Bonjour mon ami!
James, delicately put forward, you expressed perhaps a slight doubt to my admission of a youthful misadventure, as I described in Ay-Champagne: My hometown. But yes indeed I was drunk at the tender age of perhaps seven and a half, or it may have been a year later, whatever it happened in late September or early October during the ‘vendange’ in Champagne. At that time most of the town’s folks worked in the vineyards harvesting the grapes and the various Champagne houses provided excellent hot meals at noon as well as a morning and afternoon snack; it was delivered to the fields on horse drawn carts, in large vats full of flavorsome food. Ratatouille with chunks of braised beef I remember as being a favourite with everyone. We’d all sit around and have a fine time renewing acquaintances with a workforce that came down from the north of France; they were almost all coal miners, Polish and Italians for the most part who’d use their holidays to come down to clear their lungs, earn extra money but mostly for the fun they had each evening. Wives also tagged along, as did girlfriends. Many returned year after year and long friendships were formed; for example my oldest sister kept a correspondence for decades with an attractive Italian girl by name of Laeticia. Those were the days when people were happy with the simpler things in life, such as good friendships.
The big companies, Pommery, Moet et Chandon, Bollinger, Taittinger, Roederer, Deutz and Ayala too, each housed a couple dozen or so who made the trip down for about ten days in all. Amongst them, there was always someone who played an accordion, a guitar and of course there’d be a drummer too. Each night was party time with dancing and I’m sure lots of romance going on but I was a kid, had no notion of such and consequently didn’t pay attention to such activities; rather, I was running around with other kids and even doing my bit dancing with sisters or occasionally with my cousin although I really didn’t like that. You may remember I was often the only fellow dancing at the Frat parties while the ‘boys’ gathered around the fridge hugging a beer. I tell you James, I always thanked my lucky stars those early lessons resulted in my dancing rather well and liking it; needless to point out it was also a gallant way to get close to a potential amorous dalliance.
Naturally, this being France along with the meal came the wine too. An old geezer with a pronounced limp was the custodian of a smallish barrel (perhaps contained 20 litres) and he’d make the rounds filling tin cups that were held up to him with a clatter, a hue and cry. He’s name was Adolphe but the shout was, “Hé-hé, Dodolfe, içi! Et moi?” And so on. He’d mutter and laboriously limp over but it was all in good fun and he made sure everyone got his or her fill. I most often joined my mother and sisters who were already old enough to participate as pickers, as it was great fun to find them in the vineyards. I’d either hike up the hills looking for Pommery’s white flag (each company flew their own colours) to see in which sector the harvesting was going on or I’d hitch a ride on the back of a horse draw cart going up to bring back the empty large 100 kilo wicker baskets and return with full ones to be pressed immediately. When the weather was good I’d stay in the fields fooling around, tossing grapes at comely young women (yes, James, already) and ducking behind several rows away. Of course I didn’t fool any of my targets and I’d hear, “Jeannot, you’re going to be spanked bad boy!” And I’d reply, “It wasn’t me but Jo-Jo,” or the nearest young stalwart.
However when the weather wasn’t good enough for me to hang around, whether too cool or even raining (except under the heaviest rain the ‘vendange‘ went on) I’d go spend my time with Dad at the Pommery Pressoir. That’s where the grapes where the tons of Pinot Noir grapes were ferried to be crushed and then processed into creating the famed bubbly. I had lots of time on my hands as Dad would be busy doing what he was doing and curious as always I wandered around the two-floor building without supervision. That’s how I nearly lost a finger, but that’s too stupid a story to recount (me being the stupid part) and of course there was the drunken incident. The advantage to visiting my father at the pressoir was that the men who were permanent employees of the company also had their meals served in an adjacent ‘réfectoire’ and being the unchallenged elite of the works they sat at long tables, with white linen, real China and wine glasses. The food too was plentiful and of a superior quality; between two men facing each other at the table (probably about ten such pairs) the foreman came along and plunked down a litre of wine.
And so it happened that one day I was present at lunch given a seat at a little table to the side so the men wouldn’t feel restricted in their rough conversations often laced with profanities for emphasis; nothing vicious simply the usual banter of rough hewn men. I was sitting with Pierrot (yep, him again) whose father also worked there and for a joke or whatever the foreman walked by and exclaimed, “Hey, two more men here, I almost missed them.” With that he plunked down a full bottle of wine between the two of us. Well, James, I won’t prevaricate but immediately I’ll point an accusing finger at Pierrot for the disgraceful episode that ensued. Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ has nothing on what comes next.
