Wine Country Tour, Day Five: Champagne

Last year, I decided Anita needed a champagne vineyard.  Most Americans have heard the expression “champagne tastes on a beer budget.”  That pretty well describes us, so what to do?  It turns out, through a miracle of modern marketing (here, for example), that you can get not exactly a whole vineyard, but a token presence in one by virtue of a three-year certificate of “rental” of a vine in a vineyard.  Close, yes?  Close enough to get discounts on the wine made there, as well as private guided tours and tastings.  Anita got her certificate and first bottle of champagne from her very own vine for Christmas last year, and her guided tour today.


Vines at Champagne Fresne-Ducret

We spent the misty morning at Champagne Fresne-Ducret just north of Epernay, about which more below.  It’s a lovely vine-to-bottle business operated by a young couple, Pierre and Daniella Fresne (pronounced like “friend” without the “d” at the end).  Daniella spent close to three hours with us showing us the vines and the wine-making process, as well as letting us sample some of the finished product.  From an engineering point of view, it was fascinating.  I didn’t know the mechanical aspect of wine-making was so complex.  All these high-tech 15-foot tall blending vats require significant skills to make sure the right blend of grapes is in each one for the several months required to move on to the next step in the process.


Champagne vats

On our stroll down the hill from the blending house to the cellars, I asked about the rosebushes at the ends of many of the rows of vines (now past their peak season, just like the grapes):


Rose Sentinels

It turns out that traditionally they were used as sentinels.  They were subject to the same diseases as the vines, but showed symptoms much earlier.  The grower could tell by glancing at the roses how healthy his vines were.  That seems to be a thing of the past, and now they either don’t exist at all or serve merely a decorative purpose.

In contrast to the sparkling tech of the blending house, the aging cellars were a study in low-tech dark, damp, coolness.  The wine, not yet bubbly, must spend a few years (usually four years or so from grape to retail sale) settling, called “riddling”.  These racks are specially made so the bottles can be rotated and the angle of tilt of the bottle can be changed slightly, from near-horizontal to about 45 degrees, over a period of many months, allowing the “lees” to settle out to the mouth of the bottle, where they can be easily removed leaving a pure, clear liquid.



All of this goes a long way to explaining the adage I mentioned earlier.  This much time and effort leads to high prices.  And in some cases, high prices lead to wealth.  Which brings us back to Epernay, where our B&B is, and where a few other little bungalows exist for the comfort of the large-scale producers:


Champagne homes

When you have a tower like this marking your presence, you can afford a home like those:


Castellane, Epernay

So that’s Champagne country.  When you find yourself in the north of France, dedicate some time to visit the area.  It’s a lovely day trip by car and if you want to spend a little more time, we can recommended a nice B&B.  Tomorrow we’ll visit Anita’s second-favorite town in France, Honfleur, on our way to Mt. Saint-Michel.  Come along with us.

Wine Country Tour, Day Four: Transition

I went to bed tonight thinking I’d skip the blog today, since we are without wifi in our B&B here in Epernay.  But the muse is upon me and so here I am, consuming precious data in my personal wifi hotspot brought to me by my smartphone and mobile carrier, and the thousands of software engineers that live only to keep me up at night.

Today we rented a car at the shopping mall under the Louvre and made our way to Epernay, in the heart of champagne country.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But at the car rental company, I discovered that Anita had stolen my credit card, cut it up into little morsels, and flushed it down the hotel toilet.  Doesn’t that sound more reasonable than my just admitting that I lost it it somewhere?  In any case, I couldn’t rent or drive the car.  Fortunately, Anita was at the ready.  Seriously, when you read the 3,000 year old passage about how a virtuous wife is worth more than rubies, it leaves out the three things that mattered the most to me today:

  • A virtuous wife is not afraid to drive in Paris.
  • A virtuous wife does not lose her driver’s license at a critical moment of a vacation.
  • A virtuous wife does not berate her husband for losing his.

And so I have found a virtuous wife.  You guys out there are probably squirming with jealousy right now.


