The Early Years

Chapter One: Beginnings: falling in love with Paris

Chapter Two: Return–1993

Chapter Three: 1999 Sabbatical

Chapter Four: Sabbatical, Part II

Chapter Five: A month is not enough

Chapter Six: A Michelin Restaurant

Chapter Seven: Mom and Dad return to France

Chapter Eight Burgundy and Franciose

Chapter Nine: A birthday in Provence

Chapter Ten: Tour de France

Part Two: Wine

Chapter Eleven: A wine club

Chapter Twelve: What’s wrong with my wine?

Chapter Thirteen: Wine—A Manifesto

Chapter Fourteen: Wine—The Left Bank

Chapter Fifteen: Wine—The Right Bank

Part Three: The Dordogne

Chapter Sixteen: The Dordogne

Chapter Seventeen: Buffet de la Gare

Chapter Eighteen: Trépart–Giles and Amanda

Chapter Nineteen: Monbazillac

Chapter Twenty: Our Marquis–Lafayette

Chapter Twenty-One: C’est Fini; jamais!

About the Author

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all of our friends–American, British and French–who have made our French adventure beyond what we ever could have imagined.

Thanks to my family who has encouraged my obsession, and particularly my wonderful wife Debbie who has come along on this ride and made it magical. I couldn’t have done it without you! Je t’aime!

Thanks to the team at Brighton Publishing who diligently worked on the edits and fact checking and made me look better than I am.

Thanks to my friend Susie Ledieu who tirelessly worked on the French edits. Merci beaucoup!

“God is no man’s debtor.”–Hudson Taylor; Thank you Lord for your abundance.

Dedication

For Mom and Dad


Bob - 1955

Preface

Some people are fortunate enough to fall in love at a young age. Le premier amour. I envy them. They marry their high school sweetheart and enjoy years of blissful togetherness. Others, like me, seem to have love delayed. I didn’t marry my true love until I was almost twenty-seven, which seemed very old at the time, and my love affair with France was delayed until I was thirty-six–really old. I didn’t spend a semester in college with a French family, and I didn’t backpack around Europe after graduating from college. With all due respect to my lovely French teachers–désolé–I loathed and resented having to study the language in school, and I literally burned my French text books when I thought I would no longer have to suffer through endless conjugations and vocabulary memorization.

Fortunately, I fell in love with France when I was still young enough to feel the adolescent surge of just-found romance, and almost mature enough to really appreciate great art, wonderful food and amazing wine. Especially the wine! Perhaps it was the best time to fall in love. Or maybe just “Better late than never.”

It was 1991 and I had been asked to speak in Vienna and Budapest, and I thought I should stop in Paris on my way. Less than six hours after landing in the City of Light, I was in love. I was smitten. Everything about Paris enchanted me, and it would change my life forever. But it was outside of Paris, in the small towns and villages–the rolling countryside lined with vineyards and sunflowers–where I found true love. I found my deep appreciation for Le Bel Hexagone in the remote places that few Americans ever visit: the places where the true culture of the French people is still alive. It was here that I discovered a life that we Americans know nothing about, and part of me became deeply envious.

In the small French towns–those storybook places that are nothing like Paris–there is a daily ritual that defines life there. It is noon and the shutters are shut, the air is still, and the silence is unnerving. You wonder if a message of impending doom has reached the inhabitants, sending them scurrying to underground bunkers to hide from the outside world as you look around at the emptiness. It is eerie in its stillness and yet peaceful and poetic in its calm. Have aliens invaded? Is the entire village hiding in fear? Mais non–it is the sacred rite of Lunch, and the French have stopped to worship.

On one visit we were taking friends to the train station, and we wanted to make sure they could make a 1:00 train. There was a strike going on in the town, and we were afraid that it would tie up traffic and we wouldn’t be able to make it to the train station in time. But not to fear, the strike only lasted until noon. Then placards and signs were put away, speeches were halted, everyone stopped marching and the crowd dispersed for lunch. The French could not let a thing like political passion get in the way of the sacred rite of lunch.

It is common in America to believe that the French are slow and that they don’t work as hard as we do–which reveals more about us than it does about them–but the French do indeed know how to be frenetic. Drive on any French road or fight your way through the Paris Metro at rush hour, and you will see that the French know how to be just as frénétiques as we are. They race from one place to another, waitresses dart from one table to the next in crowded restaurants, and they are proud of their time-squeezing Concord and TGV–planes and trains that are the fastest in the world.

The real difference between our lifestyle and theirs is that the French know how to stop; arretêz! They know how to stop working and to rest. They don’t eat at their desk or drink coffee as they walk to work. They don’t “drive-thru” and eat in their car. They stop and give their meals a place of respect in their lives. They give the proper time each morning to prendre petit-déjeuner, and they sit and enjoy a long lunch, giving their food time to digest before going back to work. They know that life cannot be all work and no rest. They have balance and a perspective on life that gives them a certain rhythm and pace that is to be admired.

Two-hour lunches and three-hour dinners are the way the French get perspective on what is important in life and give balance to their day. A French friend once said to me after we had finished a wonderful lunch and we were still sitting at the table, “In France the time after lunch is still lunch. It is just as important as the meal itself.” Vive la France!

