Nikolas returned from Paris, where he had gone for something to do with his day job, with an invitation to his place to sample a Vacherin he had picked up in the city. Before leaving he had asked me what kind of cheese I like. I told him something pungent. If cheese is milk’s leap to immortality, I said, citing Brillat-Savarin’s aphorism, then I preferred mine to have spent some time in purgatory.
Technically, the cheese is Swiss, produced in the Jura foothills in the Canton of Vaud. But the summit of Mont d’Or is indeed in France, even when its hillsides descend into both countries. Fitting, I think. Nikolas is a man straddling borders anyway: a writer and scientist, a gifted wordsmith in Greek who wields English as if he had lived within its sounds and syntax since a child.
The Mont d’Or he laid out on a platter, along with walnut halves and cartes de visite of whole-wheat rusks, was heavenly. The glute-sized disk of cheese, which was nestled in a round carton girdled by a strip of pine, resembled an under-baked pot pie, with a slightly undulating surface of ivory with a faint shadow of sepia here and there: a landscape of milky dunes or a lumpy linen-covered bed under which a pair of tiny bodies sleep. The cheese was marvelously creamy, with an earthy aroma breathing a whisper of turnip and mushroom, heady, redolent (what a wonderful word this is, connoting both fragrant and stinking at the same time). I realize I’m sinking into a swamp of superlatives here, but it was a real treat for me. I rarely eat cheese. I’m an oats-and-yoghurt-for-breakfast man, rather than baguette-and-Brie. And I figure if I’m going to eat something that’s 50% animal fat, it better be damned good, and unfortunately most of the cheese I run into in restaurants, bakeries, and buffets is fairly mediocre. The cost and satiety but not the pleasure of sin.
He opened the Haut-Médoc I had brought to celebrate his return and honor the cheese, a good match for the cheese, full-bodied with a suggestion of berries. There was music for solo piano on the stereo, perhaps Satie’s Gymnopédies, but I wouldn’t swear by it—I can spot a Johnny Cash song and snippets of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but my musical paideia is spotty at best. It was one of those perfect moments of pure sensual pleasure, deepened and enriched by the talk of friendship. Nikolas is a gifted correspondent but he is just as engaging an interlocuteur.
There is an art to conversation, an art that presupposes careful listening and empathy certainly, but also a willingness to lead and be led. Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean agreement. A conversation between friends is not a therapeutic dialogue of statement and echoed reflection. (When was the last time a friend said to you, “I hear you saying…”?) There’s always an element of challenge to good conversation. “Friendship is not strong enough,” writes Montaigne, “if all is politeness and art; if it is afraid of clashes and walks hobbled.”
True conversation is an encounter that follows the spirit of jazz improvisation rather than the rules of turn-taking or the convention of interleaved monologues (“oh, that reminds me of…”). You should leave the conversation with the feeling that you have taken an unhurried long walk to places familiar and unknown, invigorated, with a gain, however small, in perspective and understanding, as if a camera lens had been turned ever so slightly to sharpen the image of what you see before you or imagine you see. And I did leave Nikolas’s place, refreshed and reassured with a bit more perspective, this time on a problem at work, a problem in itself unremarkable (one of the insights gained in my conversation with Nikolas was precisely the commonplaceness of my “issue”) but at the time bothersome enough for me to lose sleep and appetite (not a good thing when you’re training for a triathlon). So I thank you, my friend, for the gift of Mont d’Or and your conversation and for being there.
Image: Erich Heckel, Zwei Männer am Tisch (1912)