Friday, July 4, 2014

Paris, Pouilly, and the Rock of Solitude

If the first day of travel and our first hours in France were perfect, then our first few days will need a new word… Heavenly? Surreal?

I had the thought sometime during our first week, probably at one of our three hour meals with Robert’s extended family and their friends, that I was actually on the set of some French version of an Almodovar film – complex, beautiful characters with layers of personality and charm unfolding before me as each person talked over the next, teasing and philosophizing, sipping 100 year old wine and munching on ratatouille. It was inexplicably fascinating - I have my own loud mouth family, it is nothing new, yet it felt fresh and exciting – and unbelievably fatiguing.

Our first full day in France, however, Robert and I were on our own. Enthusiastic about the coming adventure, but still feeling rough from our red-eye flight. We decided to take advantage of our delightful hotel and sleep in, just until the very end of the breakfast hour. We had a brief moment of indecision of whether we should venture out for baguette, pastries, and see more of the Vincennes area, or order breakfast up to our room – the latter choice winning, and winningly good in the end. The Don Jon, a 2 star boutique hotel I would recommend to anyone traveling to Paris, serves up the most delicious platter of coffee, carbs, yogurt and cheese. No, it wasn't necessarily all natural and fresh from the local boulangerie, but after more than twelve hours of sleep and hunger, it was perfect. We couldn't finish it all, but I smartly stuffed the two plastic wrapped pancakes in my bag for later – just in case hunger might strike while in transit or out of reach of a baguette.

When we finally managed to pack up our things and make our way to check out, we had a solid five hours until our train departure to Macon where we planned to meet Robert’s aunt and uncle. Our first order of business was purchasing a fresh baguette to carry with us - from which point we would not be found without baguette on hand for the rest of our travel. Since the majority of our trip had been dedicated to visiting different pockets of family all over France, Robert and I decided we better take advantage of what might be our only “significant” chunk of time in Paris and see its most well-known monument, the Eiffel tower.

I can’t decide what was most impressive about the Eiffel tower. It wasn’t as tall as I’d imagined, but compared to the surrounding buildings and parks, it was quite a sight. The quantity and variety of people visiting the site was maybe the most astounding (although the number of people seen our day spent in Paris at the end of the trip would far surpass this). Silly as it may be, I realized, before visiting, I hadn’t really known about the park or walkway that surrounded the tower, or imagined that one of the world’s most recognizable structures would attract this many tourists. The line to climb the tower’s stairs or ride to the top was unfathomably long (again, our last day in Paris I would be even more amazed by the lines for other sites) – Robert and I passed on the experience and chose instead to enjoy the ground view. I cannot think of a single tourist site I’ve visited in the US that attracts as many visitors as I saw our first day in Paris. Not the empire state building or the statue of liberty. Not the World of Coca Cola. Not the Golden gate bridge.

Maybe times square… on New Years Eve...

After shooting about five hundred photos between the two of us, Robert and I moseyed back to the Vincennes area with hopes of checking out the Chateau de Vincennes, the enormous castle we had only glimpsed the outside of the evening before.

Of course, we stopped for an espresso fuel up – accompanied by pastries and ice cream. The streets in Vincennes were emptied of people, presumably because it was Sunday and any tourists in the area were at the Chateau. Robert and I sat side by side, quietly talking and watching the one or two couples that walked by, a group of French teenagers, and eventually just sitting in silence and taking in the beauty of the quiet cobblestone streets framed by the beautiful apartments and boutiques that one usually imagines when picturing France. By the end of the trip, I came to appreciate moments like those the most – Robert and I together, enjoying something simple, with nowhere we needed to be and nothing we needed to do.

Except that we did actually need to be somewhere. We needed to be at the Gare de Lyon in less than two hours, and still hadn’t seen the castle or retrieved our luggage from where we’d stowed it away at the hotel. Two blocks from our ice cream stop, standing on the drawbridge over the Chateau’s moat (yes, an actual drawbridge over an actual moat), we gave ourselves ten minutes to view, photograph and leave the castle if we were going to make it to the hotel, metro and station in time to catch our train.

