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Alone in Bordeaux and Far from Home

The story of that one time I took a homeless girl to the grand and marvelous Bordeaux Tasting


As I write this, the sun is setting over post-fire Talent, where cleanup is well underway, and the first signs of rebuilding have begun to spring from the ashes: fresh wooden frames popping up overnight amid the rubble and the ruin. We are all still healing from a traumatic year, but I encounter a lot of hope and optimism in my community. I had to put the tasting experiments on hold so I could devote more energy toward pulling myself together and finding peace in this wild world we're living in. But I plan to resume soon. In the meantime, I'd like to share a story that's been on my mind lately.

I worked in the Medoc region of Bordeaux for the harvest of 2016.

Underdressed, underslept, weary, and unexcited. That's how I felt when I stepped off the glossy public train at the Place de la Bourse de Bordeaux for the 2016 Bordeaux Tasting, an annual industry focused glass-sniffing extravaganza where Bordeaux's wineries come together to present their creations. Thousands of attendees gather to taste and talk about wine in several languages, dressed to suit the ritzy location, the Palais de la Bourse, a classically gorgeous victory of eighteenth century architecture, home to Bordeaux's Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Palais is one of Bordeaux's most recognizable sights, honored by UNESCO as a world heritage site and commemorated on thousands of postcards that migrate daily through the world's postal services from here to Beijing.

Place de la Bourse (obtained from the Wikimedia commons).

The Palais loomed over me with the imposing pressure that class holds over pragmatism as I tried to secure the broken zipper of my leather jacket and wondered how I'd get through this thing alone. I've never been excited for large tasting events, as the sheer volume of chatter tends to obliterate the aromatic profile of my wine and render the alcohol searingly hot on my tongue. Earplugs can only do so much when you are surrounded by hundreds of buzzed wine professionals and enthusiasts talking passionately about their favorite thing. But I had been looking forward this particular experience all harvest while I worked at a small winery in the Medoc. Tasting in the heart of of Bordeaux is just so romantic, and I had planned to attend with someone I liked very much. Alas. That had all too recently fallen apart, and my heart still ached with disappointment, mostly in myself. Somehow, it seemed to take an eternity to shuffle alone through the short line to the Will Call ticket booth.

So you see, that's why it felt like a miracle when a young man offered me a spare. "Can you find a woman to go with you? This ticket has a woman's name on it..."

I looked around. The city was full of women, each one with her own interesting story to tell. I pictured myself parading through the event with a tottering old French lady hanging onto my arm. As I charged through Old Bordeaux's narrow cobblestone streets packed with pedestrians on their morning commute, spare ticket in hand, I felt hopeful. I felt like I had found a ticket outta the lonely place I'd been stuck ever since the confession of a crush resulted in my former date downgrading our status from flirty friends to estranged acquaintances.

I expected communication would be a struggle, as I am not nearly as functional in French as I am in Spanish, but I hoped an old lady would be forgiving. The older the better, I thought. If she's half deaf, she might not even notice how bad my French is.

Old ladies, it turned out, were in short supply that morning. I walked the same street several times, squinting through the crowd for a cane or a headscarf, to no avail. A small group of homeless people sitting on the windowsill of a storefront seemed to notice me. We smiled at each other when I passed the first time, nodded at each other when I passed the second time. One of them was a young woman who seemed near my age. She had tattoo eyeliner. The side of her head was shaved and the rest bore a gravity-defying explosion of dark curls. She smiled broadly as she conversed with a wrinkled old man in a raincoat whose expressive mannerisms had a cartoonish lunacy about them.

Another one from the Wikimedia commons. I was a little too depressed/mopey/lazy to take pictures in France. I know. Waste of a good opportunity, eh? Good thing the internet has pictures of everything.

