For a scribe who’s been in Germany for the past ten years, there isn’t much of a better way to reconnect with her American roots than to visit the wild, wild west.
That’s just what Shawn and I did exactly one year ago when we spent the day playing in Virginia City, Nevada…
Once a mining boomtown, Virginia City previously claimed the title of the richest city in the United States. This was due to the Comstock Lode silver strike that occurred there in the late 1850s. The strike transformed prospectors into millionaires, virtually overnight.
It’s said that Virginia City is the ‘birthplace’ of Mark Twain, since this is where the former Territorial Enterprise reporter Samuel Clemens had the maiden usage of his now-famous pen name. He would go on to continue using his pen name during his Tramp Abroad, which included an extended stop in Heidelberg, Germany. In an age devoid of the airplane, he sure managed to get around!
In a black and white image, bordered in a simple silver frame on my piano, she is seated behind the wheel of a classic roadster. Coyly sporting a riding cap, cream-colored driving gloves, and her trademark smile is a woman who not only taught me arpeggios, flats and sharps, but about life, its remarkable coincidences and values that we should hold dear.
We first met in March 1987. I was nearly ten, and my piano-teacher to-be, Mrs. Erna Blonek, was 86. I remember thinking that the diminutive elderly woman, with wavy hair as white as snow, spoke with a funny accent. My mother later explained that Mrs. Blonek was originally from Czechoslovakia. Over time, I learned that she had been widowed in the 1960s and that she and her radiologist husband, František, had immigrated to the United States in the late 1930’s.
Often referred to as Russia’s Versailles, the Peterhof Palace gardens (ПЕТЕРГО́Ф) offered us a picturesque spot through which to stroll during our visit to St. Petersburg earlier this month.
Under shadows cast by heavily-gilded cupolas, we were brusquely ushered through the grandiose palace complex past faces from all walks of life. When we crossed paths with artists dressed in Baroque garb, we tried to imagine Peterhof in its heyday shortly after its commissioning by Peter the Great in the 18th century.
And then we tried visualize the depths of its destruction at the hands of Nazi occupiers between 1941-1944. Reconstruction work and regular maintenance continue to this day.
We found the elegant gardens and cast of characters to be of the most interest as they brought life to the prim palace.
There were Russian school-children visiting the UNESCO-registered complex, yet some seemed more interested in games of hide & seek than in the ornate architecture.
There was even a bride that resembled a delicately-painted matryoshka doll.And aggressive salesmen, peddling matryoshka dolls, wooden structures with Eastern Orthodox spires and Siberian cashmere shawls. Some expressions evoked Cold War intrigue.
It is no wonder why Bourgogne, or Burgundy, is known as the Côte d’Or. During our July sojourn in France’s ‘Golden Hillsides,’ the area’s fields were ablaze with vibrant tournesols (sunflowers), freshly-groomed wheat, and vineyards — where still-maturing grapes glistened with dew.
In the villages of Burgundy, sand-colored stone homes were accented with shutters painted in hues of Williamsburg blue, deep ivy green, and terracotta. Delicate geraniums overflowed from window boxes, while tantalizing aromas — like toasted baguettes, boeufbourguignon and a Dijon vinaigrette — swirled down the streets. In cafés and restaurants, blond Chardonnay flooded glasses. The scintillating wine seemed tailor-made for such balmy Burgundian summer evenings.
From the weathered buildings, friendly faces and people with lively personalities emerged. Periodically, vintage Citroëns rolled onto the scene, creating circa 1940 vignettes that were quintessentially French. One such classic voiture even ushered in a serendipitous moment that would be one of the highlights of our time in Burgundy.
One glorious afternoon, my husband, Shawn, and I turned onto a back road seemingly forgotten. As it was Sunday, most of the village’s homes and shops were shuttered and quiet. A few children kicked about a soccer ball under the protective shade of graceful, old sycamore trees. Near a small town square, there was a statue erected to honor France’s sons who were lost during the past century’s world wars. I hopped out of our car to play shutterbug before a rustic home with windows that were wide open. A cream-colored Citroën stood guard.
Out of nowhere appeared Régis, a gregarious Frenchman who was happy to share travel tips with us. He mentioned that the subject of my photograph was his ancestral home – a somewhat-dilapidated structure formerly belonging to a vintner. The home was more than 700 years-old. The clumsy old Citroën was also his.
“Voulez-vous partager une bouteille du vin de 1982?” he asked.
“Mais oui!” we exclaimed. It was difficult to decline such a generous offer to share the wine. And so it was that we were welcomed into the home that Régis and his son dreamed of restoring.
Wishing to reciprocate the hospitality that he’d been extended in past times while traveling through Africa and the United States, the agricultural engineer dusted off the 1982 Cabernet, removed its steadfast cork and unveiled a ruby red stream. As we later inched up chatty wooden stairs and ceramic-tiled hallways with glasses in hand, Régis proceeded to share tales from his life in La Réunion, where he spends most of his days. He showed us a creaky, old, wooden beam resting precariously on a disintegrating stone in the attic.
“I have nightmares,” he explained, “that someday that rock might crumble.” If it were to do so, the home’s terracotta roof would crash.
As the wine flowed, Régis mischievously led us to a hiding place in the garage’s brick wall, not far from where a dismembered Citroën stood. It was there, he explained, that he found a cartridge of 10 mm bullets. He explained that the home had been taken over by the German military in World War II. Items were broken by the German soldiers, who had also consumed much of the family’s wine. The village’s mayor would later pass on reparations in the form of a check, but the bullets would remain hidden in the wall until Régis uncovered them decades later.
As we meandered through rooms seemingly forgotten for centuries, Régis explained that the wine had been destined for the United States two and a half decades earlier. For whatever reason, it did not make it across the Atlantic to the country France helped achieve its independence.
It only seemed fitting, then, that the 1982 Cabernet would later be shared with two Americans, a day before Independence Day, under the golden Burgundian sun.
Where in the World?
While in Burgundy, Shawn and I spent the bulk of our time in the pretty city of Beaune (with its celebrated medieval hospital with a gorgeous tiled roof) as well as the villages of Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. For more information about the region, see the official tourism site of Burgundy.