I think, once when I was living in Spain, I traveled with my friends to a castle with actual walls and a moat - but I don’t remember being inside it. So, I counted this as my first time crossing a moat and drawbridge. My first time standing completely surrounded by castle walls. My first time realizing that, along with a castle, there was an actual town hidden away here, complete with a gorgeous church, several long three story buildings with varying degrees of beauty and ornateness, ANOTHER moat and tinier castle (or prison perhaps?), and some sort of official building that I figured was where the rules had been made. Sadly, we barely had time to take it all in, much less do a wiki search or find the information center to learn the history of this place. I made a mental note to look it up later as we snapped some photos and booked it back to our stuff.

(I still haven’t looked up the Chateau de Vincennes, but just added it to my reading/research list...)

By this time, Robert and I were pushing the envelope on time. We probably didn't look out of place in tourist trodden Paris speed walking down side streets towards the metro or running through the Gare de Lyon with our suitcases flying behind us. I was so incredibly grateful not to be making this connection on my own, as I was too overwhelmed to figure out my way around the station and we certainly didn't have time for me to practice asking for help in French. Robert seemed to magically know the correct voie and where it was located within the massive station - he didn't stop once as he kept looking back at me, running and yelling, “This way!” or pointing indeterminably in the direction of what looked like a wall, “It’s over there!”

Laughing as we gasped for breath, we made it to our car with a few minutes to spare and I rewarded Robert with a Merci Kiss. Inside the TGV high speed train, I was inclined to reward him with more – Robert had booked us first class seats on the fast, fast train. It was cushiony, air conditioned heaven after sweating in the sun for the afternoon. I curled up next to my Mi Amor and enjoyed the smooth ride towards another kind of heaven…

Macon is a French town just an hour by high speed train from Paris. Our destination, however, was on the outskirts of Macon – one of the many surrounding vineyards known for its grapes which make a unique white wine called Pouilly Fusse. Robert’s aunt and uncle were the owner and operators of said vineyard, a fortunate connection that I was sure would provide me with a unique experience unlike any other France first timer, not to mention the chance to get to know Robert’s incredible family.

Well, the chance to do my best.

Considering the most French I had studied previously were four two hour classes at my company (in which I sort of learned to count and tell time) and several different podcasts I had listened to while commuting to my office – I was definitely on uneven footing when it came to communication with the family. But I was insistent on sticking to my personal challenge and forcing myself to speak as much butchered French as possible, hoping to gain far more than I could from any two hour class or podcast.

Robert’s uncle, the Winemaker, met us at the train station where I proudly told him how pleased I was to meet him (with an impeccable accent if I do say so myself). My pride vanished, however, as the conversation progressed past hellos into actual questions and comments – it was if I knew no French at all! I gave it my best effort, but at this point, Robert, the walking French-English dictionary, was pretty much speaking for me as I parroted his French. Unless, of course, the Winemaker addressed me directly in English. Still, I do feel good that I continued to try to respond in French...

Arriving at the Winemaker’s chateau was like stepping into the pages of the best French guidebook I would ever be able to get my hands on - you know, the kind with photos so beautiful, you're sure there is no way the place could actually exist in reality. Here on your left is a scenic country road. There on your right are the fields and fields of lush, green vines. Over that hill you’ll see a line of quaint homes belonging to the workers and their families. Oh, and this? This is where we sleep – a 500 year old chateau passed down from generation to generation in our family, filled with centuries old furniture and art that will take your breath away.

We spent the evening talking, eating, drinking, and generally being merry with the Winemaker's family and friends that were visiting for a weekend event and national holiday. I spent most of that time cooing at the Winemaker's grandson, a handsome baby boy, sensing that he and I were on the same level - neither of us were that sure we knew what was going on, not that we could communicate very well if we did. Actually, the Winemaker's wife, sister (whom we'll call the Singer based on her angelic singing voice I was fortunate enough to hear during the evening and later on in the trip), son, and the Winemaker himself spoke pretty darn good English, but I was obstinate in my effort to communicate in French. It pained me every time someone automatically spoke to me in English, though I tried not to be embarrassed and recognized it as everyone being kind. I knew that if I didn't really force myself and continuously ask for others to switch back into French, I would begin justifying slipping into English even when I was sure of how to say something.

