A Bon Vivant’s Dream

Nov 30, 2017 | Adventures in Travel

You might think of April in Paris, as the song of that name says, adorned with “chestnuts in blossom” and bursting with the “charm of spring.” But the reality is often closer to T.S. Eliot’s lines, “April is the cruelest month,” wrenching “dull roots” from the “dead land” in a chilly “spring rain” Cold and rainy, bringing barely a harbinger of summer. I’d take October in Paris over April any day. It has the pleasures of waning summer. Some tourists may still be there, but not in hoards, and the colors are out, the air is clear and fresh, and the gaiety of children frolicking after school in the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens on sunny autumn days brings smiles to your lips and youth to your heart. When Ernest Hemingway complained in his Paris memoir that in October the rains come and the wind beats fallen leaves against the window panes, he was slanting his memories. October in Paris is usually just fine. Never mind the rain that does come in time.

We had lived in Paris for five years in a flat on the rue de l’Odeon. My wife, Martine, was a journalist, and I was trying to write, what else?—a novel. We loved every minute of our Parisian life—the morning café au lait and croissants down the street in the Carrafour de l’Odeon or elsewhere on the nearby Boulevard Saint Germain, fresh fruits and vegetables from the open market in the rue de Baci, and crisp baguettes from any boulangerie, strolls through the picturesque streets of the left bank, browsing among the book stalls along the Seine, dining at the ubiquitous sidewalk brasseries. Yes, life in Paris was good, especially in the early autumn between the tourist inundation of summer and the long winter nights that begin in mid-afternoon.

The end of summer also brought the grape harvest and our annual visit to the champagne country, ninety minutes east of Paris. We’d gone there for years, always staying in the same room of a chateau, now an elegant hotel, on the outskirts of Reims set on a hill with manicured gardens rolling down toward the delicate spires of the sixteenth-century cathedral of Saint Remi rising in the middle distance beyond the garden’s surrounding trees. We’d been told of this chateau by Jacques Sevinchy, an acquaintance who had said it had one of the best restaurants in France, given three stars by the Michelin red guide. And he should know, since he had long been one of the Michelin judges. What a life Jacques led, we often said to him a bit enviously. He lived a bon vivant’s dream, traveling around France, staying in the best hotels, high and low, and dining in the best restaurants, lavish and modest, rating them all as he saw fit. By now Jacques knew many of them like family or friends, whom he nonetheless didn’t hesitate to chastise for disappointing him. He was an especially harsh judge of the most celebrated restaurants. He said their pretensions demanded it. Twirling the impressive curl of his moustache, he could distinguish a dozen types of duckling served in Paris’s oldest restaurant, La Tour d’Argent (from which he had voted to strip one and then two of its three Michelin stars for growing tired and failing to keep pace with the inventiveness of new culinary trends and lighter cuisine); he could question a quenelle at Taillevent for being a gram too heavy; he could tut-tut a truffle soup at Paul Bocuse for being insufficiently earthy; he could fault a pigeon at Alain Ducasse for missing a balance of crispness and succulence; and on and on. But we never heard him murmur a sound of dissatisfactions with the food at the chateau in Reims.

As it happened, Jacques was staying there when we arrived, completing his latest round of visits to the twenty or so three-star restaurants of France. We had come to know him familiarly after Martine had written an article on the Michelin guides during our first year in Paris and he had graciously, but discreetly, served as a resource and then had equally graciously and discreetly befriended us, despite Martine’s husband being a vulgar American. I know it was Martine’s beauty and elegance that attracted him, but he had always showed me a friendly courtesy and even curiosity about my work.

We found him this time sitting on the veranda that overlooks the garden. He had just finished his lunch and was sipping champagne and gazing toward Saint Remi. Exchanging surprised greetings, we offered him our usual envious sighs. He smiled, rather wanly, I thought, and we talked briefly about his latest culinary explorations, which he reported with his customarily sardonic wit about sauces gone awry and waiters gone missing and wines that could fuel machinery, but with somewhat less of his customary panache. Always enjoying his company, we invited him to take a drive with us that afternoon into the countryside to watch the late grape harvest. He declined, pleading a need to finish some work and to take a nap, but he amiably asked us to join him for dinner. That was an invitation we would never refuse. We agreed to meet for champagne in the conservatoire, an airy glass-enclosed space off the dining room overlooking the garden.

