90. The Owls That Lead Us Through Dijon (Part 1) / by Allie Farris

Chapter 1: Garlicky Potato Salad

It’s a sunny summer morning at the Lausanne train station on July 31st; C is not in a good mood. He watches me awkwardly eat a vegetable panini while standing on the platform, waiting for our train to France, which is 20 minutes late. The tardiness of our train is due to the lateness of another French train. C glares at the empty tracks.

Swiss trains are never late.” He fumes, disappointed in his people.

As our high-speed carriage finally pulls into the station, slowing with a deafening scrrreeeeech, an elderly woman approaches C, heading him off before we are able to board the train. Her frail-looking husband stands beside her. She asks C in French if he would be willing to help them, pointing to their luggage, and C instinctively obliges, moving to the bags. In seconds, both suitcases are hoisted up into the cabin. The woman turns to me as we climb the stairs; she comments admiringly on how strong my husband is. I agree. The two elderly people shuffle away to find their seats. C reverts to his previous sourness.
“It’s crazy,” he says, “Those bags weighed literally nothing. They felt like they were empty.”
I watch as the old woman is wheeling her luggage behind her, now nearing the back of the car; indeed, the wheels underneath move so nimbly, it seems as though they could come loose and detach.

We take our seats. An Orthodox Jewish man strides up the aisle, and stows his small black leather satchel in the overhead bin across from our row, but staggered slightly in front, so that all we are able to see is his left side profile from 45 degrees behind.
About ten minutes outside of Lausanne station, I hear a light pop of plastic tupperware. Out from a small tub filled with assorted pre packed items, the man pulls an opaque glass jar; whatever is inside of it is a pale golden color with flecks of herbs speckled throughout. As he slides open the metal lid, removing the cap, we are hit with the intense aroma of garlic.
Pungent wouldn’t begin to describe the scent of what we gather to be this man’s potato salad. It is breathtaking. His metal fork scrapes across the bottom of the glass jar; I clock C’s look of utter disgust for only a moment, which is enough to make me stifle a giggle. When the glass jar of potato salad is finally depleted, the man again turns to his tub, wherefrom he chooses another fateful jar. This one, as opposed to the last, does not give a clear idea as to what lies inside it until he pulls off the cap. We are then smacked in the face, this time with acidity: they are homemade pickled vegetables. The smell of the vinegar is pungent and raw.
With this, C shakes his head, repositions himself in his seat, and opens up his Kindle, content to block out this assault of the senses with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I tuck into a new instrument I have been learning, the “Pocket Operator”, a programmable handheld synthesizer given to me as an early birthday present from C.

The train on which we ride is technically the “high-speed” train to Paris from Lausanne, but it is only the second half of the journey that is at top speed, once one is an hour past the city of Dijon. Instead, we ride at a modest pace, weaving through the Alps, passing rural mountain villages before crossing over into more flat, farm-friendly terrain. The train tiptoes over canyons; tunnels peel away into forested groves, growing crops stitch together to form pea-green landscapes and garden rows surrounding age-old villages; populated by only a handful of residents, only a few paved roads, and no streetlights.
The Orthodox Jewish man puts away his tupperware, finally, ridding the car of the stench of fermentation. He pulls out a religious text and settles in for the remainder of the ride.
Before long, an announcement above informs us that we are approaching Dijon station.

Chapter 2: The Archway

The Dijon train station is modern; I surmise that it may have undergone a facelift within the last five years. LED electronic advertisements dissolve and rotate every 30 seconds as we pass through the terminal, reaching the escalator, which lifts us up to ground level, where we encounter a greenhouse-like atrium above.
The parking lot, as well as the station itself, is tiny; we pass through the sliding glass doors with just a small duffel bag of our clothes and toiletries to find a relatively lackluster side of town: white buildings, neon signs, drugstores, and real estate offices are peppered throughout as we make our way closer to the older, more historic part of town.
Where the main city bus lines briefly converge, there stands a grand public park opposite a meeting area reminiscent of something seen in Paris or New York: large squares of pavement span a wide promenade dotted with young trees, whose trunks are still being trained straight by rigid guides.
In the center of this expansive, clean promenade stands a great stone archway, or the “Porte Guillaume”, which marks the official entrance into the old city. Through the pathway underneath, I see pavement turn into hand-hewn bricks . But before we approach what lies beyond the arch, we veer left and slightly up the street, passing a bus stop on the corner. The door of our hotel is a jet black dimple on the stark white facade of the building’s exterior. Inside there is more darkness, underlit with glowing light in a rotation of color, like we’ve stepped inside from before the present day, and into the inside of a video game.

