The year was 1932. His name, Jean-Baptiste Besse (pictured above). He was an rrrrr-rolling peasant from the Corrèze region of France. Julia Child describes him thusly: “He was a jolly fellow, with a tired old flapjack of a beret, a gray smock, and a gap where his front teeth had once been.” But Monsier Besse had a secret.
Beneath his wine shop at 48, rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève behind La Sorbonne was a treasure: his legendary wine cellars or caves. And not just any caves. The caves de Monsier Besse are still spoken of today in hushed tones. Never filmed. Rarely photographed, the two-storey caves dated from the 1600s and were filled with thousands upon thousands of rare, priceless vintages.
General knowledge has it that all the rare pre-1945 wines of France were pillaged and drunk by the Nazis when they overran France in World War II. Au contraire! The oldest bottle in Monsier Besse’s cellar dated to the 1890s. But he didn’t drink his own wines. In fact, he rarely sold his rare wines. He just kept them, I believe, as his insurance-policy-cum-retirement-fund.
The caves were also a mess!
Forget any mental images you may have conjured about sturdy oak shelves and the occasional cobweb. Oh no! As Julia Child describes it, “The caves penetrated deep into the earth, each level danker and moldier than the one before, like a series of dungeons connected by narrow tunnels and rotting ladders. Dust, candle-drippings, cobwebs, and la patine des âges lay thick on everything…there were no shelves and his bottles were piled haphazardly into mounds on either side of the narrow tunnels….”
So it remained from 1932 until Monsier Besse passed away in 1997.
Now why do I tell you that story? Because we all have messes in our lives.
Maybe your mess is a twenty-year backlog of family photos, thrown willy-nilly into shoe boxes. Every time you see the boxes (or watch Martha Stewart), you are flooded with guilt for not having them perfectly labeled and displayed in photo albums or scrapbooks.
Maybe your mess is paperwork. Years of bills stubs, cancelled checks, receipts, Form 1040s, et cetera. You’ve tried filing cabinets, hanging folders, 3-ring binders but no organizational method seems to “click.” Soon entropy descends again and your best laid plans gang aft agley.
Maybe your caves is your garage. Sewing room. Junk drawers. Stack of recipes-I’ll-try-someday. And all those craft projects that looked so cool but just never got done because, let’s face it, you have ten left thumbs. (That would be me. The spirit is interested, but the flesh is terribly clumsy.)
You feel terrible about your mess but absolutely powerless to straighten it out. Monsier Besse never even tried. For over sixty years, the caves de Monsier Besse remained in exactly the same state. If anyone suggested he straighten it all out, he’d shrug and say, “I have a photographic memory. I know where every bottle is.”
As so often happens, his mess was someone else’s treasure. In 1997, Lionel Michelin acquired the caves de Monsier Besse. Michelin and his team spent months carefully excavating the caves, painstakingly digging bottles of wine sunk deeply into the dirt floor of the cave. They brought order from chaos. And somehow, also lost the soul of the place.
Now if you travel to Paris, you can descend to the perfectly clean, perfectly lit, perfectly-perfect caves for a wine tasting complete with charcuterie, “foie gras, smoked salmon, jambon cru (France’s version of prosciutto) and an assortment of select cheeses and pastries.” But, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, “For a price, Ugarte. For a price.”
Why am I blethering on and on about wine and caves? Because what struck me so forcefully as I was researching Monsier Besse is how he had a mess on his hands for over sixty years. Perhaps he acquired it. Certainly, he added to it…and he never bothered to do anything about it. He simply didn’t let it bother him! He was too busy living!
He went on very happily with his life “up top” dispensing wine to French housewives who brought their own jugs and bottles. Searching through shelves and mounds to find a perfectly delicious wine for a young couple who had no money. And training his apprentices, the next generation of sommeliers who now host $3,000 a head / $25,000 a table wine tasting events at Christie’s Rockefeller Center. (I’m not joking!)
Meanwhile, my “messes” drive me crazy. Why? Because of my damned perfectionism. Because of the perfectionism I was taught as The Way To Be by narcissists who were terrified of being less-than-perfect. Terrified of being held to the same yardstick, the same acid tongue, the same criticisms with which they roundly pilloried their fellow man, nearest and dearest. The perfectionism that robs us of our joy and enslaves us to the vacuum cleaner and feather duster when we could be out actually live-live-living and enjoying our lives.
Let me tell you another story. Five years ago, an old lady passed away not far from my home. And, like usually happens here in the country, all her possessions were auctioned off.
Her “mess” became my treasure. Thanks to her, I now have a plethora of kitchenalia including her lifetime collection of clipped recipes. (Like Clarissa Dickson Wright, I have a kitchenalia fetish. And it took me three days to organize those recipes by category!) Thanks to her I also have a dresser, a cedar chest and a huge, soft, comfortable bed. (My husband insisted on it, referring to my old bed as a monk’s-plank-of-penitence and comparing it to self-flagellation or the odd hair shirt.) Her mess blessed the entire community who gathered for food, fun and bidding wars.
Maybe we need to give ourselves a break from all the perfectionism, all the guilt, all the mental self-flagellation over our messes, the projects we never get to, the skills we don’t have, the art we can’t produce, the perfection we never attain. Does it really matter? Maybe in our mess is a treasure someone else will enjoy some day.
Like Monsier Besse, we need to just live and enjoy our lives in the here and in the now. Tomorrow never comes. The perfect “elf” version of ourself doesn’t exist. My therapist used to say, ” ‘Now’ is this moment and the next five seconds.” Think about it. He’s kinda right!
So screw perfectionism! Just enjoy your life. Your “mess” just might be someone else’s treasure!