Hollow in the Middle

Adjusting to France, French Wine, Life in General

We are all mortal until the first kiss and the second glass of wine.”                                                                                                       -Eduardo Galeano

I’m still not exactly sure what possessed me to say yes.

I mean, a wine jury? Sure, I drink a lot of wine and I have some ideas about what varietals I like the most (White Burgundy – HOLLA!) but that is about as far as my expertise goes. What do I know about length and legs and subtleness (I feel like there’s a joke in here somewhere)? The being said, our regional district here in Grenoble asked me to join their yearly wine jury and it seemed like the type of thing that you just don’t say “no” to. Sort of like if a doctor’s office called to offer you a free colonoscopy, you would at least consider it, wouldn’t you? It was as a result of this type of thinking that I found myself walking into an old Abbey on the outskirts of town without a clue what I was supposed to do or what would be expected of me. I mean, I just show up and drink some wine, right…right???

This felt like the very-much-awake version of the naked-in-front-of-the-classroom dream; the atmosphere was akin to the first day of school and I was the new kid, maybe from a Ranch in West Texas, showing up at an inner city school in New York City…okay…maybe that is a stretch, let me simplify this: I did not fit in. Closed groups were chatting in various corners, clearly not interested in making friends or even welcoming a newcomer, and there wasn’t even a table for check-in, presumably because everyone else here already knew each other and what they were supposed to do. Me, on the other hand, not so much.

So, being the intrepid and confident person that I am, I went with my only option, to stand awkwardly in the middle of the room, fiddling with my purse and checking my phone, doing my best to give the pretense of being busy.

Um…I’m not sweating with nerves and anxiety, I swear…why did I wear grey? Worst sweat color ever.

“Bonjour, c’est vous?” Finally, a man approached me, holding up a list and pointing to a name.

“Oui,” I smiled at him with creepy desperation warmly while sending “talk to me” vibes.

“Bon. Merci.” He was looking back down at the list, apparently not picking up on my vibes. “This will be your table,” he said, pointing to the end of the room. “I will be sitting there to help you if you need it.” Then, to my monumental dismay, off he went to talk to the others.

UGH. They already have friends, talk to me! Damn silent pleas for help, not too effective, really.

I sighed. I mean, it was what it was. I had been nervous about agreeing to come to this thing when they first emailed me but my brain had been all: get outside of your comfort zone, this is a once in a lifetime experience to sit on a wine jury in France, don’t be afraid of adventure, you used to be fearless! Stupidly, I listened to it, thinking I should break out of my routine, challenge myself: to be comfortable is to be dead, I told myself…or some such nonsense like that. Clearly, I should pay more attention to those NPR articles I read about the brain not being fully developed until you’re like 35…dumb, immature brain…you know nothing!

Now, here I was, in a room full of unfriendly strangers, feeling foolish, and uncomfortable, and defeated. My attempts at eye contact ignored, and my usual conversational tricks useless…falling flat against the barricade of Frenchness and oneness.

I was “other.”

***

“Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.”                                                                                                                        -Aristophanes

“Son, does your wife know that you are out with these two foxy ladies?!”

The voice is booming, taking ownership of the room, as does the man accompanying it (who, incidentally, does own the room). Tall, large, with a white beard and a round belly, to my 5 year old self he is like some bizarre Southern Italian-American Santa Claus: bragging, brash, and utterly charming. My sister and I look at each other and smile as my Father steps fully into the restaurant entry hall to greet the man.

“I believe she’d be alright with it, Big John,” my Father says, grinning, one hand on each of our heads to keep us in place.

Big John then leans down in front of us, taking a moment to shake our hands, making us feel special and important…because Big John made everyone feel special and important.

“It’s strange,” he says, a glint of mischief in his eye. “I just – I, well,” he says, scratching his head. “I just thought I noticed something behind your ears, it seems weird. Do you clean behind your ears?”

“Yes sir,” we reply like little soldiers.

“Well, I just don’t know about that,” he says, reaching his two massive hands down behind our heads. “Because look what I found?”

Naturally, because it was always the same, he pulled out two pieces of bubble gum. BUBBLE GUM! This was a rare treat in our childhoods, my Mother favoring carob covered raisins for desserts, not so much candy (yeah, try making trades in the lunchroom with those*).

