• James Eric Fristad

Sentiments About Sidewalks

One thing about interrupted plans that keep company alongside general beaurocratic hiccups (other than the inconvenience of course) is, that recurring impasse allows one to reexamine priorities, preferences, aversions. Each of which kind of prod is operating in us all the time, of course, but the sudden need to change brings them suddenly front and center. Swaps the alignment on the page away from the left margin, so to speak.

It was our hoped-for French week after Portugal, that was the first perplexing thing. It was a neat place we had rented in my Baldrick's* cunning plan (dining room in a cave that opens out into a hillside back yard, for goodness sake) and an interesting place-name: St Emilion, a status region among wine snobs everywhere. And this is the ancient headquarters village of it, whoa. Bordeaux's best vintages are to be found thereabouts, it is said.

Then there was this spreading, international disease menace, beginning too many months ago and now taking its shape-shifter self wheresoever it list, which blew a hurricane right through my imaginatively-laid reservations, scattering the most carefully planned sequences of Super-trip places all over my creative-lair. Rats. Anyway, it does appear now that all those green corduroy-folds of vineyard splendor that spread across hill and dale within sight of the River Dordogne ... are pretty much out of reach. Sigh. So inevitably the further planning gets underway yet again. I fervently hope this regrouping thing doesn't become a neurotic habit.

So back to the second level of re-planning. Not just the places (first level) but, beneath that, why go there? Or avoid going there?If you think hard enough about it, you can find pluses stashed away somewhere in a forgotten mental closet, and seize upon them. But again the why of it ... I think it may be helpful, now, to pursue several negatives as well. Because even though their "downer" numbers may not be enough to topple those individual positives, their sour omni-presence could well blight the overall experience. So yes, down to basics here.

St Emilion is a trendy place (mental warning flare sparking into life as I bring that feature to mind, typing this) among a neighboring sequence of trendy French wine regions that unfold across the rolling hills to the east of Bordeaux. Here abound fine wines, and expensive. Exquisite flavor and aroma -- bouquet is the enologist word -- which, along with generations of instincts developed plying this magical craft, guarantee the worthiness of each glass. Bottle. Case. Which most of the town is about; I think the nearest practical grocery market is a good 20 miles distant: not a big deal to drive, but a much bigger deal to climb onto a pair of rented bicycles and pedal to, then crank those same bicyclettes back home, grocery laden. Still working on the fun part of that procedure, especially after the first time's novelty is replaced by a sort of resigned dread.

And in addition to pondering these practical kinds of issues, what about the social part of things? In the midst of this pandemic-enforced gap in one's certainty, that factor looms larger than before: in effect takes its rightful place in determining the value of a place -- a visceral value to us -- to spend time in.

One of my best ever travel experiences, happened while we were climbing a cobblestone street in Ventimiglia (right spang on the Italian-French border) and found the adjacent buildings had moved back to allow a widened area where one could put bistro tables in front of several little restaurants. Considerably cool, just to be walking nearby. A balmy evening, that hour, when the passagiata period was just getting underway. And a guy at one of the tables called out for us to join him for a glass of wine, and probably awkward but well-meant conversation. We smiled and waved back and kept going towards our apartment and the 53 steps it took to ascend its stairway. But I have never forgotten that friendliness extended, that guy's casual interest in spending a little time with complete strangers. Us. Which speaks oddly to the point I'm making here about values and emotional connections. Is this the kind of thing that's likely to happen, ever, in the western heartland of France? And at a major-magnet center for wine snobs? And if it miraculously did occur, would it feed our souls? A faint "maybe" drifts away with the French breeze.

There is a kind of agreement among European countries, called Schengen which, among other things, states that each country will be responsible for issuing its own health apps and documents during the Covid-19 menace. And which agrees that each country will respect that health-pass kind of thing from its members. So maybe the Spanish are less uptight than the French? Or Italians aren't as backed up in processing these? As time approaches we will have to examine the options more carefully. But that lack of monolithic procedure gives us hope. So what about that former wine country week? I think we have settled on the southeastern coast of Spain, about halfway between Gibraltar and Barcelona. You would love it: Cartagena. Perhaps via the Schengen protocols, we will get here.

This is the terrace outside our kitchen there. Not with my hat, magazine, or sunglasses shown, but I think the very table. Which photo I stuck here because it suggests, to me, a kind of graciousness that a week in Europe ought to have. Not that there's a sidewalk with walkers to greet on the other side of that little wall (it's three or floors above any such pedestrian route), but it touches me the same way as that cluster of red-checked cloth covered tables in Ventimiglia, with here and there a friendly native. Interesting and more important, interested. I don't know that that sort of interchange might happen again, or that it's even possible: the Spanish culture carries a different history from the Italian. But it could, in this town on one of its tiled expanses, in front of one of its tapas bars.

There is that other France-week to deal with, a completely different process. Anon.

*Baldrick is (medieval) Blackadder's unctuous manservant. Tony Robinson at his best.

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