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PROUD MOTHER AND DAUGHTER
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THE HEAD CHEF AT CORDON BLEU
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OUR CLIPPINGS ARE OUR PASSPORT
From my history books in high school I always thought
France was this big ‘ol gigantic country. There was so much goin’
on there – Napoleon and all… I thought it would take Rudi
and me forever to cross it on a motor scooter.
And then in art school, they were always talking about France and how
important it was to the Arts and you couldn’t go anywhere in the
world without seeing some important painting or some important place where
some French artist was born- that kinda stuff.
But when I was in the Army over in Wuerzburg I hardly heard of France
except to hear how lousy the French people were to American tourists and
you better not go there. They’ll just snub you and speak under their
breath to their friends when they’re looking at you. But I didn’t
find any of that so far, even when I had a German guy with me -- and that
could’ve ignited a big mess but it didn’t.
Back in Paris, Toby told me he didn’t get any of that. But he said
he watched American tourists with their arrogant nature and some of the
tourists certainly deserved their poor reputation. They always thought
Toby was a Frenchman because he spoke French pretty good. If they spoke
to him, and it was usually in a loud voice and poor manners, he just shrugged
his shoulders and said “No parley the English” and walked
Toby said the last couple of generations of French had been in two wars
and had not got much to show for it except losing a lot of their male
population. It was like if you brought up the subject of war with them,
they always brought up Napoleon and how he almost got the countries of
Europe into a United Europe kind of unity thing and that would have been
good for everyone, Toby thought.
But we never talked up the subject of war. It would be a ticket to get
thrown out of the bistro, or the farmhouse. We didn’t want that.
So we never talked about it. It was a subject that really stings with
the French and I don’t blame them. Back in art school we used to
say, “The French are not fighters, they’re lovers.”
Now, how big is France? I read in a pamphlet at the American
Express office in Paris that said France is 211,000 square miles. Texas
is 269,000 square miles and California is 164,000 square miles in size.
So France is somewhere in between the two of them as far as size goes.
The people at the American Express office had given us a good map of
France. Rudi was studying it. He was trying to find the village
of Cravant. When he was traveling through France before on his
bicycle on his way to India, he spent three days with a farm family outside
“They’ll be happy to see us, “ Rudi was confident.
“They’ll be surprised too because they made me promise I’d
come back again. When I said, ‘Au revoir’ they reminded me
that the words mean “—here’s to the return! –“
The weather was cloudy. As we got closer to where we were going, we saw
a road sign that said, “Cravant 75 km” There were so many
little towns mentioned on the sign posts in France, you almost had to
stop and read each one to find which way to go. We had good weather most
of the way. Just as we caught sight of the farm homestead, it began to
rain. It felt cold. The family’s name was “Rouge”.
The rain was really coming down, and since we were only
about five minutes away, there was no use taking shelter. It was getting
downright cold! We pulled off the highway and drove up their lane in a
teaming downpour of rain. When we arrived at the farmyard, it was a mass
of bubbling puddles and scattering rain-soaked chickens. The sound of
our scooter must’ve frightened them. People running with rain capes
spread over their heads hunched over as if from the weight of the beating
rain, were running about the farmyard closing windows and shooing animals
into the barn. The darkening sky was shifting the time of day far into
late evening and it looked as if the rain was going to set in for the
rest of the day.
One teenage girl peeked from beneath the rain cloak draped over her head
and shouted, “Heavens! Come into the kitchen quickly before you’re
soaked to the skin!”
In the kitchen, she recognized Rudi. “Rudi ...!. You’ve come
back!” she shouted, almost jumping like a child. She shouted to
a heavy-set woman just coming into the kitchen door draped in rain protection
that looked like a table cloth, “Madam Rouge”!! Madame Rouge”!!
It’s Rudi! He’s come back. Rudi’s here!”
“Rudi, you ol’ rascal!” she shouted, hanging her rain
tarp on a hook on the kitchen wall. “How are you? You ol’
darling.” And she threw her heavy arms around him while he kissed
her wet forehead. I could see there was fun in store for the weekend.
