Monday, September 29, 2014

a new week

It's just after noon and I am out in the vineyards, doing the "big walk," the reasonably well marked trail that weaves its way through the Grand Cru vineyards -- the prized grapes that go into the best wines of the region. It's about a ten mile meandering trail and it'll take me four hours to do it because of the pauses and because I will get lost more often than I care to admit.

But right now it's early on in my hike and I have this one thought that keeps nagging at me -- why are so many people so negative in their thinking? I do understand that when you're thrown some extraordinary punches, your spirits falter. Not run of the mill stuff, but tough things: loss of love, loss of loved one, loss of health, loss of work -- loss produces an immediate sinking of your gut. It's hard to grin through it all.

But this isn't what puzzles me. It's when you can't get through a normal day without punching at someone or something. Punching hard. And grimacing. That's when I really wonder: why?

It's a serious question, brought on just in part by something quite ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Something that happened just today. Here's the story:

 As I was rounding a curve of the "big walk," I picked up the sound of voices out there in the rows of vines. I'm drawn to this act of manual grape picking -- it's tough work and it is hugely important to the success of this year's harvest and so where at all possible, I pause to watch.




But the noises aren't coming just from the pickers. A man and a woman (if I understand it correctly, they are not husband and wife -- they just work together) are setting a table and making a small fire at the side to warm some foods.


I pause to watch.
You're getting lunch ready? -- I say this rather unnecessarily, as it's so obvious that that's exactly what they're doing.
Yes, yes, they're about to break with picking.
How many pickers do you have?
Today, ten. So we have a good meal for them
. She sees me eying the table. Yes, with wine! And she laughs.

Beautiful weather, I comment. Because it is.
Oh, absolutely! This is the first time that we have had nothing but good weather for the entire harvest.
I do hear that there will be showers tomorrow...
But we will be done today! And she is buoyant now, smiling the biggest smile yet.

And he joins her now, and he laughs as well. And I mumble some comment about how nice it all looks (and it does -- the pretty table cloth, the sausage, cheese, the pot boiling away to the side).
As he uncorks the bottle that stands on the table, he says -- here, let me pour you a bit of wine!
And I accept, because it is such a spontaneous and friendly gesture and all the while, these two, they're laughing and smiling and having such a wonderful time of it!


I thank them and tell them that I want a picture of their happiness and so he hugs her and laughs that this may look bad to the wife and we all laugh and then they ask me to stay and eat something, but I decline. I've intruded enough. I've already taken something that is so very special -- a bit of their happiness with me, for the rest of my day.


So this is the scene that raises within me the question of -- why not choose this route for yourself? Doesn't it feel better to be so full of smiles and good will?

The day surely has the good weather for me yet again. Yes, tomorrow I am finally destined to get rain. I look forward to it! It's been unreal, this magic run of beautiful days. I can take some wetness!

But today is warm and spectacular!

I go to a bakery to the side of the village to pick up something for breakfast. A sort of ordinary looking pain au chocolat.

So, breakfast at home:


Oh, the pleasure of trivial morning routines! After this simple but lovely meal, I take a walk through the quiet morning streets...




... and make a trip to the post office.
How much is a stamp for a card to the US?
85 centimes.
Are you sure that's enough? He looks at me curiously. I rush to explain: I was just in Italy. There, it costs two Euros for a post card stamp!
He is shocked. I think -- how strange it is... one currency, different calculations.

Alright. Now I begin my "big walk."

The map of this circuit is a bit on the rough side. Still, you'd think that it would be impossible to get lost in this vast expanse of space where you can see for miles in each direction.

(those mountains are in Germany)


But I do lose my bearings. I'm supposed to walk through 4 different villages, in the order that they present themselves on the map: Bennwihr, Mittelwihr, Beblenheim and Zellenberg. How hard can this be?

Too many paths, too many turn offs, too many opportunities to take the wrong track. I should be in Bennwihr, instead I am in Mittelwihr, walking in exactly the opposite direction.

Never mind. Who could even tell. Bennwihr and Mittelwihr share something beyond the similarity of being a "wihr" (which I believe is the Alsatian pronunciation of the German word for hamlet). They're both new villages, having suffered complete destruction during World War II (a fate that obviously escaped the buildings of Riquewihr, where I'm staying).

So I'm in one, thinking I'm in the other and walking backwards rather than forwards, but it is all so fine, so very sublime and in the end, all roads will loop me back to my village (there, in the distance!) at the foot of the Vosges mountains.


After the confusing two hamlets, I come (without any trouble!) into Beblenheim.


