I never thought a chance encounter in France would lead to a greater appreciation of a Billy Joel song.
My wife Dee and I spent the final afternoon of our Tour de France trip drinking with other Sports Tour International clients in the courtyard of our Saint-Gérons hotel. As we swapped stories, another of our teammates, a boisterous, baldheaded Aussie named Chris, walked by looking a bit tipsy and holding a bottle of wine.
On the way back to the Hotel Eychenne, he and some other tour members came across the reunion of a local rugby team, which had turned into a raucous street party just blocks away from the city’s quiet town square. Held in front of the home of a player named Jean-Louis, he and the other players were grabbing bystanders off the street and plying them wine and incredible food. When Jean-Louis realized some foreign cyclists were in their midst, he took them on a tour of his home, ending in his impressive wine cellar. Chris and the others were given some bottles as souvenirs of their trip to France and told to come back later, when the party would really get going.
After dinner, we tagged along as they walked back to the party. But by the time we arrived, the rowdy street party had turned into a slightly more intimate, but just as lively, affair.The remaining partygoers had migrated into Jean-Louis’ garage, a brick and stone structure that held several bicycles, a table littered with the remnants of the day’s revelry and a small stereo blaring classic Bruce Springsteen tunes. Jean-Louis, it turns out, was a massive fan of the Boss and was wearing a T-shirt from Springsteen’s show in Paris the week before.
As we entered the garage, there was a brief uncomfortable moment as the group paused to identify the interlopers. But almost immediately, Jean-Louis recognized Chris, Alex and Elliot from earlier in the day, and grabbed them into a sweaty bear hug. He ushered the five of us deeper into the garage, handing us plastic cups filled with probably the best red wine I’d sampled in France. Five feet from us, a gentleman who looked to be in his late 60s named Toto was dancing with a woman who would become the main interpreter that night.
While she was dancing, Dee and I made our introductions to the party host, struggling to communicate beyond “bonsoir” and “je ne comprends pas.” The three of us gestured and stuttered through some basic English phrases, hoping to get our meaning across, before realizing that we didn’t need words to convey our feelings and appreciation.
Upon finishing her dance, the interpreter pulled out a whicker-covered glass jug, pouring small splashes in each of our plastic cups. A quick whiff revealed its potential potentness, which was quickly confirmed by a taste. As the backs of our throats burned from what we were sure was jet fuel, our translator said the closest equivalent would probably be ouzo, made locally from prunes. We smiled, held up our glasses and hoped no one would light a match near us any time soon.
Shots downed, Jean-Louis stood at the front of the room, making the universal hand gesture to quiet down. With the crowd silenced, Toto began singing a capella what we would later learn was a classic Edith Piaf song. Toto’s deep baritone filled the garage; if you would have closed your eyes, you might have though it was an ornate opera house somewhere in Paris. Moments after the last syllable escaped Toto’s mouth, the room erupted into spontaneous applause.
Afterward, it was Billy Joel’s turn to entertain the crowd. We were already huddled fairly close together from Toto’s song, and as soon as the opening notes of “Piano Man” sounded from the tiny stereo, we instinctively threw our arms over each other’s shoulders, swaying to the beat of the song and singing along with the song’s incredibly poignant chorus. Although few of the Saint-Gérons residents spoke English, they all knew the lyrics to the song even better than the native English speakers, even if it was just phonetically.
As the song faded out, so did we. Hugs and thanks were exchanged, and we walked out into the summer night, our bellies warm from the strong drink and friendship.
In the past, Billy Joel songs were easily ignored like doctors’ warnings or Rush Limbaugh, in one ear and out the other. But in the days and weeks that followed that night at Jean-Louis’, I notice his songs everywhere, and every time it brings me back to that evening in Saint-Gérons and makes me feel alright.