The French Connection
On the road…again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
The French Connection
Just this morning as he arose from sleep and from a dream that would be the basis for a new chronicle entry, the Footloose Forester mentioned to his soulmate, the Bengal Tiger, that he was going to start a new story. She asked, “about what?” He replied with just two words, “Christian Pieri.” Her quick response was also composed of only a few words. She replied, “the French Connection.”
Those few words sent his head spinning. Not only had she immediately conjured up an important part of the story that had occurred over 40 years ago, but had given a suitable title to this chronicle. Furthermore, she had established a key link and further verification that we were true soulmates who shared our lives and thoughts in countless ways.
It has never been easy to tell some legacy stories and roll them into a coherent chronicle form because a few of them like The French Connection coalesced out of snippets from the past that included brief flashes of memories gathered from Hawaii, Senegal, France, and Washington, D.C. Thanks to the induced prompting from last night’s dream, this rambling chronicle has finally been born.
As an added reminder of the peripatetic career of the Footloose Forester, the old, original banner heading genre of On the road…again!!! was chosen for emphasis of the fact that both Christian Pieri and the Footloose Forester were on the road when they originally met.
Christian Pieri was a French agricultural researcher who was on sabbatical to the University of Hawaii from this post in Senegal where he was improving dryland agriculture in West Africa through scientific applications of improved methods. When he gave a seminar on his research topic on the hard clay soils of the region to the faculty and staff of the College of Tropical Agriculture, the Footloose Forester was in attendance. He recalls that Pieiri described the dominant soils in that part of Senegal as having the texture and consistency of Portland Cement. When dry they are powdery but when only slightly whetted they firm up to an extreme hardness that makes rain fed agriculture almost impossible. After the seminar, the Footloose Forester went to meet him. That introduction in Honolulu, Hawaii was the first of several encounters that eventually spanned three continents and as many decades. Along the way there were a few truly bizarre episodes that some readers might think were made up or embellished. One reason that The French Connection is bound for his personal archives is because some stuff you just can’t make up.
Shortly after the Portland Cement soils of Senegal seminar, the Footloose Forester invited Christian Pieri and his family to our apartment in Honolulu. His wife Vivette and his two young daughters came for dinner on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. He presented Thu with a radiant white Dendrobium Orchid encased in the half shell of a coconut husk. Although we fretted about where we should display it and how we should care for it, the gifted orchid turned out to be a near miracle in our midst. The absolutely dry interior of the coconut husk wasn’t going to hold much water, so keeping a normally moisture loving orchid hydrated was going to be a challenge. Secondly, the coconut husk was designed with a hook that was intended to be hung on a wall. For whatever reason, we decided to hang it on the wall of the hot, sun-drenched lanai facing the Ko 'olau Mountains where it might just possibly receive enough daily mist from the seasonal showers to keep its moisture balance. Yes, it was hot during the afternoon sunshine, and yes, the frequent winds tended to dry out the interior of the coconut husk…but that beautiful white Dendrobium Orchid stayed in full bloom for two solid months. A miracle? Maybe. But it was an episode that you just can’t make up, and just another example in life where truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Several years after the orchid in a coconut husk episode in Hawaii, the Footloose Forester is delighted to add a 2017 photo taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Many orchids in many coconut shells, a graphic example of how various cultures share similar concepts.
Chunks of natural charcoal are inserted to retain moisture
The following spring, Christian and his family kindly invited us to celebrate an Easter meal at their small apartment, provided for visiting professors and their families on sabbatical. In keeping with a French tradition, the menu itself was handwritten in ink by Christian himself and presented to us. We were so impressed that the very same Easter menu is kept as a part of our treasured memories.
