The Champagne experience (Part 1)



Champagne landscape

I met a woman once. We decided to be companions for a while.
This is sort of a travel diary.

We were coming from Paris and riding down to the Cote d’Azur. A little rendezvous seemed like a great idea. I’d especially always been fond of the drink. So why not visit ground zero, was my thinking. Luckily, my company was pretty much with me on that one. Well, I told her that we would go to the countryside to eat, fuck, and drink Champagne. But couldn’t we just do this in Paris or at our final destination at the cote d’Azur, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you the answer to that question, because my dear travel companion asked me that exact same question. And while the answer is complete bogus, the intent absolutely wasn’t.

Let’s go away, just the two of us. It’s going to be amazing. Paris is just one big party. And by God, the crowd! We’ve been here for a week and I’m already bored. Cannes will be the same. Trust me. We are going to need a break before part two of this little get-away of ours.

The truth is, I’d always wanted to go to Champagne. I love the wine. Actually I love most wine. But Champagne? I’ve been fascinated with this stuff since Humphrey Bogart drank it in Rick’s Cafe, while casually lighting a cigarette with the dying embers from the previous one. Since Sean Connery ordered Bollinger 1956. Not even the hip-hop artists with ridiculous Cristals could ruin it for me. Heck, later I read that Warhol held his particular lavish parties mostly on coke and Champagne. But honestly, and probably, on everything else too. I’m not one to judge. There are a couple of great quotes that stuck by me too. The most famous one is the one from Coco Chanel. I won’t however bore you with that one. Good quotes should be used sparingly. Otherwise they become distinctly tedious. But do look it up. It’s enchanting. And most women I know loved it, when I casually threw it across a dinner party, or better yet whispered it in an intimate moment. I blush just thinking about it.

Anyways, here we where. Just arrived in the city of Epernay, in the heart of Champagne just an hour by train from Paris. People will tell you that Reims (rolls on the Rrrrrr and a fast end to the rest: Rrrrrrrmms) is the capital. Forget that. It’s first of too big and secondly too many normal people live there. That does not coincide well with my image of Champagne. Neither should it of yours. So go to Epernay, if you must stay in a city. A chateau is probably to be desired, but alas we, young and getting to know-each-other were doing this on a budget. Well, sort of. The let’s-not-stay-on-a-castle-budget, at least.

So we checked in at the La Rouge. And I must admit the vulgarity of it saved it completely. Run by a hearty gay couple where the restaurant/cafe/bar, with emphasis on the latter, also seemed to function as their own private go-go club. Obviously not selling anything but Champagne by the glasses and the licorice liquor Pastis mixed with the sweet Grenadine. To form the normally alpine drink Tomate. It really was quite peculiar. Not that it frightened neither my companion or myself a bit. I led the way like this way everyday life. And she, on the other hand, just rolled with the punches, as if she’d never done anything but. It was quite commendable. I had promised a quiet day or two, but the craziness made that particular statement void. To much relief for both her and myself, I might add.

When we arrived with our chic little bags in the early afternoon the bar was happening. But le patron was completely at ease. Like a captain in rough sea’s, in one of those Turner paintings: Yes monsieur, there’s room. No, monsieur, only courtyard rooms. Yes monsieur, check-out at 11. And after a not considerable amount of chit-chat about everything from the weather to Paris’ illusive art scene to the decor (oh, the vulgarity! It was by far the strangest room I’ve ever been in: cheap plastic furniture around a NY-styled marble bar. The bar itself completely empty but for endless rows of the aforementioned Pastis and Champagne. The walls covered in post-cards from destinations such as Detroit, Minsk, Edinburgh, Johannesburg, Helsinki and Alaska. It really was something). The clientele was however more colorful. Gays, drags and what seemed like field-hands with perfect 5-o’clock-shades. The atmosphere was sex. Oh, and everyone smoked inside. So amplify the sex. Either without filter or millimeter thin Mistral’s. Smoking inside is something you don’t ever see in France anymore, so this was a treat. And I must admit, seeing my blond companion across the room lighting a cigarette at a marble bar was a riot. The hand swerve leading the cigarette up to the immaculate lips. The eyes searching for a light. Finding exactly that at some poor schmuck’s hands. The gentle nod, the cigarette at her fingertips, the stroke of a match, the immaculate red lipstick, the first drag, the exhalation while eye contact is held with a wordless mouthing: thank you. It’s sex. And as I’ve exited the toilette across the room, staring at the scenery, I can see that this woman is at home. even in this particularly peculiar setting I’ve dragged her into.