Martine and I left him and, putting off the countryside venture until tomorrow, drove instead into Reims along tree-lined streets that showed off the city in radiant fall colors and that were home to many a champagne maker. We paused at the cathedral of Saint Remi, which always seemed larger and farther away as seen from the terrace of our room at the chateau than it proved to be up close, and then we went on into the old part of the city to visit the historic thirteenth-century cathedral of Notre Dame, where the truce of World War I was signed, and where in an earlier chapel on the site, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It wore its age well and still overwhelmed with its monumental size, which dwarfs the rest of city from miles away. But it hardly seemed suited to the modern metropolis that has smothered most remnants of Medieval Reims. The cathedral stands as a reminder of an age that had patiently allowed centuries to erect such monuments to the eternal life, unlike the modern city around it born of times when temples of business get built in a hurry and might be torn down in mere decades to make way for new commercial edifices. Here we could see the historical passage from the eternal to the ephemeral.

We wandered meditatively through the cathedral and browsed the neighborhood searching for traces of long ago. We found some in a few cobbled streets and shadowed alleys, but they were only fugitives from the past. After exploring the “old” city for a while, we got back in the car and headed for local champagneries to sample the finished product of what we would see being harvested the next day. We stopped briefly at Mumm’s stately home to sip some varieties of their signature Cordon Rouge, which Martine found to be a trifle sweet, and we paused at Taittinger’s nondescript tasting room to sample the dry Taittinger brews, more to Martine’s liking, although I enjoyed them both. Then on to Pommery, a palatial historic establishment just across the boulevard from our chateau. There we descended underground to the massive caves carved through chalky stone and explored the maze of corridors lined with thousands of bottles, each given a quarter turn daily while the champagne ages. After tasting a few of their rather floral styles, we bought a bottle of vintage Pommery to take home. Having sipped about nine champagnes altogether, we were ready to return to our room for a rest before dinner. It had been a fine afternoon, and a suitable prelude to one of the best meals to be had in France, with a man whose esteemed imprimatur vouched for it.

We arrived in the conservatoire early and sat on a plush period sofa to await our companion for a glass of champagne and to choose our dinner selections from the menus brought by the waiter. While we were absorbing the place, I noticed in the waning daylight outside some workmen unloading a brightly colored object from a truck onto the lawn. As they laid it out, it looked like a carousel canopy, and I wondered if they were preparing for a carnival to celebrate the harvest, or to stage a party for a wealthy guest. I flagged the waiter and asked what was going on in the garden. He glanced outside and replied in softly accented English, “A balloon. Someone arranged it to sail over the countryside tomorrow.” “Nice idea,” I responded and thanked him.

Jacques arrived moments later, and we toasted the occasion with the featured champagne of the night, a delicate Billicarte-Salmon produced in a village north of Reims. We exchanged reminiscences of previous meetings and summaries of our activities since our last encounter. We told him of our writing and the pleasures of our Paris days, and we probed him for culinary explorations and discoveries. He complied with good stories in his usual charming manner but with, I thought, more than a trace of cynicism. Then, after poring over the menu we ordered dinner, and a few minutes later, the waiter returned to say that our table was ready whenever would care to go in. Finishing our champagne, we followed him into the elegant ersatz Louis XVI dining room, and on through into a more intimate space on the far side matching the conservatoire, although it was not glassed in and had a fireplace at one end. We were led to a table with a nice view of the garden. Dinner unfolded as wonderfully as we had come expect. The salade Pere Girard, mingling greens with morsels of foie gras and lobster lifted us from our seats; the langoustine melted on the tongue; the pigeon with quice sent us soaring; the peach soufflé took us to heaven. And the orchestrated champagnes made us not want to return to earth.

But for some reason, Jacques did not seem quite as animated as usual or as taken with it all as Martine and I were. He nodded approval and made some notes, and he chatted cordially as always, but the normally contented smile on his face that we liked so much was fleeting. Perhaps he was disappointed with the food after all. Or maybe just tired. Or even bored. But can a bon vivant living a dream suffer boredom, or what the French bewail as ennui?

When we inquired where he was going from here, he paused and said he was scheduled to go to Burgundy and then Provence. “Ah,” I sighed. “What a life you lead. And driving south from here will be a marvelous trip. The countryside is so beautiful right now.” Then I thought of the balloon.

I drew their attention to it still being assembled in the garden and turned to Martine. “We should take a balloon from here some time. How lovely that would be, sailing over the champagne country. Have you ever done that, Jacques?” I asked.

“Oui. I’ve ridden balloons a few times here and there around France. C’est très jolie. You float over the countryside, above it all but seeing everything in the silence of the sky. You almost feel that you could go on pour toujours sans cesse. (forever without end).” He let his words trail off as though he were losing himself in the thought.

“Sounds divine,” Martine said.

“I wish we could go tomorrow,” I put in. “Maybe next time. We could all go together. Would you be interested?” I asked Jacques. He was still kind of lost in thought. Then he looked at me, and for the first time since we had met him yesterday, his eyes appeared to brighten and a happy smile broke across his face.

“Perhaps,” he said softly.