It is said there is no French translation for the American phrase “fast food,” and there is no American translation for the French phrase “bon appétit,” which pretty much sums it up. The French don’t do food fast, and we Americans don’t know the joy of slowly enjoying a long meal. It’s difficult for us to grasp the French concept of long meals, but they are a delight to the soul and the senses. One of the things I love about going back to France every year is the simple pleasure of relaxing over an evening’s meal.

Even now, after visiting France for more than twenty years, it still takes me several days to adjust to the culture of knowing how to stop. I want my food fast, to be in and out of a restaurant in under an hour, and to get my check as soon as the last morsel has passed my lips. I want to rush on to the next thing and to fill my day with all the activity of a man on a quest–even when I don’t know what the quest is. I’m an American and that’s how I am wired. I live with a “to-do” list, and my day is successful when I can check off things on my list. The more things I check off, the more successful I am. But here, in the alternative universe that is France, I learn to look at life differently and to approach my time on this Earth with a different perspective.

After one of my trips to France, I stood in line at U.S. Customs behind a group of American tourists who had just returned from a week in Paris. As I listened to them talk about their trip, it occurred to me that they had seen all the sights, done all the things in the guidebooks, and completely missed Paris. The checklist was complete–Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Musee D-Orsay, Louvre, etc. They had seen it all, but they never experienced Paris. They didn’t “get it.” They never had a three-hour dinner and lingered after the check came just because they could. They never spent an afternoon slowly picking at a baguette, sipping a glass of wine, and listening to a concert in Luxembourg Gardens. They never walked leisurely around the Seventh or had a cup of hot Chocolat Africain at Angelina’s. They never sat restfully in the dark, listening to the majestic organ of Saint-Sulpice or the countless other experiences that are off the “must see” list. They missed the best part of Paris, and they didn’t even know it. Most of all, they never knew the people.

They never had a waiter sit down after work and share a bottle of wine with them, or a hotel owner set up a table outside just for them, long after the terrace was closed. They never spent hours with a winemaker as he proudly took them through every part of his winery, and tasted his bounty together when the tour was finished. They never stopped long enough to have a French person explain a particular phrase in French to them or to return the favor by explaining an English idiom to a Frenchman. They never talked with a French person about the War and saw the gratefulness in the eyes of a man and woman old enough to remember, and promising themselves, and you, that they will never forget. They never stopped long enough to know the French people, and they have missed the best part of France.

This book is an attempt to capture the wonderful experiences I’ve had in France by sharing the stories of great places, incredible food, fantastic wine and, most of all, the wonderful people I’ve come to know and cherish in my years of visiting France. I hope you will enjoy reading about them as much as I have enjoyed writing about them, and that you will gain a little insight into “La Joie de Vivre,” my France.

Mom and Dad with me - 1955

Introduction

On days when school was canceled because of snow, or rain ruined our summer shenanigans–in a time before video games and hundreds of channels on television–my siblings and I often found ourselves in the basement of our home setting up my dad’s old slide projector and Super 8 movie contraption. We would spend hours engrossed by the pictures from a land far away.

My parents had spent their first two years of married life in France while my dad completed his ROTC commitment, and my mom carried her first pregnancy. I still find it remarkable that at the ages of twenty-two (Dad) and nineteen (Mom), my parents left the comfortable environs of suburban Baltimore and moved to the mysterious and faraway land of France. It was 1954, and France was still recovering from World War II. The country was poor, and the reminders of a terrible war were everywhere. Bombed-out buildings, a devastated economy and the lingering emotional scars of war covered the country. Mom and Dad rented the top floor of a little house in the petite ville of Veneux-les-Sablons, a short distance from the Chateau Fontainebleau, and jumped into an adventure like the clueless American kids they were. They had very little money, a handful of American friends on the Army base, and each other. Ahh, young love!

The small town of Fontainebleau is about forty-five minutes south-east of Paris by car, or about thirty minutes by train. The petite ville is quite lovely and today is also home to an outstanding business school known all over the world for its high-quality education. The Chateau Fontainebleau was built by Francoise I of France and was the vacation home/hunting lodge of kings. Then Napoleon arrived and gave it distinction by being the place where he held a pope captive and from where he later abdicated. Its architectural hallmark is the horseshoe staircase that adorns its front façade, and its overall magnificence is equal to that of Versailles or any of the other great French chateaux.

In 1954 its grounds were also home to an American military base. On weekends and days off, my parents traveled all over Europe and took slides and movies of old towns, historic castles, snow-capped mountains and people whose faces seemed to bear witness to the hardness of life. They brought some of France back with them, and phrases like “si vous plait,” “au revoir,” and “allez!” were often heard in our house–especially “allez!” (go!) On our days of boredom, my siblings and I would sit for hours looking at those pictures up on the screen in the basement and dreaming of a magical land we would probably never see. Or so I thought.

It may have been those pictures, or the fact that in 1955 I was born in the American hospital on the Army base at Fontainebleaua building that my wife likes to remind me was used by Napoleon for his horses–that gave France a special place in my soul. But being born in France was not something I thought about very often growing up and not something that was a particularly popular factoid worth sharing with my neighborhood friends in Baltimore in the sixties. Among the neighborhood gang, being the only one born in France was not that neat.

