Bordeaux

18 March 2023 19:20 

We’re all familiar with place names that are proper names, say Drakes Bay or Fenwick Island. Then there are those whose names are topographic or geographic: Ocean City, Ocean Beach, Lands End, Stillwater Cove, and so on.

Other languages have similar naming conventions. For example, French.

I’ve known for a while the meaning of the individual words, but it wasn’t until I saw the orthography of the name of our hotel, La Maison Bord’eaux, that the thin filament of the dim light bulb glowed in my brain: bord, edge or bank, and eaux, water Oh. Bord. Eaux. Water’s edge. Bordeaux. Well, duh.

Family visiting combined with the school winter break was a chance to get away for a few days. Neither Annie or I had been there before, and the thought of seeing the Atlantic, from this side, was appealing.

Saturday morning departure was at a civilized hour, ~1317. The train was not a TGV, but instead an Intercities, but still it was great to be on the train again. It was Annie, Courtenay, Julie, and me; Catherine was having a sleep-over with two friends, supervised by Maëllys, and would join us the next day. We bought sandwiches and salads from the Paul café to take on the train, and once on board, I bought a small bottle of red from the rolling food/beverage cart. I declined the offer of a small plastic glass: once less piece of plastic to dump in the ocean, and instead just swigged from the bottle. Annie wrapped the bottle in a used sandwich bag, giving it that special wino touch.

We stayed along the coast, Séte, Agde, Bèziers, Narbonne, then turned northwest through Carcassonne, Toulouse, Montauban, to Bordeaux. An easy tram ride and walk to the hotel, dinner that night was at Régallien.

The next day we took the tram to the Cité du Vin, roughly translated as the City of Wine. On the tram ride there I saw hints of Washington, D.C.: no high rise buildings, the Garrone river running through the middle (I know the Potomac River separates D.C. from Virginia, but indulge me), and the Pont de Pierre, a distant cousin to Memorial Bridge. It was a nice change from Montpellier, colder, clear days, a full size city as opposed to a large town, which is how Montpellier feels sometimes.

The Cité du Vin is glass in the shape of a decanter, or maybe an orthopedic shoe. We took the elevator to the top floor, the eighth, where there was a spectacular 360 view of Bordeaux. There was a bar there, where you could get a glass of wine as you strolled on the viewing platform, taking in the view. Most people did this, I did not. As I watched people studying the wine menu, then after a long talk with the employees, ordering a glass, I felt it coming on: the seeds of annoyance and disdain. It was the ascetic, medieval me, my inner zealot, coming out. He’s never pretty, leads me astray.

It’s just wine, people. Wine. Yeah, you buddy, you there walking around with that glass of red, your jacket draped over your shoulders – your arms go in the sleeves, you dumb fuck. Why this monstrosity of a building? Why all the adoration and accoutrements? Swirl the glass, sniff, sip, say something profound: ‘hint of dingleberries’. It’s just a blob of fermented grape juice, kinda like Welches. The ceremony, the pretension demands that we care about….what year?…oak barrels from what sub-species of oak?….the terroir is….?…what does the sommelier think? I couldn’t stop myself. Not just the wine industry, but all those food/foodie/foodistas, their magazines: Fine Microwaving, The Joy of Crockpotting. The fusion: Cambodian tacos and Korean cassoulet! Foie gras knives from Sur la table and tours of Normandy butteries. TV shows, books and movies, Julia and Irma and Anthony! I had worked myself into a righteous lather: don’t they know that man does not live by bread alone?! Oh the food porn! Like actors and sports figures and work culture, what about this beverage demands so much attention and publicity and passion?

I stepped outside onto the balcony, and was smacked by a strong wind, a hint of salt air from the Atlantic. Wasn’t there an unravelling scene in a movie, similar setting, different reason1Paul Giamatti, Sideways.?

I paused.

