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An American in French food

Over a few days in summer 1993, my friend Ivo showed me around Freiburg. I had already spent time in the town, but only in little bits between train arrivals and departures years before. Ivo wowed me with a trip to the cathedral, where he explained the odd roundish marks on the sides of the building as the amount of bread a mark would buy in a particular year. The priests and abbots, as trusted mediators between buyers and sellers, determined the size of the loaf. Since harvests varied in amounts and quality, so the size of a loaf would change. The money, the matter of exchange, remained constant. I had difficulty wrapping my head around it. An American who sees prices change by demand and often by whim would think that the loaf would remain the same and the price change. But this was medieval Europe. This history distanced itself from the American mind and even from a person who had lived in a town ten times older than his own country.colmar

One afternoon that I was in Freiburg, Ivo took me into France for a real French meal. The day laid on us like a blanket, it was so warm and humid under the overcast sky. We drove across the wide Rhein Valley and up into the hills on the French side. Colmar spread up out of the river valley to a flat plain above. The town resembled my childhood imaginings of a European town with churches and houses of middle-ages and medieval construction behind the remnants of a protective wall.

Ivo and I spend time wandering around the town between the three- and four-story houses constructed of timbers and plaster. Ivo, being an art historian, took me to museums and churches to show me the art and architecture. He knew the construction dates of the churches, altars, and stained-glass windows. He pointed out the symbols and told the stories that the windows portrayed. He knew the patrons that sponsored the windows. When we weren’t in churches and museums, we meandered through dark alleys and open plazas. The people in the shops were friendly and accommodating without being pushy or showing too much of the desperation of a person who needs to make money. Colmar confused me at some level. The streets and houses looked German, almost like those in fairy tale illustrations. But the people spoke French. Storekeeps wrote signs for their shop windows in French. I was completely dependent on Ivo to navigate this medieval city.

We ate lunch at a stand up bistro and moved on through the old town and down toward the river Lauch to the old fishmongers’ quarter called la Petite Venise. The Lauch was hardly more than a large stream, fat and slow moving. It flowed through a canal with houses and shops built up to its banks. In fact, the houses often stood atop walls that formed the river’s banks. We walked easily and slowly, talking about his schooling and what had happened to me in the intervening years. I told him about my history with drinking and how my life seemed to come to a complete dead end. I was only sober for three years and still making my way, but going over the past with my old friend helped bring some perspective to what I had experienced.

When the time came, we ensconced ourselves in a little restaurant called La Petit Gourmand. I remember the restaurant more than I do the rest of the day, in part because we spent so much of our day in Colmar there. The place only held six or so tables with seating for eighteen or twenty people. It was dark inside, the major light coming in through the front door. The kitchen stood behind a couple of French doors off the main room. The restaurant belonged to a married couple. He took orders and served tables; she worked in the kitchen cooking food. They limited the menu to just two or three entrees. I ordered pork tenderloin medallions in blueberry-onion sauce. Ivo took the trout. The meal started with a small salad. A small ball of sorbet laid on a grape leaf followed and then bread and cheese, and again sorbet. The entrée came. The chef made the display of food a thing of beauty. Spare on the plate but toothsome and just enough following the previous courses. After the entrée came another small sorbet on a grape leaf. The waiter, now known to us a Frank, set down the desert of fresh fruit in heavy cream.

In two and a half hours, we had eaten a great deal but didn’t feel the heaviness that accompanied an American entrée. Everything was just enough. Just enough sorbet to clean the palate before the next course came. The complexity of the flavors and the dishes served up a feast for eyes, nose, and mouth. The atmosphere of that tiny restaurant, where people talked a lot but spoke in whispers and low voices.

In summer of 2014, I was again in France. This time with family and my friend Udo, who’d planned a grand tour of the Burgundy and Champagne for us. We’d camped out two nights in a funny campervan in Euro campsites that I thought might be like those of American RVers. But we decided to spend a night in a French hotel and eat a real French meal.

The Hotel du Commerce served up food very much like that I’d had in France before, in the sense that the food was the object at the center of larger conversations. We took our seats at a wooden table without a cover. The waiter, a young woman, had already set the flatware and plates already on the polished tabletop. Heavy wooden beams framed the space below. Other couples, presumably from the town, sat underneath sconces shaped like candle lamps. A small chandelier lit the interior brightly. Frosted windows separated the customers from the walk outside.

The woman who greeted us at the bar when we first showed up cooked the food and wandered around, making sure that her presentations made it to the tables. She chatted with familiar customers and checked with us from time to time to see how it was going. Each of us ordered a different entrée, each to his own, with Nick eating chicken nuggets and French fries. The meal came in flights, with a salad first, bread and cheese, and then the entrées. We spent over an hour and a half over dinner. Again, we walked away sated but without feeling heavy or overstuffed.

Udo and Virginia wanted to walk through the town. Normally, I would not pass up the opportunity to walk around any town as night fell. It’s that time of day when the magic of a small town reveals itself. People come home from their days and settle into their free time. Some, like the people we saw at the restaurant, use the time for social pursuits. Most others go home and spend time alone or with family. With the streets bare of people, or almost, I get a sense of a town. What kinds of businesses dominate the town? What do people do in their free time? I would have invited the chance to walk along the Seine on the town’s riverfront. But I wanted some time alone.

Being a loner and not a joiner, I missed having time alone dearly. In the compact life of travelers in a campervan, I hardly had any thought to myself. Now, I sat back at the writing table in my room at the Hotel du Commerce. The sounds of people walking down the main street out front filtered through the alley window. A hush fell on the town, making the sounds of lone motorcyclist or walker all the more pronounced. I took up my pen and scribbled thoughts and events from the previous days. I wrote with urgency, not knowing when my travel mates would return. I worked out the myriad feelings and inner emotions that the French countryside produced in me. I recalled our camping adventures and tried to place the Hotel du Commerce in context.

It turned out that I had all the time I needed. My fellow travelers took a long walk the length and breadth of Bar-sur-Seine. They walked along the riverfront and down through the back alleys and streets off the main drag. Their accounts of their walk made me envious. But I was satisfied that I was able to do my best with my journal.

This journal and many previous gave me the solace of working alone. In them, I placed myself in context, gathered the disconnected thoughts and impressions of my life, and worked out the complex emotions of everyday living. I go through those journals now, some of which helped me to write this text. They are often spotty in time and in emotions. I have not always kept up with my journals. I often write about things abstract from time and date. Precise events and my reactions to them do not often appear in the journals. But they remind me of who I was and what I was thinking. In the Hotel du Commerce that evening, I was sated in more than stomach. The French countryside presented enough of an alien view of the world to make the travel delicious and exciting. The landscapes and towns captured bits of stereotypes of European life I’d learned about in school, but then undid those stereotypes. Certainly, the French has a common culture but it was just as complex as my own. No longer would I think in terms of scenes from movies.

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