“This is Rohn Engh,” my American friend, “he said introducing
me to Madame Rouge and the young girl, Marie, a pink-cheeked, Irish-looking
girl who asked Rudi, “Do you still have my sun glasses? Remember
the ones I gave you when you left, and told you to bring them back to
me someday?” Do you still have them, Rudi?” she asked him
–very excitedly. He smiled, reached into his travel pouch and brought
out a pair of sunglasses that he often wore.
“You mean these?” placing them over her eyes.
“You did, you did!” You brought them back. She shouted bounding
around the room, wearing the sunglasses.
“Enough of this foolishness you two!” Madame Rouge said, “Take
off those wet shoes, boys and sit here by the stove before you catch your
death of cold.” She threw some more kindling into the wood stove.
Can I wear the sunglasses as long as you’re here, Rudi?”
Marie asked while we were taking off our shoes.
“Of course you can. But they’re my glasses now. So don’t
scratch them or anything!”
Madame Rouge told us to put our motor scooter in a dry shed and when we
came back she handed us each a cup. “Now take this hot cup of wine
and tell me about yourself Rudi. What’ve you been doing all this
time? You look good. You’re not as skinny as when I saw you last,
all wiry and bony.” She tied her apron again and said, “I’m
Down here in this south central part of France, we were getting into the
real wine growing part of France and the wine tasted great, even warm
like this. I’d never tasted warm wine. I later learned that skiers
up in the Alps always drank it this way. They mix a few spices with it
like cinnamon and nutmeg I think. They called it ‘grog.’
“Do you like it?” She asked us. I smiled. Rudi nodded his
head. That was the funny thing about Rudi. He didn’t have all the
manners that I was used to back in Maryland and all the schools I used
to go to. You’d think he would be more courteous to people when
they gave him something like a hot cup of wine. I used to think for Rudi
this was some kind of arrogance or something. But it wasn’t. It
was just the way he was brought up, and probably most of the people in
Wuesterheide after the war. Or maybe even before the war.
I looked at it this way.
O.K. if I weren’t brought up to say “Thank You” and
“Please” after every encounter with people, I’d probably
act the same as Rudi. I know there were people in my high school class
who were like that. They didn’t mean anything by it. They were people
that lived way back in the stix on a farm and had to walk a mile or so
just to get the school bus. They didn’t have electric lights on
the farm, or any machinery, just horses, and didn’t have a telephone
or fridge or even a radio because they didn’t have any electricity.
And because the war was going or, they didn’t get anything like
that ‘til ‘46 or ’47. Another interesting thing, in
the spring at planting time, they didn’t come to school. They had
to help out at the farm. It was the same way in the fall at harvest time.
They didn’t come to school until all the harvest was done. Their
parents just didn’t allow them to attend school when there was work
to be done. And they turned out to be pretty bashful people. I know my
friend Dave Pearl who had a car, drove to their house one time for some
reason, I think the guy was on our baseball team, and when he got there,
the little children in the family, I think there were three, all hid behind
trees until their older brother who was in our class told them it was
O.K. to come out. But they didn’t. They stayed there ‘til
Oh, well. That always helped me to understand why some farmers we met
along the way were so distrustful, it seemed, of strangers, especially
since there were German Gestapo from the Vichy government all around here
just ten years ago.
Madame Rouge was bustling around the kitchen stove and Marie was helping
out by setting the dinner table.
Madame Rouge spun around and talking over her shoulder said, “Monsieur
should be here any minute. He’s gone to Cravant to pick up some
“Tell us, Rudi, tell us,” Marie said. “Tell us what
you did when you left to go to India. I went out on the road when you
left and watched you and your bicycle disappear over Grumiere Hill. How’d
you ever get to India?”