Thanks to GPS, we found our way back from the Louvre to the hotel, recovered our bags, headed off for our drive to Epernay, wandered…  No, the French have a great word for it.  The word is flaner; it means to stroll, to amble, to give the appearance of aimless wandering when in fact one knows what one is about, but one has the time to do it slowly and with grace.  We flanered around Epernay for a while before finding our B&B, and our back yard:


The quiet is intense.  I listened carefully and the only sounds I could hear were the birds discussing the arrangement of their winter nests.  The grapes have been harvested, the leaves of the vines are abandoning all hope for the winter, and life is good.  And I have a chauffeur for the rest of the trip.

Wine Country Tour, Day Three: Victor Hugo and Nuit Blanche

We started our day today by walking around the corner of Place des Vosges and spending some time in the house where Victor Hugo lived for 16 years.  If that name is new to you, I recommend to your attention his two most famous novels: Notre Dame de Paris and Les Miserables.  But he was about much more than epic novels.  He was a master poet.  He never got over the tragic drowning death of his beloved daughter Leopoldine, dedicating a book of poems to her (Contemplations).  But fortunately he had other children, and his last collection was fitly titled How to be a Grandfather.  I never knew about this collection until today; it’s now on my wish list in case my grandchildren want to get me a how-to book.  This is a detail from a painting of his grandchildren in his apartment-become-museum:


L’art d’être Grand-pere (The Art of Being a grandfather)

He used his stature as a writer (novels, poems, stage plays) to promote causes.  In addition to promoting the idea of a “United States of Europe” long before the European Union came into existence, he also helped raise funds for the poor children of Guernsey, England, where he lived for several years.  One of his attempts was to get three of his writer friends to contribute an inkwell and a pen, and he had this writing table made to put in a fund-raising auction:


Four-inkwell writing table

There were no takers in the bidding, so Hugo bought it himself.  What do you suppose it would fetch today, this table with inkwells and pens used by Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, George Sand, and Alphonse Lamartine?

The apartment contains several busts of Hugo, all oversized.  I wondered if this was because he himself was bigger than life.  At his funeral two million people lined the route of the funeral cortege from the Madeleine church to the Pantheon, where his remains were laid to rest.  This one bust, by the remarkable French Sculptor Rodin, captures for me the tiredness of a sensitive poet finally weighed down by the burdens of a life well lived.


Victor Hugo by Rodin

After a good nap (and wee visit to the Coco Chanel center, where we managed to escape empty-handed), we took ourselves to Notre Dame for the weekly organ recital, followed by a taste of Nuit BlancheNuit Blanche is literally “white night”, but it is a euphemism for what Americans call an “all-nighter.”   This event lasts from 7pm to 7am, and is marked by free street performances, open museums, and special exhibitions. Weeks ago, my intent was to stay out most of the night, sampling as much as possible.  The realities of a pair of feet seven decades old took over, and we cut ourselves off after trying to figure out a special event involving large lighted letters.  Here, you are invited to text your name to a special number and the operators will spell it out for you.  In the ten minutes we were there, it never quite happened.


I write your name

A later event was to let the observers vote on a message to be spelled out for aliens to see and perhaps guide their actions.  The candidates:


And here are just a couple of random street art observations:

Well, Paris is fun, but we’re billing this trip as a wine country tour.  Tomorrow we’re off  to the heart of Champagne country, where the highlight will be a visit to Anita’s vines.  I’ll explain that on Monday, when we actually get to see them up close and personal.

Wine Country Tour, Day Two: Dior Exhibit

Please permit me a small digression about our lodgings.  Our hotel was built about 400 years ago, and one might expect a little antiquity in the environment.  Indeed, the exposed beamwork in the ceilings gives evidence to that.  But it has been modernized, and the bathroom is noteworthy.  With mirrors all around, there’s nowhere to hide.  ‘Nuff said.


Anita is our trip organizer.  My job is to secure planes, trains, and automobiles to move us from one place to another on her list of things to see and do.  But she always asks: “What do YOU want to do?”  And I always say the same thing: I just want to go sit at a cafe terrace, sip a coffee, munch on a croissant, and read a French newspaper.  Today I did just that.


The French have two major satiric weeklies.  One, Charlie Hebdo, is a bit too far on the offensive scale for my taste.  It is as if the editors feel that if they haven’t offended some group they haven’t been doing their job.  The other, Le Carnard enchainè, is a bit more mainstream political satire.  This week, for instance, there was a report about recent research on how much money had been moved from the French domestic national product into “fiscal paradises”, where it cannnot be taxed.  Le Canard‘s suggestion was to change French finance laws to make France itself a “fiscal paradise”–that way, at least the money would stay inside French borders.

