I am not a foodie and don’t know much about chefs, cooking, or restaurants. But even I have heard of Jacques Pépin, the famous French chief who has become a celebrity. I bring him up, because I passed Le Grand Hôtel de l’Europe this morning on my way to a pâtisserie for a cappuccino and chocolate brioche. Pépin served as an apprentice at Le Grand Hôtel in his teens. The hotel is situated in the heart of a small city in eastern France near the Swiss border called Bourg-en-Bresse.
What am I doing in Bourg-en-Bresse, you ask? That’s exactly what the woman serving me at the pâtisserie asked. The nice thing about the French, at least in this part of the county, is how agréable they can be once you engage them. I told her I was in town to meet a friend I had been in business with years before (see A Mercenary of Macarons). The business failed since neither one of us knew how to make a “healthy” macaron–we could have used Pépin’s help there–but we had other ideas for a startup.
“So, business, then?” she said. “Well, not exactly,” I replied. “I’m also here as a tourist. I’ll be leaving soon to visit family in Italy.” When a guy came in wearing a Yankees cap, the conversation turned to New York. “But I live in California now,” I explained. She told me how she dreams of going there and Las Vegas. Then she got busy with other customers, all entering and departing with a cheery “bonjour” and “au revoir,” so I had a second cappuccino.
Needless to say–but I’ll say it anyway–I never thought I’d be in a bakery in Bourg-en-Bresse telling a stranger about my failed business selling French-apple macarons online to single, professional women (our target market). You could add to that being in a monastery the day before and hitting on the tour guide who took us around the famous Augustinian Monastère Royal de Brou, which counts as the most famous attraction in all of Bourg-en-Bresse.
“La guide” informed us that the monastery, a masterpiece of the Gothic style, was completed in 1532 by Margaret of Austria as a monument to Philibert the Fair, her husband, and that the church within it holds his, his mother’s, and Margaret’s tombs. What caught my eye was the use of dogs in the ornate architecture to represent fidélité.
We had a nice conversation after the tour, la guide and I. One way to tell if a woman is interested in you is how often and how close she gets to you. This one got close and even circled me a few times. But when I asked her out she mentioned her two children and “un compagnon” (companion). She did not say “mari” (husband) and wore no ring. Whether or not she should be depicted with a dog remains to be seen. Maybe I am the dog. Still, it’s hard not to pursue a possibility when it circles you, even if it may be due to the €10 tip I gave her. Knock and it shall be given. Or maybe knock and the compagnon answers.
Traveling has been a consistent part of my life since my childhood. My family moved quite a bit and traveled even more. I inherited the wanderlust, but it’s hard being away from family while meandering through foreign lands. And we’re talking about France here, not Timbuktu. That they happen to speak French in Timbuktu is beside the point.
Of course, the French have their problems. One of them, frankly, has surprised and worried me. It is obedience to the government. That’s the last thing I’d expect from the barricade people, even if the barricades are more of a Parisian thing and not found in a place like Bourg-en-Bresse. I say this despite the demonstrations against the “Pass Sanitaire” (health card), which is required everywhere, including the place where I had my cappuccino and brioche and the cinema where I saw the new James Bond movie last night (my advice is to skip it).
Traveling has made me realize that “I never thought” doesn’t come from a lack of planning or foresight. It has more to do with accepting risks in a way that most people never quite experience. They don’t get to as many “never thought” scenarios, so it hasn’t become a philosophy of life for them. It has for me, and I’d like to believe it requires more than a fair share of imagination and courage. Sure, I’ll admit to a pinch of stupidity, too.
“Never thought” is about dealing with the unexpected and the endless struggle to be happy. About how we endure and perdure. It is the art of the last man standing or, in the case of Margaret of Austria, who was widowed twice, the last woman standing. Presaging Nietzsche, she believed that misfortune makes you stronger (fortune infortune fort une).
So if I never hear back from la guide, I’ll be just fine.