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The Kindness of Strangers

One Sunday last summer as I was traveling solo in Provence, I decided to stop for a leisurely lunch at L'Oustau de Baumanière. L'Oustau, a Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel, lies at the foot of the village perché (hilltop village) of Les Baux-de-Provence in the Alpilles mountains.* It also sits at the gate of le Val d'enfer (the Valley of Hell) where, according to legend, Dante found the inspiration for his Divine Comedy.

In a landscape blessed by olive trees, lavender, vineyards, fig trees, almond trees, apricot trees, oleander, jasmine, mimosa, sun, and blue skies, L'Oustau's terrasse (terrace) in summer is a shaded havre de paix (haven of calm) away from the tourist-thronged streets of Les Baux. As soon as you sit down, discreet waiters bring you bowls of tapenade (olive paste), a.k.a. the caviar of southern France, and large green and black olives to accompany your apéritif. Bottles of local olive oil remind you that this is not the butter country of northern France.

On this particular day, I was not up for a full menu (fixed set of courses), and I wanted to be sure and save room for the magnificent offerings from L'Oustau's chariot de fromages (cheese cart). So I decided to skip the first course, or l'entrée, and went straight to le plat principal (the main dish). I ordered the turbot, an elegantly simple dish, as it turned out. As I enjoyed the sublime flavors of the fish it its light sauce and a glass of gorgeous white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, I noticed a table of two French couples who sat down near me. The maître d' greeted them like old friends and soon a fabulous spread of Provençal "antipasti" appeared on their table. It had definitely not been on the menu. A little while later, the proprietor and former chef of L'Oustau, Jean-André Charial, sat down and visited before heading back to the kitchen. The group was clearly old friends.

I moved on to the cheese course and the pleasure of choosing from among the best of the best of French fromages. Unfortunately, they had just run out of banon, the regional goat's cheese wrapped in its signature chestnut leaves and a favorite of mine while in Provence. Instead, I chose some other local goat cheeses and un morceau de (a bit of) St. Marcellin. They were as beautiful to look at as they were to eat.

As I savored the meal and being in my favorite corner of Provence, I continued to write notes in my journal and discreetly capture a photo of each course. I could tell the French group near me was intrigued by this-and by a woman on her own in such a setting. I finished the cheese course and had a sip or two of red wine still to enjoy. At that moment, the maître d' appeared at my table and set down a plate that held a single slice of fromage de brebis (sheep's cheese) and some spring onions fresh from the garden. I looked at him quizzically. He informed me that this was a gift from the French couples I had noticed earlier.

One of the French gentlemen at the table nearby then spoke. He gathered by my journal and photo-taking that I was interested in the food and culture. He and his companions wanted me to try the sheep's cheese from Sardinia (the Mediterranean island near Corsica) in honor of L'Oustau's maître d' who was sarde (Sardinian). He went on to say that the onions were a must with this particular cheese. As a final flourish, he sent the maître d' to fetch another glass of white Châteauneuf-du-Pape as "le vin rouge ne va pas très bien avec" (the red wine I had wouldn't go well with the cheese).

I was enchanted and floored. The fromage de brebis sarde, onions and white wine were outstanding. And the fact that this group of French people wanted to share a cultural experience with a non-French person was even better. As they rose to leave, I thanked them again (in French) and gave them my business card in case I could ever return the favor in Texas. "Mais nous n'avons que les bottes et les chapeaux de cowboy là-bas" (but we only have cowboy boots and cowboy hats over there), I said tongue in cheek. They laughed.

After they left, the head waiter came to clear my table and bring me un express (an expresso). He asked if I knew who the gentleman was who had initiated the cultural offering. No, but he looked vaguely familiar, I said. To myself, I added that he also had presence and charisma. "C'était Pierre Arditi." Pierre Arditi, the French actor and director.* The good friend of Monsieur Charial. And a wonderful cultural ambassador for France.

I floated out into the Provençal sunshine nourished by an impeccable meal and by the kindness of French strangers. Life was indeed beautiful.

* L'Oustau de Baumanière, 13520 Les Baux-de-Provence, L'Oustau's restaurant offers la haute cuisine in a refined yet casual setting. Their wine cellar is extensive and has even been recognized as a national treasure in France. I dined there a few weeks ago and the food was as fabulous as ever. However, the service was disappointingly distracted perhaps due to the full house on a busy Friday evening in summer. Note to self: Avoid Friday and Saturday nights in June, July and August!

* Pierre Arditi has played numerous roles in French films and on the French stage. I remember him from his supporting role in the film Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof) with Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez.

July 23, 2008

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