This year it will be twenty years since I took my turn in the backpacking brigades, hauling a bloody heavy pack across Europe, sleeping on the occasional train station bench, living for days on a single block of cheese, running out of money and resorting to panhandling in the Gare du Nord in Paris, being removed from a train by armed guards at midnight in Yugoslavia, etc. and anon. There must be millions of similar stories from the legions of North American and Australian youth who invaded Europe back then.
I'm thinking back to that time because I've been trying to remember my introduction to wine. Certainly, I'd had wine before going to Europe as a young man, and I'd even been in Europe before that particular trip, yet if I want to pinpoint an exact time and place when I first pulled a glass back from my mouth, looked at it a second time and thought "Wait a second, what is this stuff?" it is that youthful meander around the continent. Specifically, a long-lost couple of weeks I spent in Provence, visiting my friend Tim who was attending school in Aix.
Tim lived on an upper floor of a fantastic old apartment block. The windows of his flat overlooked a clay tile roof and some busy thoroughfare near a park named for Emile Zola. Each morning, I would roll off my mattress on the floor and wander down to the local bakery for cafe au lait and pain au chocolat, and every late afternoon one of us would stop by the same bakery for a baguette. The baguette was a crucial third of our regular dinner. The other two parts were cheap pasta with cheap tomato sauce, and some incredible local wine. The pasta and bread were pretty much just stomach filler. The wine was the meal. Knowing nothing about wine then, I paid no attention to labels or names. I have no idea which wines I enjoyed twenty years ago, only that they were transformative.
Once, Tim and I decided to splurge, took a table at a local restaurant, ate terrifyingly rare steak and frites and polished off a bottle twice as expensive as anything we'd had to that point. And it was an absurdly delicious experience. Based on what I've tasted since, I'm going to guess our wine was something spectacular from the nearby Rhône wine region, which suggests Syrah, which means my taste in wine has changed a bit, but not my appreciation for quality at a bargain price. Even at twice our normal budget price, that bottle probably cost us under ten dollars.
Later that evening, seated in an outdoor cafe on the wide Cours Mirabeau, listening to nearby fountains, sipping pernod with icewater, and watching some of the most beautiful pedestrians in the world, I vowed to myself that this is how I would always live. A few months later, after working as a dishwasher in London and living on little else but Guinness and cider, I returned to Canada and broke the vow. When I finish writing this, I will drive home to my condo through ice filled streets, and my next outdoor patio lounging is months away. Who lives like that very satisfied young man from twenty years ago -- always? The French do. Lucky bastards.
I return to southern France in my mind as often as I can, though I have never been back in body. Twenty years ago, I walked determinedly past vast vineyards on my way to the beaches of the Côte d'Azur. There were topless girls on those beaches, and no leafy vines were going to keep me away from them. I will still visit the beaches on my next trip, but I'll be stopping at the vineyards first. All of them.