I return to her and to the patron. During our little convo with him he did mention a restaurant we had to try. I forget the name. He did however call down to reserve a table: For you and your wife monsieur, (NB We’re not!) I’ll get you a table. Oh, and maybe he is there tonight. Who he was, was to be revealed later. Then we got directions, threw down a couple of glasses of the Tomate’s. When in Rome and all that jazz, had a bellboy take up our luggage, tipped him way too much and hiked towards the restaurant. Smoking cigarettes, laughing and looking at the absolutely gorgeous scenery. It’s a strange city, is Epernay. You can feel that the people who live there are all somehow connected to the Champagne-trade. And are thus unfathomably rich. And have been for centuries. Which fortunately enough translates into the surroundings too: The houses are beautiful and well kept. But not like in Paris. Here they are mini-castles. Lying gently side-by-side. With princess towers, tiny moats and, probably, their own ghosts too. The grass in the parks is neatly kept. The shops are designer-ware, but not too much like say Bond Street or Rue St. Honore. And there are just as many French people as there are foreigners. Not that we noticed that too much. We were walking arm in arm. Cigarette in opposite hands. Camels, sans filtre. Exchanging hearty glances. Not caring too much about the world, just then. She was telling me the exact story of what she experienced at our little hotel/bar/cabaret. A story not completely unlike my own. Which for the first time made me realize that she might be someone absolute worthwhile.

We arrived at the restaurant after a short walk. First of, the restaurant as such wasn’t anything particular. I had bone marrow, a piece of duck and profiteroles. My lovely companion had soup, a rack of lamb and a chocolate mousse (God, how I love women who eat). The food was by the way fine. We drank Champagne throughout every course, naturalement. And we had a very accommodating waiter, who really knew how to pair each course with it’s own wine.

But then we met the guy. And what a guy. He was 80, he later told me. But didn’t look a day older than 66. And he’d given birth to a baby son just 6 years before I’d met him. That’s by the age of 74, which by all measurements is commendable. I didn’t get to meet the wife (or girlfriend or mistress or whatever), but boy I’d wish I’d had the pleasure. Or actually, I probably don’t. The images in my mind are so much better. Anyways, he was standing at the bar. Flûte after flüte, as the French call their Champagne-glasses, was whipped down with copious amounts of whatever this bon vivant could get his hands on: Caviar first, then foie-gras, then a soup, then the bottle was replaced with another; then a steak, back to caviar again, then a third bottle and that was when I knew I had to go and talk to him. I went to the bar, approximately a meter away from him. He turned to me. Seized me up. Gave a small scuff and the slightest of nods. Then said you must be crazy to leave her at the table. But since you’re here, let’s get you a glass. An elegant wave of the hand later and I had a sparkly glass of Blanc-de-blanc in front of me. I still hadn’t said a word. Which to be honest is completely unlike me. He however was in the middle of some babbling sentence in French, I didn’t completely understand. Either my French was getting worse or he was a bit hammered. Anyways, he turned to me as if I was supposed to answer something, so I wrinkled my eyes a bit - it’s one of my little secrets - and said bien sure, monsieur. And then he said, in the Kings English I might add: You can have too much Champagne - but never enough. And that’s when I knew we’d get along royally. He cordially invited himself down to our table. And was properly introduced. I might add that I’m not the jealous type, but this son-of-gun, had me pinned against the wall. Anyways, we fortunately got along famously. And the rest of that night, as they say, is a bit of a blur (or famously saved for my memoirs – pick either!).

To be continued...

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