We were loosed like an arrow across the French countryside, pulling asphalt beneath our tires to the tune of smooth jazz on the radio. Rapeseed in the fields on either side of the road, fluorescent in the sunlight, shining back at the sky. Before this, there was a mad scramble through the Châtelet Les Halles with its swarm of commuters, ebbing and flowing through the place, oozing from its exits and cramming into the trains that tore screeching from beneath it out into the world. Before this we rode one of those steel javelins into the heart of the train station near Disneyland Paris and wove our way up all the stories of starry eyed children and their depleted parents to the Enterprise rental car station where our crushed-can-minivan sat waiting for us. Before this, there were struggles with a manual transmission and traffic circles full of honky Peugeots and a good deal of swearing all around. But then there was this.
Soft hills of green with lone standing trees. Herds of sheep gathered around cottages gathered around steeples amidst the expansive fields that feed them like the clouds dotting the deep blue sky. We cut a line through the center of it all with a red pin stuck in Germany, but plans for one detour along the way.
Reims was one of the places that jumped out of the guidebooks for Melissa and me. Crumbly stone walls and cobblestone streets in the heart of champagne country. We had done just enough research to know nothing about the place, which made it both enticing and mysterious and so, once we’d freed ourselves of the gravity of a big city and were soaring through the orbit of the countryside at lunch time, Reims popped up on our GPS and we cut the wheel for the center of it. Melissa, the designated navigator, pointed us at a place called Les Cornichon, and as we followed a waterway into the city, she furrowed her brow at the map in front her and said, “ These streets are like spaghetti on a plate.” which was as poetic as it was troubling.
We elbowed our way down narrow chattering streets of stone, ogling the buildings with their tile roofs and cracked exteriors. Dad kicked it though the gears on the stop and go streets, head on a swivel for one-ways, trying desperately to keep us from being the sauce in the spaghetti. We finally threw the rattling beast into park in a lot near the water and we walked the rest of the way to Les Cornichons, which was supposed to close in 30 mintues. In fact, the whole goddamn city was set to close at 3:00 according to all the hours on the Yelp pages and our hopes were not particularly high for preferential treatment from kitchen staff, given the way things had gone in Paris in the days that had preceded this. Even the hospital crew was blasé about helping us, and they thought I might be having a stroke. We skated into Les Cornichons 25 minutes before closing time, expecting to be turned away at the door, but we were pleasantly surprised to find them happy to see us, seat us, and feed us.
The menu was a blackboard by the door and I pointed at something on it in an attempt to be accommodating, not knowing what I’d ordered, but knowing that I’d ordered it quickly, which was good enough. We sat by a window, watching the quiet town trickle past in the midday light, sighing our tired traveler sighs, making small talk. The waiter brought our food to the table and laid a burger in front of me, the likes of which I’d never seen before. A thick beef patty slathered in an inky black mayonnaise. Cheddar cheese and thin cut pickles, all sandwiched between two jaguar-black poppyseed buns.
“Merci” I said, unsure of whether I meant it.
“What is that?” My dad asked and I feigned confidence.
“It’s a burger.” Like he was the idiot. I bit into it so that my mouth would be full when he asked me all the other questions that I didn’t have the answers to.
It hit me in the roof of the mouth and sat there crackling and broody with flavor. Deep, rich, and measured. The patty was smoky and savory, which was offset every so slightly by the sweet and tang of the pickle. The cheddar cheese had a bite to it, but the mayonnaise was all run through with truffle oil and the flavor of the two coalesced into something like hickory smoke.
“Why is it black?” Dad asked.
To which I astutely replied “Holy Fuck.”
His further inquiries were stifled with his own mouthful of my burger and he suddenly came to the same conclusion that I had, which was, “I don’t know why it’s black, but since it tastes like this, who cares?” We ate our inscrutable food in a respectful silence.
The high curbs and cobblestone streets of Reims all led to one central point. Something storied and monolithic that peeked out at us between buildings and snuck glances at us over the tops of trees. Then we rounded a bend and popped out of an alley and it was upon us. The Notre-Dame de Reims. A 261 foot tall masterpiece of stone and glass, rising from the floor of this town by the sheer will of pious men. Conceived of by people who never lived to see its completion, built in 400 AD without power tools or cranes.The first glance of it was absolutely stunning. Standing in the street with my bell rung, shock like a fireworks display, epic and dazzling.
What was it like to see this thing before you had a frame of reference for anything like this? To live in a one story village your entire life and then ride your horse out of the treeline and come upon something like this? People devoted all of their skill and every day of their lives to the completion of this thing and they died before it was ever even finished.
My eyes grasped at the grandness of the thing. I took in the intricacies of its stone and the stories that its windows told and I wondered if I would ever recover from the disbelief that I felt at being in the presence of such a thing.
The human psyche is an adaptive and dynamic organ, though. Normalizing unknowns and learning to live with them is an invaluable tool in terms of survival. All the humans who came across an elephant in the wild stood and transfixed by its size and strangeness instead of running like a burning monkey, didn’t pass their genes on. The stunned silence into which we’d stumbled melted into quiet murmurings, and then into drippy conversation about the cathedral and its history, and finally formed a puddle of loud questions about what we were having for dinner and how long it would take to get to Baden Baden, because we are survivors. We took our pictures and shuffled back to the crumpled can minivan. We ran for Germany like burning monkeys.