Monthly Archives: April 2011

From There To Here – 26 April 2011

Tuesday, 26th April 2011 

A week ago, today, we stood on the promenade in Nice. A few feet from us a flutist played something haunting and bittersweet. I fell into my husband’s arms and sobbed quietly as I looked out to sea. The music, us, the sea, the horizon, as unreachable as ever, filled me with a sadness for all that I had ever reached for and fallen short of and for all that would, like the horizon, forever remain beyond me. And then the music ended, the moment passed and we walked on, leaving the sea to its own restless tide.

The day was warm and breezy, the old part of town beckoned. And so we wandered up and down the now familiar streets that we had come, slowly, to love over the past few weeks. Like so much of our experience in Provence, Nice put us in our place.


This town, which we had scorned upon arrival, seeing only the modern ruin of it, became one of many teachers that taught us how to look beyond disappointment and judgment to that which remains. And perhaps these spaces and places that still exist are even more precious to us because they have survived not only in spite of us, but because of us. By us, I mean those valiant souls who treasure history and tradition and find a way to keep its heart beating amidst the urban sprawl. Looking back over our weeks there, we see that it was this discovery, time and time again, that not only took our breath away, but comforted and nourished our spirits.

As I write this I am sitting on the couch in our living room in New York, looking up once in a while to watch the light play on the Hudson River. Helicopters are a constant whirr, a jack-hammer joins in, behind which plays the endless drone of traffic streaming along the West Side Highway. I try to turn these sounds into jazz but it’s not working and I’m wondering how do I look beyond this and find something of value, here, in the greatest urban sprawl of all.

A few seconds of silence descend and in that still, small space a bird sings.

From There To Here – 26 April 2011

Tuesday, 26th April 2011 
A week ago, today, we stood on the promenade in Nice. A few feet from us a flutist played something haunting and bittersweet. I fell into my husband’s arms and sobbed quietly as I looked out to sea. The music, us, the sea, the horizon, as unreachable as ever, filled me with a sadness for all that I had ever reached for and fallen short of and for all that would, like the horizon, forever remain beyond me. And then the music ended, the moment passed and we walked on, leaving the sea to its own restless tide.
INSERT PHOTO
The day was warm and breezy, the old part of town beckoned. And so we wandered up and down the now familiar streets that we had come, slowly, to love over the past few weeks. Like so much of our experience in Provence, Nice put us in our place.
This town, which we had scorned upon arrival, seeing only the modern ruin of it, became one of many teachers that taught us how to look beyond disappointment and judgment to that which remains. And perhaps these spaces and places that still exist are even more precious to us because they have survived not only in spite of us, but because of us. By us, I mean those valiant souls who treasure history and tradition and find a way to keep its heart beating amidst the urban sprawl. Looking back over our weeks there, we see that it was this discovery, time and time again, that not only took our breath away, but comforted and nourished our spirits.
INSERT PHOTOS
As I write this I am sitting on the couch in our living room in New York, looking up once in a while to watch the light play on the Hudson River. Helicopters are a constant whirr, a jack-hammer joins in, behind which plays the endless drone of traffic streaming along the West Side Highway. I try to turn these sounds into jazz but it’s not working and I’m wondering how do I look beyond this and find something of value, here, in the greatest urban sprawl of all.
A few seconds of silence descend and in that still, small space a bird sings.

Maggie Unwraps a Banon Cheese

17 April 2011, Late in the day

Maggie and I were at a farmer’s market in the town of Apt this morning and came across a stand that sold only one cheese, the one they made on their farm. It’s called Banon, a soft and creamy goat’s milk cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves and tied with raffia. We had it late in the day while sitting on the terrace where we were staying outside of Bonnieux in the Luberon valley. The sun was about an hour from setting, the light was dazzling, the bushes framing the terrace were lit from behind in a blaze of silvery light. It was still and silent, and every once in a while a tiny breeze stirred the catkins on the bushes which then released puffs of pollen, like smoke into the silvery air. It was mesmerizing to watch as nature sent the countless billions of spores into the world to do what they were meant to do. We sat and stared like two kids at this bounty. 

Pierced By The Light – 17 April 2011

17th April 2011
Yesterday morning we drove to Apt to meet with Sharon and Paul and lunch in their newly planted garden. We are new friends and yet fit each other like favorite old sweaters – the kind you can relax in and be kept warm by. It is their magnificent home in Bonnieux that will be our base in the autumn when we return for another six weeks. And the only thing not good about that is that they won’t be there as they live half the year in Maine. 

