I’ve been back in New York for four weeks now after the long, wonderful trip to France.

The final few days in Toulouse were especially memorable.

Friday, October 6 2017: Jean and I met Jacques at his place at 9 AM. We jumped in his car – yes – Jacques now owns a car – and started driving south. It was cold and raining. A couple hours into the ride we decided to make a pit stop. The town we chose is called Montady. It’s on a big hill overlooking grape fields. We found what appeared to be one of only a couple cafes. I ordered coffee. Jean got a glass of wine and Jacques had a beverage that was equal parts beer and soda. The sun was shining full bore. We smiled at the beauty of it all and decided to push on toward the sea. The ride was on two lane highway lined by old white-barked trees with trunks some two feet in diameter. Grape vines could be seen for as far as the eye could see in all directions. Our destination was Bouzigues. Jean and Jacques knew of a restaurant on the water where we could have lunch. Bouzigues sits on Etang de Thau which is technically a lake – or lagoon – but might as well be the Mediterranean given its salinity and proximity to the sea itself. A narrow strip of land boxes in the body of water but small canals feed into the Mediterranean. We sat outside at Chez La Tchepe and ordered oysters, razor clams and shrimp. Nearly one in every ten oysters consumed in France is harvested from Etang de Thau. The water is crystal clean. We were eating oysters plucked out of the columns of grow tables we could see in the distance. You could taste the freshness. From there we drove to Cabrerolles and Domaine Leon Barral. Jacques turned me on to Barral’s great red wine “Faugeres” a year ago. We both loved it so much that Jacques decided to give Barral a call to arrange a visit. We got a little lost as we approached the rural, unmarked roads near Barral’s operation but pulled in at 4 PM, the time we were asked to arrive. It was just the three of us – and a pair of young women who lived in the region. After waiting in front of a production shed for a few minutes, Didier Barral arrived to greet us. He runs the winery. Didier is the grandson of Leon Barral. He said his father was more interested in sipping pastis and playing petanque than winemaking which left a gap in Barral’s recent history. The tour commenced in the building where the grapes are pressed, fermented and held in tanks before bottling. About a half-hour into the tour, a van full of older Swedes pulled up and joined us. Didier was a bit annoyed at their tardiness. Most of his narration switched at that point from French to English. We all walked out to the already-harvested grape tree fields where Didier became excited and animated about his story. He told us how the grapes were clipped from the vine by hand and that the biodynamic techniques he uses took some years of trial and error to perfect. He and his team prune the vines using the “gobelet” style which creates cover for the grapes without choking off crucial air flow in the hot summer. Didier welcomes the bat swarms that visit at night to keep the bugs at bay – and he puts what would otherwise be discarded grape skins and stems in his compost. We walked back to the production space where we started sipping. One of the Swedes – speaking on behalf of their group – asked Didier if they could purchase bottles to take away to which Didier gave a surprising answer. I make wine – I don’t sell it – he said. This prompted a swift exit by the Swedes – and I got the sense some relief for Didier who could now go back to continuing his rich set of tales en Francais. At this point, the tour was about 90 minutes in – but it was only beginning. Didier took us to his cave. Barrels of wine were stacked tightly in the cool, dark cellar. Didier was armed with what looked like a glass turkey baster. From each of more than a dozen different blends and vintages – he pulled in a full tube of red wine and then squirted a little in each of our glasses. As we sipped, we marveled at the taste and the setting – and the man. We were only taking in small sips but at some point we started getting a little giggly as we got deeper into the cave. Nearing the end of the slow, deliberate path inside the cave’s second structure, we could see a huge round of cheese under a cloth. Didier started slicing – and then slapping pieces into our hands. It was a sharp ComtĂ© and it really hit the spot. As we started to say goodbye and thank you outside the cave, Didier asked us if we could assist in the roundup of his herd of cows. He was transferring his livestock from one pasture to another. We jumped in our respective cars and headed to the transfer point. Our group of three guys was asked to form a blockade on the road near where the cows would change fields. It was pitch dark. As the herd came rumbling down the hill, we could see that Didier had employed a fail-safe system that included verbal cues – and guidance from a dog and a horse. The cows didn’t even consider going our way. They turned right into their new pasture off marching orders from the horse and dog. We said goodbye to Didier one more time and drove back to Toulouse. One aside on grapes: The Times wine writer Eric Asimov wrote an excellent in-depth piece (printed Sunday 10-22-17) on the subject of “smoke taint” – or the residue expected to impact otherwise intact, healthy-looking unpicked red grapes exposed to dirty air from the fires in California wine country. I bring up Asimov’s fascinating story because it backs up the narrative from Barral who spoke about the long list of variables that impact how a grape gets its taste – and ultimately what kind of wine it becomes.