After my espresso and pain au chocolat, Anita joined me and off we went to item number one on her list of four things to do today, the Christian Dior 70th anniversary exhibit at the Center for Decorative Arts.  Spoiler alert: we never made it to items two through four.

It turns out we weren’t the only ones in Paris, the center of the fashion world, who thought a 70-year retrospective on Dior would be a good way to spend a couple of hours.  Anita, always the shy and reticent type, as we waited in the ticket line, collected a few examples of what I now have learned is called “street style”–what style-conscious normal people wear on the street.  Our two favorites:

The Dior house of fashion was founded in 1947.  If you want to read more history on this monumental period in the fashion world, check out the Wikipedia article here.  Those of you who know us know that the world of fashion isn’t my strong suit.  But this was an impressive exhibit.  I’ll give you just a brief synopsis, and then at the end, just a representative group of photos.

First, and partly for my French class, a preview of one of my four photos of hands for our next assignment:


There are by my count five hands here, but the one I like the most is perched on the mannequin’s head, serving as what we now call a “fascinator.”  This is one thing I love about the fashion world: what makes a weird head-piece like that “fascinating?”  But I digress.

Dior passed away only ten years after founding this house, but he left it in good hands, in the person of a certain Yves Saint Laurent, followed by several others.  I lost the thread of which of the creations were Dior’s work and which were his followers’, but how important can that be?

One of the side effects of spending a career as an engineer is having an awareness of what it takes to get from an initial sketch of a product design to the finished product.  Consequently one of my own favorite items in the exhibit was a sample of some of Dior’s own original sketches:


Finally, here is a small random walk through a two-hour exhibit spread over three floors. Enjoy.


Wine Country Tour, Day One

Today begins our Wine Country Tour of France.  We will visit the centers of Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy wine production in France.  And along the way we will try to keep ourselves and our followers entertained with some hopefully unexpected observations of France and its wonderful people.

Our itinerary, roughly, will start and end in Paris (that’s one thing I haven’t figured out how to change), and from there we will travel counterclockwise along this route, starting northeast of Paris in Champagne country, spending a couple of days in Normandy for nostalgic reasons, then down to Bordeaux, over to Burgundy, and then back to the City of Lights.  That will be a little over 1300 miles, but who’s counting?


Itinerary, Wine Country Tour, Oct. 2017

On our first trip to Paris, our friend Jean-Marcel recommended to us that we take some time to visit Place des Vosges, a remarkable  500-year-old island of peace in the heart of the Marais district in Paris.  We fell in love with it, and try to spend a little time there every time we come to Paris.  This trip we start with a few days in the Hotel de la Place des Vosges, located, as the French say, two steps from the Place.  Today we arrived late and tired in the midst of a rainy day, but the weather cleared enough for us to take a promenade around the square.  It’s a feast for the eyes.  Beside the high concentration of upscale art galleries, there are interesting architectural details everywhere.  This style of arcade wraps the square, dotted with restaurant terraces every hundred feet or so.


Arcade of Place des Vosges

Walk into this picture and you arrive at the Victor Hugo House, where he lived and worked for 16 years.  Consequently, his name pops up often in the neighborhood, such as the bistro where we had dinner, Cafe Hugo, sipping our after-dinner espresso on their personalized porcelain:


Espresso saucer, Cafe Hugo

This is our first autumn visit, and while the colors aren’t brilliant yet, one can always find color in Paris.  This is a private courtyard just off the square that invited guests (not us) can see up close and personal:


Private courtyard, Place des Vosges

And then there is street art.  One of the porticoes that give access to the streets surrounding the square shelters this reminder that “a little child shall lead them.”  The little girl is exactly life-sized, and when I first rounded the corner, I was a bit disoriented until I realized what it was.


Street Art, Place des Vosges

So here we are, and we hope you’ll join us for this little tour.

As You Like It

If you landed here as a result of a Google search to find a scholarly article on the Shakespeare play by that name, I’m sorry to disappoint you.  But please read on if you are looking for ideas on how to make the world a better place.  In 2014 my wife and I took a wonderful road trip through France: Normandy, Brittany, the Dordogne Valley, the Loire Valley, and the Provence region.  If you want to relive it with us, a link to our blog of that trip is in the “My vacation blogs” section of the side panel.  One particular stop is the genesis of this article.