Rudi and I, up to this point, really hadn’t much time to
sit and talk about ourselves with each other so this was a good
time for me to listen. I grabbed a stool and put my stocking feet up on
a log pile near the kitchen stove and sat back with my hot grog. I looked
around the large kitchen, which also served as a living room, dining room,
and pantry. Its damp tiled floor glistened in the light from a lone electric
light bulb that hung down from the ceiling in the center of the room,
like the solitary lamp of a cozy general store. A washbasin with one faucet
had a miniature grandfather clock on the wall above it that had stopped
at 11:22. Beside the clock was a high shelf with old unopened cans of
what looked like beans, corn and peas. On a clothes rack below was a collection
of wet raincoats that were dripping rainwater into a little puddle on
the tile floor.
Madame Rouge was bustling away. She would step from a cutting board of
onions, peppers, and carrots over to the woodstove to peek into the steaming
pots. She’d slide them from one hot spot to another or off the hot
spots depending how she wanted them simmering, boiling, or whatever.
Marie sat with her mouth half open, enthralled at Rudi’s exploits
on his way to India. The small door at the far side of the kitchen opened
and Monsieur Kelewski entered with his wife, Henrietta, and ten-month-old
“Stanislav!” Rudi stood up and shouted; interrupting the story
of his travels and went over to greet the family.
“You’re back!” Monsieur Kelewski greeted Rudi. “You
said you’d come back. He was a Pole who had emigrated to France
after the war, and he and his wife were employed as farm hands on the
“Did you go all the way around the world on your bicycle? Have I
lost that 100 francs? He had a million questions to ask Rudi.
“No, but you’re just in time. Rudi was just starting to tell
us about his travels to India, and how he met his American friend,”
Madame Rouge interrupted.
“American”?” Monsieur Kelewski said.” Everyone
looked at me.
“Oh, I almost forgot him; this is my new riding
partner, Rohn. We met in Rotterdam. He plays the guitar too.” Rudi
Monsieur Kelewski got up and walked over and shook my hand. “Don’t
get up,” he saw my comfortable position, “Pleased to meet
you. He slightly bowed and returned to the doorway.
“Sit down,” Madame Rouge said, waving her hand to the Kelewskis.
He returned to the other side of the room where he put his daughter on
his lap and Madame Kelewski, who looked to be not more than 20 years old,
went to the stove to see how she could help with the meal as she usually
did this time of the day.
They all turned their attention to Rudi who continued on his story.
And I basked in the warm heat of the stove. Just then the back door flung
open. “There he is!” Madame Rouge said.
Monsieur Rouge was a tall friendly-looking man, muscular, and not one
you would care to get in a wrestling match with. He also looked like he
wasn’t anyone to take any unnecessary monkey business. He had thick
black hair that fell down over his face on the left side of his weathered
forehead. The sound of the beating torrent on the outdoors was no competition
for his thundering voice when he greeted us. He looked at me first. I
could see question marks flying out of his ears, then he looked over at
Rudi, placed two feet square apart on the floor and shouted, “Rudi!”
and went quickly over to him and gave him a slap on the shoulder that
nearly knocked Rudi down. Rudi stood firm.
”Hello Rudi!” He gave him a handshake and the usual couple
of kisses on the cheeks. Marie helped him remove his slicker and Monsieur
Kelewski ran over and swiftly banged the door behind him, to bar the noisy
tempest outside from entering our friendly gathering.
“This is Rohn, and we’re heading off to Africa.” Rudi
\ “Africa?” He smiled. It was a broad one
with lots of teeth. “How long can you stay?” He grunted, struggling
to take off his slippery barn boots.
“Just for the weekend,” Rudi replied. Got any work for us
“Always got that, my boy!” He chuckled to think Rudi would
ask him that. He motioned for Monsieur Kelewski to fetch a bottle of wine.
He twirled his finger and pointed to a different shelf and Monsieur Kelewski
winked and reached for a smaller special bottle on a lower shelf. I caught
a smile on Kelewski’s face.
