“What the fuck am I doing here?” familiar words once again swirling around in my head as I found myself slightly terrified and alone in a place I didn’t know. They were quickly followed by, “Don’t fall asleep. Just rest for a….” and I was out. Clothes and shoes still on my body went into a post travel, hours of travel complete with navigating foreign airports and procuring a taxi for the 45 minute drive from the final airport to my hotel….with me unable to speak the language and having a “conversation” that consisted of a series of nods, pointing, showing of papers and grunts, coma.
This was not my first trip to France but it was the first time that I left LAX without at least one person at my side and the first time that I was to be on my own for a couple of days before my fellow travelers arrived. Randy found a great deal on airfare for the trip, one that would have me flying business class….another first and fuck can I just say, makes all the difference, on the way there but I had to leave a couple days before my scheduled meeting time. Randy was of course thrilled about the fact that I would have some free time, I on the other hand, knowing myself the way I did/do was a total wreck. So you know how people make fun of their “high school French” yeah, well I’m an infant, cannot speak a word…shameful but true. Well okay I can order a glass of Champagne and ask for the toilets so I could live there and junk but directions, suggestions, dinner, well I’m pretty much screwed.
I had pep-talked the hell out of myself before the trip. This shy thing of mine is not useful in these types of scenarios, traveling with people I didn’t know around a country full of people I couldn’t understand…had to muster up any ounce of courage and charm I could find. I was going to make friends dammit and I was going to start with the one place I try to avoid even making eye contact, the airplane. I told myself that I was going to make friends with the person that was going to be sitting beside me for the ten hour flight. Now this might not sound like much but I assure you, for me this was a very big deal. I even recited a little chant in my head, a mustering of courage chant to light my fire and keep me on my path of friend making, a playful ditty that was a cross between The Little Engine That Could and Run DMC. Had one cocktail before the flight and climbed aboard, tucked myself into my luxurious seat, arranged my ipod….that I was not going to need seeing as I was going to be talking up a storm but pulled it out just in case. As we got nearer our departure time I felt a little pang in my gut, my seat mate had yet to arrive, the business class section was completely full aside from the big empty seat next to me, awesome. Here I was using this one big step to set the tone for my trip and my test patient was missing, fuck.
About ten minutes before the doors closed a tall, thin, rather built man in tight jeans and with a shinny shaved head approached my row and deftly slipped into the seat beside mine preparing his reading material and electronic devices just as I had done thirty minutes before. I didn’t want to pounce the poor bastard so I just sat sipping my Champagne, (Um yeah, once again business class rules) and flipping through a magazine. Once the tardy gentleman was situated he looked in my direction and flashed me the biggest, blindingly white smile I had ever seen, I of course gave him my ever adorable scrunched face and raised eyebrows, yeah super charming that. Not to worry I thought, I can still strike up some kind of conversation that might kill that first impression and that was when I heard the flight attendant offer him something to drink….in English of which he did not speak a word. Fantastic.
I woke from my ten minute nap five hours later, shoes still on and my fatigued body in the same place I had first rested it upon making it to my spacious hotel room at the Hotel le Menestrel in Ribeauville, a very tiny but utterly charming town in Alsace. I once again felt a gnawing in my gut, this time a mix of anxiety and hunger, both justified seeing it had been about thirteen hours since the last bit of airplane food passed my lips and peering out the sliding doors of my little terrace I could see that the tiny town had long since closed up for the evening.
I had noticed a dining room adjacent to the lobby, (read check in desk) when I had first arrived and this time with hunger pushing me rather than a friend making chant, I grabbed my borrowed, “Seriously cold weather” jacket and the scarf I was sure I would never use and my room key….the one that had almost brought me to tears hours before, its doorknob sized holder smacking against my frozen knuckles as I turned the key over and over again in the centuries old lock. Took a deep breath and heard my stomach rumbling so loud I felt like I had smuggled a wild cat into the country and the fucker was pissed. I made my way down the wide staircase at the back of the hotel and stopped at each platform to look out the massive windows that looked out upon rows upon rows of rather frigid looking vines, the vineyard dormant and shivering in the cold January air…I felt for those lonely fruitless vines as they braved the cold wet weather and searched deep below the surface for the strength, warmth and the nourishment they needed.
