Now in the icy grip of winter, come frolic with us as we reenact a September ride over the Vosges Mountains and on into the Rhineland, something we did years ago. We had been to England, and from Calais would mosey along to Munich, where we would meet friends who would "do" Austria with us after we had a look-see at the incredibly incredible Oktoberfest, which begins in September with a hoss-trot.
We had plotted a course that would take us up to Domremy, where we would visit the birthplace of St. Joan and begin tracing her career into Orlans. Only one thing we ask you to promise: Do not push! Americans are forever in a hurry. They should simmer down. Take it easy on our lovely trip, and indulge us if we pause to look at something or stop to speak to folks we meet. The Vosges are beautiful in the northeast corner of France and well worth beaucoup leisure. Off we go! Allons!
First, I believe this is the village where we bought the grapes. It was market day, and we had learned never to pass by on the other side. They don't care if you are a stranger. Get a nosegay for the windshield vase, a pair of pants, a cucumber, get something. I got a bunch of grapes. They were enormous, and the whole bunch was bigger than that. No, the man told us, these were not press-grapes. These were table grapes.
His grandfather started the vineyard, then his father, then he, and he had three sons. His best customer was the railroad, which put the grapes in lounge-car fruit bowls. I told him every grapevine in France was grafted on wild root stock grown in Amerique. He said he knew that, and France now was free of the scourge that had ruined their viticulture so long ago. He gestured and said, "Vive les Etats Unis!"
I held my enormous bunch of grapes by its ample stem, and we arranged the morning Figaro so we could lay the bunch on our luggage. We bought a crusty bread, a cut of cheese, and some apple tarts. We were ready to begin the ascent.
The Vosges are a substantial range with many rounded hilltops. It is beautiful country. The highway we followed mounted in stages, with hairpin turns, so on each upgrade passage you can look down on the places you just went by. Shortly after we bought our grapes, we came to a village. It had a fountain, fed by a pipe that brought mountain spring water in a three-inch stream.
A woman was there with a laundry basket, and she was doing her weekly wash. I pulled up discreetly near her and parked. To my wife I said, "I have no idea what sprays are used on French grapes, but I'm going to wash our bunch before we eat any."
Upon her agreement that this was a sound plan, I picked up the bunch, descended, and approached the washerwoman. She was about at our age level and pink-cheeked pretty with dimples to match. She said "Bonjour," to which I said likewise, "ma chre madame." Then she spied my grapes and remarked that they were beautiful.
I boldly offered that if she would attend while I conducted a nettoyage, I would be happy to let her assist me in devouring a few. By this time, my good pouse had decided it was prudent to butt in, and because my wife has little French she shouts to make up. We were soon in a loud conversation about what kind of soap is best in cold mountain water.
The lady moved her basket aside to let me reach the stream, and while she wrung out some socks on one side, I laundered a grape on the other. The day was pleasant and warm, but the water was extremely cold. My hands and her hands and the purple grapes were all one color. She said that the stream did not freeze in the winter. She said she'd never visited the birthplace of Joan of Arc, but she knew where it was. I cut some grapes off our bunch for her to take home, and we drove up the highway to find a place to lunch. She waved us out of sight.
When we came to our mountaintop, the view was spectacular, and far, far down we saw where our roadway started. A huge (but tiny) truck was beginning the ascent. It came on and on, like Longfellow's Alpine boy, ever higher and higher. We could see the little village where the market was, where we bought the grapes, and we could see the village where we'd washed the grapes. Our hospitable laundrymate had carried her basket home.
The truck could soon be heard as it ground its way, and when we were packing up from lunch it roared past us victoriously, ready to descend on the other side. We had grapes aplenty left for another time. And along the way, that day, we paused to see where Joan of Arc was born, an unpretentious place surrounded with serenity, and hardly presaging the stormy adventures which lay ahead.
We were in the city of Orlans two or three months later and found the sainted maid of France on her white horse, eager to tackle the British then, and sort of directing traffic now. We saluted La Pucelle in passing and told her all was well back home.
I do not know if the grape growers of France use toxic chemicals. If they do, I'm not informed if a residue prevails and if table grapes should be scrubbed. And what has that to do with Joan of Arc at Domremy and a lady washing clothes in frigid cold water? What, indeed! I suppose every good day has to begin somewhere.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society