The food was delectable. The baby was adorable. The view was outstanding. The singing (a family past time at meals it seems) was heart stopping. The family was warm, inquisitive, and funny. By the end of the night, Robert and I were feeling fat, sassy, and lulled into a peaceful euphoria. We also had invites to the homes of the Artist, a Lyonnaise friend of the Winemaker who was part of the dinner, and the Singer, Robert's aunt from Paris.

What more can I say? Heavenly.

The bed, as ancient as the chateau I am sure, was back-breakingly stiff, but that did not deter Robert and I from sleeping until the sun was well over our heads. When we finally made our way to the patio where we had enjoyed dinner the night before, we found it decked out with a delicious breakfast of fresh baguette and pastries, homemade jams, fruit and more. A few more friends arrived and the baby returned to my lap. At some point the breakfast moved from the patio into the living room for a respite from the sun, only to meld into another meal on the patio - the Winemakers had made us a local dish, usually reserved for winter, savory sausage and potato that was absolutely to die for. I'm not sure when we stopped eating and talking, but at some point Robert took a look at me and suggested to his family that it might be my nap time.

The Winemaker led me to a part of the Chateau I had not received a tour of yet, a private garden with a gorgeous view of the area, cherry trees, and the perfect little lounge chair to take a nap in. Robert sat and talked with me holding my hand, I'm guessing until I fell asleep, as I woke up some time later to the sound of Chopin. Robert had left his phone in his chair with nocturnes streaming from the spot. It was a bit confusing, waking up to that magnificent view with the perfect piano accompaniment.

What is this place? is all I could manage to muster.

Still full from our six hour morning meal and anticipating another lavish dining experience that evening, Robert and I decided to take a hike to the Roche de Solutre to work up an appetite. I couldn't help but think of it as the "Rock of Solitude." Solutre is actually a proper noun for the town surrounding the massive slab of limestone rising into the sky, a solitary piece of rock - and thus the Rock of Solitude.

As Robert and I walked down the winding road and through the picturesque towns towards the cliff, we found ourselves falling into a wonderful discussion about life and the work we wanted to do. I'm not sure what it is about walking or hiking that gets me so motivated, but I always feel ready to take on the world after a foray through the countryside. Its one of the things I miss most about living in Washington - all of the hikes and countryside.

At the roche, I was reminded even more of Washington as we encountered climbers loaded down with ropes, helmets and shoes, ready to scale the face of this limestone beast. It was certainly an enticing bit of rock for any level of climber - not too tall, but highly exposed sitting up on a gradual scramble. Surely the view from the very top must have been something to see, because even the vantage point Robert and I had was marvelous. I declared to Robert that for our next trip to France, I'd be bringing a pack of climbing gear as my carry on - a sentiment I repeated many times by the end of our two weeks.

After scaling the roche, Robert and I returned to the chateau. We managed to get just a bit lost navigating the roads, but enjoyed photographing all that we saw - a classic Mercedes parked in an ancient driveway, churches surrounded by rosebushes, even the exploits of a vicious neighborhood cat who we watched stalk, stun, and start gnawing on a baby rabbit not more than five feet away from us - all without once caring about whether we were moving in the right direction.

The Winemaker and his wife were ready with plush chairs to rest our weary feet and my first ever ratatouille to fill our (somewhat) empty bellies. With just us as guests that evening, the conversation turned towards close family, Robert's experiences growing up, and each person's philosophies on parenting and childhood. Eventually my effort to keep up became too taxing so late in the evening, and I found myself instead trying to ingrain every detail of the surrounding beauty vivdly into my mind. It was the end of our only full day in Pouilly, we would be leaving in the morning, and I knew I would miss this place as soon as we left.

It was almost impossible for me to believe that we had only been in France two full days. That we had been in Pouilly just two nights. I couldn't believe that I'd already had the pleasure of meeting such generous and fascinating people, seen some of the most beautiful landscapes I could imagine, and had already eaten my weight in deliciousness. It seemed we had just spent a month gabbing away the hours with Robert's family - in the best possible way.

Robert and I woke up with the sun one and only one morning - the morning we left Pouilly.