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An American in France

There I was, standing in the ballroom of a great manor about 15 kilometers west of the City of Light. I had been brought to a very exclusive trade-tasting of red and white Bordeaux wines by complete strangers I had met at the Orly airport who rescued me from a paralyzing transportation strike.

That I was in France on a viticultural and enological work-study program in 1968 made this encounter seem almost unreal. Andre and his father, Jean-Paul, had whisked me straight from the airport to the tasting, so I was exhausted from the long plane ride, hungry and, clad in jeans and cowboy boots, not at all dressed for the occasion.

I was surrounded by elegance as I stood in the middle of the ballroom, where perhaps 25 couples mingled among the Bordeaux. I found that those my parents' age — 45 and older — were very glad to meet me, but most of the younger attendees were cold to outright dismissive toward me.

Except for three very lovely young women my age in the corner. I made my way over to them. To my happy surprise, they were very glad to meet me and began to bombard me with questions about California, the surfing scene, hippies and the "happenings" in Berkeley and San Francisco.

It was then that I spied three men our age walking through the foyer to the ballroom. They said perfunctory "hellos" to a few folks, then looked my way. I had the distinct feeling that I was being locked in by heat-seeking radar as they made their way to us.

The women introduced me to them and I was pleasant enough in return. One man was engaging, the other men were not. I could see that they were very protective of the women and made some motion to have them all leave together. Unfortunately, the women informed the men that they were having a "great time" visiting with their "new American friend."

Our part of the room dropped 15 degrees in an instant. I tried to make conversation, especially with the most hard-bitten of the three, but all I received in return was a look of what seemed to be disdain. When he did talk to me, he started to grill me, as if I were on some sort of debate team, about "Indochine."

It was suddenly clear to me that the American involvement in Vietnam had prejudiced him against me from the beginning, starting with the word "American." This was something I was not prepared for nor immediately equipped to deal with.

Two of the three men were almost openly hostile toward me, which was becoming obviously embarrassing to the three women and the third young Frenchman. I just stood there, sipping on a red Bordeaux, and made no move. Twice more I was harangued, this time by both men.

Very quietly, I informed them that I was in "their lovely country" as a "winery worker" as well as a guest and would not, at this time, engage in anything controversial. I thought it best to stick with the wine scene and praise the wines I had tasted and liked, which I did.

The tension was palpable. One of the ladies left and came back with Andre. It seemed that we and the three women were off to party in Paris! Much (again) to my surprise and to the anger and astonishment of the three men, we simply turned heels and left.

In the car, Andre told me the "secret" of understanding the French, something that would serve me well time and time again.

To be continued ...

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.