Still, it was special to me. In a strange way I had shared that experience of being in France with my parents, and it would always be a bond between us. I felt like I was a part of their time there: that it included me. And in the beginning when it was just the three of us, and we were far away from the rest of the family, we shared something special. In a way it was ridiculous to think that, as I was born eight months after my mom arrived and left France ten months later. But still, I was there and the others weren’t. I looked at the pictures on the screen and knew that it was special: a special time, a special place, and I had been part of it.

My birth certificate is in French, and growing up I heard stories of the French people who babysat me as my folks went off exploring Europe. The most often-told story, of course, was that I was given watered-down wine in my bottle by the French couple who lived in the rooms below my parents. But other than that, I had no connection to France and no interest in finding out anything about it.

I took French for three years in high school and two years in college, and all I learned from that experience was that I hated the French language. The endless conjugations and the tedious vocabulary were a constant source of pain in my life and did nothing to help my GPA. When I had completed my last course and thought I would never have to engage that silly and useless language again, a friend and I went up on a hill and burned our French books as if to say, “C’est fini!” Note to all French teachers: The first day of French class should be filled with French culture. It should be filled with French art, music and food—especially food. You should find the best French bakery in town, buy copious amounts of pastries and deserts and overwhelm the senses of your impressionable etudiants. At least the males in the class will have a completely different appreciation for the language!

So, on one hand, you might say that of course I was going to become a Francophile, I was born there. But for me it was not so obvious. I would have never imagined that the place I had no interest in would become, like so many others before me, the magical place I loved.

Part One

Discovery—The Early Years

On The Steps At 48 Rue de Bourgogne

Chapter One

Beginnings: falling in love with Paris

It is only slightly ironic that my French adventure would have St. Louis, Missouri–named for a Frenchman–as it’s starting place. It is a place I would never have imagined I’d live. When you grow up in Baltimore you think that the “west” is Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In 1987 I was offered a job in St. Louis, and I had to get out a map of the U.S. to see where it was. St. Louis meant two things to me: baseball and Budweiser. At the end of every Budweiser commercial they said, “Anheuser Busch, St. Louis, Missouri.” No one else does that. No one tells you where the stuff is made. And why would we care? I mean, it’s beer and from St. Louis–so what?

I mention this only because it was here that my French adventure began. Good friends of mine in St. Louis left their secure Midwestern life and moved their young family to Vienna for two years. Scott taught at the International School and worked as a volunteer with the same nonprofit organization that had called me to St. Louis. They came home for the summer, and we went to lunch with them on a hot and humid typical St. Louis July afternoon. Over hamburgers and fries they asked me to come to Austria and speak to the staff of the organization they were working with and help that group with some strategy. I looked at my friend and said, “If you’re serious, you won’t have to ask me twice. Let’s go buy the tickets now.”

He said, “I’m serious,” and we walked across the street to the travel agent. No, we didn’t buy the tickets, but we did find out what it would cost and put our plans in wet cement. We would go for ten days. We would leave the weekend before Thanksgiving, do some touring in France, then meet them in Vienna and travel on to Budapest.

I thought it would probably be the only time we’d ever get to Europe. I had no idea, and couldn’t even imagine that this was only the beginning of a lifelong adventure and a love affair that would impact my whole life. I guess most love affairs are like this. You don’t go looking to fall in love with someone else, it just happens. I didn’t go looking to fall in love with another country, it just happened. I wasn’t dissatisfied with America; in fact, I love my country. I’m not one of those people who think about leaving every time a politician gets elected they don’t like. I have no desire to ever leave America, but that didn’t stop a love affair with another country from happening.

Since this was supposedly the only time I would ever get to Europe, it made sense to me that I should visit the place where I was born. It wasn’t a huge compulsion, just a simple act of “should.” If I was going to be this close to my birthplace, it would be a mistake not to see the place at least this once. We made our plans to fly into Paris, spend a couple of days so we could make the side trip to Fontainebleau, and then take the overnight train to Vienna.

My mom and dad were glad we were going, but didn’t prepare me at all for what we were about to experience. Dad dug out his old map from 1954 and said, “Things in France hadn’t changed in a hundred years–they won’t have changed in another thirty. You’ll be fine with this map.” It was the days before the internet, so we relied on guidebooks and a great travel agent to figure out train schedules and logistics. We did our research, planned the trip and prepared for our adventure.

We applied for passports, booked our flight, bought a Eurail Pass, reserved a couchette on the all-night train from Paris to Vienna, made a reservation in Paris at a hotel someone had recommended and changed some American dollars into francs. My folks agreed to keep our two sons, one of whom was only five months old. And finally, after months of preparation and anticipation, we were off on a TWA all-night flight to Paris, arriving at some ungodly hour of the early morning, jet lagged and in a foreign world. We really had no idea of the adventure that was ahead of us, or the impact these few days would have on the rest of our lives. We were just two overgrown kids on an adventure we never thought we would be able to afford.

