The best way I can describe the weekend at the chateau of Cussigny was Gosford Park meets The Big Chill (though without the dead bodies). Guests arrived steadily from Thursday through Saturday, so by Saturday evening there were 18 people at dinner, mostly young Parisian friends of Bénigne’s niece, Consuelo.
On Saturday afternoon, we had all piled into various cars and headed for one of the local Côte de Beaune wineries, Aloxe-Corton, known for its fine wines. We had a tasting, and since we were the last people to visit, the proprietress took us down into the cellars where we could view the casks and the seemingly endless rows of bottles — an oenophile’s delight!
After the tasting, we ate lunch at the winery, which featured traditional foods of the region. The coq au vin was absolutely mouthwatering. However, when the cheese course arrived I was in for an unpleasant surprise. A woman came around with a huge round of cheese, which we were supposed to take some of to scoop onto pieces of bread. I dutifully took my share, but after a couple of bites could not continue. I had never encountered a French cheese I didn’t like, and have rarely tasted any cheese that stopped me in my tracks. But this Epoisses was perhaps the most slimy, stinky cheese I had ever eaten. It was as if someone had dug it up from a bog somewhere, where it had been festering for a thousand years. I swear a new form of life could have emerged from it.
Upon returning to the chateau, we all went off in separate directions, some to take a walk, to nap, or to read in the garden. The gardens of Cussigny were breathtaking to me, particularly after having lived in the arid lands of New Mexico for the previous 6 years; I was in sensory overload with just the scents alone. Everything was lush and blooming. The peonies were at their peak, and unlike most of the blooms I’ve encountered in the States, these actually had a wonderful fragrance. Just being able to smell the earth was intoxicating.
At one point, glancing through the window of the billiard room, I saw people on horses riding through the gardens. Some of my fellow guests had decided to go riding and were meandering through the grounds. Guess I should have brought those horses from Paris after all!
When they returned to the chateau we all got a take a ride on the little railroad (I’m not kidding) that wends around the property. It was powered by a small engine dating from World War I, with just a single car. Although the family usually use it to transport to the chateau the massive logs that they use in the fireplaces, there were also seats one could sit in to take a short tour around the grounds.
We all spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting in the garden, sipping mint tea and having fine conversations, most of which I could follow. Even my miserable French had improved at least somewhat by the end of the afternoon.
In the early evening, the kitchen (which larger than the entirety of most of the flats I had ever rented) was filled with people dancing around, drinking wine, and cooking a communal feast. Given the amount of wine consumed, I’m amazed we managed to pull off a multi-course dinner, but we did. We paraded our creations into the dining room, which was beautifully lit only by candles and the blazing fire in the monumental fireplace, and wished one another bon appétit.
The dining table was set once more with the fine china that had been used at breakfast, but with far more cutlery than I had ever seen. I had a momentary terror of using the wrong fork, but figured most of the guests were so young they probably had no idea which fork to use either.
One item, however, I didn’t recognize: the knife rest. This particular one was a round silver bar set on four little legs. Apparently, instead of resting your knife on the edge of your dinner plate when it is not in use, you’re supposed to place it on this silver bar. I figured this out while seated next to Monsieur de V. who, while I was in conversation with the person on the other side of me, took my knife off of my plate and very subtly placed it on the knife rest. As far as I can tell, this was my only faux pas of the weekend. I put it down to all the Merchant-Ivory films I’ve seen.
After dinner we all retired to the “salon,” where Monsieur de V. served us kirsch that had been bottled in 1892. I don’t think I have ever consumed anything quite that old. I sipped it cautiously at first, being fearful of it tasting like vinegar. Amazingly, it was delicious, and I felt as though I were drinking a small part of history. Given my strong affinity for the Belle Epoque, my mind couldn’t help conjuring images of the room filled with the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, and their fin-de-siecle friends. I should have worn my corset!
Although I love most aspects of French culture, one of the things that has still not improved is their bad taste in music. My new friends had rigged up a stereo to be able to play tunes from a computer, so I brought my laptop down to hook up, along with one of theirs. When I played Peter Gabriel and Deep Forest’s “While the Earth Sleeps,” which is not what I would consider elevator music, people weren’t quite sure what to do. So I danced all by myself. Given my less-than-smooth dance moves, that might explain the concern with which people were watching; they probably thought I was having a stroke. When the track was over, they played one of their tunes, which was a French cover of an Abba song (as if the original was not bad enough); everyone got up and started dancing around. No accounting for taste, I guess.
Throughout the entire weekend I couldn’t help but be awed by the rich experiences I was having. My life has taken a turn that I could not possibly have imagined. The people I have met and the things I have done after only two weeks in France are astounding. Who knows what to expect next? I guess that’s one of the joys of starting over in a place where almost nobody knows you. You can be anybody you want.
Although I realize this weekend was really just a bit of play-acting, particularly given the realities of the harsh world that most people deal with on a daily basis, it was a pleasant respite from the stresses I had undergone in the previous couple of years. It was a warm welcome to my new life abroad.