It is noon, I am restless. I quit work for the day. How easy it is to adapt the ways of those around you!
I want to go back to the Canal du Midi. I haven’t got a feel for its run yet. I haven’t walked along it, haven’t turned corners by its side, gone over bridges, watched boats pass through.
It should be an easy half hour drive from here, but there is no such thing as a straight road to it. Solo driving means pulling over, taking out reading glasses, studying the map, pulling back onto the road, coming to the intersection, being puzzled, pulling over, studying the map, understanding that I have gone too far, reexamining the map, turning back, forgetting the number of the road, pulling over, taking out reading glasses, studying the map – and this happens for the entire route.
I am still some kilometers away from the village where I am to pick up the trail of the Canal when I see a tiny sign saying “Auberge du Chat qui Peche, this way.” Cute little knife and fork below and a picture of a blue cat, fishing. It is 1:30 and I am hungry. If I do not stop for a salad soon, I will start encountering the closed sign and in desperation I will pound on a boulanger’s shop to reopen already and get myself arrested.
I follow the arrows. A country restaurant, in France. Mmmmm.
Around three more twisty turns I see it. An Impressionistic lullaby: a yellow building, by a stone bridge crossing over the Canal du Midi. At the edge of the canal, a wooden boat with a tall mast.
Inside, a few tables are occupied. I hear French, I hear “British.” The menu – ohhh, so tempting: foods that are simple et vraie, it says. De la campagne. You got me where you want me -- salvating. Salade, Chicken Catalane with potatoes dauphinois, cake of the house. That does it. The transformation is complete. From now on, I eat my big meal in the afternoon, like the French.
la salade is now just the beginning of le dejeuner
Lunch is, in fact delicious. And protracted. No one is in a hurry. The one hour lunch becomes a two hour lunch, becomes a… Okay, let me ask for a coffee and the check. Wait, I hear the waiter in the next room, talking about me, about the other clients. Oh, how audacious! Surely he knows some of us can hear him. Oh, he is telling about the French table where they changed their mind, passed on the coffee and ordered lots of cake instead. I can hear it all!
It suddenly strikes me. He is not speaking French, he is speaking Polish. [Take note: do not assume, even on the banks of the Canal du Midi, in a small village in the south of France that you can speak Polish and no one will understand.] And so I hail him over, of course, in Polish.
He is Camile, he is half Polish half French.
I live here in the summer, then, when the Canal closes, so does the restaurant and I move for six months to Poland.
A winter in Poland, so cold!
The winters in Poland, they are not so pretty anymore. Less snow, more dampness, pollution. But still, I am also cold here in the winter! When the wind blows through, you run for cover!
Is it your restaurant?
It belongs to all of us in my family. I have been here for eight years.
So do you ever see Poles here?
No, never. Maybe once every three years someone will stop by. But we never see Americans any more either. Before 9/11, almost every week we would have some. Now, almost never. Once every few months. They stick to Paris if they come to France at all.
A man who is half French half Polish. An impossible combination! No one will ever get a word in edgewise. The quintessential storytellers, the Poles, the French. And indeed, I get my share.
The Americans, they are so uncomfortable here. Especially in the South, where not many of us speak English. Last summer, three Americans came in and they looked lost, confused and one asked for a coffee and another for a beer and the third turned to his friends and said “how do you say Coca Cola in French?”
It’s a story he laughs at, but there is also puzzlement there. As if there is something about the Americans that he doesn’t quite get. I see that often here. When I say I am an American there is, automatically, a reaction. Surprise, deference, caution. And usually, I am told of some trip over there that was nice, interesting, so different over there, so different.
How do we appear to the French back in our own settings, where we do not stand out, as we must here?
I leave, promising that I would try to find them again. God knows how I ever found this place on this day, though if I follow along by the Canal du Midid, there it will be, no?
I leave the Canal eventually and head back north, back into the hills and the vineyards of the Minervois. Within a brief drive, there is yet a completely different wine terroir than that of St. Chinian. The soil is different, the slope, the climate, all call for a different wine label. The town that gave the wine region its name is Minerve. And it is stunning.
At this time of the year it is empty. Now, on this last day of May, I am almost alone. A few store owners are working to put things in order, waiting, I am sure, for the tourist season to begin.
I climb down into the river bed and look around. There is no river any more. It’s like the Internet that has command of our need for information, usurping other tools, so too you see these wondrous inventions and the demise in their usefulness because time has abruptly messed things around. The river has gone underground. The need for the magnificent bridge is gone. The development of efficient ground transport has made the Canal du Midi nearly obsolete. The inventors create and then time wipes out the need for their particular genius. Had they known that the bulk of “users” would someday be tourists and only tourists, would they close shop and do something else, like carve sticks, or blog maybe?
underneath, staked tomatoes
Driving back, I stop at a random roadside wine producer. There are dozens and dozens of them. The entire south of France is one huge field of grapes, interspersed with mountains, pastures and a few towns and villages.
This Domaine looks pretty. Their wines must be a success – the house is lovely, kept up well.
Domaine de Peyremale
I drive up, madame opens the door.
You are open, right? (Walk-ins are the norm here.) Her daughter, maybe 9 or 10 hovers, bouncing a ball around the little cave where the vats are.
Oh, stop bouncing that! The noise! The mother tells her.
She stops, grins, comes over and watches. The mother insists that I sample the three types they have. The wines are light but so very lovely, smooth, delicious.
Alright, a white and a rose. I look at the prices: 1.70 Euro for the Rose, 2.5 Euro for the Chardonnay. I can’t have bothered her for two bottles only! And so I buy four.
Visitors, I need visitors here in Pierrerue!
Ten kilometers to St Chinian still. I see a sign to a goat cheese maker. I follow. Four bottles of wine, one goat cheese. Perfect supper, no?
The path curves up the hillside. Signs warn me to drive slowly, there are goats and little children.
Madame is young. Her toddlers are running between the fromagerie and the barn. I hear goats. It is their post pasture time where they chomp down stuff in the barn, get milked, and basically settle in for the night.
Madame gives me five cheeses to sample. How do you decide?
This one is very fresh, unsalted. You can put sugar on it for dessert. This one is very strong.
But I like all of them!
I visit the goats.
Would you like to see the babies? Yes, except that it will make me miss my babies. Baby goats, babies, not so babies anymore back home.
La Chevrerie de Combebelle
I turn into St Chinian. The grocer is open. Pick up some tomatoes, endive, enough to tide me over until the Thursday market.