Too afraid of the Metro, we took a cab to our hotel. On the forty-five-minute taxi ride from the airport, with a Parisian taxi driver who made the trip something scarily akin to Disney World’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” I had been transported to an artistic and architectural wonderland I had never imagined existed. Those initial sights of Paris as we darted through traffic amazed and surprised me. It was an architectural canvas of beauty like I had never encountered before or since, and I was in awe.

We wound our way from the motorway into the crowded center city and the first thing I noticed was the symmetry and beauty of the buildings. There is a commonness about the architecture that makes it distinctively Paris, but there is also the uniqueness of each edifice that gives it the beauty of great art. We dodged thru traffic and crossed one of the graceful bridges of the Seine each adorned with statues, lights and gold, and I was blown away! I saw the ornate grand buildings topped with shining gold domes, and I couldn’t take it all in. We sped past Notre Dame, Napoleons Tomb, the Place de la Concord and the Sorbonne and it was all too amazing for me. In the distance was the Eiffel Tour and now, in context of the city where it lives, I understood its magnificence. We passed an array of beautiful green gardens and the manicured lawns accentuated the beauty of the surrounding building. It seemed that on every street there were bright marble statues, a tribute to a history that long eclipses the modernity of the States. Everything about Paris conspired to make it more magnificent than I could have ever imagined, and I was in love.

It’s funny how a little decision like taking a cab instead of the Metro can make such a huge difference in your life. The taxi gave me a tour of the city, while the Metro–and I’ve taken it many times since–would have given me a tour of the ghetto. My first impressions would have been very different, and maybe my whole experience would have been changed.

We arrived at our hotel in the Seventh, Arrondissement and when it came time to pay I just held out my hand with a bunch of French money. The cabbie took what he needed and said “merci.” I had no idea how much the fare was or how much he took, and I didn’t care.

It was too early to check in to our hotel room, but the kind clerk at the front desk took our bags for safekeeping, and we went across the street to a small bistro for breakfast. It was 1991, and I can still remember where we sat and what I had–eggs like I’d never had them before–and I gazed out the window wondering what kind of place this was. I had fallen in love and the affair had begun.

We finished breakfast and got out my dad’s 1954 map of Paris, ready to explore the city. My wife Debbie recommended we take a tour bus to get the overall sense of the place, and that seemed like a great idea. So we walked from our hotel in the Seventh to rue de Rivoli in the 1st Arrondissement to catch a sightseeing bus. We were exhausted and jet-lagged, and within five minutes of boarding that bus we were asleep. It was the most expensive nap of our lives, but it didn’t matter. The walk alone and the few sights we saw from the bus window were enough. I was smitten with Paris. Like so many others before me, I was just another fool who had been drawn into her light–that yellow and gold softness that cuddles you and caresses you and makes you fall in love–and I would never be the same. Paris had burst into my soul, and I was forever hostage to her beauty.

The bus returned to the starting place, and we woke up just in time to exit. At this point, having made the novice mistake of sleeping on our first day of jet lag, we were hungry and wanted something to eat. It was 5:00 and we thought we would find a small restaurant for dinner. We saw a long line of people at what looked like a nice-enough establishment and assumed it would be a good place for our evening meal. We had no idea that Angelina’s was a famous institution in Paris or that it would become one of my favorite eateries–or that they don’t serve dinner! At the time, we just needed something to eat. Cultural lesson #1: The French don’t eat dinner at 5:00.

We stood in a long line of Parisians waiting patiently and talking softly. When it was our turn we were finally seated at a très petite round table almost on top of the couple next to us. Angelina’s is a one-hundred-year-old, ornate, historic restaurant that legend has it inspired Walt Disney to design the Crystal Palace in Disney World. Angelina’s has occupied this space since its inception, and I feel like I am part of its history every time I sit down. The small round tables, the equally small round-seat wooden chairs, and waitresses in classic black and white outfits all conspire to let you know, in case you were confused, “You’re in Paris!”

We were handed the small menu and greeted with “bonjour,” and immediately we noticed that there wasn’t anything one would consider “dinner” on the menu. There was nothing resembling a great steak or even a chicken breast. The menu featured pastries and drinks–all of which I was sure were delightful–but we needed dinner. The nice young waitress looked at us as if we weren’t the first Americans she had met and said she could make us some sandwiches if we’d like. We accepted her kindness and thanked her for the consideration. We looked around and noticed that everyone was contently having small servings of pastries, sipping tea and coffee and then–what the heck is that at the table next to us?

The couple to my left had received at their table a large drinking bowl, larger than a large coffee cup, of chocolate. It wasn’t your typical hot chocolate, however, but rather something I had never seen before. This had a rich, thick texture that was more like heavy chocolate cream and smelled as good as it looked. Next to the chocolate was another large bowl of–are you ready?–whipped cream. The patrons at the table took their small spoon and carefully dipped it into the whipped cream then into the chocolate, all with perfect casual formality that the French have perfected.

The combination of chocolate and whipped cream seemed so decadent that I was instantly, insanely jealous. We had to order this hot Chocolat Afrikain and try it for ourselves. We discovered that it was the specialty of the house, and the most fantastic chocolate in the entire world. Our waitress was instantly pleased that we were going to indulge. Every dipped sip seemed like an indulgence that was from another planet. Deb and I looked at each other in giddy delight and savored every ounce of our first big Parisian delight. Who needs dinner when you can have chocolate!

