Occasionally in France I get a little treat, a little bonus, that makes up for the overwhelming sense of helplessness I have when confronted by bureaucracy, lack of urgency and a lack of appreciation of why "Now" means "any time before the holidays, perhaps".
Last week was the time for one of these treats.
The occasion was the final 'end of course' party for the newly qualified Vignerons who had been attending a college that deals out diplomas, near Beaune in the Bourgogne.
The students were all sons and daughters of established wine growers from all over France and Italy and, as part of their course, Marlene had been asked to give them 'English conversation'. She had initiated a series of rôle plays which, at first, they thought was unnecessary, as one of them said,
"I don't bother with English… I tell the customers that the wine is 'over there', and then they must make their own choice!"
By the end of the second week they were joining in with enthusiasm and by the end of the term the Director said to Marlene, "I don't know what you have done, but you have unlocked their desire to use English, and they are all talking now."
I wish I had a French version of Marlene when I was trying to learn French at school in the lost wastes of Central Africa. In those days my indifference to learning French was justified in my mind by the fact that it took five days in a Viking to fly to France, and why would anyone want to go there anyway.
I was an expert at changing French texts from singular to plural, or changing tenses of irregular verbs, or learning vocabulary that I would never use, because the penalty of not scoring twelve out of twenty was a visit to the headmaster who would deal out three "cuts" with a cane, during which he told me, "This hurts me more than it hurts you."
I have never been particularly good at logical thought since then.
The idea that the school should actually teach us to speak French did not seem to be a part of the curriculum. Perhaps it was because we were also taught Latin and we were certainly not expected to speak that either!
However, Marlene's method worked much better than that of my French teacher, whose qualification to teach French was that he had driven a tank through France during the Second World War, and survived. In idle moments I have wondered just how he ordered a baguette from the boulanger without threatening him with a canon or a cane.
Marlene's method won over her students and all their past English lessons suddenly came alive and they found talents that they did not know they had.
On the evening of the reunion we arrived and parked beneath some tall trees as the sun slipped away over the hills of Beaune. The graduates had laid out some tables with glasses and snacks and the teachers and newly qualified Vignerons were standing with flutes as they sampled the Champagne from the Domaine of Ruinart.
We greeted everyone in that time consuming but polite fashion that one uses in France, where everyone is introduced and respected individually.
The Champagne was served from a bottle that looked rather like one of those old Dimple Haig Whisky bottles, with the dimples blown out. In other words, a rather dumpy looking bottle made in clear glass. I was surprised by the shape because different regions in France have their individually shaped bottles and I had not seen this form before.
The wine did everything that a sparkling wine of quality should, in that it zinged, bounced and homed in to a focal point somewhere just behind my eyes, while the aftertaste lingered in the way that only Champagne does.
I sipped with great pleasure as various members of Marlene's group came to test their English on me. I asked the young man serving the Champagne why the bottle was shaped the way it was and he explained, "It has always been like this."
In this case "always" meant 'since 1729', the date from which his family could trace its historical connections with Champagne.
After seeing off the better part of a crate of Champagne, we were ushered into a hall which was laid out in the typical way for a French event of this nature. There were long tables so that there could be the maximum interaction between diners, rather than individual tables as in a restaurant.
Each of the students presented the wine from their families in turn and they had commissioned a 'traiteur' from Beaune to provide food to compliment each sample.
The first was a white from Menatou-Salon in the Loire, and what a perfect way it was to set the palate for the meal. This was followed by Pinot Grigio from Italy, which is an attractive straw coloured wine, which has a mouth watering appeal and which confirms again just how many variations there are to the taste of wine.
Then we had a Grandes Recoltes from Chassagne Montrachet which is a white derived from Chardonnay grapes, and I must say that I preferred it to some of the Chardonnays that I have had from more famous areas just to the north of it.
The next white was from the neighbouring village of Puligny Montrachet, which is a village I have always enjoyed visiting, because it has a pleasant ambiance and a fabulous bronze statue of four vendangers (grape pickers) engaged in the various aspects of the work.
Next we had a red Premier Cru from Blagny, which encompasses part of Mersault and Pommard and is almost all categorised as Premier Cru. This was served from a couple of one and a half litre bottles, either of which would have been equal in value to the deposit on a new car.
Finally, to round it all off, a Crément from the region of Layon in the Loire.
I was impressed by the comportment of the graduates, because they had an enthusiasm for their families' wines, and also a sense of purpose for their future, combined with a confidence that they were part of a long tradition.
I also saw, once again, just how good wine has such a beneficial affect on mood and behaviour.
I look forward with hopeful anticipation to be able to repeat this tour of the vineyards of France, while seated with enjoyable company……. next year.
I shall have to encourage Marlene to take these classes again with different pupils from other regions, so that I have the chance to increase my experience of the wine geography of France.
She complains that she does the work and I get the benefit.
I can't see anything wrong with that.