(Sighing) As I read the email from Mairin, “Sitting in O’Hare waiting for my flight to board” my heart ached a little, she was about to leave for the Kermit Lynch buying trip, the trip I was on last year and the trip where she and I met and became instant friends. I got that email on Friday and have been thinking about France ever since. That was my third “work” related trip to France and while it was the most difficult in terms of long days with sometimes up to 19 appointments, tasting nothing but young wines, (on previous trips we spent more time at each estate tasting through older vintages, really getting an idea of where the wines will end up) and moving throughout the country so fast that I had no time to get my bearings or figure out where we were on the map….it was also the one where I laughed the most, behaved the worst and brought home with me the wildest stories.
With that trip, as with both the others I was reluctant, nervous and while excited about the things I was to see and taste, I was worried about spending weeks locked in a van with people I didn’t know…..traveling with family and or friends is a very different thing and these trips leave very little free time, (this one had virtually none) so you are really with those people. Now I’m not the most forward person in the world, well that is until I get to know someone, in fact I am painfully shy so making friends has always taken a touch longer for me….a, (now) very good friend told me, “Sam you can be very intimidating” that might also be part of the reason, not sure why but it is a fact….mix that with the fact that I don’t speak any French and I was getting to Alsace two days before the rest of the group, and I was a freaking ball O nerves when I boarded my flight…..wow, almost a year ago to the day!
Randy was very sweet and upgraded me to Business Class on the way to France, (I was back in steerage on the way home) so I knew I was going to be more comfortable at the very least but I made a deal with myself, I was going to make friends with my seatmate. My second trip was marred, no ruined by personality conflicts and people I flat out didn’t like….in fact halfway through that second trip I called my husband and begged him to get me a early flight home….he talked me into staying and while the second half of the trip was a little better than the first it was still pretty bad and had clearly made me skittish. “Just smile, say hello and just start a conversation” I told myself as I clicked on my seatbelt and got situated for the long flight. Book, magazine and ipod at the ready I awaited the arrival of my new best friend that would be sitting next to me, I sipped my Champagne and as take off time came nearer I began to wonder if the seat next to me was to be empty…not a bad thing mind you, but I had given myself that whole pep talk and everything! Finally my bunk buddy arrived, tall fellow, shaved head, big toothy grin and not a word of English…….
The free flowing Champagne and the, “Would you like caviar or lobster for your first course” made the silence between my partner and I bearable, (Business Class…dude, I’m just sayin’) and he was very kind, holding my dinner tray when I had to dash off to the toity, (did I mention I am NOT a good flyer….and France is really far?) offering me some of his in-flight snacks, but by the time the flight landed I was already lonely. One very expensive cab ride later I was walking up the steps of the Hotel Le Menestrel in Ribeauville, teensy town in Alsace where I would spend the next two days feeling as lonely as I ever had and wondering around the hotel halls like that creepy kid in The Shining.
It was dusk when I dropped my bags in the room that would house me while I awaited my fellow travelers…after a short accidental nap I found myself wandering the dark streets of Ribeauville, hungry, lonely and in need of a glass of wine. I was able to get directions from the very confused gentleman at the front desk of the hotel, (poor guy thought I was Italian…kept speaking Italian to me the whole time I was there) who was able to direct me to a winery right down the street from where we were, sad part was while I walked the streets I could see families sitting down to dinner. There they were just beyond the frosty glass windows that separated me from those warm rooms filled with savory cooking smells and the comfort of a room full of laughter….tired and aching for the sound of words that I understood I stumbled into a tiny winery tasting room.
There were about 9 people sitting around a table in the tasting room….I had clearly disrupted dinner….but a woman came bouncing out and greeted me….in French, after a myriad of gestures she was able to deduce that I was in dire need of refreshment…..and I in turn was able to tell that she had family waiting to share dinner with her….had I been a bit more forward I might have gotten an invite to join them, but as it were, I was ready to take my leave, let her soak up the warmth of her fellow diners and head back to my airy…..really chilly, vacant hotel room.
Although I was painfully hungry I was able to keep the tummy hounds at bay with glass after glass of Pinot Blanc from a winery I had never heard of. I awoke the next morning ravenous and beguiled by the sounds that I heard coming from the hotel dining room downstairs….”clink…clunk…chortle and clink” the sounds of silver cutlery hitting the porcelain and people chatting over orange juice and café. I made my way to the dining room and filled my plate with perfect bread, (the best I had on that trip or any other) cheese and thinly sliced ham…..”Auhhhhhh” the French hotel breakfast is the best ever. I nibbled on my savory yummies feeling the blood rush back into my system and watched the guests filter in and out of the dining room.
Next to me there was a table of Americans, also wine professionals and I eavesdropped as they went over a list of the wineries they were going to visit that day…I so wanted to go with them…I was in France damn it, time to get tasting! The rest of the bustling dining room was full of locals, I could tell they were all returning guests by two things; one because the, “Dude….I’m NOT Italian” guy was chatting up every table, hugs and kisses all around and secondly the belly of the hotel was empty, a still, silent shell that encased this now full of life dining room. I sat there as long as I could without looking like a freak….just loved listening to everyone talk, eat and enjoy each other’s company, after two carafes of coffee and more bread than any human should eat in my belly I sadly shuffled back to my room. Two visits to the lobby…”Seriously, I’m not from Italy” where the confused guy was trying to help me get the wireless in my room set up and I was able to connect to the Internet and fire off a few emails to my people back home; husband, The Wine Country crew, Randy and my importer friend that was also travelling in France, (was so wishing he was close enough to Alsace to meet me for lunch, dinner…or just a glass of wine in the dining room of the hotel…he wasn’t.). I played around on the web a bit and it was now….9:00am….gonna be a long day.
I bundled up and headed for town, now when I say town you have to think more like village, beautiful and quaint as hell but not exactly a city….or not a city the way we know it here, tiny little storefronts, cobblestone streets full of people doing their daily shopping, a couple of cafes and a BIG church with a high reaching steeple….that was pretty much it. There may have been more city somewhere but I didn’t know where it might have been and not being super secure with my sense of direction, (knowing me I would have wound up in Germany) and not speaking any French I opted to just sit on the damp little benches in the park and people watch for a bit. I watched as friends chatted over steaming bowl sized mugs of coffee, older women armed with wicker baskets picked at produce in front of a market…bringing each piece up to their tiny little faces, smelling them then returning the unwanted or deemed not fresh enough goods back in the display. Not sure how long I sat there but pretty soon the joint was jumpin’….well, as jumpin’ as a tiny “village” like town could be, the street was packed with people on foot, waving to one another, exchanging kisses, popping into the bakery and scurrying down the street with baguettes tucked under their arms, “Yowza those folks are in a rush…..wonder what’s going on” I thought and just as quickly as the town had filled it emptied. The deafening silence made it very clear….it was lunchtime.
I lifted my now soaked and frozen hinny from my park perch and headed back to the hotel, I was hungry…..but not for food as much as company. I passed the cottage looking homes that lined the street on my way back from town, all of them looking like they were right out of a fairy tale complete with tiny tuffs of smoke chugging out of the chimney emitting the loveliest warm smells….all the smells on that long walk are still with me today, the smell of cold, wet cement, wood burning, savory…almost porky aromas coming from the houses and a freshness to the air I can only describe as, “If white had an aroma”, my nose was going berserk, such a pretty smell, warm, clean and alive with the smells of a family around the table sharing a meal….I picked up the pace and began wondering what kind of rich aromas, accents and conversations would be huffing from my hotel.