Volume 1
An Online Literary Magazine
July 25, 2008


A Rare Blend


Erin Byrne


M. Barbier shaves truffles for his signature dish of roast pork. Photo by Nick O'Connell.

ames and Marcus howled with laughter. Ann and Jack, heads crushed together, pored over photos. Nick gestured wildly, indicating precisely what it is about Bordeaux that speaks to his soul. Balash, the international party boy/philosopher, snatched and drained half empty glasses. Out of the corner of my eye I saw silver-haired Barbara tiptoe into the kitchen in search of more crème brûlé. I felt the kind of relaxing smile you feel at the end of a long day with people you know well. How did this selection of strangers become so at ease with each other?


The idea of group travel has always made me assume the emotional fetal position. I am a closet introvert; I do not savor branching out. When I signed up for a travel writing, food and wine class in St. Emilion, France, I anticipated writing feverishly and saturating myself with histoire. I invited two unclingy friends to come, but it did not fully sink in that there would be other people with whom I would need to interact. I just wanted to dig deep into myself and write.


We arrived in the meeting place, the lobby of our hotel, L’Auberge de la Commanderie, and my dreams of solitude were instantly crushed. We were going to mingle. I recalled with dismay that there was even one day on our schedule (Wednesday) that involved traveling on a bus all over the Medoc region, spending every minute of the day with this bunch. I get carsick; I need breathing room.


The first few days were full of introductory encounters and awkward conversations. Of course Ann and Wendy, the unclingy, had settled into the group with ease. I could see them from my fetal position, chatting gaily with Frank the professor and Lisa the surgeon. I was masquerading as an extrovert and having some nice shallow conversations. I gave it the old sorority try, searching for anything in common with Liezie, a South African restaurant owner. I am the mom of two teen boys and spend my spare time in gyms and playing fields. I murmured inane comments but enviously gnashed my teeth at her tale of surfing with her man. I feigned interest in foie gras, which I secretly compared to ground cardboard. I was absolutely dreading Wednesday-the full day.


The morning was ripe with a hint of possibility as the group climbed onto the bus. Fifteen people plucked from different parts of the world–Seattle, Austria, Canada, Boston and South Africa-barreling down the highway together in search of things to write about. There was an ease settling on the group. Talk was dipping into the personal, family photos were being circulated. We swapped stories of articles we’d written, publishing successes and rejections. Bouncing around on a bus tends to loosen you up. I felt my mask slipping.


We arrived at the lovely, cream and ivy-covered Chateau Magnol and sat down for our tasting. The scarlet of the wine was vivid against the white tablecloths. Liezie wrinkled her nose at not-so-shy-anymore Jack. Frank continued his interrogations, plotting to uncover the secret of the French terroir (soil). Conversation was flowing. As we swirled, swished, swallowed or spit, it was clear to me that something was happening.


Mellow from the wine, we poured into the next room of sparkling windows and bright flowers. During lunch I sensed a political debate at the next table, heard the clink of glasses raised in toast, and felt myself unwind enough to engage in a bit of philosophical conversation about the pretensions of wine snobs, all the while playing the part of one.


Running through a downpour, we got sopped by the time we reached the bus. Destination Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. Unimaginable.


The turret with the flag was more imposing in reality than on the Travel Channel. At the sight of our dark, handsome guide Frederique, the female heads collectively snapped to attention. All fifteen of us crept upstairs past ancient candelabras and wine bottles covered in dust; we glided down a dark hallway lined with wrought iron doors. This place was saturated with tradition. Finally we entered a vast, circular concrete vault with gigantic pillars and a cool, mysterious feel. As Frederique poured the liquid velvet of the 1994 Lafite, we clustered together sharing our three-day-old expertise. Heads nodded, nostrils flared, lips smacked. The wine smelled of cedar and leather and tasted like the entire history of France contained in one sip.


As we rambled through the rest of the day the two chateaux swirled in our minds. Polite chuckles had become belly laughs that echoed in the clattering bus. The adorable 20-something Anne had turned out to be the editor of a travel website and had become the mentor of the group. Sharon, who looked the most carefree, had gone through crisis after crisis with dignity and courage. Balash from clear across the world with the past I had only had glimpses of in The Middle East for Dummies was the one with whom I had the most quirky traits in common. Awkward glances had ripened into quick grins, and the gloves were off in the political debates. Instead of dread at the prospect of a long dinner, I felt the best was yet to come.


Le Lion d’Or epitomizes France. As we walked in, I saw M. Barbier, the chef, smiling seductively in a professional photo above the entrance. His eyes had the same gleam in real life, his mustache trimmed just so and his white apron pristine. The waiter, who looked like Adrien Brodie, and whose name could not have been anything but Pierre, needed only a beret and striped shirt to go with his hooked nose and drooping eyelids. The room in which our glittering table awaited us was hushed and noisy at the same time. The heady aroma of juices, herbs and hospitality made my mouth water.


I drank it all in. Soon Denise had everyone in fits of hysteria as she described an Italian man trying to proposition her when she lived in Italy. She imitated his gestures and accent with gusto. She’d had to explain to the sexy signor, mostly by gestures, that she wouldn’t abandon her two kids on the playground to dash off for a bella notte with him. I shared literary secrets with Anne next to me as if we had always read the same books.


We tasted truffle freshly shaved and lovingly placed on the roast pork by the dramatic M. Barbier. We imbibed the wine like the connoisseurs we had become. Barbara returned from the kitchen victoriously bearing another crème brûlé. The ambiance in the room was priceless, and it was because of the people. I heard the booming laugh of Marcus and James: not the polite chuckle of acquaintances, but the deep, body-mind-soul laugh of good friends. That laugh did the trick. I felt myself stretch out of the fetal position and savored the feeling. This group had mingled together like a fine Bordeaux to produce a rare, perfect blend.



Erin Byrne writes travel stories emphasizing literature, history, and culture. Her work has appeared in Everywhere Magazine and The Literary Traveler. She is currently working on a literary travel guide to Paris.






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