Cream in the Soup: Greg Escapes the Chateau

Image credit - James Chen via Flikr

Monday 13th October 2008 – 18.01 (CET)

This afternoon I received an omen so abundantly clear I was almost hurled sideways, Victoria’s words still ringing in my ears, “The chateau is our home, Greg. I refuse to sanction a swarm of insects which could sting our kids to death in their beds.” The line was delivered with Olympian heartlessness. I was extremely shaken, and about to make my feelings clear, when I saw it; a magnificent bumblebee sailing in through the French windows.

That was two hours ago. We were standing in the front sitting room. I was facing the mantelpiece, on my right, my wife was silhouetted against the bright sunlit glass. From behind her head, wide prisms of light cast their deep lemon rays across the breadth of the room, converging in a soft speckled halo around the bust of Julius Caesar. In slow motion, I watched as the bee launched straight into the golden slipstream. I was transfixed as he soared past my wife and arched through the space between me and the mantelpiece to gracefully land on Caesar’s noble cranium. Quivering, he paused for a moment, buzzing under the spotlight, but he didn’t stop there. I faltered on my feet, as, flickering his translucent rainbow wings he was up, free and airborne once more; swooping towards the sideboard where he performed a joyous waggle dance over the open cheese board.

Victoria looked at me intently, oblivious to what had just taken place. I felt woozy. “Are you alright?” she enquired with concern. I mumbled some incoherent response and sat down heavily on the Gainsborough. The bee had consciously chosen to pose on the bust of Caesar. He had gone out of his way to demonstrate his complex figure-of-eight dance round the oozing Camembert. I was certain this must be an omen; an omen not dissimilar from the one witnessed by Caesar himself before he crossed the Rubicon and plunged Rome into bloody civil war…

That was 10th January 49BC. Caesar was standing on the banks of the river which separated Cisalpine Gaul from mainland Italy confronted by a terrible choice. He must either defy Rome and defend his beliefs, or crumple forever under the weight of her demands. Caesar was irresolute… until a single lilting note cut straight to the heart of his senses. Looking right, a noble piper stood performing a beautiful aria. The music curved though the cold air, bringing shepherds, soldiers and a military band to the water’s edge. Forming a phalanx, the trumpeters lifted their instruments and as one breath, began to play. As the tune rose high over the muddy stream and swelled into glorious crescendo, Caesar finally knew the path he must take: “Let us go where the omens of the Gods and the crimes of our enemies summon us! The die is cast!”

Like Caesar before me, the last few months have seen a slow erosion of my freedom. The things which have mattered most throughout my lifetime have been gradually withdrawn. Now in my fifty sixth year, just four years older than Caesar himself, I have been placed under sanction. This afternoon proved the final straw; my fate was sealed.

You mustn’t misunderstand me – Victoria did not mean to be cruel when she spelled out her feelings towards bees. She wants nothing but the best for our future and always knew my retirement dream involved brewing the finest quality meads. What she failed to grasp was that to produce the clearest golden nectar I would need my own source of honey. No partnership with an existing apiarist could create my chef-d’oeuvre.

Collapsing back against the familiar shape of the Gainsborough, I felt winded. Victoria took the necessary steps forward, sat down next to me and did her best to find out what was wrong. But how could I explain my omen-induced dizziness? Our stripy friend’s message had been for me alone. He had delivered a portent for the future, which I will need to act upon. This is a cry for action; a calling to arms. It is this message which convinced me to come out here and begin my broadcast – a campaign diary of sorts.

I’ve never written a blog before, even setting up this account has been a learning experience and I’ve got no idea how it is all going to pan out. But I am excited to share my ideas and experiences with the wider world. I’m certainly not a writer, but I do promise I’ll try and give you an honest account of what is going on and will attempt, where possible, to recount what people have said, along with my own observations. I’ll be publishing my bulletins regularly – I just hope you’ll keep reading them!

Tuesday 14th October 2008 – 22.01 (CET)

I’m back! I bolted straight out here after an appalling diet dinner. I’ve been thinking hard and there is so much I need to tell you up-front. But first, let me introduce myself: my name is Greg Goode, you may even have heard of me. I am the founder of the Ignis Oil Corporation, and more recently, the Vitruvius Art Factory. Until last year business was my life, now I’ve passed the day-to-day running of our Empire on to my sons and have been liberated.