Years later on an Air France flight to Paris the flight attendant offered me the typical selections on an Air France flight–coffee, tea or hot chocolate. I said (in French), “Is it chocolate from Angelina’s?”

The flight attendant’s face lit up and she replied, “You know Angelina’s? It is the best chocolate in the world!” I smiled and agreed. “No, this is not Angelina’s,” she said with disappointment in her voice. She wasn’t the only one who was disappointed.

Today, when I land in Paris, before I check in to my hotel, I head straight to Angelina’s for the best breakfast in the world: Parisian pastries, scrumptious Eggs Benedict and, of course, hot Chocolat Afrikain. In one delightful breakfast the six-hour flight seems completely worth it, and I know I have arrived back in the world capital of great food.

With the hotChocolat Afrikain finished and our minds and palates still in shock, we walked back to our hotel and crashed. What a first day!

On that first trip we were in another world, and it didn’t matter. Our hotel room was about the size of a large walk-in closet back home. It didn’t matter. The street noise would have kept us up all night had we not been so exhausted. It didn’t matter. The heating system was from the 1920s, and we were cold. It didn’t matter. We wore our bright blue winter jackets from Lands’ End all over Paris, and stood out like the American tourists we were. It didn’t matter. We were in love with Paris, and everything that would have been annoying in another place was charming and delightful here.

How could such a place exist on this Earth? How have I missed her charms all these years? My thoughts from the first day onward turned toward one all-consuming goal: “How will I get back?”

At our hotel the next day we watched with horror as another American couple stood waving American dollars at an employee, demanding in English for them to carry their huge bags of luggage to the cab. We knew immediately we didn’t want to be those people. We wanted to show our love for this place and the people who call this home, and we would work hard to experience this foreign land as the appreciative guests we were.

We decided right then and there that we would try to learn as much about the French culture as we could and be respectful of it. If the French spoke in soft tones then we would learn to speak in soft tones. If the French took two-hour lunches and three-hour dinners then we would too.

We also decided to work on using as much French as we could and to always be learning to speak the language as much as we could. There were so many words and phrases we already knew–bonjour, au revoir, merci, oui, si vous plait, bonne, allez, tres, avez vous?–that we would begin by trying to use those words whenever we could. I think it helped. I think that whenever you show respect for another culture by engaging with their language it begins to build a bridge and it helps engage the other person. It may be that one of the reasons we’ve been treated so well in France is because we have engaged their culture without demanding they bend to ours.

Fontainebleau

The next morning was gray and cold in the City of Light as we made our pilgrimage to Fontainebleau. The aggressively nice young receptionist at our hotel patiently gave us directions to the correct Metro and train station, and we made our way to La Gare de Lyon and somehow figured out how to take the train to Fontainebleau. Fortunately for us it was a Sunday and most of Paris was sleeping, so the streets, Metro and gare were all un-crowded. French trains were still something to be proud of in an age when American railroads had collapsed into the very regrettable Amtrak, and my first experience on SNCF was a forty-minute delight. Ah, this is how trains used to be, and how I wish they still were.

We arrived in Fontainebleau with my dad’s map in hand and took the city bus from the train station to the chateau. The little town of Fontainebleau was like something out of Beauty and the Beast. There was a quiet, almost poetic movement of people going about their Sunday morning routine that did not include church, but was nevertheless a religious ritual I would come to understand in later visits. On this day it was just another aspect of “foreignness” that I was consuming and trying to process.

Le Chateâu Fontainebleau is a beautiful chateau, and if you ask me–with all my birthplace prejudice acknowledged–I think it is far lovelier than Versailles. The famous horseshoe staircase that is its trademark gives it a grandeur and elegance that is more like the chateaux of the Loire, Chenonceau and Chambord, than the unimaginative rectangle monstrosity that is Versailles. The stunning artwork, the paintings, the chapel and the sheer grandness were everything one would expect from a European castle. It is, in fact, grander and more elegant than reflected in the slides we had watched as children.

We arrived at the beautiful gold-plated iron gates, and I stopped to stare at the magnificent staircase I had only seen in slides so many times before. We walked over to the entrance, paid for our tickets and walked through the palace admiring the opulence–trying not to get lost in the labyrinth of hallways and appartements–and getting our first sense of European royal grandeur. Each room took us back to a time of European royalty, and it was like nothing I had ever seen in the U.S. We have Colonial Williamsburg. It’s three hundred years old and was the town of working people. Fontainebleau is eight hundred years old and was the palace of royalty.

At the end of the tour we stopped at the information desk to ask for specific directions to 48 rue de Bourgogne, my parents’ residence in 1954. I proudly showed the kind young woman behind the counter my map. After some very intense studying of the map she pronounced, “But it is not here. It is in Veneux-les-Sablons, the next town. You must go back to the train station and take two more stops and get off at Moret.”

What? I thought they lived in Fontainebleau! My birth certificate says “Fontainebleau,” and that’s where I always heard they lived. She showed me specifically on the map and I couldn’t believe it! Somehow in my father’s “helpful” advice and map-giving he neglected to tell me that their home in France was not in Fontainebleau but in another town–Veneux les say what???

