November 4, 2016
Four months in.
The girls returned to school yesterday after a big two-week break; Marguerite took the train back to Paris. This morning I hung herbs from the garden in the kitchen, feeling peaceful, grateful for a moment to myself with no one else around (except Fabrizio, our wonderful painter, who is still hard at work painting upstairs).
We are finally in a real rhythm here. Everyone feels it. Colette told me that she has even gotten used to this house now. The house is quiet at night: very few nightmares.
Fires in the fireplace!
Our shutters are all back on the house - restored, strengthened wood and in a new color. The shutters of Provence (and France more generally!) are like characters in the lives of the people they protect. Shutters are the opening and closing rituals of the day; they are protection, quiet, a signal to outsiders, sentinels of sleep and calm. I was hesitant to afford them importance. We have nothing like it in the United States; even blackout shades do not compare. Now I have a deep respect for them. One can read a town - its sentiment - by observing the position of its shutters.
We’ve become friends with the menuiser (the woodworker, in this case specializing in shutters) and his partner, his son. Their relationship is interesting and is representative of many craftspeople in Provence. The master and his apprentice. It is often a father and son. Active teaching as the job is done. The son is probably my age and has two young girls of his own. He invited us to come to his town to have a playdate with his girls. Provence is always personal - I love that aspect of life here. I never feel lonely.
The weekly market is a protracted social gathering. Xavier and I go almost every Friday together. It is the best date. I love watching Xavier with the vendors at each stand. I learn new things about him (after 10 years!) as he relates to his people.
One of the vendors - at the fruit and vegetable stand - is particularly fond of him. Her name is Mimi. For her, selling fruit and vegetables is a question of relationships. Each week, we hand her 6 or 7 bins full of fresh Provence produce - and our own market baskets for her to carefully fill, based on weight and squashability. She is a master at this. At the end, Xavier always makes his way behind the counter where he picks up our baskets. Mimi makes sure to bestow a few affectionate kisses on his cheeks and then turns to reassure me that she’s been married 36 years and not to worry. She has a special look in her eye when she sees Xavier.
Last Friday Mimi had a long line of customers (which rarely deters her from discussing a particular recipe she likes with the customer, or chatting about children or a trip or anything really). An older gentleman approached the stand, pushing his wife in a wheel chair. Mimi announced to all that one of her best clients had arrived, who would soon be entering a retirement home away from our town. She made her way around the long table to ceremoniously kiss this woman’s cheeks and wish her well. It was clear this was an old relationship that had seen many cycles of seasonal change - in vegetables and children and in the women themselves. I felt like crying watching them.
André, the fromager. I always ask him for his recommendations. A medley of suggestions. Cheeses that compliment each other or those that should only be eaten with a specific fruit or meat or wine, of course. He wears a big smile and usually cuts me a slice of whatever he is recommending and raises his eyebrows in anticipation as I taste it. Then breaks out in a big smile when I approve. He tells me this is a good town, that he grew up in one like this.
An older guy with a strong mustache walks up and watches as André hands me a small wheel of Corsican cheese. “How is it possible that you have that cheese?” he asks accusingly. André tells him he secured it from a friend in Corsica and will only have the variety for about a month. Mustache nods approvingly, moving his mandible downward in a very French way. The mustache trails. He turns to me and informs me that this cheese is a rare treat and he should know - he spent his life as a fromager. And confiture de figues! with that cheese. Must be eaten with figs. The retired fromager giving approval in line at the fromager - a special treat indeed.
Mr. Tapenade, with his thick Marseille accent and tapenade mixtures to-die-for is a weekly stop. We always taste something new - a ginger infused tapenade or anchovy/roquefort spread. This is the food that defines Provence. We take the pistounade and the black olive tapenade (olives from Nyons) and the caviar d’artichaut (pure cream). Mr. Tapenade thrusts a piece of smeared baguette at me. Even before I’ve put it in my mouth I make an “yum” sound. He tells me, “L’Américaine! Attends! Il faut goûter d’abord!” (Wait! You haven’t even tasted it yet, Miss American!). But I already know it will be good.
Other exciting news in our town includes a change of direction on the main one-way street (the center of commerce, like most small French towns). A new mayor had changed the street to run south rather than north. It had just been changed when we moved in this summer and we heard about it from Jean-Marie (the prior owner of our house) and most others we met in the village. I was asking another parent at Colette’s school about one of the boulangeries in town and she huffed and said, well I used to go to that bakery, but then they changed the direction of the streets and it is all too confusing now. I think the change was having an impact on business for the boucher and the épicerie as well. Enough of the town made noise and we recently got a flyer in the mail informing us the grand rue would now run north anew. I could feel the sigh of relief coming from the town. So funny. I do sometimes giggle thinking about New York City compared to this small town in Provence.
I often pick up a copy of La Provence - newpapaer for the region. I learn all sorts of cultural things there. How imperative the local soccer team is. Why the south of France is so important for Sarkozy's potential presidential bid. The shifting location of the market in Aix-en-Provence. Spotlight on cultural events. Which movies are being shown in VO (not dubbed). Turkey and the EU from the point of view here in southern France. The fragile existence of local sea urchins and a plea to hunt them with prudence.
Autumn feels grand in Provence. I have thought of my morning commute on my bike through Central Park - the reds, oranges and yellows of fall - with a bit of yearning. But the light and the color here is pretty exceptional. The vineyards are the keepers of fall. We are flanked by vines and every drive or walk is watching the grape leaves turn scarlet or amber. And the sycamores lining the streets have all turned golden.