The village is in full speed ahead mode. Tractors pulling carts full of grapes pass me many times:



And here, I have a chance to do something I've actually not sought out during this trip: I am standing before a winery and the gates are open and the tractors are coming in, going out and so I, too go in and make my way to where the grapes are being unloaded. The winery is a village cooperative, with a number of farmers contributing their grapes here. The operators of the machinery are quite amused by the appearance of this odd person with the yellow backpack and they encourage me to come in and look around. 

 I watch them greet each farmer and turn on the machines that grind the grapes as they are poured in from the trucks or plastic containers.


If you've never seen this moment when food from the field is transformed into the first stage of something that will eventually sit on your table, you're missing something special. Here, the air is thick with the smell of grape juice. The men stand around and survey and comment on the grapes that are trucked in. There is a special schedule as to who delivers when and what grape variety, so that you know whose juice is being pressed and moved to the enormous vats.

It's all so intense! This, crowning glory, the livelihood of the region -- it's all now finally away from the threat of bad weather, blight, fungus, mildew -- it's over and done with. Time to think about the next year of grape production.

I am as impressed and cheered by all this as if they were my own grapes, my own precious cargo.

After watching a few growers process their crop, I move on. I have one more village to get to and this one is on top of a small summit. It's the one that you'll have seen the morning I got up for the sunrise: Zellenberg.


There, too, the grape pressing is taking place only in a much smaller establishment.



I watch this too and there is another photographer here as well, only with lots and lots of expensive equipment and he shoos me out of his range so that he can get that good shot and the grape grower and winemaker  laugh and one of them shakes his wrist as in saying -- he's important stuff!  And I smile too and let the pro have his good photo shots.

And from here it's just a short (but oh so beautiful) hike to Riquewihr.





And I am so hungry! A morning pain au chocolat is no preparation for a day of hiking. At home, I open a bag of sauerkraut and lardons -- they sell these packs in the grocery store, all ready to heat and eat -- and I think it probably isn't the most subtle of tastes, but so very good after a day in the Aslatian vineyards.


In the evening, I walk just around the corner...

 France-1-2.jpg the Brendl Stub for dinner. There is a trend in France for famous chefs (in this case the Michelin starred guy here) to open lesser places where they serve simpler food at smaller prices. Critics say it has to do with their yearning for home cooking after the glitz of stardom. Whatever the reason, Riquewihr has just such a place, opened by the cooking god Jean-Luc Brendl and I am happy to be a guest here tonight.

I'm going to include here notes that I took during the dinner. Skip over it if you wish. It's thoughts that I have on traveling alone.

Why is traveling alone such a rare thing? In places I stay, in eateries where I dine, I'm nearly always the only one who sits alone. Why? I mean, people are so nice to the solo traveler! Not out of pity, but because you can engage a person who is without the distraction of a companion. You are an easy target for pent up friendliness.

Yes, I get how most of us would prefer to share rich experiences with people we love and care about. But surely there are lots of people without partners, or, whose partners like mine do not like travel. Do they always choose to stay home over going alone?

The table next to mine has three Americans at it. They're reviewing cancer deaths. Who dies when and of what cancer.  With details of how that occurred (suddenly? slowly?). It's sad and I selfishly wish they'd change topics. (They do not know I am one of them. I speak enough French to sound French to Americans. I always want to tell my neighbors in restaurants -- you should always assume that everyone understands every word that you're saying. English speaking people forget that. When they hear their neighbor speak French, they think -- we're safe! Let's reveal all our secrets! No one will know!

During this trip more than ever I wish I could write poems.

Ed takes a book along when he goes out to eat alone. I take my notebook. It's so fine to write in the buzz of the noise of a dining room!

Lovers to my left more than make up for my downers to my right. If I traveled with groups, what if all people around me were downers?

As I move from one excellent course to the next (and so inexpensive!), I think to myself -- these are some of my most favorite moments of travel. I am immersed, yet detached. I listen, but say nothing.

I sit there, the buzz around me intensifies, my senses are getting massaged and I think -- why isn't this talked of as a preferred form of travel?

The food is predictably grand (smoked trout with apples and scallion, roasted veal with spaetzle), the price -- the lowest I've paid yet in Riquewihr, with my most favorite dessert of the trip -- a yogurt parfait in a delicately spiced strawberry sauce.


I come home to my little place deeply satiated and I open email. Some of you may have wondered what ever happened to my book project. Well, I sent query letters to just a few (aspirational) agents and let it go for now. I hadn't the time to really canvass the field out there. But tonight I open an email from one of them. She wants to read the whole thing. 

I am very happy.

The clouds roll in, the temperature drops just a little. Tomorrow is my last day in Alsace. It truly is extraordinary how quickly the time here has gone by.