Back to the train station we went. Thank God for a Eurail Pass that let us ride all day. Two stops later we were deposited in the middle of nowhere–Moret. We stepped off the train, and Deb and I looked at each other. “What now?”

“Let’s walk up this hill and see what we find,” I said. The slight incline from the station seemed to lead to the town, and so off we went. At the top of the hill, at the crossroads, there was a street sign, “Rue de Bourgogne.” This was it!

It was as if God had directed our steps and we had found the very street we were looking for: the one where my parents had lived over thirty years ago. We turned the corner and there was a church I had seen before in slides from my parents’ collection, and I had a strange rush of emotions: of worlds colliding. The world of Baltimore basements on snow days was colliding with the reality of standing in this small, remote French village.

Excitement filled my soul, and I realized that we were very close to finding the house that was my first home. We walked down the street counting off the house numbers until we arrived at #48. It was unoccupied–or so it seemed from the overgrown brush surrounding it and the tall black iron fence that was locked. Locked! I peered through the brush and got glimpses of the house. I had seen pictures of the place, and while it looked familiar, there was also something different–a second floor that was added sometime after my parents had left.

I tried to take some pictures by extending my arms over the fence and trying to fit the camera lens into small openings, but after a few minutes of frustration I was ready to give up. I couldn’t believe I had come all this way and couldn’t get beyond the iron gates. Just then the shutters on the house across the narrow street opened, and an elderly woman with graying hair and dressed in a casual, Sunday morning housedress began speaking very quickly in French–completely incomprehensible to me.

Before I left the States I had thought it might be good to be able to say “I was born here’’ in French, and I turned to this stranger and said, “Je suis né ici.” Suddenly her eyes lit up and she quickly closed the shutters. Deb and I looked at each other as if to say, “That was weird,” but within a few moments she appeared at the door to her house holding in her hand the keys to her neighbor’s gates and my quest.

More jabbering in French that I didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter. I was inside the property, and more memories of pictures on slides came rushing back. There was the water tower in the back of the house where my dad had told me the owners (his landlords) had hidden from the Nazis during the war. There was the driveway where my dad parked his Ford he had the Army deliver for him from America. There were the front steps and porch upon which they had taken one of my favorite pictures: It is a photo of my young mom dressed in a beautiful blue overcoat, beaming from ear to ear, holding me when she brought me home from the hospital. It was a fabulous place and I couldn’t get enough of it. Oh, how I wished Mom and Dad could have been here to share this with me and remember those years.

I had finally taken all the pictures I wanted, and we said good-bye to the kind angel with the keys, uttering, “Merci,” as many times as I could. Our new friend told us that a grandson of the couple my parents had rented from now owned the house and used it on weekends. Our mission was complete, and our first major encounter with a French person outside of the service industry had been fantastic. It would be like that again and again. The reputation of the French as cold and rude to Americans was shattered that day. Now, besides the glow of Paris, there was the warmth of a stranger, and France was becoming more than buildings and art: it was wonderful people and an engaging culture.

We walked back to the train station in a slight daze and rode back to Paris in time for dinner. We guessed at a restaurant and made a mistake–which is not easy to do in Paris. You have to look long and hard to find a bad restaurant in Paris, and that night we did. In hindsight it was probably not a bad restaurant, I just ordered the wrong thing. But at the time I judged the whole restaurant by that one meal. Not being able to read a menu in French, we ordered steak (bifteck), and it was expensive and terrible. The meal was saved by a bottle of Beaujolais Villages that was completely enjoyable–and my first real introduction to French wine. That inexpensive, simple, delightful wine was my inauspicious start to wine collecting: a harbinger of unknown things to come.

The next day we did some basic sightseeing that I don’t really remember because I was still in a combination of jet lag and worlds-collide daze. We made our way once again to La Gare de Lyon and boarded the all-night train to Salzburg to meet some friends before going on to Vienna. Our accommodations for the trip was a couchette–six bunks in one compartment, your life in your hands, and incredibly cheap–intended for overnight trips where you could sleep all night and arrive at your destination refreshed and ready to go in the morning. There was no way I was going to sleep. It was all too overwhelming for me; and besides, I never sleep on trains. I enjoy them too much and am always afraid I’ll miss something.

The die was cast. I had to get back to Paris. I was like a schoolboy with his first crush, and I just had to get back. I lay awake on the train and started planning my next trip right then. I would save and earn extra money, and in two years we would return. I just had to. My love affair with France was just beginning, and a new passion had made its way into my life.

We returned in 1993, 1997, 1999 and every year since except for 2001. Our tickets were for September 14, 2001, and when the world changed three days before we were scheduled to leave, we had to cancel our trip. Everyone in France was very gracious in canceling our reservations without charging us anything, and most of all they were incredibly sympathetic toward us. They hurt for us, and person after person expressed their solidarity with America. I knew the bond between our countries was something special, and I loved that the country I was having an affair with also loved my country.

In 2006 I started B&B’s French Wine Club (now “Art In A Glass”) that enables me to spend extended time in France every year, and I never tire of my journeys there. It really is a place where “la joie de vivre” is eternal.

