Bonjour – Loire Valley, France

After flying Lisbon to Paris I embarked on a bus, train, and taxi to get to Insead Business School to catch the tail end of Pascal’s presentation on French-US differences. I missed the 2:47 PM train by three minutes, forcing me to take a train an hour later. In the airport during my waiting period I saw three exhausted French women get off a train with tons of luggage and tons of San Francisco tourist paraphernalia.  After arriving in Fontiebleau-Avon I had to find a taxi. None was waiting in the “taxi” area even though there were several people waiting. The first one that came only picked up some old French women who had called for it. The other Indian people waiting for a cab decided to go in and call for one. Figuring I had no choice but to call the company as well, so I could claim an equal right to the next taxi which arrived, I went inside the station and purchased a phone card (first of the trip). I then went to the pay phone and fought the damn thing for a minute. As I tried to dial numbers, lo and behold, a taxi pulled up. The Indian threesome and another American couple were arguing over who should get in. While they were arguing, I hung up the phone, ran to the cab, and opened the door. The American couple yelled out, “Hey – we called for that cab!” “So did I!” I yelled back, a half-lie. “You’ve got to be kidding me” they yelled out. We sped away. You got to be ruthless sometimes, you know?

Bettervrivereraseother After Insead, Pascal and I headed back to his castle. It’s a real château – it’s even on the city map. Great setup. First, it’s a bona fide castle. Second, the interior is gorgeous and filled with art and furniture which look like they came out of the Renaissance. And the yard, pool, garden, are all spectacular. My room in the castle was at the top. I climbed a windy, narrow staircase, before arriving in my wing of this spectacle. We had dinner at 10:15 PM – Pascal had a conference call at 10:30, Friday night. His wife Natalie had prepared “just a quick something, nothing too big.” Of course, it was some of the best pasta and salad I’ve ever had. Natalie used to run a big time French catering service in Los Angeles. The setting wasn’t too bad, either: in a greenhouse-esque wing of a castle overlooking a grass field and endless vineyards, with candles adorning the room and paintings hanging all around.

On Saturday Pascal and I explored the Loire Valley area. We first visited the Chateau Royal D’Amboise, an impressive sight which housed French kings in the mid 15th to mid 16th centuries. The French Gothic style overwhelms you with perfect perspective and volume: every ceiling seems like just the right height and the width of each hallway is cozy and inviting.  Fantastic views from the top of the Loire river and the adjacent towns. After the Amboise we sat in an outdoor café where we both had kiesh, apple juice made from local fresh apples, and a pastry. Pascal was salivating over his eclaire. My moist strawberry-danish pastry finished off a nice, “classic French” lunch. I like the outdoor café set-up, even though it’s cramped.Melookingout

Next we headed to Leonardo da Vinci’s house near Amboise. Leonardo spent the final years of his life there. During his move to his house, he carried three paintings – including the Mona Lisa – in his arms as he walked over the alps from Italy to France. Holy catfish. His property is amazing. A zen-like tranquility underwrites the house and gardens / yards / rivers. I’m a big believer that the environment you find yourself in affects your creative spark. Leonardo’s setup certainly helped me conjure some an incredible array of inventions (on paper – they were actually built later). Walking around the gardens and mini-forest brought images of the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco combined with the canals in Venice and expansiveness of Golden Gate Park. I would love to rent out this place for a weekend and hold a retreat!
In the later afternoon I swam in Pascal’s pool, worked online, enjoyed h’dourvs and a sweet, local French dessert wine, and then this amazing cheese thing Natalie made. It was a ball of cheese, baked in some way, wrapped in peppers all doused with garlic and butter. Green beans, meat from the butcher, five different kind of cheeses with 6 pieces of bread, vanilla ice cream with three kinds of berries topped on it, and tons of Evian water to wash it all down. Did I mention that Natalie catered expensive LA parties? Oh, one hiccup: the oven messed up and the meat was overdone. They were apologetic and moping about the food, while I, the dumb American with no culinary sense, thought it was delicious. French culinary standards are quite high!

After dessert I played chess against Pascal. While in the States he achieved the level of Master (2200 rating) and played one game which was written up all over the world (mate in 14 moves). In short, at his prime he was a meaningful participant in the upper echelons of the international chess world. He kicked my ass. He then showed me his famous game, move by move. I would love to spend time reading chess books and internalizing even just a handful of variations…Chess

On my main blog I will discuss the best part of my stay with Pascal and Natallie, and that was our conversations. Some of the most acute cultural discussions I’ve had this whole trip.

Loire Valley is a beautiful place with loads of history. A good warm-up to Versailles, if you’re in to chateaus, or even if you just like wine, small towns, and a local culture.

Written on a 300 MPH bullet train from Fonteblieu to Paris