The problem with finding a stranger to taste wine with you on a Sunday morning is that everyone on the street already has plans. It shows in their determined strides and their thoughtful faces. It's hard to get anyone to look at you, let alone stop walking. I made another pass, feeling more and more awkward, and I thought about the homeless girl, sitting in the window of a storefront with nothing to do. The thought struck me right where my heart already hurt from the recent rejection, but I was mentally invested in the old lady plan. Until I heard her speak Spanish. Without hesitation, I turned and asked her if she'd like to come taste the wines of Bordeaux with me.

Her name was Aisaiah- at least, that's how it sounded. I'm guessing at the spelling because it is not a common name. In fact, she told me, it's Basque. She hailed from northern Spain, and she was ecstatic for the invitation. She told me to come back in an hour so she could finish her tall can of 10% ambiguous alcoholic cooler and find a babysitter for her two dogs, whom she referred to as her bitches. I hesitated for a moment, but her smile was so bright and genuine, there was no resisting her charm. I had found my date.

When I returned an hour later, she was half way through another beverage and shedding the outer layers of clothing that kept her warm in the frigid October air. She performed a magical shrinking act as she pulled off three coats and a sweatshirt. I had thought, from her broad cheeks and wide grin, that she had a heavy build. Beneath all the clothing, she was thin as a rail. She told me she had trouble eating since she broke up with her boyfriend. She drained the remainder of her hybrid beer cooler and declared that she was ready.

It felt downright intimidating to pass through the tall doorway into the throng of smartly clad visitors. We knew at once that we were the two most underdressed people in attendance. This time, Aisaiah hesitated, but I encouraged her by indicating the broken zipper of my tired leather jacket and smiling as though showing off a fatal secret. When we received our first pour, I turned to give her some wine tasting instruction just in time to see her knock it back like a shot.

"Ok, that's fine, but the next one you'll want to slow down and enjoy-- I'll show you how", I laughed.

"Don't worry- I'm an alcoholic! I won't get drunk on this," She reassured. I laughed some more.

Weeks ago, I had promised my original tasting buddy that I would remember to dress nice and behave myself at the Bordeaux Tasting. But since a depressing silence had fallen between us and our plans had died of neglect, my sense of courtesy and presentation seemed to disintegrate. I just didn't have a nice jacket, and I didn't have to the energy to buy one. At such times, when I'm feeling undermotivated and out of place, my inner punk often finds an opportunity to seize the reins. Perhaps that's what really led me to Aisaiah. A decade-old sense of reckless abandon that comes to me when I start to feel like the only kid in the private school classroom wearing second hand clothes. I found myself enjoying her shenanigans and giving not one single damn what anyone else thought.

OK, I wasn't too mopey to take a couple pictures in France. This is me smiling after the assistant winemaker / cellar master / shotgun-toting vineyard manager Gregory picked me up and threw me into a bin of grapes.

Aisaiah looked around again at the sea of sport coats and high heels. Then she turned to me and flashed her easy, oversized smile. "It doesn't matter what I am wearing, as long as I am wearing a beautiful smile," she said. I felt, in that moment, that I had most certainly found the right tasting buddy.

I made it my goal to teach her a few fun new things about wine (a favorite pastime of mine). She had a habit of declaring "puta madre" whenever I told her something interesting. Fortified wines are made by adding brandy mid-fermentation. Ah, puta madre! Tannins come from the skins of the grape and they make your mouth feel dry. That's why red wine gives you that feeling when you drink it, of having body- because it's made by fermenting whole grapes with the skins soaking in the juice. Ah, puta madre!

Aisaiah, it turned out, was sharp as a tack. She often preempted my next remark and she was good at thinking of parallel experiences to compare with my observations. When I talked about the influence of weather on the vines, she loudly declared that it's just like growing marijuana. Several men in suits turned to look our direction as she delved into the particulars. I avoided eye contact, suppressing laughter until my face hurt.

