I smiled a big smile and said “Celia, you are breaking my heart” but the reference to Simon & Garfunkel didn’t take even though Celia was also an American of my vintage. She had, Elizabeth told me, been ex-pat for years.
“Nice to meet you,” she said and gave me a dry handshake and a dry smile.
“We’ve been playing Scrabble,” I said as she settled herself and Elizabeth poured her a glass of wine. “Would you like to join in? We’ll give you the average score and you can pick right up.”
Celia gave a dry laugh. “I can’t think of anything I would less like to do. Word games, ughh. Now if you had Sudoku…”
“Oh you are a number person…”
“Would you like to try a new logic puzzle? We were just working it on vacation. I can write it down for you.”
“I would not. I have just driven 7 hours here from Brussels…”
“Oh, I understand.”
“… and I do not want to be tested. I want to relax bit.”
“I understand, must have been a long day. Do you live in Brussels?”
Celia looked at me with studied patience. “We moved into a new house in Brussels on December 19th and then we got a Christmas tree on December 24th and I had to drive to Barbizon to get our decorations out of storage.
“I have been to Barbizon. It is in France.”
She looked at me as if I said I had just discovered the Internet. “The kids said ‘just buy new ones’ but I didn’t want to do that and when I got our old ones everyone was happier. And then a family of five arrived to stay with us for a week and I hadn’t even got the boxes unpacked and then I had to take my oldest back to school in London. And the traffic was murder with the end of the holidays.”
‘Why were your decorations in Barbizon?”
“It’s a long story…”
“… Oh …”
“My husband is French and we lived in Barbizon for several years – I used to work in London and he worked in London but then he decided we should move to France – but then the tax stuff started and he decided we had to move out of France because of the tax…”
“Hey, I read about that – didn’t they have a 75% tax that just get struck down by the French courts?”
“Yeah it was a joke, Hollande can’t do anything right. He hates anyone with money.”
“Seventy five percent is a lot. In the States we just about went over the fiscal cliff because of 39%. Seventy five percent? Wow.”
“Yes. Hollande is an idiot.”
“So you guys moved to Brussels?”
“Well our plan was to go there for 6 months and then move back to London. I was dying to move back to London right away but our tax accountant said that we shouldn’t move there straight off because British Revenue might say that we should be taxed in England on some money we made in France but after 6 months we could move back and the risk would be a low risk and so we moved to Brussels for 6 months and we rented a house and put my son in a school in England but then we got a better tax accountant and he said that the risk would not be a low risk even after 6 months, it would be a big risk and it’s our nest egg.”
“And when someone is talking about your nest egg – your whole net worth – you really have to listen.”
“And so we bought a house in Brussels…”
“and that’s why you had to retrieve your Christmas decorations from Barbizon.”
“Every one liked having them.”
Elizabeth jumped in, “So much better isn’t it? To have your own.”
“And do you like Brussels?”
“We’ll we don’t have much choice but actually I do like Brussels. There are a lot of mixed couples there. I am American and my husband is French and there are a lot of other couples that are mixed like that and so the community is pretty interesting.
“Is it a transient city?”
“Not really, the people are very interesting. I had wanted to move back to London though.”
“So you have your son here.”
“Yes. I have a seven-hour drive to get him here. But at least I get to see Elizabeth whenever I come over.”
“But you put him in school here cause you were going to move here. That’s got to be a bit irritating.”
Celia didn’t say anything, but she gave me a dry smile.
I charged on, “and then the French court knocked out the tax law that made you move in the first place. You could have just stayed right therein Barbizon. No wonder the drive was so tiring.”
Another couple, Burt and Mary – British friends of Elizabeth – arrived with a great chorus of kisses and hugs and hullos, distracting Celia from a snappy rejoinder.
I had met Burt and Mary before. They owned a sheep farm not far from Elizabeth’s house. They were well fed and had been highly energetic when I met them last. Now they were moving a bit more slowly. Burt had retired from his day job and was busy at the farm and with the task of buying the liquor for his son’s imminent wedding. To that end, he had brought a bottle of champagne and a bottle of Prosecco to dinner and he announced that we would need to sample each and give our opinions.