On our return to Les Trois Sources we stop to buy a rice and seafood salad for our dinner along with a slab of nougat that will prove to be the best yet.
Paul Jeannet, who along with his wife Caroline, is the owner of the B&B, generously takes us on a tour of the building and shows us old photos of what the place looked like when they bought it 15 years ago. When you look at these pictures and see the abandoned ruin it was then, you cannot but admire them for their courage and hard work. Not only did they first have to remove decades of debris and rusting vehicles, they had to engineer the installation of electricity and running water, put in windows where only shutters had flapped, and uncover rooms that had been blocked up. 
They also planted vineyards and pear orchards as well as shrubs and climbing roses, stands of lilac and cypress trees – all of which now looks as though it had been there forever. In fact, it was while planting a cypress tree some years back that they heard something fall inside a part of the building they hadn’t known existed. On following the sound they pulled down a wall that revealed an old brick bread oven, which they lovingly restored.

It is rare to see this kind of integrity and yet here in Provence one sees it over and over again – the preservation of that which remains. Perhaps Paul and Caroline are the last of a line of such restorers and keepers of history. Certainly they got in just under the wire: 15 years ago was just about the cut off point for buying one of these ruins at an affordable price.
During our tour Paul shows us one of the many artifacts he has found and challenges us to guess what it is:
We are stumped. Paul gleefully tells us it was a tool designed for the making of perfect bunches of asparagus! These seemingly quaint gadgets strike us as quintessentially French: the French have a sense of aesthetics and proportion when it comes to their food. You see this reflected both at the markets and on the plate where, in both places, food is arranged according to color and texture and scale. I think of one of the stalls in Sanaray where the Rouges were grouped together on one side: tomatoes, radishes, red peppers, strawberries, while over there sat the Verts: asparagus, broccoli, beans, spinach and zucchini.
We take our leave of Paul and go sit on our terrace, which, now that the mistral has departed, is serene and sunny. We spread out our little feast to which we have added wedges of raw fennel and when we are finished sit in silence looking at the countryside.
How quickly feelings come and go! Not an hour earlier, while Skype-ing my daughter, Isabel, back in New York, I had told her I was ready to come home. Now as I watch the light interact with all that comes within its realm I am ready to stay forever.
And let me tell you about the light, which struck me this evening with all the sharp clarity of a sudden epiphany. As we’ve said before, on this Provencal adventure we have had to let go, time and again, of our images of Tuscany, where the quality of light was an integral part of our experience. As we described in our Tuscany book, the light there had a warmth to it that held you and the landscape in its embrace. We had been missing that quality here. And then another “glimpse” appears.
 The sun was low in the sky but not yet below the hills, so it was coming at us on a slightly downward slant. And so it was that the tree-tops, just above our 2nd floor terrace, were illuminated right in front of us. Suddenly trees that had seemed fairly non-descript on previous viewing, were scintillatingly revealed: each cluster of its spring catkins resembled starfish outlined in fairy-lights. It was literally breathtaking and the two of us sat there for half an hour as if in a spell watching, as every few seconds, the slightest breeze would loosen their pollen sending of little back-lit puffs of mossy green smoke.
What I came to understand about the Provencal light in that half hour is that it is piercing. It goes straight to the heart of everything and illuminates its essential nature. It pierced my heart in such a way as to make me want to stay forever.

Sailing Through The Countryside – 15 April 2011

Friday 15th April, 2011
We sit in the sunny courtyard of this 13th Century building, which now houses, Les Trois Sources, the B & B where we are staying. The day is clear and still and I’m hoping this clarity will find its way into my mind and enlighten me. The truth is, I’m feeling road weary. It happened yesterday, the feeling that enough is enough: too many beds, too many restaurants, too many towns, too many roads and too little inspiration.
Yesterday morning was as gloomy as my mood: The sky glowering, the mistral still at its malignant play, the air cold down to the bone.Yet  in spite of all this, it was a day filled with color. The shades of mauve and purple from wisteria, lilac and iris – shades I always feel reflect a little of Mother Nature’s irony in that we associate these colors with death, and here she is flaunting them in the season of birth. Fields of newly tilled earth the color of sand here, and over there, close to rust. The backdrop of ochre hillsides setting off a field of rape, its yellow creating a color field almost vicious in intensity, and next to it a field of robust young wheat, so green it vibrates. At the far edge of the field, a line of bottle green pines. And how to describe the shiny new green of the grape leaves all a-twitter on their ancient stumps of vine? Or the near black- green of the cypress? The grey-green of the olive trees? And then you round a corner in an old hill town and are hit with a shock of magenta from the flowering Judas tree.

