My relationship with France has been tumultuous. On my very first visit, I encountered the stereotypical cold reception that many American have complaint with. At the same time, however, I succumbed to the soulful gravity of Paris. Later, as an expat living in Paris, I was repeatedly frustrated by bureaucratic and social barriers. But I also experienced a caring healthcare system concerned primarily with wellness and well-being. Upon returning a year later as a tourist, I experienced a familiarity and security that felt like a home away from home. I guess, for me, I can honestly say that once upon a time France healed me. This is what happened: I lost my job, and then my love, and was diagnosed with skin cancer, in that order, all within a two week stretch. I focused my attention on scheduling Mohs surgery to remove the growing basal cell cancer located just to the left of my nose and below my eye. As if all of this wasn’t unexpected enough, I had no way of knowing just how battered and bruised I would be post-surgery. I am not talking about the gnarly suture that would run the length of my nose, or my swollen face, or my sadly bruised blue eyes. I’m talking about an identity crisis that hit me hard. For one who is not terribly vain, I suddenly found myself totally consumed with how I looked. How would someone hire me with a big red gash in the middle of my face? How would someone ever love me again? I did not know I possessed such vanity and therefore I did not know how to digest it. When I looked in the mirror, I did not even recognize myself anymore. I did not want to be around people who knew me and would talk about it and feel sorry for me. I did not want to be around strangers who would look and study my face looking to understand what happened to me. After the worst of the pain and swelling had passed, I was left feeling grotesque. I did not want to be seen at all. I wanted to avoid everything. I wanted to find an exit. So, like an outcast, I left the country.
Two friends who had already seen me through tough times before invited me to come to their remote chateau in the Dordogne. It would be a kind of personal retreat. They promised I could do anything I wanted or nothing at all. I spent my time writing, analyzing my feelings over my failed romance, and distracting myself by photographing the estate. It was late September.
One day, a local artist popped in for a visit. He and my friend conversed about the many chores they had to tend to before the Fall turned quickly to winter. The artist mentioned that the grapes growing on the side his house were perfect for picking and turning into wine. I shared my secret desire to someday stomp grapes with my feet. It was something I had wanted to do since my early childhood when I watched Lucille Ball do it in an episode of “I Love Lucy.” Without a moment of hesitation he replied, “Then we must do it!” The next day the artist phoned, telling us to come over around 1 p.m. I did not know what to expect, but I was very excited. The artist had gathered a small party of British and American expats, and armed only with ladders, scissors, and our collective ambition we worked together harvesting the grapes clinging to the side of his French fieldstone house. Of course, there were a few grape casualties along the way. Tasting is a very important part of the process! Plump, dark purple bundles of sweet juice were reminders of every sundrenched day of the passing summer.
With our new harvest complete, the next step was stomping (no pun intended). Grapes were portioned into a short bucket, just deep enough for me to step into like a foot bath. With wonder on their faces, the others bowed out and encouraged me to step in and begin the first press. The very first step was a bit disconcerting. I was nervous about stepping on any hornets that may be hiding in the mix. But since this was why I came, I slowly stepped in and got to work marching in place. The feeling was cold and squishy, not necessarily something we aim to encounter with unprotected feet. It was not long before I was ankle deep in juice and mashed grape pulp with stems protruding between my toes. Once mashed, each bucket was dumped into a wooden press for a second and final extraction. We filtered the juice with a net, and then fortified it with alcohol. Once the alcohol was added, science began doing its job. Sugars were breaking down causing heat and bubbles to escape. We gathered around the barrel and tasted our creation. Light pink and cloudy, it was potent yet fresh tasting. The artist told us that he would store it for more than a month and the final product would be bottled and served as "eau de vie," the French equivalent of grappa, most often served after dinner.
That afternoon was full of happy new tasks, smiles and laughs. I channeled my inner Lucy, my clown, among strangers taking part in an autumn tradition. Sipping the fortified product elevated our spirits, and fantasies of larger winemaking operations swam through our imaginations. When we left, I admitted my bliss to my friend. It was only then that I realized most of the day had passed without me so much as thinking about my scarred face. Driving home through the French countryside, it began to rain. I accepted the baptism and chose never to look back. From that moment on, I felt lighter and more open to move forward, cancer free, and without the demon of my own vanity.
I returned to the USA refreshed and ready to enter the job market with great confidence. Within five weeks I had two job offers. Indeed, France had healed me. Making memories with friends, making new friends, playing in nature, and accepting the kind hospitality of locals is something that makes my travels rich. Be open to trying new things and make your dreams happen. You’ll be happier and healthier for it.