We’ve been here in sunny Provence for three weeks now. We’ve settled into the daily rhythms of life. We take walks in the neighborhood and to the beach; we do our shopping at the local supermarket and on Friday mornings, at the open-air market in the public square; we sit at a café en plein air with a pression (draft beer or a pastis(Pernod over ice cubes with splashes of water). We have long conversations with friends over dinner that last until midnight, or casual conversations with strangers we meet as we amble about. We’ve enjoyed just be-ing. Life is good.
Our week began with a trip to Juan-les-Pins to visit our “adopted” French grandchildren, Justine and Louis. Justine spent three weeks with us in South Bend last summer. She and
Louis were spending spring break with their uncle in the warmer Mediterranean sun. It was good to see them because we won’t be visiting Verzenay, a small town near Reims, where their parents own a champagne vineyard. On Saturday, we lunched on our patio for the first time with Laure, the daughter of one of our friends, over a large mixed salad (bread, cheese and wine, de rigueur, of course), followed by a bowl of vanilla ice cream topped with fresh strawberries. Later, we took a bus and then hiked up a fairly steep hill for one and half kilometers for a guided tour of a nineteenth-century mine, Cap Garonne. On the way, we stopped several times to admire the vegetation that lined the road. Melanie was particularly interested in the cork trees, chêne liège, where the bark was cut and sometimes burned. It was also fascinating to see the regrowth of the bark. Now every time I uncork a bottle of wine, I’ll remember this steep climb on the way to the mine.
On Sunday afternoon, we walked down the hill with our friend, Martine, to see a marvelous film, Le Médecin de Campagne, starring François Cluzet and Marianne Denincourt. The film chronicles the harsh realities of life as a country doctor. The acting and cinematography were excellent, though at times, the sound quality coupled with the rapid elocution of the dialogue made the French at times difficult to understand for non-native speakers. Admittedly, I sometimes do not understand everything spoken in English language films.
Dinners with friends have been a common theme in my blogs and this week we have entertained and been fêted in turn. Faculty friends at the university who have been to IUSB as exchange professors treated us to dinner at Le Mayol, a restaurant at the old port in Toulon.
And the next evening we had a new dining experience, a raclette, at Marie-Hélène’s home with other invitees. In the center of the table was a large pancake shaped cooking device, hollow in the middle where several miniature wrought iron trays were nestled, one for each guest. Charcuterie, topped with cheese, is placed in the middle of the raclette to melt the cheese. The meal reminded me of a seventies fondue party. And the very next evening we invited Martine, our friend and landlady, and Christian and MariThé, for a meal of broiled cauliflower seasoned with zaa’tar as an appetizer, followed by a meal of New Orleans trout amandine and stuffed eggplant. Each evening there was conversation about a sundry of topics, but American politics dominated the discussion.
Eating delicious food was not our only pastime of the week. We went dancing at l’Italienne, a popular dance spot for gray-haired youngsters like us. On Sunday and Tuesday afternoons, there is dancing from 3-7pm. We arrived at 4 and stayed until closing at 7. Two singers, a male and a female, and an accordion player supplemented the canned orchestration. The female singer’s resonant, sultry voice added deeper meaning to the Latin love songs. Most of the music was tangos, Viennese waltzes, Paso Dobles, swing, and lots of rumbas with an occasional cha-cha. We had difficulty finding a rhythm to dance a foxtrot or a slower tempo waltz that the French call the Boston. But that did not hamper us from having a wonderful afternoon of dancing. Unlike the style of dancing at our dance club, Dan O’Day’s, where dancers flow across the room with wide arms and broad steps, the dancers here remain in a close embrace, moving in smaller steps rhythmically across the floor.
As we were leaving, an elderly gentleman spoke to us in a heavy Provençal accent that we did not grasp right away. With a tinge of sadness , he said that all good things must come to an end, to which he followed with a broad smile, “Dancing is great because during these several hours there are no arguments.” We all laughed and nodded in agreement. Once outside the dance hall, another gentleman, perhaps closer to our age, asked me if I was a compatriot from the islands, a question I’m often asked. When I responded that I was from Louisiana, he thought I said Guyana, to which he retorted was not very far away. But once I corrected him, he asked specifically where in Louisiana. That I was from New Orleans prompted him to tell us how much the French love jazz (he mentioned specifically Sidney Bechet) and how the French fought against racism. Sadly, racism continues, he said, even with the election of President Obama.With that last remark, he crossed the street to the bus stop, and we continued on to our car.