These living colors create their own light, a light which is all the brighter beneath the grey tarpaulin sky.
We stop at a couple of hill towns and in one discover a small shop that is all about honey: we taste chestnut, acacia, thyme, lavender and linden and settle on the latter two, along with a honey spice cake.
In the next village we find a tiny Salon de The and order pots of green tea which we drink in the company of the owner who speaks no English. Five minutes of inspired French arrive on the tip of my tongue and we talk of the peace of the village, of Cartier-Bresson, who took a famous photograph here one which Joel has just unwittingly taken himself! We buy a tiny bottle of wild lavender oil and say goodbye until September.

And so we sail on through the countryside, through the late afternoon, through rain clouds and sunshine, through fields and villages and just before Bonnieux we see the tree that took our breath away this morning. It is an enormous tamarisk, decked out in her spring crinoline, a tattered chiffon of the palest pink slightly grey with age. She shivers and shimmies in the breeze in full glory against the gunmetal sky and we can only behold her in silent admiration.
Back in Bonnieux we shop for cheese and fruit to supplement breakfast and make a dinner reservation at a local restaurant. It’s 6:30 by the time we get back to Les Trois Sources. The mistral is dying down, the evening cold and serene. We take a hot bath and deciding we cannot face yet another restaurant spread our picnic cloth on the bed and dine by candlelight on the spiced honey cake, runny goat’s cheese, lavender honey, pear, almonds and ginger tea.
It is a moment of utter peace and contentment. The moon, almost full, shines in our window and when we step out onto the terrace the sun is setting over the valley.
We lie in bed and soak up the peace that is both in the room and outside of it. In the morning we will learn that our bedroom was originally a 13th Century church and later housed silk worms munching on mulberry leaves. Blessed by centuries of prayer and silk, we fall asleep.

Between the Ruin and the Asylum – 14 April 2011

Thursday 14th April 2011 
Last night Joel and I talked about what this process has been about for us so far, and while we will not even begin to edit either the text or photographs until we’ve we finish our second trip here in the late summer and autumn, we are beginning to get a sense of what the essence of this book will be. Our earlier realization that this is a land of glimpses still applies, but now it is deepened by a sense of communion we’ve begun to experience. Certainly today was rich in both those qualities. We left Arles in the morning to drive to a B&B on the outskirts of Bonnieux, in the Luberon, where we will spend the next 3 days. On the way we stop in Glanum to visit both an ancient pre-Roman ruin that was excavated in 1921, after Van Gogh painted there and to visit Van Gogh’s room in the Asylum, which is separated from the ruin by a field. 
We stopped in a field where a single tree called out to us as we drove by. This was the second time it called, the first being a few days before and I guess we didn’t hear it clearly enough then. But this time we went to it and of course the walk was fulfilling. Just to be there with the new greens glowing on the tops of the vines and the young leaves on the great tree in the midst of the vineyard beckoning to us in the light breeze was worth the effort. 

 And then, while walking back, I took notice of all the grand old gentlemen who had been making the grapes for so many years. I knelt at the feet of two of them to make their portrait and was overcome by their individuality and character.

Down the road another mile or two is Glanum, settled four centuries before Rome conquered it and built upon it. It was a day when all the Judas trees were in their finest moment and to see an ancient settlement once again in flower was to feel time slip away and it reminded me that spring is joyous precisely because it marks the cycle so clearly, more so than any other season it seems to me. 

We entered the asylum where Van Gogh stayed during his final time in 
Provence. It was peaceful and spacious and we were there at the very 
moment that he would have painted the famous pear tree painting. 
We went to see the room he lived in and really all that was there to 
connect me to him was a chair and a bed, the rest of the room being 
overwhelmed by other peoples paintings which in this little
sanctuary seemed rude and noisy. But the chair spoke to me and 
was tender and simple. We looked out his window and saw what 
must have called to him then even though we were one hundred and 
thirty years later. The gardens, the wall, the fields beyond.

Between The Ruin And The Asylum
Oh, field.

Pasture for all,

You hold communion

 Between ruin and asylum.

The ruin, full of ingenuity,

The asylum sheltering torment

And kindness within its

Walls and gardens. 

 Marvel at the ruin.

 Weep in Van Gogh’s room.

Lie down in the field –

Oh, sweet, wet field. 



Merde du Printemps – 13 April 2011

13th April 2011
I’ll make this as brief as possible: some days are crap no matter where you are.
The mistral arrived yesterday, so pretty much wherever you stand you get free dermabrasion. You also get pollen in your eyes, up your nose and in your mouth if you leave it hanging open in disbelief. But hey, we’re in Provence, surely the mistral must be embraced. So off we go to the Camargue.
The Carmargue is known for – and I paraphrase the guidebooks – its unspoiled beauty, its salt flats, wild horses and bird sanctuary, with the Town of St.Marie Sur Mer being the jewel in the crown. What a desolate, unattractive place. Its few streets are made up of brutal 2-storey buildings and shops reminiscent of Canal Street in New York. The houses on the so-called sea front look out to a raised cement promenade – maybe there’s a glimpse of sea from the second floor. The sea? Big. The sand? Grey. The countryside? Flat as a pancake and as scrubby as a door mat. The horses? Tired. The birds?  They all looked like flamingos to me. Oh, we saw a beaver.

