Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Parisian Aphro

The first time I visited Paris, I did so as a naive American, at thirty-one a bit of a late-bloomer. I knew the Eiffel Tower, smoky bars and dog-poop-covered sidewalks were there. I’d probably have recognized the Arc de Triomphe if someone had shown me a postcard, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to spell it. It should actually be called the Arc de Traffique.

There’s something magical about experiencing a place for the first time. I’ve been to Paris many times since my first visit, but it’s that first one that sticks in my mind like day-old escargot.

I was on the metro. I was tired from my evening in Amsterdam. I was lonely.
She was on the metro. God knows where she’d been the night before. She was crying.

The worst thing you can do to a woman who’s crying on the train is ask her what’s wrong. She’ll always say, “Oh, it’s nothing.” What she means is “Go away you creepy, overly familiar American.”

“Could you help me?” I said instead.

“Sure,” she replied in a North American accent. It turned out she was a Canadian, gulping down her tears now.

“I want to go to the Louvre, but I can’t figure out which stop to get off at,” I lied. I’m not a total idiot.

“I’m getting off there. I’ll show you.”

We ended up having coffee at a bistro near the museum. She was a teacher. I was a teacher. She needed someone to talk to, and so did I. And then she, not crying anymore, left me at the entrance to the Louvre.

Sheesh, that museum gets hot in the summer. Well, at least it did fifteen years ago. A lot has changed in fifteen years. Did you know that cats patrol the museum at night? Did you know that it started as a fortress, then became a palace, and then became the largest tourist trapseum in the world? Don’t even think about buying a Mona Lisa umbrella. They’re crap.

But fifteen years ago, I was still an unjaded, wide-eyed tourist up for a little culture. Pushing through herds—no, not a nice word, but, yes, an appropriate one—of Japanese tourists on my quest to find Mona Lisa, I found myself face to butt with a stone form that looked magically familiar. Like a Cohen Brothers camera man, I circled the statue: The Venus de Milo (actually Aphrodite de Milos is its name since it’s a Greek statue). The face. The body. It was the girl I’d met from Canada . . . with no arms of course.

I never got her name. I still call her Aphro.

I must be off, Christopher

Monday, July 27, 2009

Alsace

In spring, the villages of Alsace, in the northeast corner of France, compete to see who can out-flower the other. A sign at the entrance to the village will tell you how many flowers (like stars, one to five) the village received in the contest. Competition is fierce—fiercely floral.

As you drive along the Route des Vins from Strassbourg in the north to Colmar about midway south, there is a lot to see and taste. Winetastings (degustations) are free and plentiful, so don’t be shy. My experience has been that the vintners are happy to see you. If you’re driving, you might want to wait until you’ve parked the car for the day. In Alsace, with its over 37,000 acres of vineyards, there’s a tasting waiting behind almost every door.

The region is not only known for its extremely conservative politicians; Alsace is also famous for producing world-class Gewurztraminer, a spicy, honey-gold wine with a dry finish. Don’t call it sweet; you might get a slap in the face. Bad Gewurztraminer is sweet; the good stuff has been fully fermented to be dry. It’s much more complex—like a voluptuous woman with a dry sense of humor.

Start your tasting with a light wine like a Sylvaner or a Pinot blanc—or even a Muscat, which in Alsace is a dry, floral wine. Then move on to the Rieslings and then to the bigger varietals: the Pinot Gris (formerly known as Tokay Pinot Gris), our full-figured friend the Gewurztraminer, and then finally a Pinot noir, which in Alsace is a rosé and the only red varietal approved in the region.

In a town like Riquewihr, you’ll have dozens of chances to stop and taste the grapes, but the best place is at the top of the village near the tower. On the way up the main street, make sure you take the freshly baked macaroon being proffered to you (read shoved into your hand like a free sample of cocaine). The addictive coconut aroma in the village is coming from this bakery. Once you reach the tower at the top of the village, you’ll see a wine shop. The woman at Bernard Schwach who conducts the tastings—a voluptuous sweetheart herself in traditional Alsatian dress—must be the nicest person in Alsace. The tasting room is intimate—OK, cramped—but it’s worth it. This radiant woman will lead you through an enjoyable, informative tasting.

Emile Beyer in Eguisheim—or any member of his family—will also be glad to see you. This hard-working family has been producing wine in Alsace for hundreds of years. Their house is right on the main square in Eguisheim. For the tasting, go around back to the rustic courtyard and cough or sing or yoddel. You get the idea. Make your presence known, and someone will appear out of the flowers to pour you some wine. The Beyers don’t serve food, but there’s a butcher’s on the square where you can get paté and bread.

Hotels in Alsace are surprisingly affordable compared to hotels in larger cities. I’ve stayed in several of the villages—Riquewihr, Ribeauvillé, Ammerschwihr, and my favorite, Eguisheim. As you drive into this wheel-like Roman village from the south, you’ll end up on the main street quickly. The Hostellerie Du Pape, immediately on your right, offers comfortable rooms and the best sauerkraut garnished with potatoes and pork in its many varieties (choucroute garni) in town. A few years ago, in Eguisheim with a friend, we stayed in this hotel. Our friend’s room was just a few feet from the beautiful terrace where we dined (and wined) that evening—which was very fortunate for him.

A trip to Alsace is like a trip into a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. If you plan to make Alsace part of your European trip, I’ll be here to offer help. I’m crazy about the place. Truly...

I must be off,
Christopher

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Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire), an episodic adult cartoon about a man struggling with expectations. Allen's award-winning fiction and non-fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Indiana Review, SmokeLong Quarterly's Best of the First Ten Years anthology, Prime Number Magazine, The Best of Every Day Fiction, Pure Slush, Bootsnall Travel and Chicken Soup for the Soul. A finalist at Glimmer Train in 2011, Allen has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize twice. He is the managing editor of the daily litzine Metazen. Recently, Allen--along with editors Michelle Elvy and Linda Simoni-Wastila--hosted Flash Mob 2013 in celebration of International Flash Fiction Day.