My brother and I were going to drive from Paris to northwestern Spain. A hired boat was waiting for us there for a sailing vacation. We were both in our late twenties. I was smarter than anyone and my brother was too (same mother!) Such things are possibly additive and so, the two of us were something like twice smarter than everybody else. I am not affirming, just speculating in a fairly rational manner.
We were leaving on June 30th, one of the worst days of the year to go on a French vacation by car. It’s the day when
30 % of Parisian families, and 20% of all other northern French, one quarter of of Belgium, and same of the Netherlands, and one tenth of Germans, drive toward Spain through France (relatively few Germans because their sun search orients them more to the former Yugoslavia). A few cars with Danish plates were even in the mix that day. It was not only one of the worst day of the year to travel south, it may have been the worst day in thirty years because it was also a Friday.
My brother and I didn’t even discuss the possibility of traveling on the excellent French freeways. It was obvious they would be congested, probably with miles-long traffic jams. We left central Paris at 2 pm. We rejoined the network of also good national roads on the outskirts of the city. The national roads were well maintained but, unlike the freeways, they included some traffic signals. And they were only two lanes wide in the countryside, turning to three or four lanes on entering and leaving towns. Also, national roads skirted some but not all cities and villages.
After a couple of hours, we thought we were progressing too slowly because of all the French drivers who were almost as smart as we were and who had made the same calculations. It was light-years before Google Maps. The game was all about the art of reading paper maps and instinct, period. So, we stopped to confer and it was obvious we should switch to yet a lower order of roads, the departmental roads. We made the bet that even most French drivers wouldn’t know how or dare to navigate their often crooked configurations. Foreign drivers, the barbarians from the north, would be too shy to enter that network of much smaller arteries even if they could find them. My brother and I were different from them. We each had a good compass. Besides, we were sailors: we knew how to find the south.
We were convinced that as long as we moved in a generally southward direction, we were doing well. I realize, this seems obvious but most drivers were not that well equipped, mentally, directionally speaking. They were slaves to the thickly marked freeways on their printed maps. At any rate, many city drivers, even French ones and probably all foreigners, carried maps drawn on a national scale that showed barely more than the same freeways and,in smaller print, the national roads. We had detailed maps displaying enlarged segments of France all the way from Paris to the Spanish border. A pond or a three-house hamlets would show on our maps. As I said, we were smarter than everyone else.
Oops, I almost forgot! My brother and I each traveled in his own car, each with his own wife by his side. The women were both good wives, experienced wives, trained wives, in other words, who wouldn’t have dreamed of proffering navigation advice. I don’t recall what small but chic car my brother was driving. I seem to remember I had my beautiful but very used, two-and-a-half seats irresistible Peugeot convertible. The weather was glorious, anyway. My wife at the time was an American girl with a lot of travel experience who had lived abroad under harsh conditions.
She has spend two years with the Peace Corps in a tiny South American village where local people thought that indoor running water was just another tall tale. She was hard-scrabbled and cool, not given to making scenes, to panic, or even to express worry aloud. There was not much that France could dish out that would scare her anyway (except, perhaps some cheeses). My French sister-in-law was a little more fragile but she had immense confidence (largely misplaced) in her husband, my brother. No, he and I were not just lucky in wifely respects, rather, we were discerning. Also, women with a shy disposition never did approach us closely (however desperate they were to do so. I believe many were! What can I tell you? I only tell the truth.)
Even the departmental roads were congested, it turned out. We left them and soon, we were driving on the French equivalent of county roads. Now, those are frankly uneven in quality. In rich counties (“cantons’), they are good, in poor counties, they are practically abandoned, etc. You can be sure we didn’t do anything stupid like turn from a fairly good county road unto an unreasonably bad one. Bear with me. It’s just that at the lowest level of the hierarchy of roads, the same artery, with the same identifying number, can morph in a short distance from not so good to perfectly awful. And then, as is well known, there is no driver moving steadily south, however slowly, who wants to make U-turn and travel north even for a few miles to correct a mistake.
So, in any case, that late afternoon, I was leading the way on an upward tree and bush-lined path just wide enough to allow for the passage of a single car. I said “path,” not “road.” I couldn’t tell to what extent we were rolling on blacktop but from the noise my undercarriage made we were sure crossing large expanses of bare rock. We had left inhabited areas quite a while ago, on the one hand. On the other hand, our strategy had been victorious: There was not traffic jam at all where we were. In fact, there was not traffic at all, either way. That was a blessing because our path could not have accommodated at once two cars going in either direction. One would have had to back up or down.
I was not much worried about daylight yet because at that latitude, in June, night falls around 10:30 pm. Yet, a part of me knew that I would soon feel hungry and therefore probably also my traveling companions. We had not packed any food because France is a country with a restaurant every fourth or fifth block, or a least, a café that offers good ham sandwiches made with fresh bread. But we had seen no human structure in quite a while, not even a barn. Something had to be done. I honked my horn as we did when one of us wanted to water the roadside vegetation. (Those were the days long before cellphones, of course, even before CB radios – remember those? – walkie-talkies were uncommon.)