I’ve emerged from the hive, but freed from 15-hour days in the office, I’ve discovered a topsy-turvy world. It has taken my wife two years of meticulous planning to transport our life from central Manhattan to this perfect chateau in rural France. The whole procedure has been expertly accomplished through hard work and exquisite organisation. How can I turn round now and say nothing is quite as I anticipated?

My retirement itself started with a bang and fanfare of fireworks, on Saturday 19th January. We invited 400 select guests, including our five kids and their partners, my business associates, Victoria’s colleagues and contacts and some of our closest friends to a magnificent farewell bash. If you know New York you’ll know The Public Library. It is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece situated opposite Grand Central Station on Fifth Avenue, home to shelves upon shelves of books and some truly rare artefacts, such as Charles Dickens’ cat paw letter opener and Malcolm X’s journal. I have loved the place since I saw it featured in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when I was eight.

Our big do brought a buzz of life to the Celeste Bartos Forum. This is a stunning room with a 30-foot-high glass dome ceiling ballooning up and out, amongst its narrow skyscraping neighbours, and Victoria arranged the most sumptuous spread I have ever seen. Instead of the usual catering fare we ran starters and main courses of white meat, game and shellfish. Dessert was a self-service of exotic fruits, yogurts, creams and honey pastries. The cheese course was housed on a raised dais upon which guests could sample everything from gum tinglingly blues, to cave-aged classics. My highlight though, was the overwhelming explosion of mead. Waiting staff were trained to suggest the best mead accompaniments for each dish and there was even a separate mead tasting counter for those who wanted to experience a bounty of fruity fusions and exotic formulas.

The whole affair was a beautiful display of fine cuisine and company; our grand entrance into a whole new life together. The perfect gathering held in the beating heart of New York. I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The food was magnificent and everyone we love was in one place. It was the official end of our business life, before the start of the next venture, our new chapter. Maybe with hindsight, it is strange that such a glorious cornucopia of honeyed marvels did not provide the ideal platform for Victoria and I to discuss the humble providers of these delights? However, I assumed all this was implicit.

The evening seemed to take on a life of its own and as the light twinkled against the panelled glass dome above our heads it made me think of thousands of striped suited comrades. Their concave bellies waggling in protest to the tall, thin buildings outside, iridescent light ricocheting off their fine gossamer wings; a banquet of their largesse spread out for delighted diners below. The months since this rip-roaring affair have seemed to pass me by in a hungry blur.

In March we made the official move out here to our new French chateau. It seemed vast and slightly overwhelming compared to our city apartment, familiar doorman and established routine. Victoria’s been putting down roots for a while though: hiring our live-in help, Claude and Monique; finalising the refurbishment of the house; settling our youngest daughter, Gwen, into a nearby boarding school; and getting involved in the local badger conservation charity. Baiting is rife in France apparently and from what I’m led to believe, not very pleasant. My wife is forever active, she can’t stop. In New York she sat on numerous committees, forged invaluable contacts in the art world, raised our five children and even presented a weekly cult fashion program. To be honest I was a little worried about what she was going to do with herself stuck out here in the French countryside, but I needn’t have been, she always seems to cope so admirably.

Spring and Summer flashed by in a whirlwind of frantic activities. To start with we had our retirement cruise round the Caribbean. It was a second honeymoon for us. Well our first really, we never had a proper one when we got married, as I had just acquired a small oil business which took up all my waking hours. There wasn’t a free moment, and within a couple of years our eldest son Greg was born and we were a family. It was good to spend time together on the palatial boat, although, I must admit I did feel a bit put out dressing for dinner every night, especially when we appeared to be getting all dolled up for some pretty miserable fare. I have heard talk of health farms and their ilk, with miniscule portions and strict dietary regiments; this was a luxury cruise and seemed to follow the same formula. I was expecting tasteful hog roasts on faraway beaches. We received the 21st century version of Nouvelle Cuisine. Low calories, small portions and ‘sans dressing’. Whilst my mind quickly turned to revolt I was appalled to observe the rapture in which this non-food was received. When did such behaviour become acceptable?

