A chance encounter with another Czech

After watching Helene break down while telling me her story of Czechoslovakia and her inability to return home to her family, I sat in the van and looked across the vineyards in silence. My attempt to console her, while heartfelt, just added to the heartbreak of those few minutes.

When she had composed herself, she started the van and we continued our work of hauling grape-filled bins out of the fields. It was 1968, and I was just a few months into a winery internship that had proven to be one adventure after another. And now I was sitting next to the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen.

Her admission of sadness and of almost complete hopelessness had created a special bond between us. This heavy silence was something I would never forget for the rest of my life.

We bumped along at the ends of rows of vineyards and followed the pickers from site to site. Once the van was groaning with filled bins, we would head back to the crush pad of the winery, then return to the vineyards to repeat the loop.

It was a gorgeous, warm and achingly blue-skied day. The cold morning had melted into a scene of outrageous fall colors. Everywhere one looked, there was russet and gold. The men had stripped to the waist and were moving slowly in and out of the vines. I remember how quiet and pastoral this all seemed to me. There was no other place I wanted to be, no other work I wanted to do, and no one else I wanted to be with at this magical time than Helene.

As we headed from the winery back to the vineyards, Helene suddenly started shaking her hand violently, trying desperately to fend off a yellow jacket. With quite a bump, we slid into the soft gravel at the side of the road, almost flipping the van onto its side. It was clear that the yellow jacket had stung her several times and Helene was in trouble.

I scrambled from my side of the now heavily listing van, afraid that any movement would send us over. When I went to her side, she seemed in shock. Her hand had already swollen to almost half again its size! I had a hard time trying to open her door because of the list of the van and yelled to her to slide over to my seat. I then jumped up and through the open window.

We sped to a small clinic. Helene tried to act calm as she told me where to turn, but I realized she was having a bad reaction to the stings and that it was imperative that we get there quickly.

By the time we arrived at the tiny clinic, Helene was pale and shaky. She was immediately escorted to a back examination room. I was sick with worry. Helene said she knew the "old" doctor who ran the clinic and was "happy" that he was going to attend to her.

It seemed an eternity waiting at the front entrance. Thankfully, I could hear very friendly chatter and some light laughter coming from the room and began to feel much better. In fact, the nurse in the front office smiled and nodded to me in a very reassuring way, which relaxed me.

When Helene came out she was smiling, cooing, actually, and looking up not to some "old" doctor but to a young, handsome (also smiling) Dr. Kildare-type who spoke to her very quietly and gently — in Czech! What were the chances?

Yes, she told me later, he was born in Prague, found his way to Paris, had completed his training, was single and was subbing for less than a week in the clinic. They were having breakfast the next morning.

I just stood there, dumbstruck.

Lorn Razzano is former owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland and still works there part time. Reach him at razz49@aol.com. To read previous columns on his adventures as a wine intern in France in 1968, go to www.dailytidings.com/razzano.

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