My Trip to Alsace (Part Four)

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In 2004, my wife, Bethany, and I were given the gift of a trip to Alsace, France, to visit my accordion teacher, Sylvain Piron, his wife, storyteller Catherine Piron-Paira, and their family. I wrote the following shortly after the trip. It appeared some time later in Wolf Moon Journal, a local Maine literary magazine. I present it here in installments over the next few months.

Clink-clink! Celebrating birthdays.
Conversation happens between the music. Wednesday night, the night after the dance, was the birthday of Romain (nine) and Gabriel (nineteen). We ate their favorite foods, sang to them, and gave presents. Afterwards, of course, we drank wine, ate cheese, and played music. At some point, a pause ensued. We began discussing the whole European situation (you know ... that). Sylvain, in his non-accordion life, works for the Council of Europe. The European Union constitution vote was coming up, making everyone tense. Most people I talked to were pro-Union, but anti-constitution. Maybe this was was an accordion-related bias. As a historian it was a fascinating moment to visit.

More interesting, though, were the discussions of the Amish and cheese.

The Amish, if you are unaware, are a Christian sect based in Western Pennsylvania. If you've seen the Harrison Ford movie, Witness, you'll know that they reject many of the modern conveniences of our lives, feeling that God did not put us on the Earth in order to avoid work. Visiting their lands -- and there is a pretty lively tourist industry devoted to this -- is like stepping back into the nineteenth century, a time of no automobiles, no electric lights, and primitive medicine. society

At one point, Marie, who was twenty-five, realized that the Amish were raising their children like this, forcing them to live in this "cult" setting without the benefits of the larger, modern society.

Le gâteau
Honestly, I can't even remember how the Amish came into the conversation, but suddenly the table bristled. Neither Bethany nor I have very strong feelings about the Amish or their parenting practices. In a typically American way, neither of us want to live that virtuously, but we're glad somebody does. Marie, however, was incensed. The family began speaking French very quickly, and the aural subtitles they'd provided all evening abruptly stopped. Marie scowled and punctuated her rhetorical points with quick gestures. Sylvain spoke with authority, very slowly, asserting his rhythm to the conversation. The children watched, and Catherine tended to us, serving gâteau and tea.

When the fire died down, I sorted through the bits of conversation and gathered that Marie had objected, on principle, to lives being dominated by religion, but objected much more strenuously to children's lives being dominated by religion. When this domination led to the withdrawal of the child from the larger society, they saw an evil. This would be like a parent's telling their French child that he or she is no longer French. In France, the nation is the communion of saints, and exile from it is an unpardonable sin that the state should not allow. File this conversation under French/Americans:  Ways Different.

Then we discussed cheese.

Catherine and Sylvain
Sylvain is a man who likes his cheese. This is a commonplace. I know -- the French and their cheese -- but I had never seen la joie de fromage acted out in front of me. It only occurs to now how appalled he and Catherine must have been looking over the cheese section in our American supermarket, with it's paltry array of flavored brie. Their cheese board was a humble masterpiece, filled with products of local farms, strong smelling but delicate tasting. At their table, I understood for the first time just how exquisitely red wine and cheese complement each other.

Sylvain had traveled throughout Europe for his job and had tried a number of local cuisines. Many of the countries had passable cheeses, even admirable cheeses, but none equaled the cheeses we had on the board before us. Nobody cares as much about their cheese as the French, implied Sylvain. It's a type of dark, gustatory nationalism that we'd all recognize. In the States, for example, the comparison of New Jersey, New York, and Chicago pizza is not a conversation to be taken up lightly. So when Sylvain extolled the undeniable virtues of his cheese, it was not a sense of contention that led me to utter the following question.

"But what about the British," I asked, "they're very fond of their cheese." I knew this because I had seen Wallace and Gromit. "Wenslydale?" I said.

"The British?" He said with a provocative glint in his eye. "That's not cheese."

Next episode: back to the accordions.

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