After the cruise we rented a villa on Cap Ferrat in the South of France and our kids and grandkids joined us in relays. It was wonderful, as always, to spend time with the family, but over the course of the Summer I could feel a gradual change in the tide of feeling. Every time I speared a hunk of cheese there was a quick flick at my waistline; whenever I reached for the next bottle of mead, wife, daughters and daughters-in-law all gave an almost imperceptible twitch of the eyebrows. I was told more than once, by more than one person, I would need to “watch what I ate” in the years ahead. And when Victoria and I finally joined Claude and Monique at the chateau, the last of the renovations were complete and we were in proud possession of a gleaming new gym complex complete with 50m swimming pool and full exercise suite. I’d never seen a 50m pool up close before, it’s awfully big, and the thought of partaking in a few lengths leaves me feeling more than a tad dizzy. Is this the blueprint of how I am to spend my retirement years?

Not if I can help it! When the bee gave me his sign earlier today I knew there must be another way. This blog is just the start. I’ve decided to come back every Tuesday and Thursday at 11.00am from now onwards. This should help give me some structure, and ensure you know when to expect my broadcasts. I’ll be back tomorrow at 11.00am – goodnight.

Tuesday 14th October 2008 – 11.01 (CET)

A stripe suited bumbler, all yellow and black,
Escaping the chateau and plotting attack;
His bunker housed bee-men when fine mead was brewed,
It’s now a campaign room for freedom and food,
So fork at the ready; with blood curdling roar,
The fast finally ended: “Greg Goode declares war!”

This morning I completed my first act of rebellion. Now I feel I’m on the precipice of something great. Everything I have experienced over the last few months has been solidified. Yet even before the bee gave me his sign yesterday, I was beginning to realise that my original apiarist dream was a selfish one. There is more to life than tending to bees for my own personal happiness; there is a much bigger world than one man and his chateau.

I’ve spent the last thirty years making things happen through sheer industry – I can’t just sit on my laurels now that there’s real work to be done. There are so many things which need addressing. To be honest, I’m slightly daunted at the prospect. But the only way to tackle them is to start small and to start immediately, which is precisely why I’ve begun this broadcast.

Nobody else seems to be fighting for good taste and decency. Maybe food fascism and thin portions are the way things should be? Perhaps people are too busy to notice? Until January, I too was wrapped up in other things. But now I’ve had my own eyes opened, I want to help everyone wake up and see the truth. Ideals which have existed since time immemorial have slipped. When did this shift take place? Even gentlemen’s tailoring has seemingly gone berserk. Lunacy is tainting everything and something needs to be done. Perhaps with the right strategy one man can still make a difference. I’ve got a new life to live, in a country famed for culture and the pursuit of honest tradition.

When I first encountered the chateau in 1971 everything seemed so much more simple. Back then, when I was 18 doing my round the world trip before Harvard, the place was quite ramshackle with overgrown grass, peeling paint and a working meadery that just about paid the bills. I stumbled on it quite by accident and was rather thrown to find myself confronted by seven slightly menacing clocháns, clustered together against the dark skyline. I had just crossed some fields from the nearest village, Chateauville, where I was staying and had no idea what the clutch of conical structures looming against the landscape were. They rose up from the ground like pillbox machine gun nests and I certainly had no inkling that they housed thousands of industrious bees. My interest remained peaked as I walked a little further on, past the 12 derelict workers’ cottages to finally arrive at the decrepit Old Meadery. There I encountered the last bee-man, who sold me a bottle of his finest product for just two francs. That stuff was nectar fit for the gods – I swigged it straight from the bottle as I headed through the trees towards the dilapidated chateau.

Now glistening with new paint, a freshly gravelled forecourt and every single window shiny and polished, it could not look more different than it did then. I know getting the place in such a state of repair has been a big job for Victoria and even finding the perfect housekeepers took months of interviewing. Since our vacations have finished she has not stopped: continuing to oversee the running of the household, adding finishing touches here and there, and ploughing ahead with her new friends at the anti badger-baiting society. This has left me pretty much to my own devices and given me plenty of time to think and get reacquainted with our new surroundings. This place has vast grounds, including Claude’s speciality of rolling lawns and ornamental gardens, along with woods, a lake and copious green fields. The building that has surprised and intrigued me the most though is the old bee-keeper’s cottage, Le Chenil. This has remained untouched by renovation since its last inhabitant and is where I’m sitting right now, writing this broadcast.