The rest of this book is about the wonderful adventures and enchanting people we have had the privilege of getting to know on our travels to France. Sharing these stories again has brought back all the great memories. As I reflect on the experiences, you will understand how incredibly fortunate I consider myself to have experienced the culture that is France. I invite you to come with me across the pond and share in my love affair with the land of my birth.

At Chenonceau

Chapter Two

Return–1993

When we returned to America after that first trip in 1991, everyone told us that we had to see other places; we couldn’t just see France. We needed to be “broadened.” We needed to see more of Europe and not be limited to one country. We must go to England, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. They insisted there was so much more to Europe than just France, and we were limiting ourselves by only going to France. We tried–really–we tried.

We listened to their advice, and in 1993 we returned to Europe, this time trying to explore places other than France. We began in England where one of my professors from Covenant Seminary was on sabbatical in Cambridge. He and his family were away on holidays, and they graciously let us stay in the home they were renting. It was all so charming in a “Hyacinth Bouquet” kind of way. The cobblestone streets lined with little pubs and people driving on the wrong side of the street was all so very cute.

We spent five days in this quaint little town dominated by the world-famous university, and it was lovely. We rode the train into London to visit all the places we were told we must see. We made our way to the Palace, the Abbey, St. Paul’s, the Tower and enjoyed a local pub or two. It was nice–lovely–even charming at times. But it wasn’t France.

We rode the train to Switzerland, and it was gorgeous. The mountains are majestic, and the storybook villages on lush green hillsides next to deep blue lakes like glass are all stunningly beautiful. It was a romantic trip back in time, and one of my most memorable dinners ever was spent gazing across Lake Geneva as the sun sank behind the mountains. Still, it wasn’t France.

After that fabulous lakeside dinner we boarded another all-night train in another sketchy couchette and headed from Geneva to Rome. My dad had slides from his trip to Rome, and it seemed reasonable that I should visit the Holy City and see the history, so this was our adventure to antiquity.

Our friends Eric and Kelly were vacationing in Europe as well, and we met up with them for a four-day stay in the city of the pope. In the days before cell phones, we had made our plans with them while we were both stateside and hoped we would be able to rendezvous in Rome. We had agreed to meet on a specific day and time at the Rome train station two weeks after we left the States. There was no guarantee they would be there, or that we would make it; but in those days, that was all part of the adventure.

Again, I didn’t sleep on the all night-train, but when we descended the stairway from our railcar and navigated the siege of moneychangers and “tour guides” that crowded the Rome rail station, we were overjoyed to see Eric and Kelly’s smiling faces. They were waiting at the end of the track as we walked out into the bustling big city of Rome.

Doing Europe on a shoestring budget, we found a very inexpensive pensione that was a simple bedroom with a bathroom down the hall. It wasn’t my idea of a decent hotel, but it wasn’t pretending to be either. It was cheap, relatively clean, had a bed and would allow us to spend the money we were saving on great food.

We dropped our backpacks at the hotel, and with our guidebooks in hand, we set out to conquer Rome. In what should have been a fair warning–or maybe it set the tone for the entire Roman experience–child gypsies accosted me on our first day. One young girl attempted to distract me by shoving a newspaper in my face while her evil little accomplice thrust her thieving little hand into my pocket. Fortunately for me, all of my valuables were in my money belt.

The really shocking thing about these little criminals was that they were fearless. In a reflex reaction I pushed the newspaper away from my face, but the young girl with her hand in my pocket wouldn’t give up. Once she had her hand in my pocket she was not letting go just because I had shoved her accomplice out of the way. I had to literally smack her before she went away! They say that pickpockets are common in Europe, but in all the years I’ve been going to Europe, it was only in Rome that I personally experienced them. Slightly shaken but undeterred, we pressed on to see all the sights that we had come so far to engage.

My wonderful wife and my friend Eric share one very unfortunate common trait; they both have no sense of direction. They can get lost in a closet. Therefore, Kelly and I split the navigational duties, each of us taking turns with the map and guiding our foursome around the city. Make a right here and see the Pantheon. Go straight here and we’ll get to the Spanish Steps, etc. It was exhausting. After hours and hours of walking around Rome in scalding heat, and without much sleep the night before, I was spent. Kelly and I were trading the navigational duties back and forth, and finally Kelly had had enough.

She turned to me and said, “I’m done. Can you take the map?” A look of pain flashed over my entire face. It had been a long day, and I had done most of the leading. I was soaked with sweat and at the end of my rope. I couldn’t imagine taking the map again. She looked at me then shot her gaze to our beloved spouses and uttered with as much disdain as she could possibly muster, what has become an oft-repeated line among the four of us since then: “If you don’t take it, one of them will.”

I replied with equally as much disdain as I could muster, “Give me the damn map.”

Rome is historical. Everywhere you go you are reminded of a civilization that has existed for thousands of years, and at times it can be interesting. We walked to the Colosseum–which is sobering–but it happened to be closed because they were shooting a commercial that day. Years later I visited it with my son Taylor, and I couldn’t help but think about the masses who were entertained there while the rulers did whatever they wanted. It seems eerily relevant today.