Saturday, October 7 2017: I met Jacques in front of the Capitole. The streets were packed with people. We walked over the Pont St. Pierre and into the St. Cyprien neighborhood. Didier had told Jacques where to reliably find his wine in Toulouse. It’s a place called Le Temps des Vendanges – a small wine shop on Rue Reclusane. We each bought two bottles. From there, we had lunch at nearby La Esquina, a Spanish grocery that serves sandwiches and meat/cheese plates. We sat on stools at a communal table facing the street. It was great. Because of its proximity to Spain, there are lots of great Spanish bars and restaurants in Toulouse. We walked back into the city and agreed to meet later in the afternoon for a beer at a cafe just off the Grand Rond near the Jardin des Plants. At about six pm, we met at the cafe and then headed over to the nearby apartment of Koy and Alex. Koy is a chef and a brand new mom. She shut down her famed restaurant La Maison Drole in anticipation of her new family responsibilities but has resumed cooking at a place next to the building where Jean and Flo live. The visit to Koy’s place was primarily to get a lesson on making cheesecake but turned into a full blown dinner party when Jacques opened one of the Didier bottles and Koy put a couple of trays of homemade meat lasagna in the oven. There were pre-dinner snacks including a small round of goat cheese that had the Occitan flag emblazoned on the top. Jokes ensued about the wrongfulness of slicing into the cross. I had to dash soon after dinner was served to meet up with Jean at the bar for our DJ set. Jean had arranged with our favorite nightspot to play music from 10 PM to 2 AM. Jean calls himself DJ Echo Park because of his fondness for LA and I called myself DJ Johnny Merlot. We alternated three-song sets. I played almost entirely new music from New York and Philly indie bands and Echo was laying down more danceable numbers including a few from French artists. We drank for free. At 2 AM, the bar closed (I won’t name the place here) to the regular crowd. The steel gate went down and several of us stayed inside deep into the night. At about 5 AM, pasta was served. The last four of us to leave walked out at 615 AM.

Sunday, October 8 2017: Jacques made a farewell lunch at his place. Salad, saucisse de Toulouse and homemade frites. He opened his second and final bottle of Didier. The cheesecake we made the night before failed to solidify so we had dollops of it – as if it were ice cream. I said thanks – and goodbye with a vow to return. Then I walked over to the other side of the city to say goodbye to Fabien and Sonia. We had coffee and looked at their wedding pictures. They talked about the cinema. The next morning, Jean saw me off at the Carmes tram station before my flight to Brussels.

Back in New York now after a Tuesday flight out of Brussels. Eight hours in the air with a nice big chair in the front part of the airplane. It’s one of those chairs where they serve you a custom made ice cream sundae after lunch. I watched a movie on the ride. Paterson. Adam Driver. A Jarmusch special. It was really good I thought. The funniest scene is when the character who plays Paterson’s wife serves a sprouts and cheese pie for dinner.

Every logistical moment on this 23-day journey now finished clicked nicely although the getaway from Belgium had a small wrench thrown in.

I flew Brussels Airlines from Toulouse to Brussels at midday Monday and hopped a train for the one night stay in Antwerp. When I arrived at the hotel Monday afternoon, a sign posted on the reception desk advised guests of a nationwide transit strike all day Tuesday.

When I asked the guy at check-in if this work stoppage would impact the train to the airport, he said “yeah, of course.”

“Didn’t anybody tell you?” he said.

“No,” I said, without asking who might tell me. I had been occasionally looking at French newspapers and the all-news stations on TV in France but had not heard about the strike in Belgium. In fact, when my friends Sonia and Fabien told me Sunday they were skipping work to participate in a large (unrelated, I believe) strike on Tuesday in Toulouse, I thought to myself that it was good fortune I was leaving France a day before any possible disruption. I had also nearly decided to return to the US via Barcelona which is an easy train ride from Toulouse. Given the breakaway effort in Catalonia – and huge developments in that conflict expected Tuesday – I had felt good about the plan to leave via Brussels.

The three workers at the hotel reception desk in Antwerp conferred and suggested I take a private bus company which they believed was operating on Tuesday. The woman who seemed most interested in my plight suggested I leave early because the traffic was expected to be crazy. She printed off the bus timetable and told me where to meet it.

I asked her how much a taxi would be. She said, “Don’t do that, it’ll be at least 90 or 100 euros. Take the bus.”

I asked her if the airport would be fully operational. How could workers arrive without transit? She said something to the effect that it was anyone’s guess how it might play out.

All this concerned me to the point that I wasn’t able to fully enjoy Antwerp on Monday night. I envisioned chaos on Tuesday morning. Paralysis. I checked the web site of Belgium’s National Rail service and they referred riders to their Twitter site. Written in Dutch, but translated via the Twitter app, the individual manning social media for the railroad said basically to expect the worst – as in a complete shutdown – but that it was unclear how it would play out.

I went over to where I was told the bus stop would be to case it out and then went down to near the city’s big cathedral for a Belgian beer and a dinner of frites with some kind of spicy chicken on a stick dish.

I tried to go to sleep early in order to rise with full rest for what I thought would be a big scramble to reach the airport. Instead, I tossed and turned all night, raised the white flag and checked out of the hotel at 330 AM to wait for the 4 AM bus.

At the bus stop, the driver for the Flixbus going to Dortmund laughed at the dozen of us or so waiting for the airport bus. “I’m not sure your bus will come. There’s a big strike today.”

But at 355 AM, the airport bus motored in for a 4 AM go and a hitch-free ride to Zaventem. It cost 10 euros.

The big departure board at the airport showed a few scattered cancellations but things were running normal it appeared. A recorded message playing repeatedly on the airport’s P-A system warned of disruptions to both flights and ground transportation because of “industrial actions,” but workers and passengers I interacted with made no mention of it.

Lots to cover from the fun-packed final stretch in Toulouse including two memorable side trips but I’m wiped out. More in a few days.