A touch of damp and a few cobwebs aside, Le Chenil is the perfect place to relax. It was constructed the same year as the chateau, 1789, but it is neither imposing nor grandiose and is buried deep in the overgrown woods. It has a triangular roof, a stable door, and is in every way different from the main house. I’ve even started to deck it out how I want; a couple of art deco chairs with the stuffing coming out, a scruffy writing desk which belonged to Somerset Maugham and a battered 1920’s bookcase that once lived at Charleston House. Yesterday, after my chat with Victoria, I released a spare kettle, fridge, fan-heater and my old work laptop – now I’m self-sufficient. This is the best office I’ve ever had. The finest campaign room in the world: my bunker. This could have been the hub of a returning bee-man, but in the space of a few hours, things have changed massively…

Until yesterday, filling the seven clocháns and renovating the surrounding space into a working meadery was my retirement dream – now it appears this is not to be. For years I looked forward to spending my remaining days tending to the bees, making honey and fermenting it into exciting meads. I couldn’t wait for a world without suits, compulsory meetings or hasty lunches, and pictured fresh mead, comfortable clothing and a banquet of cheeses. But since I stopped working my eyes have been opened to a totally different view. Maybe I’ve been blind all these years, but it seems I’ve suddenly become privy to the world perpetuated in women’s glossy magazines and on advertisements and billboards. It now seems that the simple, worthwhile pursuits, no longer feature very highly on anybody’s hit list. The most worrying part of all is they don’t seem to matter to the people that I love most; my own family.

Yesterday as I sat feeling faint on the sofa, Victoria took my giant paw in her small tanned hand and caressed the fingers. Searching my eyes with her huge clear blue orbs she said, “Are you sure you’re okay Greg?” “Yes darling” I muttered, my head still swimming from the omen I just witnessed. Leaning back on the sofa I shut my eyes. For a split second the bee was back behind my flickering eyelids, dancing over the Camembert feast. Victoria released my fingers, rose to her feet and glided over to the sideboard. “Honey”, she said “you don’t want this cheese, do you?” The light flashed yellow, green behind my eyelids, I made to move. “Of course you don’t,” she said “it has been here for days.” I sunk back further against the familiar leather of the Gainsborough, the blood gurgled in my ears. Behind my eyelids I could see that stripe suited bumbler perform his figure-of-eight dance, his cheerful buzz setting the pace like a modern cheese waltz. My throat felt stricken, I couldn’t say a word. I opened my eyes and flicked a complicit glance to my old companion Caesar, impervious on the mantelpiece, as Victoria swept clean out of the room.

This morning, after a difficult night I was called upon to perform my feat of rebellion, I knew the time had come for me to take up a cause. I see this as a triumph for common sense; a coup for honest good food, and the things that really matter. My fellow Americans have gone insane. As have the Germans, British, Italians – even the French. There’s nothing as fine as good cooking, and nothing is as disappointing as the bastardised low fat alternative! Why should we stand for it? Why should we put up with ‘skinny Camembert’ or pay attention to a media, which hero-worships the malnourished? We’ve got the food – let’s eat it. Someone must emerge to tackle this culture bully. Earlier this morning I took a stand. Seeing Monique had left the kitchen untended I enacted a daring act of mutiny; raided the fridge, and secured the first thing I knew would improve the steaming bowl of vegetable water bubbling on the stove. A whole litre of cream in the celery soup… and double cream too. Thousands of extra calories added – just like that.

I was giggling like a small boy as I exited the kitchen and deposited the empty cream carton in the main bin, but this is just the first step. Today, I feel like Caesar after he had tramped through that wet, muddy stream into mainland Italy. Looking backwards, he saw the musician standing on the north bank, pipe raised to his lips; the trumpeters forming a chorus behind him. Looking forwards, he saw the whole of Italia spread out before him like a map; the sweet music curling and looping on the clear breeze, setting a pulse for bitter warfare. Like Caesar everything lies ahead of me – maybe this is my Bellum Civile?

For now though I must dash, it is coming up to lunch time and I am itching to see everyone’s expression when they discover my defiant sabotage.

I’m not a great general, I am only Greg Goode,
But I’ll follow my omen and wade through the mud.
I’ll be making a stand for ideals long since passed,
This is just the beginning, the die has been cast.

First published on Searchlight Magazine Arts…

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