VIEW FROM AFAR- The 4th in France was peacefully nice

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DALE SUDERMAN
My friends Brian and Olenka leased a restaurant in the south of France for the summer season. I decided to celebrate a quiet Fourth of July with them.

I heard enough city fireworks in Saigon in 1968 to last me a lifetime and the prospects of another weekend of faux urban warfare noises in Chicago was more than I could tolerate.

Their restaurant is in the Languedoc region-the low-rent district of southern France. (Richer and more sophisticated Europeans and Americans are drawn to Provance.)

Languedoc is a collection of tiny villages and a few modest small towns, all overlooking vineyards and the occasional grain field. Much of the land is rocky wasteland-now increasingly used for wind farms.

The stone houses-some 400 years old-huddle together on hillsides with narrow winding streets. These streets are designed for pedestrians and horse-drawn carts.

“I couldn’t find a place to park last night,” Brian grumped. Neighbors took the two parking spaces and he was forced to park a block away in the tiny town square.

His restaurant, the Café du Port is located in the village of Paraza, population 495. Most of the permanent residents are elderly, but summer tourists are building new homes on the outskirts of the old city. The town has two restaurants, a wine cooperative and historic Catholic Church offering services once a month.

Paraza overlooks the Midi Canal that connects the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Built in 1680, it is 114 miles long and 75 locks carry boats up a 614 feet elevation.

An engineering marvel when it was built, it is now strictly a tourist attraction. Each season, about 7,000 houseboats slowly putter up and down the canal.

Thomas Jefferson put his carriage on a boat and traveled the Canal du Midi in 1787 and marveled at what he saw.

“A green ribbon of water, winding along vineyards and medieval villages, the Canal du Midi is one of France’s most peaceful and picturesque waterways,” he wrote in his travel book.

Brian’s restaurant opens at 5 p.m. and closes around midnight. He offers them slow-food (as opposed to fast-food) with meats, vegetables and wines from local farmers markets. Guests sit on the patio and have a view of the canal, the occasional combine coming back from grain harvest, vineyards and pesty ducks and geese.

On a good night he serves up to 25 guests. If more than this show up, he sends them away telling them that he and one waitress cannot provide them with quality service. “But please do come back another night.”

These customers eat European style. Dinner begins at 7 or 8 p.m. and they expect to spend three to four hours eating slowly and chatting softly.

(We Americans talk loud and fast-Europeans speak in a gentle murmur.)

The typical customer spends $30 to $60 (U.S.) when they are finished. “Sorry, we don’t take credit cards,” Brian explains.

In the mornings, Brian scouts local markets for the evening menu. We went to a local wine cooperative and filled 15-gallon plastic jugs with red and white wines from a faucet. He tells me it costs him less than bottled water. He takes it back to the restaurant, puts it bottles and sells it by the glass or the bottle.

(I did the math on his markup. Brian is very easygoing and slow spoken-but he is not stupid.)

We went to an open-air market and bought beef, pork and mutton from a farmer who now raises organic animals. With Brian translating, the farmer and his wife explained they had farmed for 30 years with a cow-calf operation and a few pigs and sheep as a sideline. His family has farmed for generations, but only the past decade have they begun raising organic animals.

The next stand over was selling horse meat. It looked very low fat. I was not certain if it was also organic.

The Languedoc area of France is country roads connecting tiny villages plus a muddy canal. It offers silence, sun and good food and not much else.

Yet visitors flock to the region. Thomas Jefferson and I both celebrated the Fourth of July there-in different centuries.

I kept thinking of Marion County. It also has sun and silence. There must be some good cooks there. Promise the tourists nothing and they will come.

You can contact the writer at Suderman@AOL.COM

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