“I am serious. I want your true opinion. I don’t want you just to say that you like them.”
I asked if I might just try the Prosecco. I said, “I am not a fan of champagne.”
“Well you should really have the champagne first to give a proper opinion. You see, I am trying to figure out if I can switch from Champagne to Prosecco at some point in the evening and so it’s important what the Prosecco tastes like after you have been drinking Champagne. But if you really want just the Prosecco, I can pour you a glass.”
“It just won’t be a proper test.”
“Thank you. I don’t like Champagne. But I like Prosecco. In fact, I have become very fond of Prosecco and Campari. Have you tried that?”
“I have not.”
“It is quite good, you should. Campari by itself is a bit bitter for me; the Prosecco makes it perfect. Just be careful.”
“Why is that?”
“Very powerful.” I said.
“Elizabeth,” Burt called, do you have any Campari?”
“I am sorry my dear. No Campari in this house.”
“Oh well,” I said, “for another day. You’ll have a lot of Prosecco around after the wedding.”
“That’s the issue. I have to get the timing right. I have already bought the Champagne, but I want to switch the crowd over to Prosecco at some point. I am just not sure exactly when and if I get it wrong I am going to have too much Prosecco left on my hands – and worse – they’ll be drinking too much Champagne.”
“Oh I see; you want to wean the guests from Champagne to Prosecco.”
“Oh yes, it is much cheaper.”
“How much cheaper?
“A lot – probably 10 pounds a bottle.”
“Hmm.” I said, “How old are your son’s friends?”
“He is 29, most’ll be around there.”
“Won’t they switch to beer anyway?”
“Don’t suppose so. They aren’t likely to get Champagne every day. I should think they’ll keep drinking Champagne as long as we are pouring.”
“How many guests?”
“We have 170.”
“Maybe you should serve cocktails.” I said. “In the States at a wedding 30-year-olds drink Champagne when they arrive but they’ll switch to mixed drinks or wine after a while…”
Celia, who had shown no interest at all in the discussion up to that point, jumped in, “I don’t suppose you’ll be able to change the entire English drinking culture just for this wedding.”
“Yes,” I said, “I suppose that is true.”
Burt wouldn’t object though. “I could live with that.” He said. “If they drank spirits, I mean. But In England it’ll mostly be Champagne and then maybe some wine and beer.”
“I like the Prosecco,” I said holding up the glass. “Flavorful. Not too sweet. But then I didn’t have the Champagne.”
“Yes, not a proper test.” Burt paused and rubbed his temples with both hands. “I think I should do it after the second glass. That way they’ll have had a good start…”
“…and maybe they won’t even notice…” I offered.
Burt wouldn’t go that far. “Oh they’ll notice, but maybe at that point they won’t care.”
Elizabeth agreed with that. “And it’s a perfectly lovely Prosecco. They’ll be quite happy with it I should think.”
I couldn’t stay away from the conversation. “Isn’t the problem the toast? Don’t they have to have Champagne for the toast?”
Elizabeth agreed. “Yes that is right. It’ll have to be Champagne for the toast.”
I pressed ahead, “when is the toast? Can you really have the toast just at the beginning when they have only had two drinks?”
“No.” Burt conceded. “It comes later.”
“So you have to switch them to Prosecco and then switch them back to Champagne?”
“And then what do you?” I asked, “do you switch them back again to Prosecco a second time?”
“He has a point,” Elizabeth said.
Burt lowered his head and rubbed his temples again.
“I quite like the Prosecco.” I said. “It isn’t too sweet.”
Elizabeth changed the subject. “Jay’s wife, Marty, and I went to France together when we were in college,” Elizabeth said, “and we rented a house in the country and all summer long people stopped by for dinner. It was wonderful.”
“I bet you did all the cooking,” I said.
‘All of it. Marty never cooked. She didn’t really even like food. She’d have her whole dinner just eating off other people’s plates. She is better now.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Now she really likes to cook. Particularly in the summer. And she still likes to set a table. That hasn’t changed.”
