February 8, 2017
Every day we pass this field of flowers next to our house. After school one day, we walked there to meet the blooms. They are winter whites - growing in most of the vineyards. They remind me of snow, but they smell thick like honey. The girls listened to their first instinct and immediately ran to the thickest patch of flowers to swoop down and start gathering bouquets. It was a moment I wanted to keep - early February in our life here in Provence. Slower season, heavy rains and winds, but when the sun shines it layers the fields and our skin with affection.
I’ve felt the slower pace lately. At the risk of sounding rotten, I find some elements of life tedious. I thought I would come here and discover my domestic side - that it had just never been given the space and time to come alive. Alas, even with endless space and lots of time and markets full of muddy vegetables, fresh from the ground - I find cooking drab. Small children come with schedules and nutritional needs that buck the free wheeling style I love. Pots and pans have to be scrubbed three times a day. I can confirm that one cannot run away from drudge work - it hounds whether in the south of France or New York or Iowa. So, an attitude shift is key. I often ask my mom how she managed to stay so motivated through eight children and years of meal-prep, bedtimes and schedules. I think it came down to the ability to find beauty in small things and interactions and her deliberate choice to assume a do-it, dig-in sort of attitude. Also, humor - small children are full of that. Romy has been doing this thing where she pretends to be a doctor who speaks in English with a French accent. All the 'r's are thick with the French ruh. Cracks me up.
I do appreciate these moments in nature with the girls. I think kids are best outside. Fresh air brings out the best in all of us.
February 3, 2017
I dropped Colette off at school this morning and since I had volunteered to bring the snack for the class today (limited to peeled fruit or applesauce with no added sugar), I spent some time talking to Madame Maîtresse. She asked me how I was doing and if I felt isolated here. I responded and told her I had actually made quite a few friends and really loved life here. I told her how I loved hiking and exploring. About 1.5 minutes in, she looked at me and sort of cut me off by saying, “c’est bien” in a curt, closed-mouth way. I immediately stopped and realized she really didn’t want me to tell her about my life at all. I suppose that often happens between two people, but I admired her assertive way of signaling that I had gone off course. She did add, generously, to conclude the conversation: “Colette est une vraie élève” (Colette is a true student), with a slow, serious nod of approval. I don’t think she could dole out a better complement.
Next, I made a stop at the boulangerie. This summer and through the month of September (when we had guests straight almost every day), I would begin each morning by heading there to buy bread and croissants for breakfast. When it is the same person working the counter (the wife of the baker) every day, you come to know each other. We would exchange pleasantries. One morning about mid-September, she looked and me and asked when will our vacation be ending/when would we be returning “la-bas” (back home). I explained that this village is home now - that we would be staying. Open-mouthed, she exclaimed, “Super! Bienvenue!” and she gave me a few extra croissants that day. Since then, we’ve chatted more and more. Over Christmas, their family had the flu and everyone knew because the bakery had to close down for a few days (unheard of!). After they were back, I and everyone else inquired about the family and if Mr. Boulanger was feeling better, etc. It is funny that the simplest of purchases is highly personal in a little town. This morning we exchanged phone numbers - she was hoping that her son could come over and practice his English with us.
I was walking out of the boulangerie when across the street I heard, “Bonjour, Madame Joly!” It was the boucher. I love the boucher (the famous stuffing-maker for my Christmas chapon). I walked over - he was out cleaning the windows of his shop in big powerful circles, as a butcher would. We greeted with kisses on both cheeks, as he remarked that I am quite ‘matinale’ (always out and about in the morning). Then he said, “Allez, un peu de viande pour vous aujourd’hui” (Come, a bit of meat for you today). I agreed and said somewhat apologetically, “Nous sommes pas très viande en général” (We are not big meat eaters generally). He agreed, “Vous ne venez pas assez” (You don’t come often enough). I explained that we eat a lot of vegetables and only occasionally add meat. He looked very worried, almost stumped.
The French, by and large, are real meat eaters. He cleared his throat and gave me his perspective on the matter. “Regardez-moi,” (look at me) he instructed, his hand running down the length of his body guiding me to take it all in. I gave him a good look-over. He is a hearty fellow. Just as you would imagine a boucher in Provence. Burly - a real powerhouse, in his bloody apron.
“I am 59 years old. I have never had a broken bone or any kind of rupture.” He let that sink in with a good pause. “It is because I eat meat. Every day. Beef, lamb, veal, pork, even chicken and fish. It gives the body the strength and nutrients one needs to stay strong. You see all of these people coming back from the Alps from skiing and they are walking around on crutches and they have casts on their arms and they look miserable. What do I tell them? They aren’t eating enough meat. More meat and none of that would have happened to them.”
It seemed like self-serving advice, but he was walking evidence of his theory. We settled on some home-made sausages (hanging out, freshly made) and a bit of pork.
Xavier is going to be grateful to this guy. He has always thought my aversion to meat very very odd. When we first met, I was a full-on vegetarian and he pronounced, “You are the first vegetarian I have ever met.” I think it might have been true.
