October 18, 2014

Local or stranger?

Is this the most or the least intimate country in human history? Tough to know. For almost a year, many of the 1500+ citizens of our small town have categorically refused to acknowledge me. No waves, no hellos, no nods of friendship. It's not a problem, just an observation. 

And then there are days like yesterday, where you enter in the local café and stand at the bar with your drink with three other guys. Suddenly, a young woman comes in, trailed by two middle-aged females. I had never seen any of them before.

They gave les bises, the double kisses, one on each cheek, to the assembled clientele, using the first name and the informal "tu" with each person they encountered. That is, until they encountered me. I stared down at my glass, sure they would understand that there was no need to share my personal space...and felt the presence of Woman near me. 

Glancing up, the youngest was halfway in for les bises. I happily reciprocated, uttering "Bonjour." The next woman danced the dance with me as well, and the third, shrugging her shoulders and saying, "Ma foi," or "Well, why not!" made the smooching sounds in each of my ears. While I prefer the female version, it is also common to be in a café when a man enters and walks the entire room, shaking the hand of every other client in the joint.

And the best part? When you see any of these people outside the café, we are right back to no recognition: no hello, no handshake, and, ma foi, no little kisses from the pretty ladies. Good luck figuring out the rules.

October 17, 2014

Hunt Part 2

As the wine flowed and our jaws worked their way through the meat, a white-haired French Senator (Fren-ator) arrived. He was a bit late (deliberately, I guessed) and, judging from his outfit -- sky blue sweater, bright orange scarf knotted around his neck -- this was not someone who was afraid of a little attention. Quickly, the sole bottle of red on the table -- opened expressly for him -- was passed his way. He installed himself at the head of the table.

Politicians the world over share certain character traits, and our friend from the Senate was no different. Eager to meet new people? Yessir. Quick to smile? Yep. Happy with some attention? Check. Good storyteller? Among the best. Remarkable precision with words? Yup. The Fren-ator was obviously in high spirits, happy to be away from the capital with some old friends in a hunting cabin. He spun yarns about broken promises from his supporters ("I'm going to vote for you" said to his face, followed by the same "supporter" mistakenly calling the Fren-ator's cellphone, thinking it was in fact his opponent and saying, "I just told the Fren-ator I was voting for him, but don't worry, I'm with you"); told tales about requests from the Prime Minister to accommodate Chinese tourists looking to drop serious coin on Burgundy wines; and let forth an avalanche of political/hunting/manly slang that had me racing to keep up. His glass, like everyone else's, was rarely empty, though professional responsibility did require him to cover his glass -- with both hands layered, one on top of the other, a sign that he could not be moved from his position -- when over-zealous pourers made the rounds.

Eventually, the laughter began to wane and the collective shuffle of a group on a mission began. I recognized this shift from my time at the lunch table during harvest; while it was wonderful to be relaxing with food and wine, there was serious business to be taken care of. It was the same at the hunting lodge.

We had officially squandered the only dry part of the day by sitting cooped up in a trailer filled with booze, smoke, flesh, and hot air. Now, it was pouring rain. 

As the crew put on rain gear (I was loaned an authentic hunting jacket and sweet orange vest), Paul informed me that each week, a farmer brings 90 birds -- pheasants and partridge, primarily -- to this little spot of Burgundy and releases them for the hunter's pleasure. (The crates behind the lodge were the evidence of this set up.) In classic good-little-American-boy fashion, I nodded and waited expectantly for a preview of the day's events and a gun/hunting safety primer. 

The first crack of a shotgun 25 feet away made me realize that neither of these things would be forthcoming. I affixed myself to Paul's flank, and off we walked. He talked a little to his dogs, and gave some instructions to a few other members of the hunting party, coaching them behind hedges or around a flank of woods. What had been a peaceful field surrounded by vegetation suddenly sounded like a bowl of Rice Krispies: snap, crackle, and pop. Dogs were flushing birds every minute, and my new friends had quick trigger fingers. 

Within three minutes of starting, I saw my first pheasant meeting its demise. The dog flushed it, a man shot it, the dog carried it to the man, and the man brought it in my direction, muttering, as he wrung the neck of the fowl, relieving it of the pressures of life, "They always give me shit for being a lousy shot. Well, today, I got the first one." He shoved the bird into the big pocket in the back of his jacket, the corpse making a little hump in the small of his back. I liked this guy, and decided to tag along behind him.

