It’s a drizzly Sunday morning in Beaune. This small city is the center of the Burgundy wine region (la Bourgogne). The grape harvest is next week and help wanted signs are to be found. In a month will be the famous Beaune wholesale wine auction, the largest of its kind in the world. Followed by great feasts and wine-tasting amid medieval pomp. Cotes de Beaune, Cotes du Rhone, Mersault, Nuit St. Georges, Rully etc. Nearby, Dijon is the capital of la Bourgogne, famous for its famous Dijon mustard but it’s become a cuisine capital of France as well. Burgundy has its own particular landscape, culture and texture, its excellence, i.e. its “genius” as French writers would say. Like the Marseille region that I described a few weeks ago in recommending the films, “Jean de Florette” and “Manon of the springs.” France, la France profonde, had such deep regional and local lives that several decades of globalization and democratic tourism has not worn it down completely although a lot has been lost.
Sunday means businesses are closed. The law against doing business on Sunday dates to 19th century clerical rule. It was an enforced “day of rest” on the Sabbath, a main reason being to encourage people to attend church. Breakfast outside the hotel is hard to find but a few cafes/brasseries are open, where mainly men are reading the Sunday paper, horsing around and watching the week’s soccer highest on television. Everyone is full of life, the conversation rapid-fire and colorful, church being avoided in the profane world.
The bells are ringing as we pass the imposing Gothic Notre Dame Basilica. I dragoon my wife, who is Chinese, into Mass. It’s not my natural milieu, let alone hers, but as always there’s the cosmopolitan urge to see what’s over there and how it might feel to be part of it.
About fifty people have come to pray with another 450 or so empty seats. Even fifty may be surprising given the decline of religiosity in France, but Beaune, despite its reputation as a temple of wine and chic clientele remains itself a traditional town of about 22,000 souls. A dramatic dearth of priests is a fact of French religious life. In fact, priests from Black African countries have been recruited across the country and sent to pastoral work in the countryside, often covering several parishes. The average age of those in attendance must be 50-55.
As in churches around the world the ritual is the same. A massive organ sets the tone, the priest’s solemn arrival, rising for the initial invocation. The sole departure from prescribed rules being the priest’s own sermon on a Biblical text, which permits him to draw lessons having to do with how to live a good life today. All rise and sit in unison, sing and pray in unison. Nothing like a synagogue where the arrival of the rabbi on the podium might be little noticed, the beginning of the service is led by the rabbi facing the other way. Conversation continues amid a mumbling of prayers, shaking of hands and congratulations of various sorts.
Beaune is still full of tourists on this end of August day, but as I’ve noted before the weather in France turns after August 15, le quinze aout. Today’s grisaille portends the end of summer and families are buying the kids school supplies with government money supplied to each child as a form of equality. A few parts of the country are still in the midst of heat waves but a sure sign of turn of season is that the annual forest fires in the Midi and Corsica are over.
The tourists are quite different from expectation. Hardly any chic types, the foreigners are mainly hardy English, rural ruddy types, along with a good dose of dialect-speaking Germans and a few Belgians. Almost no Americans this year. Americans, people say, are worried about terrorism and avoiding France. A waiter tells us that Beaune has about 160 restaurants whereas fifty would suffice and do first-rate business. A young couple from surrounding small towns tell us that Beaune is lively all year round, that people stop here for a night or two on the way to ski resorts, for example. Two waiters tell us however that the town is mournful outside of the tourist season. (like Sarlat, where the Cro-Magnon caves and ubiquitous truffles and foie gras are found. see a post from last year). One of the waiters goes back to his home town in Alsace he tells us, tongue in cheek, pour se reposer. Some hotels and restaurants close.
A New York moment: walking past a nearly-empty wine bar we hear a jazz saxophone player. We go in, it’s a French fellow about 45 years old who looks exactly like British actor Patrick Stewart, playing a soprano saxophone with a recorded background. I am, or at least was, a pretty good tenor saxophonist. The new friend doubles tenor, flute and clarinet. There’s some conversation, a little odd at first. It turns out the man is almost deaf (he must have lost his hearing along the way), just enough hearing to make out the tapes. But he reads lips, hands me the tenor, and brings up “Autumn Leaves”. Not having played in a good while it’s a boon that he uses soft #2 reeds that don’t require a lot of embauchure, aka “chops”. It was great. My wife took a few photos and he and I played an embarrassing version.
What else? It’s still possible to eat very well in Beaune for modest prices, genuine cuisine rather than “food”. Escargots de Bourgogne are on all menus. Yesterday evening was a brilliant discovery: a feuillete d’escargots, which is a lot of snails floating around a beautiful pastry, itself floating in a beautiful thick spinach soup. The main reason for all this elaborateness is of course to find a decent way to eat a lot of garlic and parsley with a lot of baguette and butter. All restaurants serve the classic meals: boeuf Bourgigone, rabbit stew, chicken in a creme sauce, foie gras, rich desserts. If only an old-style canard a l’orange were to be had! The historic quest goes forward.
Of course I asked people about what they think of Macron. The initial enthusiasm is way down. But it’s August and even though the stakes are “super-important” as one person said, the old gut feeling is back, that things won’t or can’t change, that Macron is more intelligent than Hollande, an honest man as opposed to both Hollande and Sarkozy. Macron’s first job is thus to be an example and an inspiration. Integrity, cut the bling-bling and really care about the People. The political agenda opens in September after the kids are safely in school. Macron may well succeed in a big way remains my hunch. It’s the first moment in years to get really interested in France again.
On to Marseille where the grand kids will tell me the latest jokes.