Exchanges like these are another way for us integrate into life here. Our apartment on the sloping side of a hill facing the Mediterranean is cozy with adequate space to entertain and receive friends. We have television but we rarely turn it on. Even in the States our tv is silent.
Thanks to the marvels of technology, we do remain connected to current events. Through the NY Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Kos and other media, the circus of presidential politics is within reach of our computer’s keyboard.
Yesterday, Martine, MariThé and Christian took us on a lovely drive through the countryside, on ascending winding hills with very sharp turns, to the village of Collobrières where we visited a reconstructed twelfth century monastery, La Chartreuse de la Verne. Today, there are only twenty-eight cloistered nuns who live in the monastery. For a moment, we stood outside and gazed across the forest of chestnut trees and imagined this isolated spot many centuries ago as a haven of prayer for the monks who lived and worked there, and now nuns do the same.
Tomorrow, we leave for Corsica and when we return after a nine-day stay, only three weeks will remain. I could stay here an additional two months. As much as I am thoroughly American, I feel equally connected to the French (a topic that I will explore in another blog).
Birthdays are memorable. I remember celebrating my 23rd in Vietnam, my 27th and 66th in France, and my 49th in Morocco.
I’ve just celebrated my sixty-ninth birthday, April 10, in St. Rémy de Provence, in the footsteps of Van Gogh, with Melanie, Nancy and Jim, Melanie’s cousin and her husband from Taos. Nancy and Jim treated us to lunch at a very nice restaurant in St. Rémy, L’aile ou la Cuisse. We sat in the outside patio, and what a scrumptious meal it was! Pictures of what I ordered follow, a delicious mosaic of salad, fish and dessert.
We spent the night in St. Rémy at a “chambre d’hôte,” a bed and breakfast, in a very small, but neat and comfortable, room attached to the main home a few steps from a swimming pool. Before retiring for the evening we took a walk downtown where we drank a “pression.” a draft beer, at one of the sidewalk cafés that are abundant throughout France. While sipping my beer, I noticed a waiter, sharply attired, exiting from the chic hotel across the street, with a sole drink on a tray. Once the traffic had subsided, allowing him to cross the street , he immediately approached a table near us where several young people were animatedly chatting. He placed the drink, to their surprise, in front of one of them, a young man whom he obviously knew from the laughter that ensued. It was a droll happenstance of life in a small French village.
St. Rémy is a charming village. It’s easy to imagine why Van Gogh would find the town and its environs an inspiration for his painting. In reading the placards disbursed across town that detail Van Gogh’s life, Melanie and I imagined walking with him as he ambled along these same streets.
The next morning, we ate the simply prepared French breakfast of bread, cheese, butter, jam, coffee and tea that our hostess had prepared for us. Before leaving, this seventy-eight year old widow, Jacqueline, short in stature with a gracious smile and stately demeanor, chatted with us for half an hour about what life has been for her recently. She had buried her ninety-year old mother just four months ago. The last three years of her mother’s life had not been good. Her mother lived in Champagne and the burden of caring for her was left to her sister who lived in Paris. And for those last three years, she went frequently to Champagne to help her sister care for their mother. As she talked, it become increasingly obvious to us that she was lonely and happy to have someone with whom to talk. She said that living was getting harder. And although she meets interesting people, her work keeping up the “chambre d’hôte” is hard for her. She continued sharing personal stories, mentioning that her sister’s husband was an alcoholic which added to the stress of caring for their mother. Because of her loneliness, she herself thought that life was no longer worth living, until her grandson one day, who had been contemplating suicide, said he did not because of her. So she carries on for him.
