Lessons for the American
Having been rescued from three "gentlemen" with very strong opinions about the Vietnam War at a countryside wine tasting, I and my new friends — André and three lovely young women — sped in the night to the City of Lights: Paris.
I had met André at the airport after I'd arrived fresh from San Francisco to study wine from the ground up in the Old World. It was 1968. I'd still have been cooling my heels at the airport, thanks to a transportation strike, had André and his father not offered me a ride and taken me straight to the wine tasting, where I met the opinionated gentlemen and the three women who decided not only did I need to be extricated from the tasting, but was undeserving of such intense scrutiny on my first few hours in France.
I fell into a deep sleep while we made our way to Paris. I had, by now, been awake for 24 hours and the movement of the car did me in. When I awoke, it was raining hard and Paris was choked with automobiles, some facing the wrong direction, others clogging the roadways. Taxicabs, in defiance of the law and in a move of "solidarity," were constricting many of the side roads.
André and I stood under the eaves of a building while the women made their way upstairs. He said he did not want me to misunderstand or be upset with my experience in France, especially on "first impression." He said he would give me the best advice on how to survive France — and how to best integrate myself into the wine scene. André reminded me that France was an old country in custom and in practice and that, not unlike many countries (the United States included), it was very chauvinistic and committed to maintaining its identity. This commitment, for better or worse, many times excluded the non-French in decision-making, and the French often were slow to accept opinions or ideas from this sometimes disenfranchised group.
In short, I was coming into the program quite possibly at a disadvantage because of world events that were out of my control. He was speaking, of course, about the American involvement in Vietnam.
It would be best, he said, for me to be a good listener, work harder than anyone else and be available for any work that came my way while in the winery work-study program.
I had arrived during a unique time in France. There was intense dissatisfaction with local and federal governments and the French were "edgy among themselves," André said. He warned me not to become a target but to try to blend in as much as I could.
He reminded me I was caught between generations — the young, who were super-sensitive on local and world events, and the old, who remember the sacrifices American men and women made during the world wars. André's own father had been liberated by American troops in World War II, and his grandfather had been a liaison officer to the Americans in World War I.
At the end of our conversation, André reminded me not to take things too sensitively and above all to have a good time while in France. I was very, very grateful for his advice and it served me well.
The women came bouncing down the stairs carrying a bundle of what turned out to be motorcycle helmets. Without explanation, we headed to a shed in the alley, and out came three motorcycles of different sizes and colors. It happened so fast I had no idea what to do or say.
I found myself sitting behind one of the women with what looked like half a bowling ball on my head hurtling down back alleys (avoiding the crazy half-parked cars) and main streets of Paris. This possibly 120-pound woman rode the heavy BMW like a pro. I was thankful, however, when we came to a stop in front of a bistro on the Left Bank.
The place was jammed to the ceiling with young people. The sound of laughter, arguments, greetings and click-clacking of plates, glassware and utensils was deafening. Waiters with white half-aprons tucked around their waists flitted back and forth, finally disappearing in the dense fog of cigarette smoke.
When we walked in the door, half of the patrons jumped up to greet us (well, my new friends), and double-cheeked kisses were offered all around. A glass of fiery liquor appeared in each of our hands and I knew, from that moment on, that the evening again was going to get very, very interesting.
To be continued ...
Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.