Baptism by Champagne
When we arrived back in our little stone village here in southern France in mid-June, the day was balmy. The sky was this powerful dark blue overhead with a few puffy clouds hanging in the air. But a few days later we found ourselves crawling along the streets trying to keep to the shadows to avoid a dead heat that hugged us like an over-eager relative. Stone houses are not friendly in the summer; they heat up like pizza ovens and let the heart of their thermal energy out at night, just when you are falling into some needed rem sleep. So we would wake to a cotton-dry air without a single breeze to ease us into breakfast. Everyone complained at the village bar, fanning themselves with a handkerchief to get some relief. I sipped at a glass of rose with some ice cubes while my wife nursed a Perrier. Small comfort on such days, but you take it where you can. Murmurs all around us at other tables as the talk went listlessly from gossip to a few notes on the wildfires in Greece and Spain. We were spared the worst of these fires, but we’ve had them in the past, and they leave whole hillsides morbid and skeletal.
But our long absence from the region after a Vermont winter that dropped masses of snow and numbed us with near-arctic winds, had not prepared us for our first taste of goat cheese and the blissful crunch of a baguette from the village store. We stared at one another in disbelief when we sipped our wine, a chewy, tangy plug of joy that I was reluctant to swallow for fear it might not be as startling on the second sip. But it was. My son had brought us some supplies of wine from his local shop in Marseille – and this was a Vacqueyras, a lovely Rhone red grown on the stony hillsides down the road from the vineyards of Gigondas and St Joseph, and way down the river from those pricey millionaire wines of Cote Roti. All these hills were originally farmed by Romans who supplied Caesar with many a cherished bottle for his bacchanals. Ah France, kingdom of the tongue and its multitude of hungry tastebuds.
Even a casual walk to the edge of the village rewarded us with the moody smell of broom plants, which grow wild and in great abundance along the roads. And if you stepped into a field you would crush a few leaves of wild oregano and the perfume would rise to your nose like a freshly tossed salad. The bees were everywhere, working their wonders until sunset. I know because I bought a jar of honey from the honey store in the neighhboring village of Viens east of here, which was labeled chataignier, meaning the bees had feasted on the nectar of the chestnut trees. It was darker in flavor and tasted a little like butterscotch with an aftertaste of hearth smoke. I loved it and smeared it over my bread to eat with the morning jolt of coffee. There they were buzzing like clerks on a deadline, and storing up vast quantities of pure sweet energy in the hives. I had been shopping at this little store for many years, and was told they took no cards or phone orders because the founder of the place distrusted modern conveniences and preferred to see cash. Bless him. I gladly provided the euro notes and left with my jar of manna.
We’ve been spending summers at our village house for the past thirty-seven years, and in all that time it never seemed like we were part of the inner village. Our French was labored and perhaps lacked the right idioms to assure our listeners we were like them. But even so, we were as regular in our return to the village as anyone else and deserved a little consideration. Of course we shared a few secrets with our neighbors and got the best of the gossip on the benches at the front of the village, where the Luberon, our deeply creased and ancient mountain staring back at us, was perhaps the only other presence privy to some rather delicate domestic intrigues. But on this return we were surprised to be invited to the neighborhood block party that evening, not once but twice. The sincerity of that request was heart-warming. We grabbed a bag of chips (we hadn’t made it to the store yet) and hurried to the car park, where tables were lined up in readiness. Our neighbors, most of whom we had a nodding acquaintance with, were milling about. One portly soul had pulled the cork on a bottle of champagne and was pouring cups for everyone. It was good wine, ice cold and bubbly, and without the usual rusty nail aftertaste of supermarket brands. I was eager to hold my cup for a second draft, which came quickly and rose to the brim. Then came plates of sausage and platters with delicious cream puffs full of sharp cheese. More was coming, and the night sky began to sift in and devour the shadows as we chatted and laughed and greeted late comers.
We ate until a bit groggy and I stood up to go when our friend Christoph said, “But you’ll the cake!” I said I was jet-lagged and too dopey to enjoy dessert. He let me go with a pat on my shoulder. My wife followed close behind. Neither of us said it, but we now felt christened into the inner fellowship, no longer strangers with odd accents but good company for a collection of retired farmers, white-haired grandparents like us, minions of town hall, journeymen of all sorts, wives who could make you weep at the aromas of their kitchens come lunch time, and here and there bright-cheeked and humorous sons and daughters, some of whom were already parents with toddlers hanging onto them.
Most of the houses pass down from one generation to the next, so you don’t expect to see many new faces. But they come along and either move away again because they didn’t belong or stayed and found a niche outside the dynastic families who rule over us with the powerful authority of tradition and country values. We’ve been to many funerals over the years, and to wedding receptions for the next generation. I’m always happy to note that the kids may not want to be farmers anymore or work the shops in the market town below, but they love the houses their ancestors built and wont sell them off. They mellow and grow into the comfortable form of provincial life, and meet at the bar at five or six o’clock and swap the latest news and hearsay and chuckle over their private jokes. Everyone knows everyone here, by first name and by family history. Even if they don’t know ours, it’s okay now. We were baptised and shared the cup of fellowship with our friends and neighbors. Who could ask for more than that?