(The road to Lourmarin)
After my village stops, I was a bit of a traitor and headed to Lourmarin for their competing market today. Lourmarin is a little Lubèron village full of charm. Quite near. Their market just happens to be on Fridays as well. I wanted to compare their vegetables, cheese, honey, fruit to ours. Happy to report that the market in our town is really A+. I did find a honey-vendor there that was really special though. She had just a few jars out on a yellow tablecloth, lined up. Homemade stickers on each that marked the type of honey (lavender, prairie…) and their origin: a little town in this region called Cornillon Confoux. I bought a few varieties. One is a pot of honey with almonds floating inside - a delectable treat, she informed me with cheeks squished right up to her eyes in a grin. I also bought a pot of flower pollen. She gasped when I picked it up and informed me in a hushed tone that it is like a magical medicine. Take it each morning - a teaspoonful. Chew up the pollen. Or in a yogurt if the taste is too strong by itself. She warned me not to take the pollen at any other time of the day - it can make a person much too excitable if taken after the morning hours.
(Village fountain in Lourmarin)
January 31, 2017
The order of our move here was particular. #1: House. #2 Sell the other house. #3: Find jobs and stuff. When people ask us about it, they often look at us with arched eyebrows, questioning the order. But, the house was really key. As the French say, it was a 'coup de coeur' (to fall in love immediately) - we walked in the house and forgot our other life. Immediately imagined the one we could have here.
This house is full of saga - it is palpable. Colette was convinced she felt and saw ghosts when we first arrived. I don't doubt it. It sounds dramatic, but we are living among 400 years of history and layering our story on top of it. We feel undeserving sometimes.
We went caroling around Christmas time to our neighbors (we have 3 near us). Each has a very specific take on our house. Historically, it was built and then theirs were built in relation to this house. I can always feel the scrutiny in their eyes when we meet - sizing me up: am I a good attendant/curator of this place? (I have a few strikes against me right off the bat as an American - I am seen as having very little appreciation for history, my own is far too short). To them (and maybe objectively) we are merely a historical episode in the long thread of this story. We listened to one of our neighbors play back some of her memories in this house when she was a girl; she had lived here with her family when the house was configured differently. The stonework out front chronicles a time when there was a large pond in front of the house and she spoke of when she and her sisters would try to catch the fish swimming in it. She has stories from the staircases, the old kitchens. I want to have her over and follow her around as she narrates the space.
All of the neighbors are curious about what we are up to and how we are changing the house. They are all connected in some way to it. Most riveting is the question of water! Jean-Marie, the prior owner of this house, was not exaggerating in our introductory meeting when he cited water as the key issue in this region. Both lack of it and flooding. Everything is extreme in Provence. When it rains, we are inundated. One of our neighbors has taken the others to court over water pathways and lines of property in relation to rain. Xavier is making good friends by having huge pits dug around our house, filled with stones, and then re-covered (puits perdus) - essentially, pits to consume the floods.
I like the small details best. The ceilings and the walls and the floors. Nothing we fill it with is interesting compared with the bones of the house itself.
This is the original kitchen/oven of the house (on an upper floor) - now laundry room
I love where the floors meet like a strange puzzle that wasn't assembled quite right
Shutter people, heads holding the wooden shutters open when the mistral comes whipping things around
And the roof tiles. Xavier told me that these tiles were originally molded on women's thighs - hence their shape!
January 29, 2017
On the "Winteryest" day in Provence (snowflakes falling and cold wind blowing), we headed to the top of some highland near our house. To Vernègues, tiny Provence village with ruins of a chateau sitting up on its tallest hill. Among the ruins is a house with a small restaurant, a black and white checkered floor, wooden-beamed ceiling and a warm fire. Crēperie: Le Repaire | Chemin de Très Moulin, 13116 Vernègues. A perfect winter spot. A perfect summer spot, I suppose (terrace outside overlooking the hills and villages below).
Back home the snowflakes had stuck between the roof tiles and turned them deeper shades of themselves. The rest of the yard was coated in icing - a look I do not like at all, to be honest. The same afternoon it warmed up enough to melt away, but it was a brief encounter with chill that reminded me of long New York winters...
January 23, 2017
My brother Stephen and I met in Rome last week. It was such a treat to have hours and hours to talk, walk, laugh and ogle all the Italian majesty - not to mention eat heaps of delicious food. Thanks to Xavier, I was a free bird - he was home being parent to the girls. I’ve always really appreciated that Xavier encourages me to take time for myself to travel and do things on my own. He is right when he insists people are better parents when they have space for themselves.
I had been to Rome, but not for 10 years. What an incredible place. We were just hypnotized.
Going back, after spending lots of time in France, I was really interested to see how much more embellished the churches in that city were than the majority of churches in Paris or across France. Renaissance masters’ artwork abound in churches in Rome. Intricate woodwork, sculpture and gilding everywhere, and all shades of marble (and painted faux marble).
The Vatican blew my mind. St Peter’s Basilica - Renaissance wonder. The scale. It was incredible. We felt so tiny. From staring up at the dome to feeling completely dwarfed by Bernini's Baldacchino - a bronze 4-legged canopy sculpture that sits just beneath the great dome in the church. Its twisted columns seemed serpent-like to me. So strange and dark. The whole space was ominous. We climbed to look down from the dome. Dizzying perspective. It was remarkable to see the ceiling mosaics up close. Such detail and color.
Stephen had a few great recommendations from a friend:
* Tazza d'Oro for Granita con Panna
* Ristorante Nino | Via Borgognona, 11 for lunch - the waiters! Such refinement
* Trattoria Al Moro | Vicolo delle Bollette, 13
Wherever you eat, you must try Mont Blanc dessert - chestnuts, meringue, whipped cream
And I loved my experience at Acqua Madre a Turkish Hammam | Via di S. Ambrogio, 17
I've always loved a good scrub, massage and steam - perfected by a dive in a freezing pool