Before leaving St. Rémy we visited the asylum where Van Gogh spent his last days. There we visited his room and walked in the gardens where he painted. The place is still a functional mental health facility. Had twenty-first century treatment of mental illness been available to Van Gogh in late nineteenth-century France, there would have been perhaps a different outcome to his life and many more hundreds of canvases before he eventually died. In the short ten-year span that he did paint, there are over seven hundred canvases in museums and private collections.
The day before my birthday lunch we met Nancy and Jim at another one of their favorite restaurants, Jardin sur le Quai, in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Jim and Nancy are gourmets; they appreciate what delights food brings to the palate. They know the best places to eat; each spring they caravan in France for two to three months. Amanda, Melanie’s daughter, another fine dining aficionado, joins them them every year for a couple of weeks, but she will arrive a few days later. After lunch, Nancy and Jim returned to their caravan, and Melanie and I strolled along the main street popping in and out of antique shops. In one of them, we saw a beautiful, lavishly ornate, seventeenth century Mazarin desk at the princely sum of $24,000 euros. Naw! We were not tempted! It did not suit our tastes, nor did it accommodate our pocket book. However, if I had the resources of Monsieur Trump!
And speaking of the leading Republican candidate, our French friends are horrified and consider him dangerous! They are fearful that Trump may be America’s president, and wonder how such a person could possibly be elected as President Obama’s successor. We have tried to assuage their misgivings, but Trump’s rise mirrors the political climate here in France with the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s radical right National Front Party. The disgust for Trump is widespread. The cover of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical newspaper that suffered the terrorist attack in January of last year, has a special edition of the entire front cover depicting the Donald with a toilet bowl refresher hanging from his mouth. I’m saving that edition as a souvenir.
So after two weeks, we have not done as much traveling and exploring as we have in the past. We’ve been content to “just be,” absorbing, as much as possible, Provençal life. And although we like to discover new things, we don’t feel compelled to run hither and thither, as tourists often do.We spent one afternoon at the beach in Giens, a twenty minute car ride from our apartment, where we happily watched the dozens of wind and kite surfers. We were amazed that among the hordes of kites in the sky there were no entanglements. We also marveled at the graceful leaps in the air of the kite surfers. We learned later that surfers who compete train here.
We’re also content to sit quietly with a book. We’ve been reading French translations of novels by Martha Grimes and John Grisham. They are interesting reads because we learn new idioms and slang, expressions used in daily life but not found in the more literary texts that we’re accustomed to reading.
Yesterday, we ventured into downtown Toulon on the bus with our senior passes. We made brief stops at the grocery store and pharmacy for Advil and a balm for the nagging pain in Melanie’s shoulder. From there, we lunched at our favorite outdoor café, Le Marais, near the Arab Quarter.
It’s under different management now, but the food and ambience were still fabulous. We chatted with the new owner, David, and the chef, Gregory who came out to greet the diners.
As we walked through the Arab Quarter, it struck me how natural and normal life was there. We stumbled upon the Tuesday afternoon market, bustling with Muslim and non-Muslim shoppers, families and other pedestrians passing through. Some women were draped in traditional clothing, others with their heads covered, but many dressed in modern, western clothing. We saw one Muslim family, the husband with his arm around his wife who was covered, a public display of affection not usually seen among Muslim couples. Both of their kids were dressed casually in jeans and sweats. But what was most noticeable to me was the lack of angst and fear that might have been expected due to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Bruxelles. The only evidence that we saw of any tension or heightened alertness was at the Marseille airport. When we arrived, there were only two soldiers pacing around that we noticed, and only one with a weapon.
After lunch, on our way to the bus stop, we turned a corner into a deserted street, where a Muslim man with a bottle of Heineken was speaking loudly to himself in French, and obviously very drunk. As we exited the street, another Muslim man with contempt for this scene, pointed a finger to his head and nodded indicating that he thought the other man was crazy. Just another slice of life in Toulon.
There is something magical about Provence that keeps drawing me back. Perhaps it’s the golden light of the Provençal sun with its deep rich blue Mediterranean skies. Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh certainly captured it in their canvases.
