A Botanical Disappointment.


As I was driving back from a week in the desert spent studying medicinal plants, I remembered this true story I wrote 10 years ago:

            A few more hours of pedaling and I would arrive at my destination.  I enjoyed the exercise; in those days I lived on my bicycle.  I rode it to school and all through Paris, preferring the fresh air and the slaloming between cars to the stench of the crowded metro.

Now, on a crisp spring morning, I cycled on one of the myriads of little roads between Paris and Burgundy.  I had set out to see the most beautiful sight of the season: a whole vineyard in blooms!   My eyes filled with visions of an ocean of alabaster flowers, rolling over hills and circling farms.  The whole Burgundy countryside, as if blanketed in a late snow, undulated in the gentle wind.

I had anticipated this event for several months and had given strict instructions to my winemaking friends, to alert me as soon as the vines were starting to flower.  I knew it was a quick process, and I did not want to miss it.

They called me two days ago, and I left Paris on a brisk Saturday morning, before the sun rose.  Two days to cover 350 kms was ample time for a seventeen year old.

I carried a tent and a sleeping bag, sandwiches, and all the topographic maps I needed.  I intended to follow the ancient little roads that went from village to village.

I traveled, at a moderate pace, enjoying the solitude, singing to the cows who lifted their heads in surprise, waving to men on tractors and women standing in the mist of fluttering sheets.  A multitude of scents formed a map I could have followed with my eyes shut: fresh plowed earth as I skirted the fields, pungent manure when I neared a farm, moist decomposing leaves when entering the forests. The odious blend of wine, beer and urine as I approached a bar in a village was unmistakable!  The sweet scent of a croissant fresh out of the oven whispered to me of a nearby “boulangerie” hidden but very present…mmmm…

I pushed on, toward the carillon of the next village.  Today was Sunday; I would soon see people of all ages, freshly bathed, walking to church in their best outfits.   I stopped by the fountain and drank some crystalline water, rinsed my face, and sat for a while, my feet in the spring.  After I ate my sandwich, I whispered a few words of thanks to the gods above for keeping me safe on my journey, then jumped on my bicycle and flew down the hill, leaving the village and its churchgoers behind.

The narrow road was all mine; I felt free and full of life.  I belonged here, on the road, in the country.

As I neared Montelie, row of vines appeared on the horizon.  My excitement grew as I pedaled faster in expectation.  A sea of newlyborn chartreuse leaves, stretching as far as the eye could see, soon surrounded me.  I stopped and put my foot down: green, nothing but green.  No white flowers, no carpet of snow! The vines had completed their efflorescence, and I had missed it altogether!

Disappointment and sadness filled me, and all energy drained out of my body.  I saddled once more, and slowly covered the last few kms to my friends’ domaine.  They were not home.  Probably working in the fields somewhere.  The sun was still high, and I had pedaled for two days.  I suddenly felt exhausted and weary.  I leaned my bicycle against a stump, and laid on the dirt, in the shade of an old oak tree.

I quickly fell in a profound sleep.

Some time later, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a woman’s voice called me:

“Isabelle !  Isabelle !  Did you see ???  Did you see the flowers ??  Aren’t you excited??”

What was she talking about??  What flowers?  I had missed them!

“ I thought they were finished!  I did not see any flowers!

“Come and have a look!”

We moved closer to the grapevine, and my friend’s mother gently lifted a few leaves, revealing the tiniest, smallest little flowers I had ever seen. White, spindly, homely, unpretentious, they stood hidden, millions of them, each one waiting to transform into a berry.  A far cry from the spectacular blooms enveloping cherry trees in the spring!

I stood up, smiled at my friends’ expectant gaze and burst out laughing.


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