The food stores in our neighborhoods tend to be a bit run down, no Draeger’s or whatever the chichi store is near you. Instead think of a 1971 IGA on a pot-holed back road behind the car dealers on Route 1 or El Camino Real, weeds growing in the parking lot and the wheels on the carts don’t roll well. One early evening in Auchan, I saw a man looking through the rosés. He looked at the front label, then examined the label on the back, held the bottle up to the light to better see the wine, put that one back on the shelves, repeated the same process two or three more times, until he found one that met his criteria. What struck me was his attire: he was not wearing a tweed coat or beret with scarf; he wore fluorescent green nylon pants and parka, indicating he worked in garbage collection or street cleaning or similar. And here he was after a day’s work, taking the time to find just the right rosé.

And why not? Why not enjoy that carefully selected wine? There is more to life than wine, but there are also good things of the earth to enjoy. And with that memory, I folded up my inner misanthrope and put him away, then got on with the tour.

It’s very well done: there’s a sort of periodic chart of grapes, an interactive display of the wine production process, a library, a virtual grape crusher, dioramas, films, and more, but for me the most interesting was the smelling studio, or what is called the Buffet of Senses: items enclosed in bell jars, and when you squeeze the black rubber pump, scents come out of a sort of miniature trumpet bell. Even as I write this, my lizard brain remembers the smell of honey and old books.

Meanwhile, Catherine, this same morning after her sleep over, sent her friends on their way and caught the 0907 Sunday train, from Montpellier to Bordeaux, then found her way to the hotel, where for one night she had a room to herself. I was a bit nervous about it all, and we called her a couple of times during the afternoon, but when we arrived back at the hotel, she was there, checked in, and enjoying having a room to herself.

Sunday night we ate at La Tupina, a restaurant known for its traditional French country cooking. The moment we opened the door and were hit by the smoky meat smell, I knew there were no vegetarians eating in the traditional French countryside. It was all meaty, smoky, heavy, making all previous rib places I had eaten, even in rural Texas, look like those fern decorated bistros that serve ‘light fare’ and each dish includes information about the number of calories, as well as a colorful graph showing the protein, carbohydrates, and fat in each healthy portion.

Courtenay and I had the Le Cassoulet, (Canard, Saucisse, Gésiers, Poitrine de Porc, Haricots, or duck, sausage, gizzards, pork belly, beans); Julie had Le Canard (Magret Entier, Frites cuites dans la graisse de Canard, or whole duck breast with French fries cooked in duck fat); Annie had the Tournedos de Bœuf à la Bordelaise et os à Moelle, a filet with a big-ass bone (for the marrow) that reminded me of a Far Side cartoon2Thag take napkin, have mammoth on chin.; Catherine had the La Macaronade de La Tupina (Pâtes, Crème Fraîche, Cèpes, Lard et Foie Gras or pasta, crème fraiche, mushrooms, bacon, and foie gras ).

Monday morning Annie had to return to Montpellier. We’re starting some kitchen renovations, and she needed to be there to supervise it all. I walked her to the tram stop, double confirmed the platform at the train station – it’s good to double check for her- she was already on the phone with the general contractor.

Monday afternoon we went to the music and light show at the old World War II Axis submarine base (La Base Sous-Marine or BETASOM (Italian acronym that I can’t remember)). The setting is grim: a hulking, dirty beige concrete structure with slips for the boats, dappled with large white splashes of bird shit. Made of reenforced concrete, repeated bombings did little damage, and as such it was never practical to demolish. Now there is a show with imagery from or about Dali and Gaudi, projecting on all the walls, accompanied by music from Pink Floyd. In those large concrete cold bays, walkways around the water, dark but for the imagery, the music, it was intense and wonderful. In hindsight, I wished I had smoked a big bowl of hash or taken mushrooms before going in, although the setting and the show, amplified by the drugs, might have been too much.

The next day we strolled around, a bit of shopping, eating. Of course we visited the English language bookstore, Bradley’s Bookshop. It was off the main pedestrian shopping street, the rue St. Catherine. The bookstore was much larger than the one in Lyon, fully stocked shelves, yet, unlike Lyon, I found nothing to buy. Perhaps with age and experience, my tastes are outside whatever defines profitable inventory for a precarious business that is a bookstore. But Catherine found two books by an author she had read before, and within a few days had finished both.

We never made it to the coast, but that’s something for another trip. Wednesday morning mid-day we caught the train back to Montpellier. It was mostly the reverse of the trip there, but with fewer stops. Now back in Montpellier, I found myself wondering mont is like mountain and….

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