About ten minutes later, I realized I wasn't quite close enough to him. As a bird flew out of the brush to my right, I watched the prey fly quickly on a diagonal, going from my original 3 o'clock to my 6 o'clock. My "friend" was at my original 12 o'clock...putting me squarely in between the barrel of his gun and the flying dinner. He yelled, "Get down!" and down I went, faster than you can say "Dick Cheney." Gunfire crackled and then subsided. Another member of our party, who had me nowhere near his firing line, had gunned down the bird. As he put it in his coat, my buddy, none too pleased with me for wrecking his shot, said, "I wasn't going to shoot you, but you really need to stay glued to a hunter while you're out here."

Rain trickled into my earlobes at the same pace that sweat puddled in strange places on my body. A break sounded like a good idea, and a group of us trudged back into the trailer in silent agreement, where wine and food awaited. Thirst for fermented grape juice never seemed more appropriate for 10:30am.

October 10, 2014

On the Hunt

"You can take pictures," he told me.

The man was asking me if I would like to come hunting with his club sometime in the fall.

I nodded, my body language squarely in between "neutral" and "non-committal." He insisted that I was going to love it, and asked me several more times if I wanted to go. I moved the needle a little towards "OK," and obviously pleasing him.

Frankly, I thought the offer was fueled more by good wine, high spirits, and a tasty meal with the Arnay-le-Duc Rotary Club, the type of invite one extends to strangers at a holiday cocktail party, only to realize the next morning (with relief) that you don't have the contact information for the person you invited. I quickly forgot about it.

Then, last week, Benoît, who wasn't even at the dinner (whom I know, however; we were staying in his house at the time), emailed inviting me to join the group for the hunt on Sunday. It was no-nonsense, very guy-like: no details other than he would pick me up at 8 and we would be going to an area about 20 minutes away. 

Butbutbutbutbut...what would we be hunting? Who else would be there? How many would we be? Did I need to buy/borrow special clothes? Did everyone understand that I was not licensed to hunt in this country? That I would only be a spectator? What time would we get home? What should I bring? Would it cost me anything? 

Or, at least, that's what I might have asked at home. My local self just replied, "OK, great. See you at 8 on Sunday." (It's a subject for another time, but I have learned that invites here are typically void of detail or previews; you just say "yes" and show up, open to any and everything.)

Benoît arrived before 8 and quickly ducked into his cave for a couple of bottles for the hunt. Promising.

We drove to Pouilly-en-Auxois, where we met a few other hunters for a quick coffee (the only non-alcoholic liquid I would see before my return home) before driving off to the hunt. We parked in a big field amongst woods and hedges. On the grounds was a ramshackle hunting cabin, like a camping trailer. Men in high-spirits climbed out of BMWs, Mercedes, and Land Rovers donning the gentleman's green of the hunter. Laughter rippled across the plain, chasing cigarette smoke and the hyper barking of a ragtag assemblage of hunting dogs. 

The group made its way into the cabin via the narrow end. The room contained a long table with chairs on one side, a bench on the other, and a stove and prep table at the end opposite the door. I sat in the middle of the bench, feeling awkward in my jeans and blue sweater (definitely not hunting gear), but lucky to be invited. I quickly realized that I was the only one without a hunting knife. Every man was hacking chunks of jambon persillé, slicing sausages, cutting hunks of lard (which is pretty much exactly hat it sounds like...lard...we were firmly in Guytown), cracking fresh walnuts, and decimating baguettes with the tool of the trade. Plates and napkins were neither offered nor seen.

All this activity generated an extraordinary thirst among the assembled. While I am not a hunter, I am also not a fool. I know full well that American men in hunting lodges drink booze before and after they take aim. They drink beer of course, preferably cheap, copious, and consumed directly from the can or bottle. 

In France, it's a little different. Interspersed with storytelling, jocular ribbing, and incessant dog barking was the sweet sound of corks popping. It would be a part of the soundtrack of the day from 8:30 until we departed. Every man had a fine-stemmed wine glass. The table soon sagged with a dozen bottles of white (it was morning, after all, a good time for something refreshing), some of them sporting names one normally sees in restaurants. Here's a magnum of Puligny-Montrachet. Or perhaps some vintage Champagne. Maybe some Meursault or Pernand-Vergelesses would be to your liking. The wines flowed without ceremony, but with great rapidity. Emptying one's glass was an open invitation to the assembled to promptly refill it. While it may have been tempting to continue to drain the contents, the stimuli for day's activities were everywhere: smelly men, yapping dogs, orange blazes and camouflage vests, and, of course, guns. It was time to take it slow.

Up next: the Hunt (plus more wine)