Good Food, a Glass of Wine, and a Laugh with Friends
by Allen Clingler '02
January 11, 2011
My trip to the Art Institute during the summer of 2000 began as a routine tourist visit to Chicago—an elevator ride to the top of the Hancock Building, lunch at Pizzeria Uno, and finally a spin through my favorite impressionist galleries.
Long before I studied it in art history at Wabash, George Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte was one of my favorite paintings. That summer day I was staring into the eyes of the little girl at the center of the painting when I overheard a mumbled conversation in French from the couple next to me. Their discussion about Seurat quickly turned to the man’s suggestion that they head back to the hotel room for a “rendez-vous” of sorts.
Proud of my ability to understand their conversation, I chuckled to myself, not thinking they were so close. We made eye contact and I blushed, trying to back away. To my surprise the woman shrieked, “Vous parlez le Francais! Et vous-etes Americain?”
So began my conversation with Stéphan and Véronique of the Languedoc region of southern France. They were beginning a three-week road trip across the U.S. following Route 66. Fanatics for American pop culture, they were thrilled to learn of my being from Indiana and growing up in relative proximity to Fairmount, the birthplace of James Dean. We chatted for a bit, enjoying a 90-percent French/10-percent English conversation over a cup of coffee. Although we exchanged addresses, I was surprised to receive postcards from St. Louis and Amarillo as they made their way toward California.
After their return to France, I received a packet containing maps, brochures, and menus from their favorite local restaurants. In October 2000 they called and asked if some friends and I would like to visit them during our spring break.
I would have never guessed it at the time, but this chance encounter would change me forever.
AS I Grew up in Logansport, Indiana, Europe always seemed so far away and out of reach to me. But after an eight-hour transatlantic flight and a three-hour Heineken-fueled ride on the high-speed TGV, my friends and I found ourselves sitting around a rustic 18th-century table, drinking the most delicious coffee I’d ever tasted in a picture-perfect townhome in Saint-Hilaire-d’Ozilhan.
Stéphan and Véronique took a week off work, rented a minivan, and adopted us as their surrogate American children for a week. I stayed in their guest room. Each day started off with coffee and croissants in their home to be followed by a day packed full of sites and wine and pastis in traditional Provencal style. They showed us the Palais des Papes in Avignon, the Camargue, and a number of cloisters. We hiked the calanques at Cassis overlooking the Mediterranean and admired the fishing fleet near the port at le Ciotat. Evenings were spent drinking wine, eating home-cooked French food, and receiving tutoring in pronunciation, posture, and etiquette from our French mother.
With that introduction to French culture and lifestyle, I felt less like a visitor and more like a long-lost Frenchman at heart. To this day, while most people find the sterile halls of Aéroport Charles de Gaulle the most miserable place on earth, I relish the smell of coffee and l’Occitane skin-care products, admire the elegant gait of French women in stilettos, and immediately feel a sense of serenity, as if I’ve finally arrived at home.
When I returned to Wabash, I began looking for ways to spend more time in France. I was frustrated at myself for not having applied for the College’s study- abroad program, but I was still able to secure a 90-day French work visa. I flew back to Paris after spring finals at the end of my junior year with little more than my passport, camera, a few hundred dollars, and a return ticket home. Through some serendipitous force, I quickly found employment as a waiter. My commute became the length of the Champs-Élysées, hopping off the Métro each afternoon, and walking toward the Arc de Triomphe. Although Planet Hollywood isn’t the typical French café, it did provide stable employment, generous tips from North American diners, and the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment with co-workers from Portugal, Canada, Ireland, Sweden, and Uruguay, many of whom I stay in touch with to this day.
I loved having days to myself, reading in the Jardin de Luxembourg, wandering through Père LaChaise cemetery, and gawking at the masterpieces in the Louvre. Each day was like a vacation.
The downside to these relaxing days was getting off work after the Métro had ended service for the night. But I quickly learned the best route to walk home, crossing Le Seine near Notre Dame and up Rue de Belleville to my shared apartment in the North African-centric 20th arron-dissement. Few places in the world are more magnificent than Paris at 3 a.m., monuments illuminated, and the entire city smelling like sugar and butter from the pâtisseries getting an early start on the morning croissants.