When I reached the lobby level I was struck by how quiet it was, no sound of people sharing a glass of wine at the tiny bar. No chatting over plates of cheese, ham and tearing of crusty bread. Nothing. I heard absolutely nothing but the growling cat in my tummy and the clumsy thump of a thick bodied girl’s shoes as she walked the long hallway to the door that lead into the lobby and dining room. As I feared there was not a single soul in the dining area, the lights out and even the bar was closed, fuck. I sheepishly walked to the front desk and had to ring a tiny silver bell before anyone appeared. The same tall blonde man that had checked me in and walked me through getting internet access in my room smiled at me while wiping his hands and face on a thick cloth napkin. Dinner, he had been in the back having his dinner, the smell of pork and buttery potatoes drifted across the counter and spun around me, so real and intense that I could almost feel my teeth piercing sausage flesh and taste the pungent mustard that I would have dipped it in. I stood there devouring my meal, eyes almost closed and heart racing but was snapped away from my imaginary dinner table when I heard, Yes?”
A brief and rather stumbling couple exchanges later I was to learn that I would not find a restaurant open at that hour on a Sunday, at least not one within walking distance of the hotel, the wildcat in my tummy fooled for the moment by the aromas of someone else’s dinner I stood there, alone, terrified and longing for anything that might be familiar. “Where might I be able to buy a bottle of wine?” the words fell out of my mouth without my even thinking of them. A series of hand gestures and cold weather warnings, the potato saturated man pointing to my scarf and doing a twirling motion with his hand above his head….either the international sign for “Put on your scarf” or yet another miss-communication and he was calling me a crazy American…and I was on the front steps of the hotel making the left turn and beginning my march down the barely lit street in search of what had brought me there in the first place.
Not a soul, there was not another soul on the icy sidewalk that evening, my thumping footsteps and the sound of my lungs taking in freezing cold air was all I had to keep me company as I passed the storybook houses. Their big temple shaped frames, shutters…closed of course, and chimneys huffing out plumes of white smoke laced with the smell of wood and chicken stock. I tried to picture the inside of the homes as I walked by, made up stories of the families that lived there and laughed at myself as I removed the dreaded scarf from the crook of my arm and began wrapping it around my neck. It was so frigid that I didn’t care how fat the scarf made my face look, didn’t care that I looked like a roided out Jerry Lewis, it was freezing and I still had a few more blocks to go before I would find anything to fill and warm me.
“Jesus, how much longer?!” I whined, my lungs now burning with cold, feet beginning to slip on the sidewalk that was just starting to be covered with a thin layer of ice and my nose, that would have been running had my snot not frozen, bright red and beginning to sting. Just when I was about to give up I saw it, a tiny little house with one of upside down L posts, the ones the real estate dealers use to hang for sale signs, with a wooden plaque in which was carved a wine glass and a tall slender bottle of wine. I swear I heard angels singing…might have been a few harps too.
I made my way up the stoop and saw that there were in fact lights on inside, very good sign I thought and still with a little fear I reached for the icy cold metal handle and literally cringed as pressed the latch with my thumb and gave the door a little push….it opened. (Insert angles and harps again here) Two steps inside and it was my first bit of familiar, hot! The French always overheat their rooms in the winter, this was something I knew well from my first trip and as I stood there removing the fat-face-making scarf and starting to melt I noticed something just to the right of the wine shop slash tasting room….a dinner table, a full dinner table. I was once again interrupting someone’s meal.
At this point while I was very sorry I was intruding, I kind of didn’t care. I took in the glorious aromas and let my eyes fall upon the pink with warmth faces of those around the table and shot a pathetic smile at the woman with the tight curly hair that jumped up from the table and hurried over to save me. We struggled a bit with the understanding of each other; me just wanting to purchase a couple bottles of wine and she wanting me to taste through everything. We compromised, I tasted three wines and she snatched a small piece of bread from the table for me to chew between sips. That warm, soft, chewy morsel and the racy, faintly sweet, oh so familiar Alsatian Riesling with which I washed it down were the first in what would be a series of unforgettable meals over the next eleven days. This one however, by far the sweetest. I bought all three of the wines I tasted, thanked my gracious hostess profusely and made the icy trek back past the lines of huffing chimneys’, the barely moving streams, the barren vines and bid a quiet good night to the families whose stories I had made up to keep me company along the way.
I slipped into the still hotel, the only creature stirring and made my way up wide staircase, past the windows that framed the sleepy town I had just left and carefully spun the key in the “vintage” lock to the door of my room. I kicked off my shoes, pulled my jammies from my suitcase, washed my face and popped the cork on a dear friend. Let the liquid fill my palate, the flavors reminding me of home….of standing in the tasting room with Randy, of “getting it” for the first time. This, this was why I was here in this strange place. This magical liquid that danced across my palate and sang to my soul had done once again on this night what it had done so many years before…it had once again rescued me.