After an absence of some weeks, I’m back. It feels good to be writing again.
It’s been almost exactly ten years since I started working in the trade, and I’m in the throes of a ten year evaluation, a period of reflection, an overhaul. 2014 and 2015 have seen many changes in my professional world, many transitions, highs and lows, laughter and tears, a full spectrum of experience and emotion. I keep coming back to my love of the industry, but I’m in a quiet mood with respect to it. I don’t feel like proclaiming anything from the mountain top, nor do I feel like tasting through epic numbers of bottles in search of truth; I’d rather sit at home with a quiet glass of Dupasquier and Elena Ferrante’s most recent novel. So I thought I’d write a piece on French customs and manners, which has been burbling in my brain for the past little while.
One of the chief draws of our trade (at least for me) is its offer of travel: other languages, cultures, cuisines, and customs. I’d go so far as to say this stuff is so fascinating that I sometimes wonder if the accompaniments aren’t more appealing than the thing itself; I’m that person who’d happily take the sides without the steak, but they come together on the plate … Our industry is the vehicle that allows us to take in the rest, and it makes no sense to ask the question “is it really wine I love, or is it the other stuff?” A taste for one is an interest in the others …
In my travels especially, I find myself seizing moments to tune out wine in order to tune in to other harmonies. This is utilitarian as much as anything. Travel in the wine trade is work; I defy anyone who has taken a professional wine journey to frame it as a long vacation tippling in one quaint village after another. Across the board (and I say this having taken many wine trips in many capacities), it’s harrowing, exhausting, fraught with rich, rustic, meat-heavy cuisine, a total lack of personal time or days off, strange damage to the inside of the mouth from acid and tannin, bone-chilling cold, horrendous GPS directions, the list goes on … I’m not complaining! This is just to say that when one finds a tranquil moment in the cacophony of fermented grape juice to ponder something else, it’s a blessing.
For me it’s often language. I know enough French now to pick up large amounts of what is being said, to take part in conversation, and I get caught up in particularities of accent, or a certain choice of word or conjugation. What does the expression “du coup” signify? No one has yet adequately explained it to me. When is it better to use “on” versus “nous”? “On travail avec un vigneron dans la Loire”, but “nous allons au restaurant maintenant?” Is “nickel” used interchangeable with “cool”, and by what age group? I read online that it means “perfect” … Or, a perennially confounding topic for English speakers, when may I finally address this person as “tu” rather than “vous”? (Incidentally, I recently learned the Italian version of “tutoyer”, which is “dammi del tu” (give me the “tu” … ) Often even after I’ve been given the green like to “tu” someone, “vous” still comes out half the time. I write new words in the margin of my tasting notebook: “vachement”, “franchement”, “forcément”, a reminder that I learned to value foreign language acquisition at the dawn of time, from my mom, long before wine was part of my life.
Other times I become fixated on custom, some little thing that is done differently in France. Last year I learned that French people don’t take their meals alone. We Americans have no fear of this, and most of us do it all the time! How many American lunches are spent hunched over the phone or computer, in our cubicles, real or metaphorical. When I’d mention taking a meal alone to a French person, they’d feel sorry for me, or interpret my remark as fishing for an invitation, as though unfathomable that I might relish the chance to eat food, alone, with a book, and exactly what I most want on my plate, with no one to talk to, and no obligation to politeness. Last year, I stayed alone in a bed and breakfast in Saumur for a week, and each day the proprietors hovered nervously around me as I drank my acrid morning coffee and ate my croissant so that I wouldn’t have to endure the ignominy of taking my petit déjeuner alone.
For all that the word “manners” puts us in mind of no-elbows-on-the-table, and sayings like “birdies in their nests agree!”, manners are a fabric that binds. And as repressive as they can feel when we are ten years old, as adults we come to value and appreciate them. Manners vary enormously across cultures, and in surprising ways.
At a restaurant in the Jura, for example, there were four or five bowls of delicious gougères on the table, well within reach of any guest. I observed that when someone wanted to eat a gougère, he would pick up the bowl and offer one to everyone before taking one for himself, as though reaching to grab one and popping it into his mouth be greedy. Everyone at the table observed this rule, and consequently I waited for the bowl that had been across the table to be passed to me, rather than taking from the bowl right in front of me.
In a similar vein, it’s possible, at a French table, to wait minutes at a time to begin eating because no one wants to take the first bite. While waiting for someone at the table to attack their plate of food, rapidly cooling, it’s perfectly fine to nibble a crust of bread.
A couple of years ago some friends informed me that the French do not go out in public (aside from sanctioned exercise zones) in workout clothes. I’m not sure if this is completely accurate, and I imagine it’s changing as American cultural norms (and words) spread like an ill-mannered ooze across western Europe, but I do know that I rarely encounter French people in workout gear outside of the park or the gym. Now, I’m not a proponent of sporting Lululemon to the restaurant. We Americans (myself included) wear way too much workout gear in public, and the abundance of expensive work out clothing roaming Manhattan on rail thin Terri Hatcher-esque women is scandalous. Yet I take issue with the French way of doing it too, which seems to imply I’m supposed to carry my shorts to the park, change, jog, and then change back again before going home! That’s absurd; I’d rather incur the strange looks invariably cast in my direction when I wear jogging clothes to the tabac. Actually, this happened in Epernay not long ago after my rental car was towed. Before departing for home, I had to purchase and mail in a timbre amend to pay the fine, and these are only available in a tabac. So, I popped in on my way back from a morning run along the Marne, meeting the steely gaze of the clerk, a small unlit cigar dangling from his lip at half past nine in the morning. He eyed me up and down, and I felt all the more foolish for my sweatband and shorts.
There are many, many more like this, fascinating little details that hover at the periphery of our experience as we travel. Yes they’re trivial, yet they’re symptomatic of a deeply embedded cultural identity that also, for example, protects patrimony. And this is crucial because it keeps vineyard holdings in the hands of the families who have farmed them for ages, because it keeps winemaking traditions alive, because it fosters the vocation of the vigneron. What I’m trying to say, ineloquently because the concept is complex and nebulous, is that everything is tied together: the wine we worship, customs, manners, language, and the underlying belief structures that carry our vignerons along …
Next time I’ll write about wine. Promise.