Elizabeth explained to Burt and Mary and Celia, “cause she didn’t really cook and she didn’t like to eat, she liked to get the table set. Like a work of art. You have never seen such tables. The plates and glasses and flowers. Really important that the table looked right. She could spend hours getting everything just perfect. It was her way of pitching in.”
Burt said, “yeah, I think the trick will be to switch them over after about an hour. The Prosecco will be just as good and people won’t worry about it.”
Elizabeth said, “yes, it will be brilliant. Just have a lot.”
“You definitely don’t want to run out of liquor. That’s rule number one for weddings.” I added.
“Yes,” Burt said, I think I will go ahead and get the Prosecco.”
“Good call.” I turned to Celia. “Would you like to hear my Barbizon story?”
She gave me a soft but firm “Please.”
I wasn’t sure if the ‘Please’ was the ‘Please’ in ‘Please do’ or the ‘Please’ in ‘Phuleeze’ but I marched forward anyway.
“I was in Barbizon in one of those galleries and I saw the most beautiful bronze sculpture. It was a nude woman with the most exquisite and pensive expression I have ever seen. I really wanted to buy it but it was very expensive and just couldn’t afford it.”
I paused to make sure Celia was with me. She seemed to be following along in her dry way. I continued, “so about 10 years later I was trying to think of a good birthday present for Marty and I thought of the bronze in Barbizon and wished I could get her that. I had more money and this was the era of the Internet so I decided to see if I could find the piece or at least one like it…”
Celia peered at me with her head both tipped forward and slightly cocked to the side as if she were wary that I was going to slip something into her drink.
“… the only problem was that I couldn’t remember the name of the gallery or of the sculptor. I thought I had saved the paperwork, but ten years is a long time and I searched and searched but couldn’t come up with anything other than three digital photos of the sculpture I had taken in the gallery. When I looked at them I could really remember how beautiful it had been.”
“What a shame,” Elizabeth said, “so you never found it?”
“Wait, that’s the story,” I said. “So about three days later I was driving home from work and my mind was wandering. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that the sculptor might have signed his work. So when I got home I looked at the photos again and in one of them you could see that there was something really small etched into the sculpture at the feet of the nude woman.”
I looked to see if there was a spark of interest in Celia’s hooded eyes. Nope.
“So I blew that part of the photo up and printed it out. You couldn’t read it all but with a magnifying glass you could make out 5 or 6 letters. I made some guesses about the letters that I couldn’t read and started dropping them into Google searches along with ‘Barbizon’ and ‘French’ and ‘Sculptor’.”
“And you found him?” Elizabeth asked.
“Damned if I did not. He was being represented by a big gallery in Paris and they actually had a whole bunch of nudes like the one I had seen. I did some more searching and found the artist’s own website. I actually found the same series of bronzes that I saw ten years before. You could tell they were all of the same woman. They were beautiful.”
“Brilliant!” Elizabeth said, “did you buy one?”
“Well they had been too expensive when I first saw them, at least for my wallet at the time, and now it was way worse. The prices were 6 or 8 times higher than when I first saw them.”
“Think of how much you’d have made if you bought then.” Celia said.
“Yeah. It was killer. I really loved those pieces. I should have bought back then. But now the prices were insane and there was also a huge duty and tariff if I had them sent to the States. I mean, trust me, if it had been anywhere close to reality I would have definitely purchased one.”
“You’d have made a killing.” Celia added.
“Maybe now the prices will come down,” Elizabeth offered helpfully, “with the tax stuff.”
“Hollande really hates the rich. He is driving them all out of France.” Celia said.
“To Brussels,” I said.
“And England,” Elizabeth said, “Cameron actually extended the invitation. He said we’d love to have them. Rich French people are welcome in England.”
Burt said, to no one in particular, “I think you are right, I quite like this Prosecco. I think it will do just fine.”
“So you think I should look at again for the bronzes?” I asked.
“Definitely.” Elizabeth said. “You should.”
“I hope I saved the name of the gallery,” I said.
“Its probably in Brussels now.” Elizabeth said.
Celia said. “Well you really should have bought ten years ago. You’d have made a killing. Not much you can do about that now. I am afraid you’ve missed your chance.”
– Jay Duret