The confidence I gained that summer from surviving, alone, in a foreign country, led to indelible moments. In the fall of 2004, Nick Brankle ’04 and I spent three nights in Paris as a stopover to kick-off a 10-day road trip through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland. I will never forget eating a late dinner of lamb tagine at a Moroccan restaurant in my old neighborhood, hearing crackly Edith Piaf on the radio, drinking Armagnac, watching our friend Amanda dance in the candlelight with the owner. That one night was, to this day, the most quintessential French experience imaginable, a striking layering of both the traditional and modern, multiethnic aspects of France.
Journeys to France became a frequent activity of my 20s—I always had a trip in mind or in the works. So in the fall of 2008 when Kyle Maloney ’04 came down from Chicago for a visit and suggested a return to France to celebrate my 30th birthday, I didn’t hesitate. I’d often thought about organizing a group trip to stay at a villa in Europe. This seemed like a perfect opportunity. Within a few weeks a motley group of fraternity brothers, room-mates, friends, and neighbors had committed to 10 days in France—seven at a rural villa to be followed by a few remaining days in Paris.
My closest friends from Wabash and I have long shared a love of food, cooking, and good wine. Even during our college days we often eschewed Applebee’s and Little Mexico to pitch-in money and make a meal back at the Theta Delt house. So I made clear our desires for the house in France as I chatted with the rental agency: rustic location, big kitchen, and a location well-known for food. Dordogne, in the off-season, seemed like the perfect choice —famous for truffles, ducks, and fois gras, close to Bordeaux and other notable wine regions, with a complete lack of tourists and traffic in the off-season.
The villa was reserved by early May, but I found myself falling into a deeper and deeper funk as the summer progressed. The thought of turning 30 was weighing heavily on my mind. I wasn’t ready—many of my friends were at far more advanced and secure places in their careers, and my own job was becoming increasingly stressful while the rewards and opportunities for advancement were diminishing.
Soon the trip and my upcoming birthday became the stimulus for change. I set a goal that summer to make at least two contacts a week that could help make career change happen. After a number of dead-end conversations, I had an interview lined up in early September with a very appealing employer. The interview process sped along until the trip was just days away.
Less than 20 hours before our flight was to leave Indianapolis, I received the call offering me the job. As we drank champagne in the back of the limo on our way to the airport, I was still in shock regarding the news and my good fortune.
The seven days at the villa were among the most perfect of my life. Our location in Tremolat, perched high on a bluff overlooking the Dordogne River valley, was perfect. The villa has its roots in the 13th century and was lovingly restored to its aristocratic hunting-lodge roots.
Leisurely mornings over coffee gave way to trips to the local market, relaxing afternoons drinking wine on the terrace, and late gourmet dinners that gave way to even later nights sharing drinks, laughs, and stories. We enjoyed rabbit ragout, seared duck breast with butternut squash polenta, local cheeses, fois gras, truffles, and other duck and goose specialties of the region.
Although we were all at least a few pounds heavier for the return flight home, the markets, food, and wine were all well worth the extra miles of penance on the treadmill. Sure, we did some sightseeing, cycling, and other activities. The real pleasure, however, was relaxing and savoring the joie de vivre that the French have learned to master.
I think of our arrival at the Bordeaux airport on this very trip. We approached the Europcar counter just after 2 p.m., only to find it deserted. I could hear two ladies laughing in the back office, noticed a bell conspicuously missing, and glanced around the back only to see the ladies opening a bottle of wine and sitting down for lunch. A few members of our group grew impatient and suggested interrupting the rental car agent for assistance. I assured them that this was no way to make friends with the French. After some coffee to relieve the jet lag, we revisited the counter and, after a few minutes, Brigitte greeted us.
“You arrived at two o’clock,” she said, “and I always have lunch at two. How may I help you?”
I smiled and thought about all the interrupted lunches I’ve had to endure over the years and I realized, just then, that the French have had it right all along. Some-times good food, a glass of wine, and a laugh with friends really does need to take priority.