Wampum Belts and French Champagne
Today, I had the good fortune of attending a reception at Shelburne Museum with loads of fancy dignitary types. I am not a fancy dignitary, but I am tres importante member of the media and thus I got an invitation to the la fete exclusif aboard the dry-docked, land-locked Ticonderoga. The reception marked the opening of the Wampum Belts from Chartres Cathedral Treasury, an exhibit of two Abenaki and Huron wampum belts that have been hanging out in France for the past 300 years.
The wampum belts are extremely rare and date back to the late 17th century. I asked if I could wear one for a little bit, but the museum folks weren't into that. The belts are a loaner prezzie to the museum in celebration of the Quadricentennial. In a month, they'll get packed up and shipped back to the Musee des Beaux-Art de Chartres where they live. The belts ended up across the pond after they were given to some French Jesuits in recognition of their relationship with the native peoples.
Anytime I get an invitation to an event like this, I always evaluate it based on what I'm going to get out of it. What's in it for me? Is there going to be a swag give-away? Will there be free food? In this case, the gratis nibblies were the big draw. Oh, and the fact that I might get to try out my high school French on the French Ambassadeur aux Etats-Unis, M. Pierre Vimont.
OK, so I didn't just go for the free food. But that was a good perk. There were about 14 different types of Vermont cheeses, along with assorted meat canapes and some decent bubbly -- Champagne Paul Goerg -- from France. It was no Taittinger, but it wasn't Martini & Rossi plonk, either.
Needing to keep my weight up, I dropped by the cheese table at my earliest convenience (after I finished verbally flagellating myself for being quite possibly the scrubbiest dressed person there). Since it was hot on the boat, the cheese was getting its sweat on, but that didn't prevent me from having a petit gout. I tried the Shelburne Farms clothbound cheddar, the Blue Ledge Dunmore and the Twig Farm square cheese. All quite delicieux.
This is apropos of nothing, but I have to mention how many men were wearing seersucker suits to this reception. At least four dapper fellows I saw, including Champlain College's expert on all things, well, Champlain, Will Randall, were rocking seersucker. It made me jealous that I didn't have a seersucker suit. If I had one, I surely would have worn it instead of my too-short trousers and my wrinkled top. Anyway...
After all the VIPs had gotten their nosh on, the speechifying began. Shelburne Museum's new board chair, Jim Pizzagalli, had the emcee duties for the day since museum director Stephan Jost was out in California at the Getty Museum learning stuff. He introduced His Excellency Monsieur Ambassadeur, a white-haired Frenchman who spoke beautiful English.
M. Vimont spoke for a number of minutes about the special relationship between the U.S. and France. He noted that Vermont embodies that relationship as a result of the huge influence the French had over this state. Heck, he said, even the state's name is French.
When mentioning Vermont's similarities to France (Great style? Perhaps not. Abundance of cigarette smokers? I don't think so. Loads of outdoor cafes where little dogs nip at your ankles? Thank God, no.), M. Vimont reflected on the idea of terroir -- the sense of place that food can embody -- and the need to preserve it both in France and here in the Green Mountains. "We have to defend and promote our soil and our local products," M. Vimont said, "and make sure no one tries to cheat on it." Je suis d'accord.
After the ambassador spoke, it was time for the Vermont delegation to do its thing. Gov. Douglas spoke, though, as one famous artist in attendance wondered out loud: There was no ribbon to cut, so what was he doing there? Douglas offered some thoughts in French and some in English and then gave the ambassador a present that looked like it was wrapped in a Crown Royal bag. Inside was a replica astrolabe, similar to the one Samuel de Champlain might have used during his voyaging. "You can use it to navigate your way home," the guv quipped.
Next up at the podium was Sen. Leahy. He griped about the recent weather and then said, "Aujour d'hui, we can all say, il fait beau." I made a mental note to pepper more of my own speeches with the occasional French. It seemed to work quite well on the crowd. Leahy's dutiful wife, Marcelle, snapped some pics and chuckled as her husband noted that many good things come from France, including her family (by way of Quebec, many years ago).
Then some special, unexpected guests hit the mic. Former Penobscot Nation Chief James Sappier, down from Maine, talked about how his community has the oldest relationship with France of region in the U.S. "There is no history of the U.S. without French and Indian relations," he said. Then he showered the dignitaries with trinkets and the pols' aides collectively grimaced as the realized that they'd be the ones carrying all this stuff back to the cars.
After all the speeches were through, everyone moved on to the Electra Havermeyer Webb Memorial Building where the wampum belts were displayed. They were pretty impressive, made from shell, glass and either natural fiber or animal hide. They both say something about the Virgin Mary in Ye Olde Latin. No, you cannot try them on. I already worked that angle, to no avail. Pauvre moi, mais au moins j'ai mangé un bon fromage et bu du bon champagne. Pas mal.