As we cavorted about the tasting floor, we joked and chatted like old friends. Aisaiah didn't act weird when I crammed earplugs into my ears, and I was glad for her laughter and her good humor. She observed that the universe tends to bring her what she needs, and today it brought her a good person to drink wine with. I felt the same sense of serendipity. I told her I had been living alone in a big empty house in the vineyard since the other harvest intern went back to school. It was an old house whose limestone block walls and vaulted ceilings gave it the look of a small manor, full of shadows and empty spaces where one's solitude finds room to grow until it fills every dark corner. My coworkers made excellent company during the working day, but on the quiet weekends when nobody was around, I found myself yearning for someone to talk to.

I asked Aisaiah what brought her to Bordeaux. She told me that one day, she just got up and decided to go. She boarded a train with her backpack and took off. End of story. No more to say. I could tell that, somewhere behind the carefree facade, a much longer explanation was hidden away, not ready to be dragged out an inspected in a bustling venue full of wine-o's. Still, she managed to convey one important fact: she, like me, was moving through this world alone. We were both flying solo and finding friends along the way.

Our last stop was at the booth of a small company whose bottles had a bee on the label. A few golden bee pins sat upon the table. The friendly-faced owner was pouring. He appeared to enjoy chatting with Aisaiah, whose French was quite good. She told him I was an American winemaker, and that she was from Spain. He asked how we knew each other, and she seemed to sense it was safe to tell him the truth: we just met today when I found her on the street and invited her here. When the penny dropped, he paused for just a moment. He looked at her and at me. And at her and at me again. Then he picked up one of his golden pins and gave it to me, to add to my jacket. Smiling into my eyes, he said: "Welcome to France."

It felt like he was thanking me. I wondered if perhaps he knew someone with a similar story to Aisaiah. Perhaps he saw in her a daughter or a sister or, as I had, an old friend.

The man then offered us a bottle of wine that he had opened but hardly poured. He sincerely wanted us to have it, but it was quickly apparent that security would not allow anyone to leave the building with an open bottle. So he sneaked us out the back door, where he laboriously convinced a suspicious guard that we both worked for him, and when we finally made it out, he bid us goodnight.

Another one from the Wikimedia commons: the Place de la Bourse, at night, seen across the famous reflecting pool, Miroir d'eau.

Aisaiah and I took to the darkening streets, passing the bottle back and forth. As we walked, she asked every passerby for a cigarette. I watched ten people ignored her completely before one acknowledged her by digging into his pockets and coming up empty. I wondered what it must be like, to be ignored by so many people, yet continue asking. I could feel the sense of isolation just standing next to her. Undeterred, she kept at it until someone came up with a smoke. Then she smiled her oversized smile at me and said again, that when she really needs something, the universe provides.

I asked where she was staying that night. Outside, she said. It turned out Aisaiah was a hard sleeper, an open air street sleeper, which seemed rare for Bordeaux. The city provided housing to the homeless, as I had recently learned during a misadventure when an acquaintance thought I needed a free place to stay after discovering that my usual hostel was booked out and delivered me unwittingly to a homeless house. Aisaiah told me that she rotated between sleeping spots to avoid detection because dodgy people roamed the streets at night. From my experience with the homeless house, I understood that dodgy people roamed indoors as well, and I sympathized with her decision to remain a free agent. I found myself wishing I could put her up, but I had no bed to offer, and she seemed content to slip away into the shadows with her two dogs and her half bottle of wine, which she planned to share with the other bums.

Still, it wasn't easy to say goodnight and leave her in the city after dark. I felt that I had made a good friend that day. She picked up on my concern and reassured me she would be fine. She called me her guardian angel. I felt that she was the angel between the two of us. We promised that we would look for each other again on that street where we met.

I did exactly that, each time I visited the city from that day onward. But I guess she must have moved along on her journey. I didn't see her again. I thought about her each time I looked at my golden bee pin, which I wore from France to Australia, where it eventually left me for new adventures of its own, probably popped off my sleeve when I snagged it without noticing, on another journey, on another day.

Port of the Moon by Joseph Vernet, 1759


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