I'd like to tell you more about my uncle. For accuracy's sake he's not really my uncle, nor do I believe we're actually "related" in the technical sense of the word. His wife is the cousin of my aunt; an aunt by marriage and not by blood. There probably isn't even a word to describe our relationship to each other but, family is as family does, and after this past weekend I can say that I feel a lot closer to him and his son than I do to others that I'm actually, you know, related to.
At eighteen my uncle moved from his hometown of Kyoto to Tours, France, in pursuit of his culinary dreams. Mind you this was decades ago before the advent of internet, smartphones, and all those handy apps that make physical distances and time zones between people seem trivial. I'm not even sure that he had been to France prior to leaving Japan, so it was with great determination and only a rudimentary understanding of the language that he left home.
I asked him how he knew, at that age, that he wanted to be a chef. He told me that growing up his father, an accountant, frequently took him out to eat at European-style restaurants, and through these shared meals he fell in love with the artistry, ambience and culture of western cuisine. And luckily, as the third son of the family, my uncle was free from the burden of carrying on the family business.
Once in Tours he enrolled in a language course, and when the coordinator found out about his culinary ambitions she introduced him to Monsieur J, owner and chef of a hotel restaurant in nearby Azay-le-Rideau. My uncle began working in the kitchen, and over time Monsieur and Madame J essentially adopted him as one of their own. Eventually work opportunities took my uncle away to Paris, where he stayed for a few years, but still he visited Azay on weekends and holidays.
Now, having worked extensively in Kyoto and Los Angeles, he runs his own restaurant in Pasadena alongside a dedicated group of staff that have been with him since opening day over a decade ago. Over the course of the many meals we shared together in Azay, I couldn't help but notice the way Monsieur J looked at my uncle; even though it had been years since they had last seen each other, it was still that of a proud father.
Of all the people I met last weekend in Azay, perhaps one of the most inspirational was Pascal, a friend of Monsieur J's son who also became close with my uncle when they were growing up together. I should add that everyone I encountered throughout those few days was so unbelievably kind and generous; not at all like the French I've dealt with in Paris.
"Paris is not France," they said, shaking their heads. And now I can see why.
Pascal was formerly an Air France steward, but not of the glitzy Catch Me If you Can / Pan-Am variety. Whereas his colleagues preferred to lounge in fancy hotels during their downtime, Pascal would grab his bags, hit the road, and escape the big cities. As such, over the thirty years he worked for the airline he traveled far and wide across South America, Africa and Asia.
A self-described "citoyen du monde," his undying curiosity and zest for life seemed to belay his true age. As he drove Philip and I to the rendez-vous for the hunt, he spoke of his encounters with different cultures with nothing but the utmost respect and enthusiasm.
Now a licensed pilot in retirement, he proudly showed us a photo of his bright yellow passenger plane, which he enjoys flying over remote areas of the United States in addition to his native France. Philip told him it resembled a certain Pokémon.
"Pikachu?" said Pascal gleefully. "Yes, that's what I'll call it!"
It would be an understatement to call him an avid photographer, given his willingness to stop the car in the middle of a country road or highway roundabout just to capture a good shot. He mostly takes personal photos, but, as I later learned, some have been featured in guidebooks.
"C'est trop genial," he would say, turing on the hazard lights and reaching for his camera.
In a socioeconomic climate filled with depressing statistics regarding the high unemployment rate for my cohort and the potentially diminishing value of college degrees, it was encouraging - inspiring, even - to be around such people who had pursued what they were passionate about when they were young and, years later, are so much the better for it. Even though I don't have everything mapped out ahead of me, what I learned from these two men is that you can still make it in an unfamiliar environment, and along the way capitalize upon life's little adventures.