As I was slowing down, I came upon the back wall of a two-story stone farm house. On it were painted the large, black, block letters: “..STAURANT.” I couldn’t see the rest of the word – if any – because the wall was overgrown with blackberry bushes. The sweet song of victory began sounding in my head.We crept alongside the house side wall and stopped in front of a simple garden gate. There was no bell so, we pushed it open and we all trooped into a vegetable garden as if by instinct. I knocked at what looked like an ordinary kitchen door.
A neatly dressed, vivacious woman in her forties wearing an apron asked what she could do for us. (I thought she assumed we were lost because we did not look like we belonged in this remote rural area, especially the Paris and California wives.) The woman spoke with an accent different from mine and my brother’s and his wife’s. That was pleasant in itself. It meant we had progressed some way southward. I told the woman we were hungry and we had stopped because of the restaurant sign on her back wall.
Oh, my, oh my! she said, I am sorry but there has not been a restaurant here for twenty years or more. Not my problem, I was thinking, but I did not say it. Sorry to bother you, I responded instead, but we are very hungry. Will you perhaps, sell us a half loaf of bread, I inquired piteously? Well, let me think what I can do she replied. OK, I will try to put together some dinner for you but you can’t be too demanding. We are in the middle of nowhere here and, as I said, this is no restaurant. You will have to be satisfied with whatever I serve you. Agreed? We clamored in near-unison: Agreed! Upon which, the nice woman opens her door wide, bides us in and invites us to sit at her beautiful, heavy oak kitchen table half covered by an oil cloth with red floral motives.
Two little girls huddling in a corner consider us with wide eyes. This place is really remote; they seldom see strangers, probably. Immediately, the hostess asks if one of us would go and retrieve the bottle of wine hanging by a piece of string in the well just outside. My brother does. She serves us cold white wine in glasses that used to be, maybe jam, or mustard containers. That was how it was in the old days. You bought them in regular grocery stores. You only paid for the contents, the glasses were free!
The nice woman disappears briefly in the basement and returns with four small clay jars of pâté she places on the table in front of us. Each jar bears a sticker that say in a fine handwriting: “perdrix et porc.” (“partridge and pork”).She warns us to watch out for shotgun pellets as she cuts large slices of bread. I recognize the kind of big loaf she is holding from my days as a boy-scout. It’s produced by bakers in rural areas to last a week or so in a relative state of freshness. In the meantime, her daughters are in the vegetable garden outside picking lettuce for our dinner.
After the simple fresh green salad, our hostess puts in the middle of the table on top of a ceramic tile a big skillet with a slightly runny mushroom omelet. We rejoice in our hearts and also aloud. After the first forkful, the thought crosses my mind that those brownish mushrooms are new to me, exquisite and new. I ask the lady what kind of mushrooms those are. But, she exclaims those are not mushrooms, they are truffles. We are sitting with a truffle omelet between us!
I didn’t even know such a thing existed! In Paris restaurants they only combined truffles with other super-expensive items such as foie gras, or filet mignon. When a more humble dish was announced to be “aux truffes,” it was pretty obvious that the dish in question had merely been shown some truffles in a jar! The simple munificence of the steaming dish in front of us leaves us speechless.
The truffle omelet served in this unknown farm house in an unfamiliar part of southern France was the best thing I had ever eaten. Fifty years later, it remains the best except for a serving of unnamed sashimi in an anonymous Osaka sushi shop twenty years later. The truffle omelet continues to exist in my memory like a masterfully performed gustatory Magnificat!
Early raspberries from the garden floating on thick cream topped off our emergency dinner. Bathing in the physical well-being that follows a really good meal, we were almost reluctant to leave. But nightfall was coming and we still did not have a place to stay. With no eagerness, we asked the lady for our check. She labored over it for the longest time while we were each savoring a little shot of home-made spirit. (That was a common wonder then. Until not so long ago, the rural French discreetly distilled 80-proof out of anything with any hint of sweetness that grew in their area. They even did it with the sour sloes, tiny purple berries growing in clumps on the hedges separating their fields.)
When finally we saw the bottom line on our bill, we doubled the figure and thanked our hostess with all the gratitude and enthusiasm in the world. Her face was all pink from our compliments and the satisfaction of an unexpected mission superbly carried out. My sister-in-law fished some candy out of her big city purse for the little girls. Our hostess instructed us to drive straight out for about five kilometers and to turn left and downhill as soon as the opportunity arose. It’s not really a road, she warned but it will take you straight to town. There is a hotel there. It’s on the main square, across from the church. You can’t miss it. It’s not far.
We slept the night there, in a comfortable place from another era. In the morning, after café-au-lait and croissants, we hit the road at the civilized hour of ten. We made straight for the freeway. The traffic there was fluid because the batch of northerners from yesterday was gone and the new batch from today, Saturday, had not yet reached that far south. After a splendid paella, we spend the next night aboard our rented boat, in a pretty Costa Brava harbor.
This little story has certain deep metaphysical implications you may have missed. It shows that:
1 God exists;
2 He loves fools;
3 Life is not fair.
© Jacques Delacroix 2022