Every year about three million people visit Mont St. Michel, a breathtaking abbey perched atop a rock at the edge of the English Channel right at the boundary between the Normandy and Brittany regions of France:


Mont St. Michel viewed at low tide

It had been on Anita’s bucket list since her high school days, so we spent a day there.  For lodgings the nights before and after, we found a bed-and-breakfast using Airbnb in a little village just a 15-minute drive from the shuttle center to the abbey.  It was a lovely home, with a most gracious hostess, Annick.


Our Bed-and-Breakfast in Roz-de-Couesnon, Brittany, France

When we are guests in someone’s home, even when paying for the privilege, we practice the courtesy that we were taught in our own homes.  We ask when breakfast will be served, we ask when we should be back in the evening, things like that.  The only issue is that my level of French was what one might expect after only two years of college French, and Annick spoke not a word of English.  But she patiently gave me time to formulate my questions in very simple and very poorly pronounced French, and then she consistently gave me an answer that I could understand: “Comme vous voulez.”  A rough pronunciation of this is “kum vooh vooh-lay”. A strict word-for-word translation into English is “As you want”, more commonly rendered as “As you wish.”  Hence the title of this post.  In other words, she was willing to adjust her life for a couple of days to accommodate her guests’ needs.  No signs saying “Breakfast 7:00-9:00” or “Lights out at 11:00”; just “comme vous voulez”, with a very gracious smile.  Ever since, we have called her “Miss Comme Vous Voulez.”

I’ve given this a lot of thought in the last few weeks of these troubled times, and I’ve decided that the world would be a better place if more people who are accustomed to having that their own needs met would, from time to time, devote a little effort to meeting someone else’s needs.  A little more time listening and a lot less time shouting might have an interesting effect.

A Surprise Friendship

In 2012 my wife, Anita, and I started planning our first-ever trip to Paris, a full four weeks in an apartment in the Montmartre district.  I had never spoken French and Anita had long forgotten the two years she had in high school, so we decided to take the French for Travelers course at our local Alliance Française, followed by private lessons with our teacher in that class.  There we learned two things (well, we learned many things, but two that bear directly on this story): first, like other languages, French has a “polite” form of addressing the other person in your conversation as well as an “intimate” form; and second, that in only the short time we would be there, we would never have a chance to progress to the level of friendship that would allow use of the intimate form.  So we only learned how to be polite, not how to be intimate.  When that level of friendship is reached, one of the two will say something like “we should tutoyer“, which is the French verb for using that intimate form of address.  Okay, so much for the grammar lesson background needed to understand this most unexpected event.

One day we were having coffee at our favorite bistro next door to our apartment, and a very nice French lady about our age came to our table and in reasonably good English complimented Anita on her hat.  We thanked her kindly and she returned to her table.  A little later, as she was leaving, she repeated the compliment and we asked her to join us.  She did, and an hour-long conversation followed; fortunately, she had lived in the States for a year several years earlier and still had enough command of English to make such a conversation possible.


As she began to take her leave, she asked if we’d like to go shopping with her the way SHE shops, rather than the “tourist” shopping we’d already done.  How can you turn down an offer like that?  So we met again a couple of days later, took the bus to the neighborhood of the Bon Marché (see Emile Zola’s classic Au Bonheur des Dames for a fictionalized account of this world-changing breakthrough in retail sales).  From there we walked all day long, including a stop for coffee at the famous Les Deux Magots.


In the midst of this shop-a-thon, I noticed this:


Did I expect that when I was planning this trip?  Of course not.  When we parted for the day, she invited us to her apartment for tea a few days later.  And it was there that it happened.  She suggested we speak French for a while, because obviously we wanted to try out our new French skills.  After a few minutes, in a very quiet voice, she said, “We are friends; we should tutoyer.”  I was stunned.  She had invited us into her life, in a city that bears an ill-deserved reputation for its bad attitude to Americans, and I didn’t even have the vocabulary to respond.  We managed to get through it without hurting anyone’s feelings, and when we left Paris a few days later, we brought back one of those intangible souvenirs that reminded us to always be on the lookout for a new friend.