Marie handed us each a tiny wine glass while Monsieur Rouge poured a small
portion for each of us in the room. “Well, here’s to you!!”
He looked at me. “Isn’t that what they say in America?”
He was smiling.
“Yes sir!” I beamed as I sipped the stuff that was strong
like brandy. He called it Calvados. Later he told me it was made from
“So, Rudi, my boy, you’re off in a different direction this
time?” Last time I talked with you, you were headed off to India.
What happened? You lose your nerve?”
Rudi stiffened his spine. “No Monsieur Rouge, I lost my bicycle!”
“What? Where? Not here in France?”
“No, in India!”
“A Ha, then you did get to India, and on that bicycle of yours.
You lost that gem of a bike. What a pity!”
“Yes, it took me six months after I saw you. And I’ve seen
a lot of things since then,”
“Dinner’s ready!” Madame Rouge interrupted; giving the
signal that started a scramble to the table.
In France, even on the poorest farms, a dinner consisting
of five or six courses isn’t considered a point of etiquette, it’s
just custom. You might find that napkins, extra silver, that that sort
of things are lacking, but the recipes and preparations are always genuinely
French. As we sat at the long table the men on the right and the women
on the left, we took turns dipping out potato soup from a large porridge
bowl in the center. Monsieur Rouge passed a large, long loaf of bread
around and each of us tore off a chunk to our liking. The soup finished,
we poured ourselves wine from the litre bottles at either end of the table,
while Madame Rouge replaced the empty porridge bowl with asparagus. It
was freshly cooked, and with our fingers we dipped them into a sauce of
oil and vinegar.
“Better eat everything!” said Madame Rouge, “We don’t
switch the plates!” and she served me a heaping helping of cauliflower
“At my house, we don’t drink wine with the meal,” I
said as Monsieur Rouge was filling my glass again.
“What do you drink then? He asked.
“Water?” said Monsieur Kelewski and they all stopped for a
moment. “What? It has no taste.”
“It certainly doesn’t!” I agreed as I raised my glass
and took an approving sip of the local Burgundy wine.
The next course was delicious meat, and I told Madame
Rouge that I enjoyed French cooking—on the farms especially, where
I could concentrate more on the cooking and less on the complicated etiquette
that sometimes accompanies it in restaurants. “I especially like
this meat. What is it? I inquired.
“Horse meat,” she replied. I found it hard
to finish our conversation. But I dutifully ate the rest of the portion
on my plate.
A change of wine came after a salad, then cheese and grapes for dessert.
When the meal was over, we retired to the other side of the room. “Still
got that guitar of yours?” Monsieur Rouge asked.
“Sure do!” Rudi said and I volunteered to go out to the shed
to get our guitars. “Here, take this blanket, it’s wet out
there.” She said.
Monsieur Rouge dropped down in his favorite chair, “Play me that
song, Rudi! and we can all join in.”
Rudi knew which one he meant, Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
and I joined in with the harmony.
“You’re getting better, Rudi”’ He said and the
“Tell us more about your trip, Rudi,” Monsieur Rouge said
after Rudi sang a Greek folk tune. “Did you get to Greece?”
Rudi mumbled, “I almost never even got there. But yes, I did.”
“How’s that?” Monsieur Rouge said, and the others looked
up from their kitchen work to listen.
“Well it all began when I checked out of Yugoslavia and passed through
a no-man’s land on the Greek border.”
“What’s that?” Marie asked.
“It’s the place between the country you’re leaving the
place you’re going into. It’s usually a couple hundred meters
but it can be two or three kilometers.
Just then the kitchen door blew open. The wind had come
up outside and you could hear it whistling out in the farmyard. The sun
had gone down and we saw a flash of lightening and a crash of thunder.
It was the start of the summer storm season. By everyone’s demeanor
it looked like it was nothing to worry about. Monsieur Kelewski got up
and gave the door a healthy shut. Rudi continued on his tale about his
escapades at the Greek border.
Rudi is prevented from entering Greece