Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A man, a dog, and a Pouilly-Fuissé

We went out for a birthday dinner the other night. I remember choosing restaurants in our American city on the basis of no more than a review in the paper, or a tip from a friend. Here, it is more involved than that. We talk to friends--the hiking ladies, C's colleagues, the English ladies, parents of the girls' friends, as wide a net as we can manage. We look up restaurants online. We check our guidebooks. We do a couple of drive-bys. Then, if more than one or two sources recommend the same place, we drop to the next layer of research. Is there likely to be something on the menu for our American palates? (We're not yet to the pieds et paquets stage of assimilation.) How much will this evening take out of the general funds? And, are they open the night or the week or the month in question?

If the menu looks promising, and the price does not cause us to catch our breath, and if someone answer the phone when we call, then, at least a week after our restaurant selection process has begun, it is finished. Otherwise, we begin again, or, occasionally, just go out and buy a chicken to roast.

Last Friday we went to a restaurant recommended both by one of the hiking ladies and by our Swedish neighbors, with the added bonus of having been a favorite local haunt of Julia and Paul Child several decades ago, albeit under different owners. Our reservations were for 7.30 and, as usual, we opened the restaurant. Just the five of us and the six staff. All the staff were young, their degrees and certificates in restauranteering freshly minted, except for the maître'd cum sommelier. While the others wore dark pants and jackets, he alone was in his shirtsleeves, a red apron tied nattily over his starched white shirt. He was a ringer for Sean Connery.

We studied the menu carefully. The room was silent except for our American voices. Once it was clear that we had made our choices, M. Connery approached the table with a flourish. He spoke to us in careful English, and we responded in our careful French.

He switched. If you are going to make the effort to speak French, he said magnanimously, then of course I will be delighted to speak French with you.

We murmured gratitude and C ordered a bottle of wine.

Ah, monsieur, he shook his head. If I might suggest, for the difference in price, this is a much better wine. He gestured to the menu. C agreed--what else could he do?--and off M. Connery went.

He was back a few minutes later with the bottle. The drama of presentation began: opening it, pouring a few swallows into C's glass. C swirled the wine around in the glass a few times, and M. Connery seized his opportunity. He held the candle up to the glass; showed C how to tilt the glass just so over the candle; how to look at the wine's color. Then more swirls, a sniff, and a taste. Much praise for C's willingness to follow the process. And then: All that matters, really, is the swirl and the taste. All the rest is a performance, is simply le drame.

He walked around the table, pouring wine. The other day, he said, I went to a wine tasting at the Hotel Carlton in Cannes. The Hotel Carlton is one of the grand old places across from the beach, full up these last couple of weeks with fancy people in town for the festival. People were there from all the best restaurants in France, some of the greatest sommeliers in the country. And some of the best wines. Two of the finest sommeliers were tasting a Pouilly-Fuissé--this is a famous wine, the kind that Gatsby would have bought by the case, to go with his silk shirts--and everyone else was watching to see what they thought of it. The first one tasted; the second one tasted. Then the second said: This wine tastes like a wet hunting dog. And the first one responded: Yes, but what breed?

We all laughed--some because we understood, others because we mostly understood, others because the rest of us were laughing, and M. Connery radiated the satisfaction that comes from having told a good story well--and, glasses filled, he retired to the other side of the room. The girls sat patiently by while I translated as best I could. Then E said: It's like being in a Peter Mayle story. Peter Mayle, our neighbor a few hours to the west, who has published a whole library based on the trope of a foreigner's encounters with French characters.

And it was. There must be a word for it, for the feeling of finding yourself inside someone else's story. A word for what it feels like, as a traveller, to stumble into an experience that is so closely aligned with something someone else has already described. And yet, to find the experience wholly genuine. Here we were, in this country-elegant restaurant, deciphering the menu as best we could, feeling a little out of place. I am sure that our sommelier had been to countless wine tastings over the course of his career--maybe not at the Hotel Carlton last week, but certainly someime, and I expect that the hunting dog joke has been making the rounds for quite a while--but he told the story well. And in telling it he drew us in, made us feel part of a circle that shared the same reference points, made us feel less foreign and more at home.

Which is not to say that M. Connery was not playing a role--the gracious host--or that we were not playing a role ourselves--the well-meaning foreigners. But in the absence of a mother tongue and mother culture to connect us, warmth and kindness and a story about a man and a dog could fill the bill. We laughed together and then settled into the always-serious business of a proper French meal. As Peter Mayle would say, Merci, Provence.

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