Easing into France

Sure. Right. Everybody’s so depressed because the world is coming to an end. Iran. North Korea. Stormy. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Get over it.

It was a phenomenal week in France. The entire nation is grinning. Through one of those uniquely French confluences of history, astronomy, religion, nationalism, culture, and savior faire it just happened that there were two national holidays this week. Tuesday was 8 Mai, VE Day, the date of the German surrender in World War Two. Of course, everything was closed. Nobody worked. We watched the parade. Thursday was Ascension, a religious holiday that is not celebrated in much of a religious way, after all in a recent survey only 27 percent of people in France replied that they believed in God’s existence. Nonetheless, on Ascension, and a host of other religious holidays, schools and businesses are closed and nobody works.

Two holidays in one week is a big deal. But wait, in France there’s more. When a holiday falls on a Sunday, it is celebrated – meaning businesses are closed – on the following Monday. Even better, when a holiday is on a Tuesday or Thursday the accepted practice, no, the mandatory practice is to “faire le pont,” make a bridge. To the weekend. A Tuesday or Thursday holiday creates a four-day weekend.

So you can guess what happened this past week in France. We had both a Tuesday and a Thursday holiday. Back to back four-day weekends. In other words, a one-day work week for the entire country. We celebrated working Wednesday by going for lunch to a favorite restaurant next to the public market in Dijon. Strangely enough, it was still crowded at 3 p.m.. Everybody must have been exhausted from a full morning’s labors.

We joined the parade on 8 Mai in Meursault. The children gave dramatic readings of General De Gaulle’s victory speech.

Thats why it was such a good week for France. So much better than the week before, which only had a Monday national holiday, May Day.  Or the week after next week, which also only has a single, lonely holiday, Pentecost on May 21.

May is such a great way to ease into summer, otherwise known in France as August. When everything shuts down.

All this helped us ease into our four months in France. We arrived on May 2 and drove to Senlis, a medieval city a half hour north of Charles de Gaulle airport. We stay at a small hotel there, La Porte Bellon, and do a cold turkey transition to French time to get over jet lag. And overload our systems with pain au chocolat. And hold our breathe to see what surprise France will toss our way.

This years surprise was to wander down an alley and walk into the French Revolution. A movie company was filming a TV series based on a Victor Hugo novel about the French revolution. The no parking signs were taken down and, voila, the streets looked unchanged from 1789. After dropping hints about my winter work as an extra alongside such luminaries as Daniel Day-Lewis (in The Crucible), John Travolta, (in The Forger), Mark Wahlberg (in Patriots Day), and some totally unknown German actors (in a German TV series that films on Bostons North Shore every year and for some reason keeps hiring me), we were given an introduction into how the special effects for the Revolution work, bullets blowing chunks off specially-engineered bricks. Try as I could, however, I couldn’t get a costume as a figurant.

Never one to pass up a street demonstration, or a revolution, they still refused to suit me up or hand me a musket.

But we did wander onto the set as the troops were preparing to storm the revolutionaries’ barricade.

After watching the Revolution we popped into our tiny Citroen C-1 rental car, drove to the barge to pick up our bikes, and made our way to Burgundy, to Meursault smack in the middle of the best wines in the world, nay, in the Universe. We’d rented a little apartment in Meursault for two weeks to further ease the transition into Frenchiness. And also because Sandra set her limit for actually living on a boat at three months.

Meursault from a hillside. The vineyards run right up to the town’s walls.

So we’ve spent the past week walking and biking through Burgundian vineyards, eating snails and coq au vin, getting together with French friends and slowing, slowing, slowing down. Today was typical.

Charolais, of course. Sandra has yet to meet a French cow she didn’t want to take home.

Morning walk to the boulangerie for pain au chocolat. Drive over to the next town, Auxey-Duresses to drop in on a vigneron we met five or so years ago, Domaine Michel Prunier et Fis. Father and daughter (for some reason mother doesn’t get billing in the domaine name, although she’s the one who took our money) make near-perfect wines at reasonable prices. Reasonable meaning a bottle of premier cru costs less than a glass of a California pseudo-Chablis at home. We bought a case. And a few bottles of their cremant, sparkling wine that can’t be called champagne because it isn’t made in Champagne.

We then drove a few towns over to the Chateau de Chamilly. The roads near Meursault were plastered with signs for a family fair at the chateau and it seemed as if it would be an off-the Rick-Steves-radar event. It was. A hundred kids got to bounce around in the chateau gonflable, an inflatable bouncy castle.

The kids’ bouncy castle, the chateau gonflatable.

Meanwhile their parents, after handing over 3 euros for a wine glass spent the rest of the day sampling the products from the chateau’s vineyards.

While the kids were bouncing their brains out, mère and père waited to sample from the chateau’s vineyards.

We bought some goat cheese that the goat cheese lady told us she’d made that morning. And pizza made in the castle’s outdoor bread oven, heated by burning old vine stock.

In a petting zoo first, a local birder brought her owl collection to the fair. This tiny African owl perched on Sandra’s hand, once she put on the leather glove.

And we bought a jar of cassoulet de canard from the neighboring duck farmer for dinner.

This was the trash bin at the family fun fair. At 11 in the morning. What fun was had.

Next week we’ll be celebrating both our birthdays – they’re just a day, and several years, apart – by taking a hot air balloon over the vineyards. Then one more week of acclimating to France and we’ll be ready to set off on the 150 kilometer Canal du Bourgogne, north to south through the heart of Burgundy.

Its so nice to be back.