Chapter 3: The Hotel

With a nearby view of the Porte Guillaume, the Vertigo Hotel is a modern hotel built within one of Dijon’s many historical structures; it utilizes the contrast of black with bright, vibrant color to evoke a futuristic club scene set within an Enlightenment-era building. Crystal chandeliers hover over glass jars of assorted French candies in the main dining era during the day. Designer furniture in all manner of color, shape, and material are positioned across the lounge. C and I find the “ploum” sofa here: a purple pouf distributed by the French company Ligne Roset, which he and I have always enjoyed the feel of, sort of like being seated on a blanket-sized sheet of bubble wrap.
Our room is on the fourth floor. The corridor and interior remind me of the “25 Hours Hotel” we stayed in when we visited Zurich (which I talked about at length in reason #74), with a few key differences. The room is small—quite small—utilizing certain good design tricks, like sliding mirrored doors to maximize light distribution and floor space; while other decisions on the layout leave me baffled, such as: hard, flat edges in the sink and shower, which lead to buildup of dirt, makeup, etc., that no janitorial staff in a mid-sized boutique hotel could ever hope to keep clean; there is also carpeted flooring underneath the out-swinging glass shower door; and lastly, there is an intentionally crooked picture frame precariously attached to the ceiling directly above our bed. Inside it is a confusing image (which we only decipher on the second day of the trip), of an out-of-focus Porte Guillaume in the background, with the foreground highlighting the side profile of inanimate animal neither of us could quite determine (“Is it a seal?”). Despite these things, the bed is incredibly soft, yet supportive, and the hotel provides little sanitized slippers, saving me from having to traverse the black carpet in just my socks.
Setting our stuff down, we’re out again in less than ten minutes, excited to see the city in full swing.

Chapter 4: The Owls

The Owl's Trail, or “le parcours de la chouette”, is a walking trail highlighting 22 main landmarks in the historic town center of Dijon. Adopted as the city’s symbol for good luck after residents began to touch the stone owl on the side of Dijon’s Notre Dame cathedral over 300 years ago, each small, triangular brass marker in between landmarks bears a cartoon owl mascot, if the image on it has not already been worn down by foot traffic, just as the stone face of the animal has been worn away, after many thousands of hands have brushed its surface for good luck. Dijon is the capital of the vast Burgundy region and was once ruled by dukes, who made their city the center of arts and architecture through an influx of vast wealth, power, and influence. Because of this, the city is littered with fabulous art; some that has survived for over a thousand years or more.

We arrive at the archway in the early afternoon, having plenty of time to kill before our dinner reservations at 7. Following the road past the Porte, on the ground I spy a brass triangle glinting in the sun, and then another ten feet beyond it. I quickly explain the trail to C, who travels along with me, getting further into the game of finding new placards and new landmarks the longer we walk.
After about five minutes, we take a sharp left turn onto a new road; just ahead of us, a big structure towers above the rooftops of the shorter buildings surrounding it, throwing its shadows far behind as the sun illuminates the front. 51 gargoyles (or, in French, “grotesques”) stand guard in 3 ascending rows on the front of the church, which dates back to the year 1230. I stand in awe underneath each unique, stony face, staring upward with my mouth involuntarily agape. There is just too many of them to see; they all stare back at me, each with its own distinctive and haunting expression. Some eyes are filled with chaos, others with pity, and others with curiosity.
C takes my hand and leads me into the church, where a few dozen tourists gaze silently and respectively, along with locals who are kneeling to pray in the glow of the five majestic stained glass windows of the north transept. These immense, handmade works have survived for nearly 800 years.
Back around the outside corner of the church, we find the brass owl markers again, just before coming across the reason for it all, the faceless stone owl on the side of the Notre Dame. A small girl is being hoisted by her mother to tap a finger as we approach; she smiles with glee as she makes contact and is gently set back down. C senses my enthusiasm as well and offers to take my picture touching the stone owl, to which I answer by immediately handing him my unlocked phone and hopping to attention. Something about being that connected with history spanning hundreds of years gives me the goosebumps.

The next quick stop on my list is the Boutique de Edmond Fallot, which is the most famous manufacturer of the real Dijon mustard. Inside the storefront, we find a self-service bar with small paper tongue depressors for sampling, as well as a pushdown tasting button for 10 different flavors of Dijon mustard, ranging from whole grain, to traditional, to curry, to everything in between. Though we don’t have anything to drink with us, and the peppery liveliness of the vinegar in the mustard makes us wince, we try a pea-sized amount of each flavor, after which C wants to take all of them home with us. We settle for just two large jars of the traditional and the whole grain, expecting to buy much more in the future.

