|A misty morning in Alsace|
Coming into Saverne, France, by train, Bethany and I spot Sylvain and Catherine standing on the platform. Catherine’s already seen us and rushes over. Sylvain walks over, relaxed.
|Sylvain (right) playing the Benny.
Me on the Salterelle.
The Salterelle is the instrument Sylvain has played for years, a “Pastourelle III.” It’s the instrument on his first CD, Tranche de Temps (link to free download). It’s also in the usual French keys, do and sol, with a half row of five buttons giving sharps and flats.
Part 2 – Come See Where We Are
|“Daring, come see where we are!”|
|Bethany, Gary, Sylvain, Alban, et Romain, in Strasbourg|
Even the fabled French gastronomical experience we approached lackadaisically — not without care, mind you, but without urgency. Catherine and Sylvain made every meal for us but one. The fair was simple and abundant, with many breads, cheeses, sausages, and wines. One morning we went to a shop, bought sausage, and mailed it to ourselves back home. Another morning Catherine’s father called and told us that we could see some fifteenth-century tapestries if we made it to a particular chapel before 11:00am. We did, and were delighted both by the tapestries and the docent’s stories.
|A tapestry from the 15th century showing hairy men
in the New World
Part 3 – J’ai un Noveau Chapeau
|An agglomeration of accordionists, with François and
Dani on fiddles
In came Charlie, an accordionist, still dressed for work. Then François, a lanky and excellent fiddler arrived. Cedric, a charismatic accordionist who’d learned from Sylvain, came and shook the hand of every musician in the room. This was the first time I’d participated in this particularly French gesture which, to me, says, “We’re in this together.” Danielle, another accordionist, was introduced to me as an English teacher. I had one of those moments in my mind and blurted our, “You’re kidding!” Not because I didn’t believe her, but because it occurred to me that an English teacher in Alsace is a very different thing from an English teacher in the States. Yes, I know it’s obvious, but the fact of that difference delighted me.
|An English country dance in France
Photo by Martine Lutz
At various points through the evening I found myself fixating on my wife. Bethany had been a bit anxious about dancing, not cowardly as I was, but nervous. The week had been filled with dance of the most charming sort. Catherine took Bethany under her wing, teaching Bethany to waltz and mazurka while Sylvain and I played. Catherine was an excellent teacher, intuitive and kind. Bethany was an excellent student, grateful and willing. The two of them were a delight to watch. Bethany shimmered as if she were the object of a love song. She looked beautiful, happy, and fluid. Through the Breton circle dances, the an dro and hanter dro and the English country dances, mazurkas, scottishes, and waltzes, I was proud of her in a very lusty way.
|“J’ai un noveau chapeau …”
Photo by Martine Lutz
Later in the evening I started a tune. “J’ai un noveau chapeau” was written by Sylvain, and it was well loved. As soon as they heard the first notes, the crowd flew into action. The size of the dance circle doubled, musicians, who had been milling about, ran over to get their instruments to get a a piece of the action. Sylvain walked over to the circle, beckoning us in. Charlie, Cedric, François, and I followed. The circle opened, and we stepped into the middle. It was an embrace, the dancers and the musicians. Sylvain sang the first line, “J’ai un noveau chapeau …” and the entire room took up the song. Fifty people, it must have been, singing together, with Sylvain at the center. Catherine led the dance, but no one needed to be led, really. The very simple Breton rhythm, the simple steps, Sylvain’s funny lyric, his voice, his tune, his accordion. It wasn’t louder than the ten other accordions playing, but it was certainly more central.
|Clink-clink! Celebrating birthdays.|
|Catherine and Sylvain|
Part 5 – The Final Night
|L’Auberge des 3 Frères|
There is a fairy tale element to every vacation – just the exemption from work is a granted wish – but Alsace, accordions, wine, friends and dance has been especially fantastic. The transition from magic to mundane was long. The morning after the last great night. A five hour drive in a rented car, culminating with the particularly hideous Charles de Gaulle airport. The crankiness we felt. The trip back home through the wardrobe is always grayer than the trip out. The night before we’d said our tearful goodbyes to Sylvain, Catherine, and their children. We’d left the Auberge with the dancers still going.
