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Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a market

Udo was not an icebreaker. He also wasn’t one to put his foot down. I recognized the tendency as fear. I possessed plenty of it. When I didn’t want to make a decision, I left it to the group or whoever I happened to be with. “What would you want?” I would ask. Then we’d wait.

This held true, especially, when I was in charge or showing someone around a place I knew I wanted to see but wasn’t familiar with. Udo did the same. He him-hawed around, nervous and agitated, trying not to look so. When we rose in the morning, I wanted coffee. He wanted tea. Well, we could boil water for coffee and then make tea, or the other way around, he intimated when we rose from a heavy night’s sleep and fumbled down out of our perches. I decided that tea came first. That was that, and I set to making it from the various accouterments that lie in the chests and boxes we left lying around the camper van the night before.

We made a big production of breakfast. As an American, I eat breakfast standing up over the sink. But Udo, being more mindful, sat down and savored. Years before, when in the coming and goings of the house in the Saarstrasse, he would often sit down to the table in front of full meal he made himself. At breakfast, he preferred muesli or some other cereal with milk, tea, and toast. For dinners, he cooked. He ate meals purposefully while everyone rushed about to get where they were going. More than once, social activities had to wait while Udo finished eating.

So, it went with breakfast at our camping spot. He set the table with the several kinds of bread and rolls we bought at the French market. And French bread, while best eaten fresh, is also a dream on the second or third day when the crusts had grown soft. He set out cheese and cereal, juice and milk. I fetched butter and jellies from the cooler. Virginia set the table. After all this, we all sat down on our little fold-out stools around that tiny table. We were all polite, asking for and passing food around. We ate our fill, drenched in coffee, tea, and, for Nicholas, milk.

By the time breakfast ended and we packed up our gear, the morning had already advanced and the sun rose over the trees that sheltered us from the dawn. I drove, giving Udo a break, since he’s not a long-haul driver. The sky spread without end over the plains and rolling inclines of rural Burgundy. Copses of trees pushed through a landscape, burnt-yellow and brown. We wound between broad hills and wide farm fields heavy with hay and corn. Whole fields of sunflowers swayed in the late summer sun. The narrow two-lane road wound through gray brick, stone, and plaster villages often no more than a knot of ancient houses with steep, tile roofs on either side of the road. Some displayed signs of life: a shop, a flower box outside a window, a car parked on the street. Others slumped and seemed as if no soul had stirred in them for many years.

The van bounded through the landscape. Past Langres, the territory grew more forested, with plains, rivers, and vineyards as far as I could see. We drove into the Seine Valley, where the hills grew larger and the vineyards bigger and broader. Some vineyards looked as steep as those I had worked in the Rhine and Mosel valleys. We traveled through towns I’d become familiar with through their vintages. Chatillon sur Seine, Tonnerre, Auxerres, Chablis.

How small and nondescript some of them were. Chablis! I thought it would be bigger, statelier, perhaps even more modern. But it was nothing more than a collection of houses with a few wineries of famous name. Auxerre covered the greatest area of all the famous villages and towns we passed through. It showed all the life of a provincial city. Traffic increased the closer we came to the town. We slowed to a crawl as we negotiated the city streets. Modern buildings stood next to ancient churches and old houses and apartment buildings. Then it was over and we were back into the rural outlands.

At Touchy, the sky clouded and eased the edge off the day. We headed almost south though the forest and wooded hills toward the small hillside village of Saint Sauveur-en-Puisaye. We found a parking space and headed up to the market, which was crowded and lively. Two- and three-story buildings of plaster and whitewash formed narrow streets and hemmed in the small square. Vendors of fruit and vegetables shared space with artists and craftspeople. Seafood and fish sellers stood next to butchers, more than one of whom offered food from wood-fired and propane grills. The heady smells of the market—fresh vegetables, bakery goods, searing meat, and flowers, lots of flowers—made our stomachs growl. Serious-minded shoppers moved from vendor. French cooking was, after all, serious business.

We hustled, shoulder to shoulder through the crowd, winding past vendors and artists in a kind of conga line. A few bars and restaurants along the perimeter set tables out on sidewalks and into the market center. We ducked out of the crowd and sat down at a friendly looking restaurant. We ordered French coffee that came in tiny cups, each swerved with a pirouette and a cube of neatly wrapped sugar. The waiter set a small pitcher of fresh cream on the table. We ate bread and cheese we just bought from a baker in the square.

Over the years, I’d built an idea of French life in my imagination that looked amazingly like Saint Sauveur-en-Puisaye. Around the market, men in their best clothes sat at tables before bars and drank from small glasses. Women with shopping bags shuffled through the market. The square and the village itself looked like something out of old, black-and-white French movies. The steep-roofed buildings wore shutters. Women and men leaned on their elbows on the sills. Kids played soccer down an empty side street. Virginia and Nick looked around in wonder.

We didn’t speak, just took in the sights, sounds, and smells of the market. While I no longer ate meat, the odor of roasting meat was provocative, something primal, perhaps, out of our evolutionary packaging. I sipped my coffee and remembered grilled and crusty ham hocks, barbequed brisket, and burned hot dogs and sausages.

We packed back into the van after the market closed around 2 p.m. and the crowd began to disperse. The vendors packed away their goods and drove their vans and trucks into the square. We moved slowly and walked through the town for a while. Time lay lightly on us. We didn’t need to hurry, only find a camping spot for the night. We were a few kilometers from our ultimate destination. Whatever happened, we would be fine.

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