The three of us exchanged more reminiscences and reflections through the rest of dinner down to coffee and cognac and the heavenly peach soufflé. Finally, Martine and I said good night, looking forward to our drive through the country tomorrow and hoping for blue skies. Jacques joined in our hopes and bid us bon nuit with a nice smile. We would see each other again at breakfast before going our separate ways.

The sun was gleaming when we got up the next morning. Stepping out on our private terrace in the fresh clear air, we were greeted by the spectacle of a resplendent autumn day in the garden of the chateau. The reds of the maples, the oranges of the oaks, the yellows of the locusts all engulfed us in a kaleidoscope of colors framing the spires of Saint Remi. And spread out on the broad green lawn in the center lay the equally colorful hot air balloon being prepared for flight.

We dressed and descended to the dining room and sat at a table by the window. When Jacques didn’t appear, we concluded he would probably arrive in due course, and we proceeded to order. Then we savored omelets, buttery croissants, and café au lait, while looking out the tall windows to where workmen were now inflating the balloon in the middle of the expansive lawn. Its buoyantly multicolored panes swelled slowly with hot air from the burner. As its folds unfurled, it gradually bobbed off the grass and swayed in the breeze, a gigantic colorful bubble amid the autumn leaves under a clear blue sky, its basket tethered to the ground by a couple of lines and weighted down by bags of sand hefted in by workmen before igniting the burner. Wishing we could take the flight, we watched the workmen finish their job and withdraw. We resumed our breakfast speculating on what had delayed Jacques.

A few minutes later, Martine pointed outside. “Look!” she said with an urgent tone.

A workman was racing down the lawn toward the balloon, waving his arms and shouting. The balloon’s basket had been untethered, and someone was tossing bags over the side . The basket was waggling. A pillar of flame was rising brightly from the burner, sending more hot air into the balloon. By the time the workman got there, the balloon had lifted from the ground. He could not reach it.

Half a dozen people were now running from the chateau in the direction of the ascending balloon. We signed the check and went out to the garden to see what the commotion was about. The crowd stood helplessly looking upward as the balloon rose above the tree tops and drifted toward the spires of Saint-Remi. A man and woman left them and came back ranting at a manager who had come out of the chateau. While he was trying to calm them, a workman approached from the lawn and handed the manager a thick envelope and a note of some kind, gesturing back to where the balloon had been. The manager read the note aloud and opened the envelope. He drew out what looked to us standing a few yards away like a handful of Euros. He examined the note back and front and shook his head in puzzlement. Then he cast a final look at the departing balloon and invited the animated couple to go with him into the chateau.

Curious, Martine and I walked over to the workman who had brought the envelope and asked him what had happened. He was still a little agitated, and my French wasn’t good enough to make out all he said, but I gathered that the couple we’d seen had rented the balloon and someone had taken off in it. The workmen had then found an envelope and a note left behind on the ground and had given these to the manager.

“Qu’en était-il dans l’enveloppe?” (What was in the envelope?), Martine asked.

“C’etait d’argent” (It was money), he answered.

“Qu’est-ce que la note disait?” (What did the note say?), she added.

“Il disait, ‘Veuillez me pardoner. Adieu.’” (It said, ‘Please forgive me. Good-by.’)

“C’est tout?” (That’s all?), I prodded.

He shrugged and said, “Seulement les mots ‘Guides Michelin’ imprime dessus” (Only the words Michelin Guides printed on it).

“What!?” I gasped and turned to Martine. “Could it be? Jacques? He never said he could fly a balloon. And why would he go off like that?”

Spontaneously our eyes focused on the sky beyond the trees at the end of the garden. The balloon, its colors radiant in the morning sun was now floating off over Saint Remi. We watched it go, gently levitating up over the city on a peaceful, inexplicable journey to the champagne countryside, and out of sight.

I asked the workman how far the balloon could go. He shrugged again and said it could go as far as the air currents could take it until it ran out of fuel. And, if the guy in it knows anything about flying balloons, that could be a very long way. To the Alps anyway or the Mediterranean.

Martine and I inquired about Jacques at the chateau and learned that he had packed his bags and paid his bill but had left the bags in his room. He was nowhere to be seen.

“He did it!” I exclaimed. “He’s in the balloon. But why? To where…?”

Mystified, we decided to make our drive into the countryside as planned, thinking that maybe we would find the balloon on the ground and Jacques seated in a village café, sipping champagne and smiling at his adventure.

We didn’t find him or the balloon. And in the late afternoon, we returned to the chateau, checked out, and drove back to Paris, talking about the mystery and what Jacques had in mind. Surely he knew what he was doing. But where was he going? Did he fly off to pursue the bon vivant’s dream, or did he do it from ennui?

A couple of months later, I read in a Paris newspaper that a long-time Michelin judge named Jacques Sevinchy was being replaced. The article gave no explanation except to say that it appears he had curiously disappeared from Reims in a balloon. His words came back to me: Pour toujours, sans cesse.