Like them, I too am enchanted by the early morning light. In the morning, the sun glides gently across rustic, red-tiled roofs; the evening sun cascades over the verdant countryside. When we arrived just over a week ago, the sun was a welcome change from the cold, overcast days we left behind in South Bend. But for the next five days, rain and the blustery winds of the Mistral reminded us that these early days of spring in Provence still bring wintry conditions. Now the sun is back and we are grateful.
Our first days here have been spent setting up household. We’ve gone to the local supermarket, the Casino, and to the Friday morning open market in the town square. We’ve also made trips to our favorite boulangerie and to the boucherie. We’ve gotten our senior bus passes and new SIM cards for our phones. And now we’re slowly settling in to daily Provençal living. Our apartment, the same as we had two years ago, sits on a hill facing the Mediterranean. The sea is not visible, but the glass wall that lines our kitchen and sitting area give us a wonderful view of the garden below, the trees and rooftops of the houses, and in the distance to the west, the mountains.
What has made our visits to Provence even more special are the friends we’ve made over the years, most of them through the exchange program between IUSB and the Université de Toulon-Var. Since our arrival, we’ve been welcomed and feted. On Sunday morning, we went to the flea market with our friends, Christian and MariThé, and returned to their home for a “simple” meal of lentils and sausage with a cauliflower and asparagus salad. There was, of course, wine and cheese. And, bien entendu, the baguette! After our meal, we showed our friends the YouTube video of our latest spotlight dance at our dance studio, a waltz to the music of the Cajun singer, Zachary Richard. Christian, a big fan of international music, introduced us to the jazz of a Brazilian piano player, Eliana Elias, and to the American group, Pink Martini. Ari Shapiro, of NPR (National Public Radio), is an occasional guest artist with the latter group.
On another evening, our landlady, and friend, Martine, brought us a delicious Moroccan soup, chorba, with lamb, chick peas and vegetables. Another time, she surprised us, with a knock on the door and a smile, with chocolate mousse topped with almonds. And yesterday evening, we dined at another friend’s on fish and steamed vegetables with aioli (garlic mayonnaise sauce). We’ve had very little time to prepare a sumptuous meal of our own. But am I concerned?
Today our friend, Martine, invited us to an afternoon drive to the medieval village, Le Castellet. Like many of the Provençal villages from the Middle Ages, Le Castellet sits atop a mountainous hill overlooking large swaths of verdant, neatly sculptured vineyards and fields. As we wound our way through narrow stone streets, we visited several chic boutiques, a sign that this village caters to tourists. I bought a new wallet, Melanie a salmon colored scarf that matched perfectly the sweater she was wearing, and Martine found a scented candle that she says will last her several months. After a stop at Sanary-sur-Mer, where we casually walked along the pier, we started our journey home, during rush hour, squeezed among a slow moving caravan of cars along narrow streets. Later in the evening, at eight to be precise, the usual hour when meals begin here, we dined at Martine’s with Christian and MariThé, over pumpkin soup as a first course followed by mixed fresh vegetables and roasted turkey breast. Dessert was a bowl of fresh fruit. Dining in our friends’ homes is a delight. But our friends are quick to point out that it’s nothing more than a “repas simple,” a simple meal. Whether it is or not is disputable, but what is clear, our palates have not suffered.
Tonight, we’ll eat at home, a simple meal of sautéed spinach and baked cod rubbed in zaa’tar, a Lebanese blend of spices. Melanie wanted to buy it at the Friday market in the downtown square from the vendor selling spices. Since it was unknown to her, she immediately researched it on her iPhone. She then made a sachet for us with the spices she had — sumac, oregano, thyme, sesame seeds, basil, and marjoram. Since it was a particuarly sunny day, there were more people at the market than the previous Friday. We bumped into MariThé, who introduced us to a vendor selling homemade goat cheese. The Friday market is a real treat for us as we meander among the different vendors comparing prices and the quality of the fruit and vegetables. We blend in as local residents. It’s nice to see familiar faces and to know that the vendors we frequent remember us.
