A Drink in Season
Spring written in bold, underlined, all-capped looks limp compared to European reality this year. Pines bobbed and oaks shuddered with the passing wind, shaking yesterday’s rain; in amphibian metamorphosis, their buds grew visibly larger each day under the lengthening light of mid-Spring. Afar, the blooming color powdered the landscape in an Impressionistic blur. But up close, driving along hairpins and welcomed straightaways, the sun lucidly explained the detailed edges and specks and differences. Like a solar eclipse, the leaves bent the ecclesiastic power of the sun and left nothing but a blindingly white, broken trace at its perimeter; that remaining light still managed to draw my moving penumbra against the asphalt winding the Walloon wilderness en route to Durbuy.
Spiraling from a castle towering upon steep cliffs dropping into the Ourthe River, narrow and cobbled streets wove intricate patterns through the equally stoned buildings of Durbuy. Gashes in the hills during the approach marked old quarries and foretold the color of our day between the rock walls and upon the flagstones of the sidewalks. Everything was the same hue, and I had noticed it while passing through the small, periphery towns. It reminded me of West Point, abyss of grayness. There, the monochrome began with the walls, and, reinforced by the Hudson wind and gray skies, infected our clothes and very dreary moods. Unlike those days, today fashioned around comfortable strolls and drinking. Following the order of the streets, we maintained no plans. Every intersection hid a forgotten corollary; bending and narrowing into alleys, these lanes quartered signs for Trappist Beer and Stella Artois, which lit the perennially dark corridors with yellow, incandescent light. The vines snaking up smooth medieval walls harbored flowers illuminated by narrow beams of sunlight wedging like a captive through cracks in the wall. I took a lot of pictures and think they speak for themselves.
Determined to continue drinking nothing but beer, we spotted a hazy, yellow sign advertising La Trappe above two women languidly pinching cigarettes and chatting at a cafe table. They nodded a silent greeting as we passed and walked through the door. The bartender chatted with a friend behind the bar while attending to a relatively empty and quiet place. Flipping through the CAMRA Good Beer Belgium Guide that accompanied me everywhere outside the shower, I found a winner on their beer menu: a hoppy blonde from L’Arogant. Pouring the contents transformed my glass to bright golden-blonde, and as the color rose, a fine, frothy head accumulated above. The nose blended tangerine and grapefruit notes with a subtle white wine mineral quality - like the smell of stones after a summer rain. The palate reinforced the bouquet, starting intensely dry with notes of citrus rind and finishing with a lingering dryness. My best guess is that the beer required an unfathomable amount of Styrian Golding hops.
Driving west towards the French border we stopped in Tourpes. Holding the CAMRA book open and up, I compared a picture to the facade in front of me: the one bar in town, La Forge. Across the street from Brasserie Dupont, their green plastic chairs and tables sprawled outside from the last patrons who enjoyed the freshest Saison Dupont in the world. Inside, an old lady hunched behind the wooden bar finishing up a pour of Moinette Blonde for an older gentleman sitting at a table with a group of friends. Everyone turned to analyze the unfamiliar face at the bar. I had an audience and regurgitated the scripted line I had practiced in the car: “Deux Saison, S’il vous plait.” She nodded, the table returned to drinking, and I received two glasses of golden, clear nectar supporting a dense, foamy head. Great success! I was now one for fifty ordering in French and not feeling like a complete idiot. Pretty much fluent…
Outside we bathed in sun, soaking the rays as a stormy cold front, predicted to disrupt the early arrival of Summer, passed over England. Watching a tractor flick bricks of dirt onto the cobblestones of the one intersection in town, I followed my nose downwards smelling bread and lemon notes. The flavor carried me into an unforgettable moment: a paradoxical mouthfeel, both crisp and creamy; dry white wine, tart orange cream, and hints of coriander throughout the palate; a dry finish with sourdough notes and lingering coriander made it one of the best (top three) beers I’ve ever had. I could have sipped a bottomless glass and happily watched the Rapture pass me by. I closed my eyes and faced the sky, stretching into an irrepressible smile.
Unfortunately, I have to end on a somber note. With Anthony Bourdain’s suicide comes the loss of an incredible man. It’s shocking that a person so capable of inspiring others and bringing happiness couldn’t find enough within himself to keep going. Focusing on his life and work, while I was recovering from a broken pelvis, leg, and back after a parachuting crash I had a lot of discretionary time (as my Mom would say), which I filled with a plethora of Netflix. Watching his shows and reading his work helped pull me off the couch and wean off the pain killers. It brought me back into the kitchen - starting with sandwiches and whatever else I could throw together balancing on one foot bouncing two crutches around my armpits. By Easter, nine months later, I presented a beautiful ham to a group of friends at our apartment. I never met the guy, never exchanged a word, but he certainly spoke to me. He reminded me of the wisdom inherent in every meal: over good food and good drink in a good home with good people good things will eventually follow. And that may not always be agreement; but more often than not, it will be understanding and respect and compromise and enlightenment. If you’re still out there listening, cheers, na zdravi, prost, proost, egeszsegere, sante, salut: to a life in parts unknown with no reservations. Thank you for giving a part of yourself to all of us who listened, read, and watched.