“What do you say, girls?”

“Thank you!” We trill, pleased as punch with our booty.

“Don’t thank me,” Big John says. “I just found them!”

Then his arm encircles my Father as he walks us to our table and the two of them discuss important matters…wine.

To say that Big John liked wine would be like saying that Albert Einstein enjoyed science…an understatement, at best. Big John was an enthusiast of grape nectar at a time when most Americans were still stuck on liquor and beer. Wine was a passion for him and he was an internationally heralded collector. Twice he broke the world record for buying the most expensive bottles of wine,** and the cellar at his restaurant boasted numbers in the thousands (not to mention a myriad of awards from across the globe). To a child, going into this subterranean world was like entering some other dimension, like something out of a creepy fairy tale, it was huge and cavernous, a little cold and a little dark, in every corner there were rows and rows of bottles, like eyes watching your every move…and perhaps they were, because who can deny the aliveness of wine?

Later, we would move back upstairs and sit at our table, my sister and I excited to have a big-girls night out with Daddy. I would eat my ravioli or spaghetti (really anything with their meat sauce…Memphis people you know of what I speak) and my Father would drink something fabulous…content with the world.

Ten years later, the world would lose Big John and everything would seem just a little bit dimmer, the way it does when a larger-than-life person exits your life. The restaurant would follow not long after. The menu from my Parents’ last dinner with him at the restaurant still hangs in my Father’s wine cellar…a talisman to ward off bad wine?

My Mother says that Big John was an “evangelist” for wine, that he “had found something that increased his joy in life and wanted to share it with others.”

He wanted to share wine.

He wanted to share joy.

Wine is joy, joy is wine.

***

“Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.”                                                                                                                                                                   –Thomas Aquinas

The day progressed in the same vein with which it had started. I sat at my table, surrounded by lauded restauranteurs and experienced sommeliers, wondering how I had landed there, knowing that they must have been wondering the same thing. Why had I agreed to come?

Then, magically, the greatest thing happened.

There was a bad wine.

I mean, a really bad wine. The format of our jury was that we would all taste and take notes silently, then compare and discuss. I looked around, wild-eyed, when the leader pointed at me to go first.

Oh god, how on earth can I explain this? What if they all loved it and it just confirms that I have an imbecilic palate and am an imposter?

I took a breath and then shrugged, wrinkling my nose and giving a sheepish chuckle.

“I think it smells like cheese. Maybe I’m crazy, but…”

“OUI! Exactement, c’est fromage! C’est fromage!” The owner of, arguably, the best restaurant in Grenoble was agreeing with me…and laughing as well. Then, suddenly, the whole table was cracking up, smelling the wine…the horrible, disgusting, cheese wine.

A surge of gratefulness for this terrible bottle flowed through me, and I thanked the wine gods.

Then, for some reason, Big John popped into my mind.

Our table ended up awarding a Bronze medal to one of our wines that day, and it still feels pretty cool, knowing that there is a wine out there with a bronze medal on it that I helped to award. Still, I left early that day, just after the voting was done and before the lunch was served. The solidarity the wine had given us at the table seemed to dissipate once we stood up, and I, again, felt myself looking through the window, unable to push through.

“How was it?” MB asked through the cell phone as I walked to the bus stop.

“It was AWFUL,” I told him, feeling whiny and pitiful.

“Really?”

“Well, not entirely. It was just super awkward but I guess I’m glad I did it. If nothing else, it will make for a funny story later.”

Wine is joy, joy is wine.

I sat on the bus bench, going over the morning’s events, shaking my head, content to laugh a bit about it now. Then my mind returned to Big John. How funny that I had thought of him today, I probably hadn’t thought of him in years. Maybe there are some memories that are like little jewels that we keep locked away, only to look at when times are tough and we need to see something beautiful.

…Or maybe Big John is a wine god. I only wonder that the wine smelled of cheese and not bubble gum.

* Yes Mom, I’m super happy that you made me eat healthy, I’m very grateful for it now, just not when I wanted a Dorito and all I had was organic sea salt chips in exchange.

** Those two bottles he then auctioned off to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. To know more about the boundless generosity of this man, you can read his memorial here: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=79955000

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