Les Côtes du Rhône
When I was 23, I found myself, grubby and weary from a long train ride, but for one moment, incredibly happy, on the banks of the Rhône, eating a ham-and-cheese sandwich and drinking warm mineral water from a travel-battered plastic bottle.
It had been a long haul getting there.
Graduating as a French major the year before, I tore my eyes from the words of French romantics who made me think—among other things—about how even the most tender stems of this year’s weeds can pierce their away through oldest and toughest stone-wall fortifications.
After leaving Iowa City, I looked up from my books and found myself with no true calling and nothing to do but wait tables at a country club while I saved as much of my $6.40 an hour as I could so that I could go backpacking through Europe with a man with whom I was secretly hoping to spend my life, though at the time I feared that to say such a thing out loud might break the spell of the rarity that was us.
To save for our trip, I lived at home with my parents, where, trying to reread college texts amidst the girlish-pink walls of my childhood bedroom, those French romantics didn’t seem quite as convincing.
Driving to work on the freeway through the western suburbs, I would pop in a tape, listening to Van Morrison’s “Cleaning Windows,” trying to convince myself that maybe this waiting tables thing was my own kind of “cleaning windows.” But in the end, I never could master that side of Zen. One day, I had to ask myself: Would Van Morrison have been happy cleaning windows?
Likewise, I began to wonder if anyone could truly be happy, like John Lennon had claimed to be the year he was shot, “just watching the wheels go 'round and 'round.’” Yes, perhaps, if you had revolutionized music and galvanized a generation beforehand.
Me, I had done nothing that year except serve Shrimp Sir Edward and Caesar Salad, Prime Rib and Steak Diane, bananas foster and frozen-and-thawed cheesecake to the haute-bourgeoisie, who disappointingly, were nothing to get worked up against, as my college professors had led me to believe. Rather, the country club crowd was simply like any other group I’d ever met: Some were nice; others were not. The real trouble with them was this: Amidst serving all those Shrimp Sir Edwards and Steak Dianes, nothing happened. Nothing at all.
Nothing except one night, when a dining room captain set his sleeve on fire cooking tableside, igniting cherries jubilee with brandy. He was doing his job with a gusto and aplomb that I admired but could never quite emulate—no one could make the flames dance they way he did, but that night, he had gone too far. Later, as a maitre d’ applied expired burn cream from a dusty first-aid kit, admonishing him for being so careless, I saw the injured man smirking—through the pain—at the showmanship of it all.
That night, driving home through the west suburbs of Des Moines, I asked myself, “For what would I be willing to light myself on fire?” Whatever that was, it wasn’t here.
After that night, my pressure to be elsewhere intensified. We’ll leave as soon as we can, we decided. We’ll take everything we have and we’ll wander until we have no more. What happens after that would not concern us now.
It took us one year to save enough to be vagabonds, and six weeks into our travels, there we were, on a craggy hill in Avignon, eating a ham and cheese sandwich and drinking warm mineral water underneath an olive tree in the warm spring sun, overlooking a muddy green-gray river below.
“Quel est le nom de cette rivière?” I casually asked a group of young women nearby. They smiled at my bad foreign pronunciation, but were eager answer. “C’est le Rhône,” they told me.
I thought of how, coming in on the train, we had seen vineyards—just starting to bud—along the slopes of this river. And I thought, this is the Rhône, and I am sitting on its slopes—and that means I am here on les Côtes du Rhône. I thought of all the bottles of Côtes du Rhône red wine I had served at the club, and how far I had been from the joy of knowing that there’s a very specific place in the world where this wine is made, and it’s made only in this one place in the world and nowhere else.
And there I was. This year’s little green shoot of a weed, piercing the walled fortress.