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Travel Writer with a Walking Stick: Navigating the Terroir of Vaison la Romaine

Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food and wine culture of this amazing place.  I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27):

Navigating the Terroir of Vaison la Romaine
By Marlene Heinemann

Longing for connection and fun, I signed up for a writing course on travel, food and wine in Provence, France with Nick O’Connell, writing instructor at The Writers’ Workshop based in Seattle.  Maybe I could write and talk my way out of anxiety stemming from relationships at home.  Nick said the village of Vaison la Romaine was a lovely and amazing place.
When I arrived at the Hotel Evêché in the hilly, medieval part of the town, I wondered if I would be able to climb up and down the cobblestone pathway armed only with my walking stick for balance.  The pathways were narrow but still shared with an occasional car.  The other participants in the course were younger than me (I’m 67) and made it up and down the hills easily.
The first day was challenging.  A few small lamps lit the corners of the rooms of the hotel dimly and sparsely.  Nick asked the owner if there was a light switch for the spiral staircase.  I found it by feeling around the wall with my fingers.  Having climbed to the second floor with my walking stick for balance, I entered the room I was sharing with Nancy Gaeden.  The room was very dark.
“Where is the famous Provençal light?” I asked myself.  It was found mainly in the bathroom which was almost as big as the room. I put on my sandals which I had brought as my dressy shoes and set out down the steep hill.
It was raining lightly and my feet slid forward in my shoes.  I walked downhill about ten minutes, then decided to return to the hotel.  I was grateful for the center strip of asphalt in the pathway.  At 7:45 p.m. sharp we gathered in the salon to walk to our restaurant for dinner, the Auberge de la Bartavelle.  Nick’s assistant Chris Olsen and Anne Stanfield, one of the participants, helped me negotiate the hill in the dusk.  I felt relieved.  I resolved to dispense with my sandals for the duration of the course. 
At the first two dinners, Stephanie Baird, a tall, attractive 51-year-old Texan with long dark hair dominated the conversation and talked about wine production and the concept of terroir:  “Terroir is the basis of the French wine appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) system which is a model for wine appellation and regulation in France and around the world. The AOC system presumes that the land from which the grapes are grown imparts a unique quality that is specific to that growing site.  Terroir is the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s epigenetic qualities when the crop is grown in a specific habitat.”
I didn’t ask any questions.  No one remembered that I had a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and had published a book on Holocaust literature. The food and wine, from the amuse-bouche appetizer to the dessert, were excellent but the camaraderie was absent for me. I was too terrified to come up with a statement or question about the wine.
On the first full day we toured the Roman ruins of Vaison, and with the help of Chris and Anne I climbed up to the ancient, restored amphitheater, against Nick’s advice.  At the ruins of the Roman baths, my sense of humor got the better of me and I intentionally mispronounced the French guide’s English as “the pubic baths of Vaison.”  I got a few smiles from that, including from Nick. This together with the climb up to the amphitheater gave me the confidence I needed to trust the group a little.
By the third day of the course, I was starting to relax.  Two men in the group, Chris and Guy DiRe, helped me to tour the hospital at St. Remy where Vincent Van Gogh spent his last year and where copies of some of the 150 canvases he painted were on display.  I had long identified with this artist who was highly productive and innovative despite mental illness and epilepsy.
At the winery of la Domaine de Mourchon, I followed Nick’s direction not to climb up the hill or down to the fermentation vats.  Instead, I chatted with Chris in the winery where we reminisced about Cabernet Sauvignon with steak on the grill back in Seattle.  We tasted various combinations of Grenache and Rosé from the Rhone region.  Following this, I had the courage to ask the group’s wine expert a question:  “What are sulfites?”
She explained the substance was sometimes added in larger quantities to American wines for preservation than in European wines. As a result, one could sometimes drink more of European wines without getting a headache.  My question was noted even though it was not very sophisticated.  At dinner that night at Bistro d’O, I was seated opposite Stephanie, the wine expert, and engaged in conversations with Christiane Vierthaler from Karlsruhe, Germany, Lisa Sowder who talked of her trauma of being judged a bad mother, Chris and Guy.  At the conclusion of the dinner, I felt accepted. 
On the fourth day, Thursday, we worked on our rough drafts of our stories. Jean-Loup Verdier, the co-owner of Hotel Evêché, invited me to sit at a table on the patio to write where the Provençal light provided illumination. Later we read what we had written aloud to the class.  Stephanie revealed some vulnerability for the first time:  her fear and desire to learn how to write about the subject of wine that she had studied so much. Maia Eisen wrote humorously about tasting elaborately prepared French food and Lisa about suffering French judgment for “bad mothering.”  I wrote of my discovery that Stephanie, whom I called, “The Queen Bee,” actually liked me. Now I wasn’t afraid to trust her and the group anymore.
At dinner that night, consisting of mushroom and cheese pizza and salad at a pizzeria, Stephanie and I bonded.  I told her about my frustrations with my relatives and she said she would visit me.  I realized I was the Queen Bee, or had been, as much as she, devoting my life to knowledge at the expense of my feelings and need for fun.  I was glad I had come to Vaison la Romaine to find out that people wanted to help me discover my power as a humorous, knowledgeable travel writer with a walking stick.

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