View from afar

The Chef and I drove 3,000 miles a few weeks ago. We were mostly in France but briefly in Spain, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. (Miss a turn off and you spend an extra night in Germany. When there is a shortage of hotels, drive into Spain for the night.)

The Chef cooks for a high-ranking diplomatic family in Paris and has the standard French six weeks paid vacation. His masters are in Nova Scotia. The maid is in Portugal with her family. The chauffer is in Brittany. The dog is at his summer home in the countryside. The secretary stays behind to feed the cat. The Chef’s Polish girlfriend is on the Atlantic Coast working as a nanny.

So we are free to be road warriors. Rule No. 1: Never ask for directions. Rule No. 2: The speed limit is 130 kilometers per hour-this is to be treated as the minimum not the maximum speed limit. (The guys with the hot cars roar past even when we are doing 90 miles per hour.)

Chef claims we have diplomatic immunity-I am never certain if he is kidding. We never saw anyone get a speeding ticket.

The microclimates of the European countryside are new to me. Endless fields of corn, sunflowers and wheat stubble change every 20 miles to grapes and orchards, depending on the locations from oceans and mountains.

Chef says these microclimates explain why cheeses and wines are identified with the local place names. Thus Champagne, Bordeaux and Cognac are both cities and products. The city of Bayonne gave the bayonet; the city of Michelin gives us tires.

(I did not ask if the city of Gap gave us jeans.)

This land has been in crop production for more than 2,000 years. Do the lawyers and title companies check land abstracts all the way back to Julius Caesar and the Goths?

Chef is bewildered and amused by me hanging out the window and talking about the passing farm equipment, hay bales and crops.

“I thought you were the kid from Chicago and wouldn’t notice this,” he says.

“Nope, it’s genetic. If you grow up on a farm you never get it out of your system. Look! There’s a John Deere and more hay bales.”

The misery of bucking bales in August always made me count the days until I could return to Cresswell Grade School in September. The tiny library had a World Book Encyclopedia and I could look at pictures and daydream about exotic cities and places around the world.

I remember as a little child sending Christmas bundles of clothing to the poor of Europe. Today Europe seems fat and sassy with free health care and six weeks paid vacation for workers.

The only poverty I saw was on the beaches of Saint Tropez on the French Rivera where apparently many folks were too poor to afford swimsuits. Maybe they never got their MCC packages.

We roar through the Swiss Alps and the Rhine River valley in Germany. The faces in Switzerland remind me of a composite of Hesston and Goshen students and faculty. German faces are composites of every relative and friend in Marion County.

Fighting gravity with a constant smile is a useless expenditure of energy for Germans. Their natural state is a thoughtful frown. (Perhaps they are saving their energy to think of new ways to invade Poland.)

German smiles are reserved for acknowledging friends and responding to little humors. “I’m going to smile now because you have made a joke, yes?”

In Germany we follow the Neckar River on a county road. At the ferry crossing, we stop at a farmer’s restaurant with a patio overlooking the river and road.

The owner’s wife brings us coffee and Apfelkuechen and brags that she baked it herself in the morning.

Three guys who both farm and drive trucks are drinking beer at the next table. They wave beer bottles and toast and taunt their buddies passing by on tractors pulling equipment to the next field.

Their faces and the setting seem very familiar. I want to go back to Hillsboro for coffee and lament the passing of the Iron Kettle.

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