The ruins are also incredible. To walk through the shattered remains of a civilization that is thousands of years old is mind-boggling. I was struck with the fact that the basic things in life don’t change very much. There has always been commerce, politics, religion, relationships, families, art and war. I thought of the great arch of history and the small place we have in it.

We threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, climbed the Spanish Steps and stood in the Pantheon gazing at the domed ceiling. All were cool enough, but none of them blew me away. The Vatican was also closed for a Holy Day, so we ended our first-day tour de force with a great dinner and cheap Italian wine before collapsing in our beds too tired to let the noise outside keep us from sleeping.

The next day we returned to the Vatican. This place that is the center of the Catholic world was overwhelming and, unfortunately for me, a little depressing. After changing into long pants–there is a dress code to enter the Vatican–we stood in a long line waiting our turn to enter St. Peter’s. The moneychangers were in full force, and it took away from what should have been–I wanted it to be–a deeply spiritual experience. You must pay to look at relics, pay to go into this room or that room and pay to see the tombs of saints. And if that wasn’t enough, there were people everywhere with bags for you to put money into, adroitly jingling the coins to get your attention. It was all just too… I don’t really know the right word: pagan?

But the art–truly, the art–is breathtaking. Everywhere we went in the Vatican we engaged phenomenal art, or perhaps more accurately, it engaged us. Everywhere I looked I was inspired by the art. Even the Vatican Guards still wear uniforms that were designed by Leonardo da Vinci! This is what captured me and made me want to return to the pope’s palace. I was hoping for a spiritual experience in the Holy City, and I found it in the art.

The highlight was Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. I will never forget my first experience with the Sistine Chapel. At this time they were in the middle of a major restoration, and there was scaffolding covering some of the ceiling; but even then Michelangelo’s masterpiece was stunning. I remember sitting (at that time you sat on the sides because the restoration equipment was in the middle), staring up at the masterpiece until my neck hurt–and then staring some more until I just couldn’t stare any more.

A group of Chinese tourists was next to me, and I glanced around and noticed that they were as entranced as I was. I remember thinking that the power of great art, created centuries ago by perhaps the greatest artist who ever lived, is today communicating the Christian message to people from a country that has banned Christianity. This is the influence of great art. It inspires across the centuries and moves each generation of viewers to their own spiritual experience. I didn’t want to leave, but as has happened to me many other times in Europe, there was just nothing more I could do. I had stared as long as I could, and though everything in me wanted to absorb more of the art into my soul, I knew I couldn’t. It was time to leave–time for dinner.

Lest I undervalue Eric’s contribution to the trip, he did his research and found the best “hole in the wall” restaurants in Rome for us to savor each meal. Who cares if we had to walk our legs off down sketchy little streets to find them–they were fabulous places with phenomenal food! We ate great meals, including a spaghetti bolognaise we still talk about to this day. And though it meant more navigating and map-reading, it was worth it.

We saw what there was to see in Rome, but it was missing something. None of it was France. None of it had the magic that I had flown across the pond to experience. After two days we were ready to leave. Ready for France!

Kelly had been to Europe as a college kid and suggested we change our itinerary. She proposed we leave Rome, spend a day in Florence and then catch the overnight train to Nice. Eric and Kelly are much younger than us, but we were flexible enough with our plans and we had had enough of Rome. We told ourselves we could pretend to be young, imagined ourselves as backpacking college kids, and quickly agreed to the alternative arrangement.

The next day we checked out of our one-star pensione–with its shared bath down the hall–put our backpacks on our backs, and headed for the train station. On our way to the train station I felt something hit my backpack, then my arm and head. It was a gooey substance that seemed to be coming from the sky. I looked up and around but didn’t see anything except balconies with people going about their daily routine. I looked at the disgusting substance on my arm, and then on my backpack, and much to my horror, I was the unfortunate recipient of an oatmeal-like substance thrown from an apartment window above the street. Now covered with sticky mush, it was as if Rome was saying, “good-bye and good riddance.” By this time the feeling was mutual!

I cleaned up as best as I could, and we boarded the train for Florence. When we arrived at Michelangelo’s hometown, we put our belongings in a locker (something you could do before 9/11 made that convenience a thing of the past) and explored what is now my favorite place in Italy, and one of my favorite places in the world. The little winding streets, the fabulous restaurants and the abundance of great art all make Florence an entirely different experience than Rome.

Oh my, the art. Yes, the Vatican has great art, but in Florence the great art embraces you as soon as you exit the train station. Everywhere you go, every street you walk, every piazza you step into is filled with gorgeous art, and I felt as if the whole city had wrapped its arms around me and said, “Relax, enjoy, soak it in.”

The highlight again was another masterpiece from Michelangelo, and I was becoming fascinated with this brilliant artist who lived five hundred years ago. We made our way to the National Museum and stood in a long line until we finally entered the sanctuary that holds the David. For a second time the great artist captured me, and I stood and stared at his masterpiece until, again, I couldn’t stare any more. I’ve read the story of David and Goliath many times, and the message from the Biblical text–that God chose David and it was God in David who slayed the giant–was a major turning point in my seminary experience. Standing there looking at Michelangelo’s creation I sensed the majesty of the story in a whole new way. He captured perfectly the immenseness of the person, of God and of the victory like I could have never imagined.


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