A little over a year ago, I had the good fortune to go on a real-deal, honest-to-goodness, bonafide press trip through the Languedoc region of southern France. So what are these treks really like? What is it like to spend a week being treated like the journalistic-equivalent of a foie gras goose, getting shoved full of a few thousand Euros worth of food, lodging, swag and hooch by winemakers, chefs and hotel clerks who expect you to write nice things about them and their businesses?
Well, let me tell you all about it.
I received an email from an editor around Labor Day of 2011. “Sammy,” another writer (I’ve changed all the names in this post for obvious reasons), had to drop out of a press trip and she needed someone to fill in on short notice. Not knowing what to expect other than that I’d have to write a 1200-word article about wine at some point, I cleared my schedule. Less than a week later I was on a plane to Montpellier.
I grabbed my bag from a carousel at Méditerranée Airport and went looking for a press agent named Amélie. I had no idea what Amélie looked like but I eventually found a woman holding a handwritten sign with Sammy’s name underneath the names of three Dutch journalists.
First of all, I should let you know that Amélie looked absolutely nothing like the adorable misfit portrayed in the European Film Award’s pic for the best film of 2001. Instead, this Amélie was a somber woman with an intermediate-level of English and a schedule to keep who could barely understand my explanation why I was standing in front of her. With a heavy sigh, she made a few phone calls and reluctantly accepted the fact that she’d be putting up with a scrawny Oregonian with a scraggly beard and absolutely no knowledge of the French wine industry instead of a classy, more-experienced travel journalist. I don’t think I ever quite convinced her that I wasn’t some sort of escargot-craving conman; a dreaded press trip crasher, if there is such a thing.
Sometime later, Amélie led me and my three cohorts to a minivan. I took a seat next to Heidi, a travel reporter in her early-40s who bore a striking resemblance to a mid-’90s Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, in the backseat we were joined by Beatrix, a tall writer/photographer in her early 30s, and Lodewijk, a wine journalist in his early-70s.
As we bombed down a French highway towards our first destination, a spendy brasserie, Heidi quickly introduced herself before immediately asking me what I though about Dutch people. My response: “Der….uh. They’re, I mean you guys, uh, are nice, I guess.” This was the first of many questions that week that would require me to express an opinion on everything from President Obama to Steven Tyler’s vocal chops to whether or not I thought Mel Gibson was a good actor. The Dutch have a reputation for being blunt and inquisitive. This goes double, no, wait, triple, for Dutch journalists. Politics, my personal life, religion, the Great Pumpkin…no subject was off limits. I may as well have just begun a week-long interrogation.
Over lunch at an outdoor cafe at a vineyard that would make the average Francophile cream their jeans ten times over, I made the mistake of revealing that I have a tattoo. Without skipping a beat, Lodewijk turned to me and said, “I think anyone who gets a tattoo is a complete idiot.” Yeah, there was a lot of that sort of thing.
Being the youngest reporter on hand and an American to boot led me to being treated not with what I would call disdain but a combination of insatiable curiosity, mirth and pity. The fact that we were here to, basically, drink wine for four days straight didn’t help keep my foot out of my mouth (and, let’s be fair, all those Dutch feet out of all those Dutch mouths too). I quickly became the redheaded stepchild of the group and I don’t even want to think about all the stupid shit I said on that trip or how much I may have inadvertently irritated everyone we encountered.
During dinner one night, I broke out a series of anecdotes about some gun nut friends of mine back in the states. Heidi was fascinated, having never met anyone who had ever been near a real gun, let alone shotguns and machine guns.
Then, after a few more glasses of wine, we decided to quiz each other to figure out which of us knew the least about our respective countries. This caught the attention of everyone else at the table. They were surprised that I could correctly name the queen of the Netherlands and identify its Prime Minister but they were shocked that I knew next to nothing about various Dutch TV shows. “You don’t watch Dutch soap operas? Really?!!” They were insulted, despite my explanation that I knew all of about thirty words in Dutch. I guess these things are the greatest shows in the history of shows or something.