Each new brass marker reveals another street, another stone engraving, another monument to the toils of lifetimes dedicated to these structures that have not only stood the test of time, but serve as portals to the grandeur of our distant past, and the majesty and wonder that connects our time periods.
The last main wonder we witness, discovering a starkly different landscape of wide open pavement, the largest open walking area we have yet to witness in Dijon, is the Ducal Palace overlooking the Liberation Square. Children play in spurting jets of water under a light orange sky, cackling as one spray after the other shoots out and arcs overhead, then splashes down again over a battered grated drain. Locals corral in the bending shade of the outer rim of the Square, sipping after-work aperitifs and feeling the temperature ease off, little by little.
We turn back for the hotel, having completed most of the city’s landmarks, with still a few others left to experience the following day. Returning from the other direction, we pass again underneath the Porte Guillaume, but this time I notice an unexpected plaque affixed to its right side: a carved bust of Thomas Jefferson. I read later that this was added as a celebration of the Franco-American friendship. Such a symbol of goodwill; the French seem to really enjoy reaffirming friendships with America, despite our constant malalignment of their culture in the form of Pepe Le Pew and most of us (including myself, until I learned otherwise) believing that they are all hairy, because of…feminism? They’ll still slap the brass depiction of our faces onto prized monuments, remaining there for all to see for over 250 years.

Chapter 5: Dinner and drinks

Just before 7pm, C and I walk toward our restaurant, DZ’Envies, next to where Dijon’s city-wide indoor fresh market is located. We are excited to find a few more brass owls we haven’t yet seen, and the trail of them eventually leads us to the doorstep of the busy restaurant.
The place is vibrant and full of people on a Wednesday night; we are shown to our table and almost immediately served a warm, savory corn flour madeline. C brightens with the first bite, excited for a faint memory of his childhood. His grandmother used to make savory madeleines for him.
To start, I order a quintessential Dijon delicacy: escargot. It is served in a handmade ceramic dish with twelve equal depressions; each depression contains a single escargot (already conveniently removed from its shell), swimming in a pool of melted butter and herbs. Despite what some might think of the concept, escargot is truly one of my favorite foods, with the caveat that one of my other favorite foods is calamari. The textures are very similar, and rather than being breaded and fried, these are served swimming in butter and garlic that you sop up with some french bread. Tell me where the problem is, please.
The glass of white wine served alongside is a suggestion of the restaurant’s sommelier: a Vézelay, a grape I’ve never heard of, produced nearby. The taste reminds me of the barnacles that cling to the side of a marina, without any of the moss or anything off, but a lovely balanced salinity mixed with the freshness of a big gulp of water. Somehow, it marries perfectly with the dish, cutting through all of the richness without trumping the great taste.
For my main, at C’s insistence, I go traditional one final time, ordering the chef’s interpretation of the Burgundian classic, boeuf Bourguignon. Served with a perfect little pail of chived mashed potatoes, the stewed beef with vegetables, expensive burgundy pinot noir, mushrooms, and a sauce that would knock Julia Child out of her chair, it is a stunning representation of why a dish like this becomes famous worldwide. It teaches me something; and I wish all of my history lessons could come in this format.
My dessert is a panna cotta with macerated raspberries and cassis berries, the pride of Burgundy, served alongside a sweet madeline, glazed lightly with lemon and honey. Obviously, this must be the favorite pastry of our chef.

The final destination of our evening is a hip cocktail bar called Monsieur Moutarde, which is just around the corner from us. High on a great meal and a nice evening, we walk, practically skipping, to the marked door of one of the 500 year-old brick and mortar buildings on the main drag of the old city, amidst modern designer stores as well as local cigar shops and bakeries. Inside MM is a chic, 40’s-era gin joint, while the outside patio (where most patrons are gathering), reminds me of a Cuban villa: inside a square, open area are a collection of tables, each topped with a large unfurled umbrella. I can look up past the craggy garden walls and the slanted, red tile rooftops towards a cloudless night sky. I order the house Manhattan, made with all local spirits; C orders a fresh ginger fizz, served with a twist of lime.
Sipping away underneath a bed of French summer stars, some that have been twinkling for far longer than the entirety of our planet’s history, I feel a tether to the ghosts I imagine pacing through this old garden, wearing corsets under billowy layers of lace and linen, looking up at the stars, just like me.