I was invited to the best birthday party in Balleure! It was for a fellow named Robert, celebrating his 68th. Robert is a very warm, fun, outgoing and generous guy whose career has been in fashion design. He lives near Strasbourg, as does most of his family. He’s the youngest of 8–a good Catholic family like my own, where I am the oldest of 8. They have been coming to the family’s vacation home here in Balleure all their lives. It’s about 4 hours’ drive from Strasbourg on the freeway (except it’s a pay-way). Their grandfather bought the house a very long time ago, and it was he who planted the towering tree just visible in the back yard. Robert’s sister Nanette told me that including the youngest generation, her grandchildren, five generations of Pascals have enjoyed this cozy stone home in the country. Here it is, below: The house is on the left. The auxiliary building, so common here, is probably an old barn.
We arrived promptly at 7:00. The French have a tradition when entertaining (it falls under the Rules of Politesse) of not offering anything to drink until everyone has arrived. We chatted while awaiting the others, in the tiny living room of the ancient stone house with a cozy fire on the unscreened hearth. The invitées (guests) included two of Robert’s sisters, Nanette and Jacquotte, brother-in-law Marc (their sister’s widower, who is 92 years old, smart and funny), Dutch friends Marjo and Frank from nearby Étrigny, Nicole and Pierre and me, and Joseph. Halfway through dinner, Nicole whispered that Joseph, who was sitting on my other side, is a priest. Thankfully, I had not yet said anything unkind about the new pope!
When the last guest arrived, Marc poured a bottle of 1982 sauterne which he had been saving for a special occasion. It was lovely, sweet but with depth, a wine which is typically served with fois gras. Once everyone’s glass was full, they began passing around plates of little toasts spread with fois gras, plus a plate with thin slices of delicious smoked wild boar sausage. The tray with these goodies was balanced on top of an upended wooden wine box in the middle of everything, and every time Marc got up to pass the appetizers or refill wineglasses, he almost tripped between the box and the carpet, which was rolled back to avoid being set afire by sparks. There was maybe 8 feet between the hearth and the wall opposite. Against the wall was a couch, and In between was a very narrow table. One had to be exceptionally adroit to thread one’s way around the room without falling into the fire. Or knocking something over. When the 1982 sauterne was finished, Marc broke out a bottle from 1986. Also exceptional.
It was probably around 8:00 when we received the command “À table“, and so we sat down at a large oval table in the dining room. There was a big sleigh-bed in the corner (the living room had another such bed behind a partition), testimony to the needs of une famille nombreuse–a big family. There was an upstairs, but the French don’t give house tours so I didn’t see it. It was awhile before Robert and Joseph and Nanette were ready in the kitchen, which was not public display either. They came in bearing a huge covered pottery pot of sauerkraut with sausages, an open casserole with a variety of smoked meats, and a bowl of boiled potatoes. Choucroute garnie (sauerkraut with sausages and cured meats) is the traditional dish of Alsace, where Strasbourg is located. Alsace has alternated between belonging to France and Germany over the centuries. It was German when my grandfather Reidell was born there around 1880. Nanette told me that in her grandmother’s lifetime, Strasbourg changed nationalities five times!
I cannot begin to describe the conviviality, jokes, warmth, laughter and generally great time that was had around that table during the next three hours. It was wonderful! The food was delicious, and the wine flowed. An Alsatian dry reisling was poured first; then a red with the cheese course. I don’t remember a separate wine with dessert, but Marc insisted on schnapps being served with coffee, because it’s traditional. Robert the birthday boy was a riot, keeping us laughing throughout. In short, the company was the best. What good fortune that I happened to be here, and that Robert generously invited me to come along with Nicole and Pierre. Visiting France, or anywhere for that matter, is so much better when you get a glimpse of the lives of local people, and especially when invited into their homes. That was true in Lyon, where I was shown a wonderful weekend by the cousin (and her husband) of a friend. I also had a serendipitous connection with the fascinating woman in whose beautiful apartment I stayed in Lyon. It seems to be easier to make these connections outside of Paris, which I am well noting.