Meanwhile, I was surprised that no one at the table knew anything about Abraham Lincoln. When I told them he was a former president, Beatrix asked, “Oh, he’s the one with the tall hat that killed all the monsters, right?” She was vaguely aware of an upcoming movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter but that’s where her knowledge about Honest Abe began and ended. Lodewijk, who had once toured the Mall in Washington DC, bickered with me for a bit over which president can be found in a large, very famous memorial overlooking the reflecting pool. He was convinced that it’s Teddy Roosevelt. Before you laugh, ask yourself this: can you name a single Dutch monarch, living or dead?
My insistence on using an iPhone to take notes instead of a conventional notebook didn’t endear me to our hosts throughout the week. During a presentation on top of the Triumphal Arch in Montpelier a spokesman for the region’s wine industry was seriously irked by the phone. Through a translator, I tried and failed to convince him that I wasn’t playing Angry Birds.
But the week’s worst blunders can be lain at the feet of a pompous British tourist who joined us for a communal dinner at a countryside chateau. While his French wife looked on adoringly, he spent entire meal doing his best to replicate the sardonic wit of Oscar Wilde. He insulted everybody while downing glass after glass of wine. “It’s a foul language. Nobody speaks Dutch but the Dutch,” he said, loudly chuckling at his own wisecrack while wearing the world’s most slap-worthy expression. In hindsight, I should have filmed his performance with my phone for later inclusion on YouTube. Lodewijk spent the meal quietly seething. If he had been 2o years younger, I’m sure he would have challenged the Brit to a bare-knuckle brawl.
Travel journalists I’ve spoken to over the years all have the same complaint: that their friends and colleagues back home are all convinced that they’re living the dream. Sure, these trips are downright swell, on paper.
From the moment we hit the pavement in Montpelier, we were rushed around like politicians in the final days of an election cycle. The foie gras goose analogy is the best comparison I can up with. The agenda for our second day? In a nutshell: up, packed and in the hotel lobby no later than 8 AM, into the van and off to a vineyard tour, then lunch, then a walking tour of Pézenas, followed by a presentation in a wine shop, zoom to the next hotel, throw down the luggage, change clothes, buzz off to a bistro for a nearly four-hour dinner.
All the while, it was our duty to quickly jot down as many facts and details about the locales and businesses we encountered (while drinking positively stupid amounts of wine). Our days began at 7 and ended at midnight, if we were lucky. This wasn’t a press trip, it was an endurance test or some sort of twisted French reality show; a televised prank on unsuspecting international journalists. “Here’s the best our country has to offer! Now absorb as much of it as you can in 15 seconds or less!”
By the end of the week, I had enough material for a 300-page book and more complimentary bottles of wine, USB sticks and TV shirts than I could fit in my suitcase. I was already feeling guilty about my inability to pay back the generosity of our hosts. This particular press trip was partially funded by a regional tourism council but much of the food and wine we gobbled was provided by these business owners, out of their own pockets, in the hopes that the articles we would write about them would attract tons of customers. Within 24 hours, I felt like the con man that Amélie suspected me of being.
Over a year later, my conscience still tugs at the cuffs of my jeans, nagging me about the meal we enjoyed at La Grande Bleu,e a cafe on the outskirts of Marseillan, a seaside hamlet. The owner poured his heart and soul into a feast of fresh mussels and oysters while regaling us with stories about the local fishing industry and an obscure local sport that combines jousting with row boats. On the way back to the hotel, our collective guts stuffed, my colleagues and I lamented the fact that there was no way any of us would be able to shoehorn his cafe into our articles. It was too far off the beaten path for Beatrix’s travel article and the rest of us were here to write about wine.
On the final morning of the trip, I woke up in a renovated chateau. My colleagues were all staying at a hotel down the road. Downstairs, beside an infinity-edge pool, a breakfast was waiting for me on a table overlooking a vineyard. For about five minutes, the various forces that had brought me here allowed me to catch my breath and actually appreciate this experience, something I hadn’t been able to do all week. Then I heard the sound of tires on gravel and knew that my lovely little moment of bliss was about to come to an end. I shoved a croissant in my gob and got ready for another vineyard tour.