Pierrot was almost three years older but we were good friends nonetheless. He was also an altar boy, hardly like angelic me but always full of mischief even while serving mass. If we were serving together at a High Mass, he’d be the senior one and thus would be the one (I envied him that) to ring the bells at the time of consecration. But he’d do so with a beat, if you can imagine he’d ring-a-ding, ring-a-ding but instead of the third, ring-a-ding he syncopated a snappy ding-ding! I remember once the Monsignor turned around during this the most solemn part of the mass and throwing him a look that would have dropped a mongoose. As soon as the priest turned back, Pierrot turned to me, cocked his finger on an imaginary revolver, aimed and shot the unsuspecting victim meanwhile throwing me a wicked wink. Well, what do you suppose? I was overtaken by violent fits of laughter I tried to disguise as hiccups. Pierrot whose antics weren’t missed by his father caught hell and a few welts from the liberally applied leather belt but he was always unrepentant. Okay, James, I’m getting to it but I want to lay blame where it should rightfully be hung, around his neck. I had, when the bottle was dropped on our table, realized the man was joking and I had not imagined drinking any of it but that wasn’t in Pierrot’s plans. Immediately he reached for the bottle in case it was taken away and deliberately poured himself a full glass and in a spirit of equal sharing, mine too. NO, no, I shock my head but he assured me, “It’s alright, he put it down here for us to drink. Don’t be a “trou-de-cul.” Of course I didn’t want to be an asshole so I drank and he kept on pouring and I kept on downing the contents.
The lunch was not the usual French affair that lasted forever but only about 30 minutes as the men needed to get back to the wine presses. That was the primary reason for having the meals provided by Pommery as it was crucial to have the grapes crushed in a slow and very delicate manner so that the skins wouldn’t break or that would have been disastrous to the Champagne process. I’m sure you know it but since the Pinot Noir grape is dark skinned only the white juice could be extracted and God forbid a pressing would go awry. Three thousand kilos of grapes would be spoiled and considered good only for making red wine and what’s that compared to the incomparable Champagne? Thus everyone ate fully but quickly and rushed back to keep an eye on proceedings although one man was always left to keep a vigilant eye on one of the three presses.
Be that as it may, in 30 minutes or a little less, not wanting to have a drop less than my compadre, I drank a half bottle of wine that was probably at least 13 degrees. No one seemed to pay any attention to that fact; as soon as the men got up from the table, wily Pierrot somehow managed to make a clean get away leaving me on my own. It wasn’t too long before I realized something was not as usual; I had blurred vision and a hard time walking. In fact, as has been recounted (ad nauseam) I staggered my way back to the pressoir to rejoin my father. My condition was soon noticed; “Hey, Michel, take a look, your son is loaded!” Sure enough I was drunk as a skunk. Worse I was close to bringing up my lunch, and that would have been humiliating, so much more than being inebriated.
You may think I was severely punished but none of that as drinking wine was no big deal. I’d been drinking wine since I could remember, sure a little watered down but wine nonetheless. In Ay it was a lot cheaper than pop or non-alcoholic beer. In fact, the story goes that a couple drops of Champagne were dropped on my lips at birth, a local custom. My father merely took me to the back of the working area but close enough where he could keep an eye on me and laid me down to sleep it off on several burlap bags he’d piled up for the purpose. I didn’t wake up until he’d shaken my shoulders and announced in a neutral voice it was time to go home. He took me by the hand and said nothing as he could tell from the looks of me I was already suffering from a horrible hangover. My father never scolded me or even indicated he was pissed-off; my mother on the other hand gave him plenty of guff for letting it happen. It was only when a couple days later I went to visit my father at work that some of his co-workers made a little fun of me but nothing nasty. The foreman in particular asked if I’d found the vintage to my taste. That was the last time I visited my father at work that particular vendange preferring to stay away until the shame of it all would melt into the fog of ancient personal history.
James, I’ll let you in on a bit of a secret – when my son created an accordion out of my car’s hood, an artistic, full-blown metal origami, I didn’t utter one word of reproach. Dredged up from a long forgotten recess in my memory bank, I had thankfully remembered how my own father’s forebearance had spared me when I was already full of remorse. Piling on the blame would have been overkill and who wants to be such a ‘trou-de-cul’? Finally, there’s one additional sidebar to this episode and that is I’m actually grateful for the certain knowledge that if I get loaded undoubtedly the price I pay the next morning is much too steep. Sure I’ve overdone on occasion but considering the opportunities and the fact I love a good glass of wine or a fine liqueur it’s been on the whole well controlled. My passing moment of folly has actually paid long-term dividends and that’s a most fortunate turn of events, considering the genesis of it all.
So there you have it mon ami, the long and the short of it, the explanation to a youthful peccadillo you may or may not have been seeking.
– 30 –
Copyright: Vancouver, February 23, 2012