Yes, there is much to like here that makes us feel at home. Yesterday in Le Castellet, we were reminded of just how special Provence is when at the candle boutique the saleslady, remarking on the beautiful Provençal day , said, “Les vignes, les collines, la mer, ça, ç’est le paradis!” (The vineyards, the hills, the sea, that is paradise!). In that one phrase, she captured the magical charm of this region in southern France.
In grade school we memorized Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and the verse that still rings in my head is, “Listen, my children, and you shall hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” Well, after many months of anticipating our return trip to Provence, there’s another tale I’d like to relate, that of the wayward wallet. And so it begins.
After deplaning seemingly without any of the expected delays and hassles at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, we reached the connecting gate of our flight to Marseille and settled on board on the last leg of our journey to our beloved Provence. Once in Marseille, we learned that our rental car did not have GPS, necessitating a stop to buy one en route to Le Pradet, where we will spend the next two months. At the Carrefour, the French version of a large Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club, just outside of Marseille, our salesman politely explained to us the differences between a Garmin and a Tom-Tom. Once he learned that we were having an extended visit in France and that we planned a trip to Corsica, he suddenly became a tour guide, urging us to discover “la Corsica profonde” and regaled us with stories about Corsica’s beauty and what we should do there. Apparently, he was not pressed for time as he spent almost an hour with us while marveling at our correct and precise French.
The Tom-Tom was on sale, so we bought it. At the checkout counter, I reached for my wallet in my man-purse and discovered it was missing. Many men in France carry leather purses; it’s more convenient than having over-stuffed pockets. Mine was bought in Taos where cowboys too walk around with leather accessories. Excuse the slight digression; now back to my tale.
When I discovered my wallet missing, I panicked, certain that I had been pick-pocketed in the Paris airport. With Melanie’s credit card, we completed our purchase. Without my credit cards, cash, medical cards, and driver’s license, I felt naked and vulnerable. But that did not stop me from driving to Toulon and then on to Le Pradet. And since I did not install the GPS right away and relied on memory, we got sidetracked on our journey by taking several wrong turns. A one hour drive quickly stretched into over two hours, making us slightly late for lunch at our friends’ home. But before eating lunch our friends suggested that I immediately report my stolen wallet to our credit card companies, which I dutifully did. After lunch, we all went to the National Police in a neighboring town so that I could report the theft of my wallet. There we rang a bell and entered a courtyard before entering into a nondescript building whose nearly blank walls and sparse furnishings reminded me of an asylum. A friendly policeman greeted us at the reception desk, took my information and jotted it down in a ledger, then asked us to take a seat. A few minutes later we were greeted by yet another open and friendly policeman who led us through a series of hallways and upstairs to an office whose walls were decorated with French movie posters –– La French and MR73, starring one of our favorite French actors, Daniel Auteil — odd names, but apparently popular in France. Bemused by the tale of my stolen wallet, the friendly policeman gave me the expected warning to guard closely against pickpockets in France and seemed apologetic about my loss. I assured him that these things happened in the States as well. He asked me a series of questions that he typed into a computer as he continued to chat animately with us. During this time, my jet-lag was catching up with me as I repeatedly yawned, fighting hard to keep my droopy eyelids open. The policeman seemed amused by this making several comments about my drowsiness. Just as he was wrapping up his questioning, I unzipped a pocket in my man-purse that I had not opened before, and lo and behold, there was my wayward wallet. The policeman, astonished by my find, quickly smiled and said that was the quickest rediscovery of a lost item that he had ever witnessed. We all had a good laugh — at my expense of course. This banter continued a few moments longer and then he offered me a present, a patch of the National Police so I could be his “adjoint” (assistant). Our friends told us later that a gift of a patch from the National Police to a stranger never happens. I can only surmise that this was the first time this policeman ever encountered a situation like mine.
So what have I learned from this episode? First, never assume the worse until all options are explored. Second, remain calm before panicking. And really, as seasoned an international traveler as I think I am, I should have been aware of where my money and important documents were. Happily, yesterday’s panic is now over. Today, I am blessed to be here in southern France, where in the rain and the accompanying Mistral winds, the vendor at the fish market remembered us with a cheery greeting. I feel at home. Stay tuned!