Monday, June 08, 2015

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

(Eighth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)

It was June, 1985, and with a fair degree of self-inflicted ineptitude, somehow I’d reached the village of Pecetto, outside the city of Turin, in the northern Italian hills.

The ensuing six-day sojourn with my cousin Don and his friend (and our host) Scott provided an ideal chance to stop, relax and enjoy a slice of easygoing, rural Europe in temperate summer weather. It was delightful.

The first month of my trip was close to passing, with eight weeks still ahead. What had I learned, and what was to come?

A lot, although the Pecetto stopover provided a mundane amenity far more welcome than philosophical introspection -- namely, the opportunity to use a real washing machine for the first time since my departure.

Following the advice of books and budget travelers, I’d packed a bottle of Woolite and a universal rubber sink stopper, and discovered that sure enough, laundry done by hand in the hostel washroom usually would dry overnight even without a clothesline.

At times it didn’t, and the inevitable chafing taught me to begin the wash cycle earlier in the day, and to trust in the magic of baby powder. A routine was established: Housekeeping tasks first, sightseeing and beers later. It has stuck with me during all my subsequent trips.

Scott’s washer and the Italian sun conspired to successfully restore my sole pair of jeans to foldable status. I felt clean again, and after all, who wants to spend precious beer money at a laundromat? Not often, that’s for sure.

The morning after my arrival, Don and I conducted an inspection trip of the mom ‘n’ pop merchants clustered along the main street in tiny downtown Pecetto. We found a small family grocer’s cluttered shop, amassing a considerable supply of bottled, half-liter, Italian-brewed Birra Dreher, surely enough golden lager to last the entire week, and of course just as surely depleted in less than three days.

There was a return visit, eliciting the patron’s wry smile as he accepted another thick wad of Italian Lira, and surely began plotting his daughter’s burgeoning dowry.

Three times in six days we trundled halfway down the hill to the quiet town’s primary restaurant of note, a jam-packed traditional nerve center presided over by a jovial, mustachioed, Italian mirror image of Lech Walesa, the then-prominent leader of Solidarity, the Polish trade union.

The indefatigable maestro of the house offered a fixed price, all-you-can-eat “pasta carousel”, a much anticipated culinary event that involved a bottle of cheap house red wine, crunchy baked bread sticks, and portions of a dozen different pastas awash in cream sauces, garlic oil, marinara and pesto, each ladled into the waiting bowl of the expanding diner until exhaustion set in, more wine arrived, the kitchen closed, and Don began licking his plate.

One afternoon we happened upon a small distillery of some sort, and later asked our new restaurateur friend what type of spirits it produced. He pulled a bottle from behind the counter and poured samples. It was my first taste of grappa – Italian moonshine, fashioned from the pomace (skin, pulp, seeds and skins left over from winemaking).

The grappa was hot, fragrant and intriguing. I was becoming positively enchanted.


Meanwhile, cousin Don was reveling in the chance to provide information and share advice to me. At 40 years of age in 1985, he was a veteran traveler, whereas I was a painfully inexperienced novice. We’d talked enough about it over beers back home, and now, together for the first time abroad, our chats extended far into the night as we sat outside the villa and smoked cigars.

In 1985, Don was an adjunct faculty member at Florida State University, teaching European history. He’ll be retiring in 2016. His academic specialization was France, his cultural milieu French, and the place he liked to be, above all others, was Paris.

Having previously lamented that there’d be no way for us to coordinate schedules and meet in Paris later in the summer, Don began plotting one Pecetto evening over pasta. Scott had train schedules. We took a look, and possibilities came into focus.

Don’s idea was for us to take a Eurailpass railroad trip from Turin to Paris and back. We’d depart Pecetto on the earliest bus to Turin’s rail station (with Scott’s help, local transit payment options now made sense), then to Lyon in France, where the TGV high-speed train would bring us to Paris.

It was noted that Turin is not particularly close to Paris. At the time, it was more than four hours from Turin to Lyon, and another two and a half hours to Paris. We’d arrive in mid-afternoon, and have roughly six hours to roam the streets before boarding an overnight train back to Turin, on which we’d save money by napping in our seats.

The overnight train home was direct, without changes, but slower. If fortunate, we’d be feeling little pain by then. Given Don’s fundamentally bibulous proclivities, the odds seemed solidly in our favor, so off we went.


From the Gare Lyon, using tickets Don hoarded from a previous trip, we hopped the Metro to Notre Dame, the epicenter of Paris. The first couple hours were spent walking the usual tourist haunts, with care taken to have a draft beer at a sidewalk café. It was an invaluable orientation for my return visit in July.

But in truth, we’d actually taken the trouble to spend seven hours on trains for a far too brief stop in Paris, and then to cut short our sightseeing in the city, for only one reason: To eat and drink. Specifically, we were to find a North African joint and eat couscous – strictly speaking, tagine (stew) with couscous, although I didn’t really learn the difference for many years.

Couscous, tagine, merguez … these were not staples of the diet in Georgetown, Indiana. A cultural sonic boom was about to occur.

Don knew where to look for sustenance, and so had Arthur Frommer of $25-a-Day guidebook fame. Both recommended the Rue Xavier Privas, a tiny, narrow street on the Left Bank named for an early 20th-century French poet and songwriter.

In 1985, several North African eateries were located on Rue Xavier Privas. Googling the area these many years later, I am encouraged to see that at least one of them still operates.

The exact couscouserie we chose, and whether it was Moroccan, Tunisian or Algerian, is lost to me now. However, I recall the décor being simple, the patrons atmospheric, and Don’s suggested choice of communal meal absolutely outstanding. We ordered the least expensive menu option, which yielded a mound granule-sized couscous pasta accompanied by an urn of tagine, and chose a liter bottle of house red wine to go with it.

When the couscous ran out, it was replenished as part of the dish’s asking price. The tagine seemed destined for an early exit, but proved richer than it first appeared, and every last drop was absorbed with the help of crusty bread.

The first bottle of wine was depleted and repeated, too, although we happily paid for a second, because after all, while constituting a splurge, I still spent less than $15 dollars for the meal. I was lucky, as the dollar was strong against European currencies in 1985.

Next morning, there was a groggy awakening in Turin, the correct bus back to Pecetto, and afternoon naps before evening Drehers and stogies.

Couldn’t I do this the rest of my life?



The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.

The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.

The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.

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