Christian Pieri was free to use the laboratory facilities offered by the College of Tropical Agriculture, thus some of his experiments were conducted in the same soils lab where the Footloose Forester did most of his own soils research. It was during one of those routine lab visits when another event got hard-wired into the memory of the Footloose Forester. It started out with a distress call for help by one of the other graduate students who was also working in that lab. Niwat was a Thai national who was studying for a Ph.D. in Soil Science, and Abdul Aziz was a Pakistani Ph.D. candidate who was working alongside him at the next lab bench. Although they both spoke English as a second language, neither of them could come up with the term for the electrical adapter that Niwat needed to marry his apparatus to the array of electrical receptors found in the old laboratory. Niwat seemed frantic and was looking everywhere, repeating several times that he needed a connection, a connection, a compatible connector (an adapter) to plug into. Christian Pieri then reached into his drawer and came up with, Viola , 'the French Connection.” His words, not mine. We all had a good laugh as he handed over his own personal adapter that he had brought with him from France. Some things you just can’t make up.
At another time, Christian approached the Footloose Forester and asked him something about the applied mathematics of the inverse sine in a research paper he was reading. Sheepishly, the Footloose Forester struggled with the explanation because he had too soon forgotten that the inverse sine and its application was part of a math course he had just recently finished. It was a brief moment, but the memory stuck.
It was at least two years later that Footloose Forester and Christian Pieri met again, in the dusty little village of Bombey, Senegal. Christian had returned to Senegal and his ORSTOM (Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique d' Outre-Mer) supported research after his sabbatical in Hawaii was over. The Footloose Forester knew where to look for him and was determined to make contact. So, when the Footloose Forester showed up at his modest quarters unannounced, we made the most of the encounter. Another French researcher was also there and jokingly inquired about whether or not the skinny, unrefrigerated kielbasa sticks that Footloose Forester brought along as gifts were going to make us all sick. After all, the 20-25 sticks that had been purchased at a flea market in New Jersey some weeks earlier were wrapped in plain butcher paper and were unrefrigerated during the long journeys from New York to Dakar, Senegal and during the road trip from Dakar to Bombey. The other man also jokingly asked whether or not I had been sick from eating them. The answer that popped out of my mouth was, “pas encore.” We all laughed and then proceeded to snack on kilbasa sticks.
It is true that memory is often selective and sometimes only certain fragments contain enough hard-wiring ingredients to sustain them over decades of fond reveries. Thusly, the Footloose Forester doesn’t remember the mechanisms whereby Christian Pieri and his family and the Footloose Forester again made contact. But the events came into focus in the south of France when Vivette Pieri met us at the train station and drove us to her house in Montpellier. My wife and I do remember staying in a sunlit bedroom overlooking an active winery, with its rows of grape vines only steps beyond the end of the Pieri’s tiled patio. Our shoebox of photos still contains a few scenes of the pink flamingos on the shores of the Mediterranean, and of our hosts clad in warm clothing to protect them from the wind.
Christian was a happy man in his chosen profession as an agriculturist and enjoyed showing the Footloose Forester around his homeland laboratories in Montpellier. When he was dropped off at the ORSTOM lab the first time, the Footloose Forester couldn’t help but notice that Christian was wearing a scuba weight belt to hold up his pants. Unabashedly, Christian mentioned that he earned his scuba credentials at the Jacques Cousteau facility nearby. That memory is one of the hard-wired ones.
The final face-to-face memory of The French Connection and his family was at the train station at Montpellier. They had arranged to book us on the super fast Train de Grande Vitesse from Montpellier to Paris. Speeds on France’s version of the bullet train now exceed 320 kph (200 mph) along some stretches.
The TGV is France's version of a bullet train
The years have rolled along but our fond memories of Christian Pieri and his family have not weakened much. His oldest daughter went on to study agronomy, probably at The University of Nancy where Christian earned his Ph.D. He spent most of his career in the field and conducted research in over 50 countries, including Brazil and China. He retired as a Vice President of the Rural Development Sector of The World Bank in Washington, D.C. The French Government also honored him with a Gold Medal of Academie d'Agriculture for excellence in performance during his lifetime of service. In his years on the road, the Footloose Forester has met only a few great men, but proud to say...Christian Pieri is one of them.