For the past week or two, I’ve been putting some heroic efforts toward recounting our journeys in early June with our friend Lele, but I’m giving that up for the moment to write a little about the past two days, because they were very special. France is made up of a lot of famous and romantic things, like the Louvre, love locks on the bridges of the Seine, and Roman aqueducts, but it has smaller, more intimate things too. My college classmate Sarah and her boyfriend Sam live and study in Cambridge, England, but they invited us to experience some of those smaller things this weekend. Sam’s family is French, from Haute-Savoie near the Swiss border, and his grandparents still live in the same town where his mother grew up, in Montchanin-les-Mines, or more commonly just called Monchanin.
On Friday morning, we took the TGV an hour north of Lyon, into the heart of Bourgogne (better known as Burgandy) excited about a short excursion into the French countryside, but unsure of what to expect. At the Le Creusot-Montceau TGV station, the train made a short stop before it proceeded on to Paris, and we got picked up by Sam and Sarah in the old blue Peugeot. Ten minutes away, we turned into a street in Montchanin by the impressive name of Impasse de Chateau d’Eau, and were welcomed by Sam’s grandparents.
It has been more than ten years since I last saw a living grandparent of mine, but greeting Renée and Claude was every bit as familiar — their cheerful demeanor, bubbling enthusiasm for expressing themselves as best as they could in their slightly accented French, and every inch of their quaint house. It was filled with polished copper pots and knickknacks; plates decorated the wall of the living room, hailing from many different countries and color schemes. In the dining room, we sat down to a splendid lunch that Renée put out for us. It was a country French meal with pork cutlets and a spring stew of vegetables that I couldn’t stop taking third helpings of. Steve and I quietly continued to marvel at the hallmarks of the very simple, rustic French experience that we were taking part in, like the way the French usually put their bread on the tablecloth instead of the plate, and choosing from the plate of cheese after the meal, as Renée painstakingly explained to us the distinctiveness of fromage blanc. Through lunch ran a steady stream of conversation in French, with occasional helpful translations from Sam in English to make sure we understood the finer points of the story; we learned that the Chateau d’Eau of the name of the street in fact referred to the water treatment reservoir behind the house. Claude used to work there, and so they lived just a few paces away. We also heard about how Montchanin used to be much more of a booming industrial town, when the coal mines made this part of France more affluent and relevant.
After lunch, we went up to our room, one of the two spare rooms in the house with a quaint low ceiling, faded sepia photographs on the wall, and napped well. During the afternoon, Sam, Sarah, Steve, and I drove out to Montceau, one of the nearby towns to stroll around and catch up. It ended up being a bit of a disappointment as there was not as much to do in town, but we hung out in a park outside the town, which had a beautiful small lake and a small petting zoo full of goats, donkeys, geese, and other domesticated animals. The most adorable kid goats came up to us and tried to lick and nibble our hands through the wire fences. In the evening, when we returned, we had another lovely meal with Renée, Claude, and Sam’s cousin Joséphine who was visiting. The steady amount of French immersion was definitely making inroads for both me and Steve, but not without its difficulties. Claude also had a habit of rolling his r’s, which he referred to as a slightly older style of spoken French. After dinner, we had a long stroll through the countryside just outside of Montchanin, admiring the sunsets that regularly happen here past 9 pm, and dodging some particular enthusiastic bumblebees. My DSLR camera died halfway into the afternoon, so I was reduced to taking pictures with my cellphone camera, which is woefully lacking. But it was a glorious sunset with clouds strewn over the whole horizon, lighting up all the hills and fields of wheat and grass. We even saw two foxes in a field which fled as soon as they met us.
On Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early to a fairly rainy day. Claude and Renée made a big deal about it and hoped it would not ruin our plans, but I was having way too much fun just being in this part of the country for it to really dampen my mood. After a petit déjeuner of brioche buns and coffee, we headed out in the car and followed a canal north and west into the wine-producing regions of Burgandy that it is so well known for. Before long, we were flying along low stone walls that divided acres and acres of green, vivid vines. It took us a long time to finally get to our destination but I don’t think we minded it a bit, weaving through this beautiful territory. By the time we had found our way to Beaune, the biggest town in the region, just south of Dijon, the sun had even started to come out. We walked through the Saturday morning market fair and experimented with some of the treats they had to offer, like a slice of Comté, my favorite French cheese, and some herb-and-pepper encrusted sausages. At a rotisserie chicken vendor, I sprang for some of the peas and carrots that lay beneath the rotating spits of chickens, and we all enjoyed some of that with a lunch of sandwiches in the main square. The town of Beaune is not much to write home about, but we kind of enjoyed its atmosphere. It had a surprisingly large and lovely basilica, which boasted flying buttresses, very interestingly patterned stained glass windows, and a room with tapestries from the 15th century depicting the life and assumption of the Virgin Mary.
