Tuesday, October 17, 2023

France 2023 - Arrival in Vezenobres, it's Olson Time!

You know what I've never done before? Bought a package of four eggs. In America Norte, eggs come in quantities of 12, 18, 24, and 48 so we can buy several week's worth of eggs at a time and hope that perhaps one or two of them will hatch and produce roaster chickens. In big European cities, refrigerators are small and shops are plentiful so there's no need to stockpile food - you just buy what you need for the day and you're good to go.

Ana and I have a slow morning as we eat our four eggs, mini croissants, and apple then I do some writing and Ana packs up our things. By 10:30 we are walking out the door for the final time, headed for Gare du Lyon train station. It is a beautiful morning and the thirty minute walk gives us a chance to admire this dense urban wonder where curiosities exists around every corner and at the end of passageways, and whether you look up, down, or across.

We walk into the huge station and I feel like Jason Bourne as I navigate through the crowd, eyeing the CCTV cameras everywhere. Unlike Jason Bourne, the only mystery I'm trying to solve is what platform we need to get to for the train to Nimes, in the south of France. As I'm pondering that, Ana sees a Starbucks sign and leaves to get a coffee, then comes back with a bottle of fancy hand cream.

"What happened to the coffee?" I ask.

"It was like 7 euro. The hand cream was half of that. So I went with the hand cream," she replies, overjoyed. My wife's brain works much differently than mine. I just can't see myself going out for a delicious hot dog and coming home with a bag of well priced grass seed and being very happy about it.

The TGV, France's high speed train system, rockets us across the countryside at a speed that makes the cars traveling on the highway look like they are standing still. These trains can reach speeds of over 300 kph, but it's hard to say exactly how fast we are going. One may think that you'd need to be buckled in and hanging onto a rail for dear life, like on a theme park rollercoaster, but the ride is completely smooth and there're people in the dining car drinking espresso and standing casually as they visit.

We arrive at Nimes Pont-du-Gard and my uncle Michael and aunt Anna are standing at the bottom of the ramp waiting for us. This is going to be fun.

Michael is my dad's youngest sibling and is only 8 years older than Ana and I. Anna and us are even closer in age. They live in Welland, Ontario and we see them frequently, but not as much as we'd like to.  Michael's first career was as an aspiring hockey star and went to a special high school in Wilcox, Saskatchewan to work on his wrist shots and face punches. But then he realized he wasn't very good compared to the rest of his teammates so instead traveled to Japan where he could be the best hockey player in the country since nobody there knows how to play hockey.  Along the way he got a side job in a small restaurant gutting fish and taking out the garbage and realized his true passion was in food services. He returned to Canada and went to cheffery college in Toronto then easily found work gutting fish and taking out garbage in a series of fly-by-night restaurants across the province. Once he learned his chops he started stepping over all over the dishwashers, kitchen porters, chefs de partie, sauciers, sous-chefs, and clawed his way to the top chef job which entitled him to work even more hours, under more stress, making crappy money, but at least being surrounded by a bunch of other fun people that had all lost their regular friends because the only day they got off was Monday when all the normal people are at work.

He eventually came to his senses and got a day job as a chef professor at Niagara College where he develops curriculum, creates programming, and teaches first year aspiring chefs how to not slice their fingers off or blow up the kitchen, all between the cozy hours of 9am and 3pm. But in his spare time he rebuilds meat slicers, pickles vegetables, collects knives, buys wine, ties fishing flies, produces amazing Instagram reels, writes cookbooks, creates recipes, and is a cameraman/video/audio expert for his favourite television personality - Anna.

Anna started out in the financial services industry but quickly realized her colleagues were all lame and she much preferred baking treats for herself and all her friends. So she went down the food services path as a pastry chef, ensuring herself a life of poverty and financial distress, lost weekends, burnt skin, relentless servitude, and an empty future. But then, she discovered the television industry and the television industry discovered her and she soon took over the Food Network and became the most famous baker and chef in the world and didn't have to wake up at 3 in the morning anymore to make doughnuts for ungrateful food nuffies.

At some point along the way Michael and Anna met, worked together, fell in love, got two Beagle dogs, bought a house, started a bakery, and built a pretty good life, or at least what they thought was good. Their life now is way better. They have moved on from regular burger flipping and to much more varied,  interesting, and profitable careers, so much that they no longer knead much dough (get it?). The variety of things they do makes your head spin - Anna's many television shows, writing cookbooks, food festival appearances, European culinary tours, sponsorships, charitable work, specialty catering, writing articles, a Youtube cooking channel, and that's just the stuff I know about. They are simply amazing.

We pile into their chubby brown VW cargo van and drive back to their fabulous fractional-ownership 350-year-old French mansion in the medieval town of Vezenobres. I know I like to call big houses "mansions" but this really is a mansion. There's an east wing and west wing. Eight bedrooms. Two kitchens. More couches than a vintage furniture store. There's a billiards table, two foosball tables, wine cellar, massive fireplace, outdoor pool, and a fig tree plantation. After touring us around the place and assigning us a room (which has its own foosbal table, of course), I realize that if I need to walk from the main lounging area back up to our room, I will need to pack a lunch, take some road pops, and would probably be wise to leave a trail of bread crumbs or empty beer bottles. As part of the visitor indoctrination session, we learn that this structure was built originally as a silkworm factory, and has probably been through many reincarnations since then.

Anna and Michael take us for a walking tour around Vezenobres, which perches precariously on the edge of a hill. We walk through the eerily quiet narrow cobblestones streets, passing by stone buildings hundreds of years old. We stop to pick up baguettes from the local bakery and are instructed that two trips per day are required to the bakery - fresh croissants in the morning and fresh baguettes in the evening. I like this routine.

We return to Chateau Olson for apero, which is a mandatory daily pre-dinner ritual where you snack and drink. On the table are anchovy-stuffed olives, camembert-flavoured chips, multi-grain baguette slices, radishes with butter and salt, smoked salmon blinis, five varieties of cheese, and even a bowl of modest French-style bits and bites. Michael has a case of 30 Kronenburg beers, but the bottles are tiny and obviously designed for consumption by infants, so we just drink them fast to make it feel like a real beer.

Dinner itself is amazing - Veal Blanquette ladled onto gnocchi grilled with onions, garlic, butter, and fresh wild mushrooms with a beautiful plum and prune tart for dessert. And there're several bottles of fantabulous wine rapidly uncorked. We eat slow, talk fast, lurch from topic to topic, laugh, share stories and settle into the unfathomable fact that we have five entire days of this yet to come.

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