Sunday, October 11, 2009

Celebrating Chusclanaise History (day 1)

This weekend was the 11th annual Vendanges de l'Histoire in Chusclan. The autumn festival celebrates the local traditional culture associated with grape faming and provides a really good excuse to drink lots of the products of that labor. Many of the event's attractions reminded me of home: the old tractors, a petting zoo and antique cars on parade.

Our landlords were pretty committed to ensuring that we received the complete Chusclanaise experience. They reserved diner for us on both days of the party and hooked us up with a classic car ride. But most importantly, madame provided Mary Ann with an authentic provencal costume. True to the local flair, the outfit included a lavender skirt, shawl, apron and bonnet. I attempted to join in the spirit of the peasantry by wearing a knit shirt and a straw hat. I'm sure we made quite the couple.


We joined the festivities shortly before lunch. It was incredible to see so many people in the small town. For a moment we couldn't figure out how so many shops and wine tasting places managed to open over night. Then Mary Ann realized that these merchants had just set up shop in people's garages. Apparently, the city itself joined in the costuming craze.

Finally meeting up with our landlords in the place de la Mairie (city hall), we decided to enjoy an apertif and then take an early lunch (12:30). A makeshift guinguette was constructed in the public boules courts, where they were serving heaping portions of paella. This traditionally Spanish dish included a menagerie of meats and seafood mixed into spiced rice. As usual, it was better not to ask what you were eating, but just enjoy all the flavors. The second course was a plate of two giant slices of cheese. Together, Mary Ann and I finished about half of one serving. A meal, of course, would not be complete without desert (some type of apple tart) and coffee.

Completely stuffed, we waddled over to the antique cars that would be taking us on a 1 1/2 hour tour of the countryside. André had chosen for himself a 1971 French muscle car. It was unique in that the rear two tires would set at an angle to improve handling performance. As they fired up the engines, it certainly sounded like a fast sports car. Madame, Mary Ann and I, on the other hand, were seated in a 1937 Peugeot with a top speed of about 35 km/hr. We were counting on a more scenic trip.

We proceeded along the route that we typically take when going to points North. It's my favorite road in France because of the tight turns and minimal traffic. Not yet featuring any automated radar speed traps, it's a great place to channel your inner formula one driver. However, it was nice to travel at slower speeds, as I had the chance to see for the first time a chateau on the opposite bank of the Rhône. Our path took us through Pont St. Esprit and then west along a rural road that was completely new to me.

And that's when Madame Bérard told the driver that it felt like her shoes were melting from the heat emanating from the car. A few moments later, the engine began sputtering, and then we were stalled. The situation wasn't make very clear by the driver, but we soon realized that the vehicle had overheated. We were stranded. Fortunately, another of the antique drivers and his passengers were kind enough to wait with us, while the car was being worked on.

broke down

It turns out that some part of the engine had actually melted - something to do with a spool or a coil. Engine mechanics is not my specialty, but I think it had something to do with the electrical system. The driver tried repeatedly to get the engine to turn over, after making a series of small adjustments. Finally, he gave up and phoned a friend to bring over the necessary parts.

Now, keep in mind that we were all dressed in traditional garb. This is not normal attire, even for the French. We received quite a few odd glances from passersby. Realizing that we were American's someone pointed out that this wasn't a very good advertisement for French engineering. I was thinking, "if this was typical of 1930s French machinery, then it helps explain the success of the German blitzkrieg."

Meanwhile, André had returned to Chusclan in his sports car and realized that we were well behind schedule. He and the driver turned around and backtracked to our location. All the while, we waited. When our driver finally heard from his friend, it was to say that there had been some problem getting to our location. We waited some more. André arrived in his blue sports car, but with only two seats, we were still out of luck.

Needless to say, when the mystery part finally arrived, it didn't work. We ended up retracing our path back to Chusclan in a ten year old Citroen sedan - not exactly high style. How reliable is a 75-year old car? I wonder how reliable it ever was. I suppose that we had the most authentic experience, but I'll be content from now on to travel in modern comfort.

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