Friday, December 29, 2006


One of my coworkers gave me a little bottle of Asti champagne for Christmas. Last night I stuck a straw in the bottle and drank the sparkling wine, wishing I had about three more of those little guys. I do love champagne.

I spent my 22nd birthday in France, living in the small town of Chambery, boarding at the home of Madame and Monsieur Michelle Lefebvre. They were nice people, older, fairly well-off and just about as stereotypically French as you can imagine – they loved their cheese, their crusty bread and their wine, they were slightly aloof, and they just knew that their country was the most beautiful in the world.

For the most part, I enjoyed living in their home but it was frustrating not being able to have many meaningful conversations, given that I spoke only basic French and they spoke no English at all. We spent many a dinner conversation speaking very slowly, drawing pictures on a small chalk board and playing charades all in an effort to tell the most basic of stories. Sometimes it was too exhausting and we would just eat quietly.

Every now and then, one of their grown children would visit for the weekend and they spoke excellent English. Acting as interpreters, they helped the Lefebvre’s and me communicate in more complete thoughts other than “good morning” and “good night”, which helped us bond more closely.

Back to the evening of my 22nd birthday.

Madame Lefebvre made a wonderful French country dinner of lapin aux prunes (stewed rabbit and raisins in wine – truly divine) with crusty bread and wonderful cheeses. And the red wine was flowing.

Actually, the red wine flowed freely every night for Monsieur Lefebvre…and it drove Madam Lefebvre to distraction. On about his fourth glass, she would begin tsking him and by the time he uncorked the second bottle of the night, she was full-on chastising him. Knowing that I didn’t understand much French, I guess she felt like she could say these things in front of me. But he would just do that thing that ALL French people do – make that noise with their mouths that sounds like a combination of a pop and a harrumph – and dismiss her as he downed his next glass of the grape. By the end of dinner his nose and cheeks would be bright red and he would be looking less dour and more jovial.

Madam Lefebvre enjoyed her drink, as well, but she would dilute her wine half and half with water, which I found odd. I wasn’t much of a drinker then, so I rarely had wine, usually sticking to water.

But on my 22nd birthday, I was having some wine and we were enjoying a pleasant night. They were trying so hard to make me special and we were all working to try understand each other. Monsieur Lefebvre had Madame Lefebvre in stitches because he was playing a very animated game of charades with me, trying to get me to fully understand his Albanian war story he was telling me (he was some high rank in the French military back in his younger days).

When we were well into the course of the evening, from out of the blue, Monsieur Lefebvre looked at Madam Lefebvre and said, “Helene….le champagne!”. She looked at him with surprise and he repeated, even louder this time, “Le champagne!” And he pounded his hand on their beautiful rustic table to emphasize his point. She had this look of comic disbelief and amazement on her face when she replied, “Non, Michelle, pas le champagne!; Non, non, non”. He just looked at her with this crazy little schnokered grin and said, “Si. Le Champagne!”. There was a moment of silence as the two just stared at each other, then Madame Lefebvre relented with a tiny, coy Mona Lisa smile and said, “Une moment, c’il vous plait…”. She got up, left the table and I saw her walk down the stairs into their root cellar.

I was so confused. Obviously, I knew that all Michelle had said was “The champagne” and those two words shocked Helene.

As I saw Madame come up from the cellar with a bottle in her hands, it began to make sense. She was holding a big, black, beautiful bottle that was covered in dust with cobwebs stringing off the neck. She was cradling it like a baby. This was obviously a prized bottle of bubbly that they had been saving for a very special occasion, like the wedding of their first daughter or the christening of their first grand child. I can totally understand Madame’s concern about Monsieur wanting to pop it open in honor of the odd American girl living in their basement!

When she placed it on the table, she said, “Michelle…Lori….le champagne!”. But it sounded like this…use your best PePe Le Peu accent… “Meeeshell….Lowreee…..le champania!” She had a big smile on her face and Monsieur Lefebvre stood up, clicked his heels and saluted! That rendered them both helpless as they were caught up in a huge case of the giggles.

They had been saving this bottle for years. For who knows how many years. They took great pains in explaining this champagne to me….telling me about the vineyard and the grapes and what made it so extraordinary…and I only caught a tiny bit of what they were actually saying, but I knew it had great importance to them. I was in such awe. I so wish I could remember the vintner, but alas, I don’t.

Monsieur fondled that bottle as if he was caressing his lover’s thigh, before he finally popped the cork. It made a big pop and Madame Lefebvre clapped and he poured us all a sparkling flute full. They handed me my glass and they each took theirs, then Monsieur Lefebvre took my other hand, lifted it to his lips and gave it a little kiss before saying, “Bon Fete Mademoiselle Lowree. Avec pleasiere…”, then Madame Lefebvre, who was just beaming at me, said “Salute Lowreee” and we clinked our glasses and drank the wine.

It was delicious.

Even with my unsophisticated pallet and general dislike for wine at that time, it was delicious. I have nice memories of sitting at that table well into the evening draining that big bottle of champagne and trying to tell stories.

I was honored that they gave me something they prized so much. Even though it had originated as a tipsy gesture from Monsieur, I could tell that in the end they were pleased they had shared this special part of the French experience with me.

Here's to the Lefebvres of Chambery, France!


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