I had the true fortune back in 2002 to do a stage in France. For those not familiar, that is an unpaid internship of sorts at a restaurant. It changed everything. I wish I had better words or maybe just more of them to tell you how deeply it changed me. But I don't and sadly enough, time, and pressure, and life has robbed me of some of the clarity of those memories I hold so dear and that truly hurts my heart to say so. France made food come alive for me even though at the time I didn't quite know it. After two months plus, living and working in Burgundy, I came home and tried to adjust and process what had happened. Life went back to "normal." But it wasn't. Part of me was never......will never really be back.
I wrote an email a couple days after I had gotten back...to no one in particular. I never sent it. I had some things inside that I guess I just wanted on well...not paper but I wanted them said and maybe one day I would know where or to whom or how to share them. It's not complete. After rereading it all these years later, there's so much I left out. Maybe one day I'll fill in the gaps. It's a good story I think...I hope it's well received. I hope it makes you want to travel, to open up your senses to the possibilities food and culture offer us even close by. I hope I get to go back someday and find those parts of my soul that refused to leave.
August 12, 2002
Many kids dream of one day being astronauts, exploring new, uncharted worlds and encountering alien life and situations. Looking back on the last few months, I’ve realized that you don’t have to even leave the earth’s surface to live these experiences. Take a hazy mix of plane rides, free wine, jet lag, and a few scoops of delerium and Notre Dame looks like one of the mountains of the moon, reigning high over thousands of martians babbling in tongues and weilding their vehicles of destruction at inhumane speeds on search and destroy missions for American tourists. There was no way to prepare for an experience like living in France. It was too surreal. The places you read and hear about as a child only live in the imagination, then one day, you are there.It took me about twenty-four hours to begin to come to terms with the fact that I was actually in France. I awoke by six a.m. the first full day in Paris. I got dressed and slipped quietly out into the sunshine. I still have not come back. Eating breakfast at a cafe near rue St. Germain was a humbling experience for lack of better words. I sat in silence reading and pausing now and then to take a deep breath, and watch life as I had never seen it before. The old women waddling past, muttering to themselves as they reposition their bags overflowing with crusty baguettes or small tactical nuclear warheads, one can not be too sure. The businessmen and women rocket past, perpetually late for this, or that, or nothing at all. Old men on bicycles wearing plaid caps and beaming smiles glide past effortlessly with their arsenals of baguette. A bird landed on the chair across from me. He hopped onto the table, past the ashtray, the sugar cubes, the orange juice, and pecked at some crumbs of my now vanished, first true taste of France. I half expected him to shout ‘merci messier, a demain!’ as he flew up over the stands of the morning market. I found myself greeting each day with an unquenchable enthusiasm. Paris was beautiful and it quickly became comfortable. But it still seemed to be missing something. I was still hearing english. The feeling of alienation and culture shock did not last long. I felt like a damn tourist. Then we left Paris and again, the world turned upsidedown. For being around cars my entire life, I have never appreciated riding in them more than riding through Burgundy. The long rolling hills speckled with small villages and vineyards is the most peaceful and relaxing landscape my eyes have ever seen. Every inch of earth was exciting. Every shop, home, and church was hundreds and seemingly thousands of years old and they captured my attention everywhere I went. After the first morning in Paris, I made it a point to go off on solo morning or late night constitutionals to think, to explore, to meditate, to breathe, and take in every inch of France that I could. I will admit that the social customs of the french people take a little getting used to. I did like everyone else, and flinched a little the first time a new aqaintance presented her cheeks to be kissed rather than a good ol’american handshake. What I soon came to realize is that the good ol’american handshake or head nod sucks. With every meeting, with everyday, the french people took the time to greet you with real contact, to ask you how you were, and maybe chat if time permitted. I think some of the elderly men and women in Entrains purposely planned their route each day to pass by the Maison Des Adirondack and see what the Americans were up too. The local children would peer in the window sills to catch a glimpse of the strange speaking beings they saw getting in and out of cars, playing frisbee in the the street, or working on their third bottle of vin blanc at the Hotel De France.The French are a very proud people and I believe that they have more than enough reason to be. There is history, tradition, and culture everwhere you look. A french market is one of the definitive aspects of their culture and by the end of my time there, I found that there was no place more thrilling, more french.
The last morning in France I awoke by five. I walked a few miles outside Entrains through the dark, silent streets, past farms, and corn, and fields. I listened to the soft morning breeze, to the shuffle of my feet, to the bark of a far off dog, the occasional whine of a donkey, and to the rooster, high atop the world, the first to spot the morning sun and proclaim it his. I walked past crumbling stone walls and I thought of how many others had walked past those very walls. Had they been the remains of an ancient castle, had they been placed there by the Romans, had they been dividing this land for hundreds of years ? It all seemed possible in a place like this. I walked past the fields and thought of the markets in Cosne, Paris, and Avallon. Had I seen some of these vegetables in amongst the incredible cheeses, the sauccison, the fruits, the wine, the olives, and the flowers ? I sat in the middle of the road and watched as the sun slowly lit the morning sky and warmed the still earth. I had come to this place a stranger. The people, the land, the food, the customs, and the language were all alien to me. I still laugh to think that I actually spent two months here. I know what Epoisse tastes like, I’ve touched buildings older than my country, and I know what it smells like inside Versailles and been in her gardens. I’ve found a second home and it hurts to be away.