Afterwards, we set off back in the car for some towns on the way back which would yield what we hoped were vineyards with wine tastings. We ended up in the town of Pommard, at the unfortunate hour of 1 pm, when basically everyone and his mother is still having lunch! We encountered a few closed doors, and then found the Chateau of Pommard. It is a rather large wine celler (or cave) and looked very ornate, with a large fountain and a wait staff in a lobby which spoke multiple languages. We debated paying the €21 a person to take their exclusive tour and tasting, but concluded that we’d rather spend it on actual wine. Remembering that we had gotten our small tour in Perpignan for free, Steve and I concurred. After a few more unfruitful turns, we finally ended up simply knocking on the door of Domaine Lahaye Vincent. At first, when we rang the doorbell, it looked like we had interrupted an elderly gentleman at his nap. To Sam’s consternation, when he asked, “Are you open?”, the gentleman replied, “I opened my door, didn’t I?” Giving each other quietly panicked and bemused looks and entirely unsure what we were getting into, we followed him meekly through his house and living room into a back courtyard and the man’s cellar. There, he introduced some of his stock and set about giving us a tasting of three wines, one white and two red. Though gruff at first, his demeanor freed up a bit as he went on. He spoke primarily to Sam, the rest of us picking up as much of his explanations as we could. He gave lively explanations, describing his business, a granddaughter who was working in Switzerland and also India, how his wife had died not too long ago, so it was just him and he welcomed visitors, of his expertise in wine and how women had a better, more subtle palate for wine. As of his wines, they were certainly quite good. I have never had much of a taste for white wine, but he provided a Meursault from the nearby region that was extremely sweet and dry. He even explained to us the difference between “le premier cru” and the normal variant of a wine; the former is agreed on to be the choicest grapes in the area, producing what ought to be the best vintage and the latter a slightly less premium but still quality wine. At the end, we bought a few bottles, and extricated ourselves, slightly overwhelmed by his stories but very pleased with the personal attention and interaction.
We still had some time left in Pommard, however, so we tried looking in on another domaine around the corner. This one was a large stately house in front of a small patch of vineyard that existed inside the town. There seemed to be no one around, but before we even rang the bell, a slender woman appeared. Despite our apprehension, just as before, without much explanation, the woman led us into a neighboring barn and the tasting room, and started without much ado on offering us a tasting of some white wine. Marie-José is in her late forties or early fifties, and came to the wine business a little later in her life; we actually learned to our surprise that she was related to Vincent, the older gentleman we had just left, as his daughter-in-law, it seemed. Her husband had passed away not long ago also, and she and her son now ran the vineyards. She was less reserved than Vincent, giving us much more detailed information about each vintage we were tasting and pointing out on a large wide map the colored tracts of land where each sort of grape was planted and where the vintage had come from. She also insisted we try the same vintage from multiple years; the difference in one red wine from 2001 and 2011 was especially stark, and even with our elementary palates, we could really taste and smell the difference and the richer roundness of the 2001. Marie-José also candidly said that she enjoyed better giving wine tastings in smaller pairs and explaining it in further detail, as opposed to working with groups where there was always one smart guy trumpeting his knowledge and holding judgment on how good one wine was versus another. In her opinion, everyone’s palate and preferences are different, so the merit of each wine really had to depend on the individual person’s preferences. She also explained that her husband had had a distinctive way of pricing the vintages; they were committed to keeping something the same price, year after year, so that repeat customers would pay the same thing. As a result, a wine from 2001 now costs good five or six euros less than the one from 2011, as they raised the price to adjust for inflation and expenses each subsequent year. We left after tasting no less than nine wines, thoroughly impressed by the depth of knowledge that she showed, as well as her very straightforward and easy demeanor. We also left with a little less cash in our pockets and ten bottles of wine between the four of us. Two of our bottles of wine made their way to Renée and Claude, who were absolutely thrilled with it. Steve’s and my offering coupled with our thanks for their gracious welcome was especially greeted by Renée with a effusive “Mais bien sur, vous êtes leurs amis!!” (But of course, you’re their friends!) I couldn’t help but give her an extra hug for it!
On the way back, as we made our way out of Pommard, the sun had definitely gone back behind the clouds, and a dark stormfront was threatening. Rain began soon after as we were threading our way through another small town, and suddenly, we were caught on the road as a summer hailstorm began to rain down. The four of us had never experienced anything like this, and we stopped beneath a tree during the worst of it. Though it only lasted for a few minutes, the ground around us accumulated hail stones the size of golf balls very rapidly, and the racket was incredibly loud inside the car. We were almost afraid the windshield or windows would break, but fortunately, none of the hail was large enough for that. There was even the beginnings of a flash flood on the street. Soon, however, it let up entirely, and we were back on our way to Montchanin. An hour later, we were describing the hailstorm to Renée and Claude with exuberant “Oh la la!” from the listening grandparents. The car actually had little dimples on the roof, but only if you were looking closely.
We wrapped up the evening with a dinner at Sam’s aunt’s house which was just down the block. We met them and their granddaughter, a mischievous 3 year-old named Amélie who was just beginning to really speak French. She was super cute. It was also a delicious French dinner with filets of duck and potatos au gratin, and I begged off most of the wine because I felt like we had had the equivalent of five whole glasses by the time we left Pommard! We had packed our things beforehand, and Sam and Sarah drove us to the TGV station again as soon as the cheese course was over (which featured a Roquefort, a very strong blue cheese that was also quite good). We were a little sad to leave Montchanin, and these energetic 80-something year-olds that were a wonderful example of the rural-ish France that still remains here and there between the big cities. At the TGV station, we took a few pictures of each other and said goodbye, promising to see each other in England when we go next month. Sarah is one of my best friends from college, and it is always a treat to hang out with her. Hard to believe we graduated four years ago already!
Yesterday evening, Steve and I arrived back in Lyon a scant hour after we said goodbye to Sam and Sarah and got back home right before the rain started to fall again. It was a bitter sweet return because in less than two days, we’re going to be off again and this time for good from Lyon. Though plans have changed so many times I can hardly count, they finally seem to be finalized… knock on wood! We’ve booked train tickets on Tuesday, July 1 for Lisieux in Normandy, which is half an hour from the English Channel, sandwiched between Rouen, Caen, and Le Havre. There, we will help an English couple with their dog grooming business and ride bikes around in the countryside for two weeks! Our WWOOFing dream finally came true! After that, England and a July 22nd flight out of Gatwick for Charlotte, North Carolina. Our circumnavacation is definitely coming to an end…
More to come,