An American in Burgundy
by Laurel Avery
“Come to Burgundy this weekend and visit our chateau,” he said. “Right,” I thought, “I’ll bet he says that to all the new expatriate American girls.” He wasn’t kidding. My friend, Bénigne, with whom I had been corresponding for a few months, does indeed have a family home in the country, as many Parisians do, however his happens to be a 17th-Century chateau. A native New Yorker, I had just moved to Paris a couple of weeks before to pursue life as an artist, and was still getting accustomed to the French lifestyle. What does one bring as a house gift for a weekend at a chateau? A couple of extra horses or something?
Then there was the question of what to pack. This was my chance to live out a long-standing fantasy of being the Lady of the Manor, or at least one of the houseguests in those Belle Epoque house parties where everyone is sipping tea and eating cucumber sandwiches. For that I would need to bring my long, elegant dresses, of which I have many. However, as there is also a farm on the grounds, perhaps jeans and long rubber boots would be more appropriate for slogging through ankle-deep piles of horse merde. I decided to bring a little of everything. Of course, I also had to bring my laptop, a few books, art materials, etc. So my luggage was not what would be considered “light.”
Less than an hour before I was to head for the Metro station to meet Bénigne and his father for the car ride down, Bénigne calls and asks if I can pick up a few things at the épicerie (grocery store). Sure, I figure, it’s the least I can do. So he asks for a sack of potatoes, onions, and a half-dozen eggs. This happens, however, to be Wednesday, the first evening of one of those extra-long weekends where all of Paris leaves the city for their country locations and everyone is running around at an insane pace buying provisions and crowding into the Metro to get to their destination. “So let me get this straight,” I thought, “You want me to pack another 10 pounds into my bags which are already heavy enough to give Hercules a hernia, and get a half dozen eggs safely to their destination while packed like a sardine in the Metro?” If I actually accomplished all of this would I win any great prizes?
So with no time to spare I raced out of my apartment, down six flights of stairs (no elevator) and across three long blocks to the Monoprix, which was a zoo. Like someone in one of those old Keystone Kops movies, I threw a bag of potatoes and a few onions in my basket, but could not find the eggs. Aren’t the French supposed to put eggs in everything? You would think they would have a whole aisle just devoted to the oeuf. At last I located a box of eggs, added it to my purchases, waited on the interminable checkout line (all the others of which, of course, moved along faster than mine) and raced back home. I actually had the presence of mind to realize I could leave my heavy bag of groceries downstairs while I trudged up the six flights to retrieve my luggage.
Groceries and luggage in tow, I hurried down the street to the nearest metro station. The train was indeed crowded but believe it or not, despite the pushing and jostling, everything arrived at our meeting place undamaged, except, perhaps, for my back and shoulders.
Bénigne’s father, Monsieur François, at 80 years old is a classic French gentleman, the kind you rarely find any more. When I met him he was wearing a three piece suit, complete with a watch chain (with a real pocket watch attached), an overcoat that was common early in the 20th century, a hat and a walking stick. He greeted me very formally, but with a smile, and made me feel most welcome.
So the three of us headed off to Burgundy to the chateau of Cussigny, where we arrived around midnight. I was led up some stairs, down a long hallway, through a few sets of doors, up another flight of stairs, around a corner and down the hall, where we finally reached my room. Along the way I was shown where the toilet and bath were located (at opposite ends of the house from each other). I thought to myself that one day someone will find my dessicated corpse lost down some stairwell, toothbrush in hand, trying to find the bathroom. My room was once again in the garret, just like my miniscule apartment in Paris, but the garret of a chateau is quite nice. It was furnished with lovely antiques, and the view from my window onto the gardens was spectacular. I was also pleased to see that there was a chamber pot located in a small cabinet next to my bed, just in case I didn’t want to attempt the long trek in the dark to the toilette.
In the morning, only getting lost once, I managed to make my way down to the dining room, where breakfast was laid out, which consisted of tea, toast and homemade sureau (elderberry jam). Wishing to do my part after the meal was over, I took the dishes to the kitchen and prepared to wash them when I was told it was not necessary, as Françoise would do it. Who was Françoise, I wondered? Perhaps a sister I had not met? It was the maid. People still have maids in this day and age? I guess if you own a chateau in Burgundy you do.
The best way I can describe the weekend at Cussigny was “Gosford Park” meets “The Big Chill.” More people arrived steadily from Thursday through Saturday, mostly young Parisian friends of Bénigne’s niece Consuelo, so that by Saturday evening there were 18 people at dinner. Meal preparation consisted of people dancing around the kitchen, drinking wine and even sometimes doing a little cooking.
A couple of hours later, when dinner was finally ready, we all convened in the dining room, which was lit with candlelight and heated by a huge fire in the ancient hearth. The table was set with fine china and silver, and I sat down with some trepidation, hoping I would not use the wrong fork.
There was one item I didn’t recognize, which was a knife rest, called a porte couteau. It’s 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 François, who, I noticed out of the corner of my eye 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 the only faux pas of the weekend. Must be all those Merchant-Ivory films I’ve seen.
After dinner we all retired to the “salon,” where we were served kirsch that was bottled in 1892. I don’t think I have ever consumed anything that was that old, and it had special significance for me, due to my strong affinity with late 19th century France. I could just imagine the room filled with the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, and their fin-de-siecle friends.
The next afternoon we all piled into various cars and headed for one of the local Cote d’Or wineries, which just happened to be the Clos de Vougeot, quite well known for its exceptional Burgundies. We had an hour-long tasting, among which was a lovely Chateau de la Tour, and since we were the last group to visit, the proprietress took us down into the cellars where we could view the casks and the endless rows of bottles. One member of our group reached out and picked up a bottle that was covered with about an inch of dust, and a collective gasp went up from the crowd. Apparently, you are not supposed to move the bottles unnecessarily, especially if the wine is old and rare, which this one apparently was.
After returning to the chateau late in the afternoon, I happened to glance out the window of the billiard room and saw people on horses out in the gardens behind the house. Some of my fellow guests had decided to go riding and were taking a stroll through the grounds. It was quite the sight. Then when they returned we all got a ride on the little railroad (I’m not kidding) that goes around the property. It was a small engine with just one car that they usually use to transport massive logs to the chateau that they use in the fireplaces, but there were also seats that one could sit in and take a short tour. We all spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting in the garden, sipping mint tea and having fine conversations. Even my miserable French got a little better by the end of my visit.
One of the things that I found has still not improved in France, however, is their bad taste in contemporary music. On our last evening together 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’s “Burn You Up, Burn You Down,” which is not what I would consider elevator music, people weren’t quite sure what to do, as if some alien race had suddenly appeared and was making noises they had never heard before. When the song was over, they proceeded to play one of their tunes, which was a French cover of an Abba song (as if the original was not bad enough), and everyone got up and started dancing around. The barbarians!
As we drove off down the long avenue of plane trees the next day, headed once again for my tiny apartment in Paris, I looked back at the chateau as it receded from sight and was happy to have had the experience of life in a chateau, if only for a weekend. And if I ever visit another, I’ll know what the knife rest is for!