The night before. The last night of our stay. The Salterelle has become very comfortable under my fingers. I play it almost exclusively, and am pleased that it seems happy with me. The tunes feel more natural, my playing more relaxed and commanding. The effortlessness of its touch has built up for me over the week, an accumulating ease. The effects of the wine, similarly, have accumulated over the week, and although I’m not complaining, I know that a monster of a hangover is somewhere in my future.
|Food, dance, drink, family at the Auberge.|
Sylvain arranged this gig for us at a Marmoutier eatery, L’Auberge des Trois Frères. According to Sylvain, it was a new concept for the area: a restaurant built in a converted barn, with long tables and rustic decorations hanging on the walls. The owner is worried about the success of the venture and is very happy to have us there. He shows his gratitude throughout the night by providing a wide range of drinking options.
Our party includes Sylvain, Catherine, the five kids, Bethany and myself, Catherine’s father, uncle, and aunt. François, the fiddler, soon joins us along with a student of his, Daniel. They rosin their bows and tune as we give the orders for the main course.
“What shall we play, Gary?” asks Sylvain.
|What shall we play, Gary?|
I begin Bourrée des Gars, one of the first three-beat bourrées I’d ever learned. Very simple and very major-key. Not a lot of mystery, but a lot of drive. Easy. I’m nervous and hedging my bets and smart to do so. The flop sweat comes in buckets. This happens to me in every performance. The first ten minutes are murder, but I’ve come to learn that the adrenaline surge passes quickly. The twitching dread is replaced by a lovely, arrogant fatalism. It’s a risk, I know, but it’s my idea of a good time.
And the crowd’s idea, too! They’re flying!
“The bourrée is a crazy dance,” said Daniel Thonon. It’s as old as the Renaissance, and probably older, and was a form used by baroque composers in their dance suites. For centuries, then, the bourrée has been whipping otherwise respectable folks into a frenzy. Thus at the Auberge.
|Sylvain and François.|
The dancers are up and moving. Somewhere, amid the tables, serving staff, wooden pillars, musicians, and patrons, they find the space to do the facing, turning, and kicking required. After the bourrée we do a waltze, a fast one I wrote some years ago. Sylvain puts down his accordion and dances with Catherine. This is unimaginably charming and fills me with a warmth that won’t disappear until we get to Charles de Gaulle.
Many of the people there are friends of Sylvain and Catherine, but most are not. Sylvain sings a number of Alsatian songs. The crowd sings along affectionately and unselfconsciously. It was as if an American crowd were singing “Home on the Range,” and genuinely getting behind the sentiment of the song. It seems foreign to me, and desirable, though I’m probably romanticizing. I hear them expressing their home in the music. They are at home in the music, and they are inviting Bethany and me into their home. She dances. I play. Wine is placed before us, and then more exotic intoxicants. Is it absynth? Sylvain talks, between tunes, about how we’d come all the way from Maine in the United States to play Alsatian music. The Alsatians are very please, almost flattered.
We play for hours. The room gets happier and happier.
A short, fat guy gets up to dance. He is a caricature of joyous energy, something out of a Peter Mayle book – or the BBC adaptation of one. Yes, he’s drunk, but he dances through the night, asking one woman after another. They all agree. He asks Bethany. Bethany agrees. When he runs out of women to ask, he asks a bearded gentleman. They waltz until it’s time to do the spin. They can’t decide who will “be the girl!” Brilliant! I start a polka, Polka de l’Averyron, and immediately – within three notes – someone begins pounding the table in rhythm. Holy cow! They drive me on. Sylvain and François join in, and Daniel, and we circle the room. Everyone who is dancing dances. Bethany dances. The short, fat guy. The bearded gentleman. Catherine. Marie. A woman in a wheelchair shouts – I kid you not – “Vive l’Americain!”
This, two days after the other great moment of my life, is one of the great moments of my life.