 A couple huddled in a sunny corner against the mistral’s winds.

The local church with its patron saint and the letters written to her asking for miracles.


  The Camargue looks a lot like Brooklyn near JFK

Moving right along, we drive to a town whose name is permanently erased from my mind. The streets are paved with dog shit of the sit and slide variety. You can either look down and see it, or look up and step in it. Why, you ask, do we lunch here? We are hungry and eternally optimistic. The only café open has “Angels” in its name.  I wish I could tell you the food was heavenly. The appetizer of tuna and vegetables had obviously been eaten by the chef and then spat onto the plate. The chicken thigh was so enormous and tough the bird must have clocked quite a few hours on the treadmill. The “fresh” pasta wasn’t, nor the rancid oil that clogged it. Dessert was canned pineapple, which from its rusty hue had probably been in the can longer than a B movie. The ice-cream was a first for me: inedible. On the way back to the car I laughed so hard while side-stepping dog shit that I actually did wet myself.

Another Dreamy Day – 12 April 2011

12th April, 2011 
Today we visited St. Remy, yet another graceful old town with yet more, delicious food. I’m beginning to worry I’m writing a food blog! We arrive in town just before the shops shut for lunch and just in time to visit Florame, a relatively young company, established 20 years ago, which uses ancient methods to extract essential oils from the many plants and flowers native to Provence. 
This copper set of distillers sits in the lobby of the factory in St. Remy 
I first discovered Florame in their tiny boutique in Paris, some 6 years ago and fell in love with their face oil and a bath oil for muscles and joints. For a while they had a U.S. distributor, but no more, so I am happy to come here to the source and stock up on supplies. I’m trying to come to love my aging skin the way I would an old leather bag (I’ve been called worse). So, while I do not believe there is an oil or cream in existence capable of turning back time, I do feel that if certain oils can keep leather supple it’s worth a try on my skin and I load up with enough to last me until we return in September.
Then we begin what is now our customary “nose-meander” in search of lunch and are well rewarded by baked salmon and salad in a sun-drenched garden, before continuing a sleepy amble through the rest of the town. But it was dessert that spoke to Joel!

I always am amazed by the variety of blues the French call “French Blue.” Here are two classics.

Salmon and salad are all too familiar no matter how good they are, but dessert, made in house, well…. 

Back in Arles we freshen up before walking to La Gueule du Loup, a tiny restaurant that had caught our attention earlier in the day. This is truly one of those restaurants you heard travelers talk about discovering back in the 60”s. Run by the Allard family it has four tables downstairs bang up against the open kitchen. There are also a handful of tables upstairs, but downstairs is where you want to be in order to watch Jean Jacques Allard work his magic. In the two and half hours we were there we never heard him speak. Wife and daughter would take the orders, pin them up in the kitchen and he would fulfill them in Zen silence, his movements spare and concentrated, every dish a thing of beauty.  Here are ours.
Appetisers

Fois gras on gingerbread with a cognac foam.

Sweetbreads wrapped in eggplant.

Entrees

Rack of lamb cooked to medium-rare perfection, olive

Tapinade, fig reduction, side of ratatouille, smashed potatoes.


Camargue Boulliabase

Like no other I have ever tasted. It had tiny, diced poached carrots
 and celery laid over 3 small potatoes, then 4 fillets 
of Rouget, pan sauted in butter and mounted on top of the vegetables, 
then a cup of intense broth over all.

Jean Jacques making our main courses

Dessert

Reversed Ile Flotant with layers of

Vanilla ice cream

Caramel, Creme Anglaise 
and

Meringue

Vervene Infusion

Followed by a good night’s sleep!

Amongst the Ruins – 12 April 2011

12th April 2011 
After an easy two and a half hour drive from TSL we arrived in Arles yesterday in time for lunch, which was perhaps the first non-descript meal we’ve had since we’ve been in Provence. The waiter however was quite descript: either he was on coke or he had a ripe cold, constantly snorting and sniffing, wiping his nose on the back of his hand, which he then used to pour our water. There are times when a lack of imagination would be welcome. But it got us out on to the streets in a hurry and what streets.
I won’t go into the history, it’s not what I do and its readily available on the internet, but history abounds here, whether it’s from the Amphitheatre dated 1st Century AD – that’s right, a mere 2000 years old – and holding 20,000 spectators – forget Madison Square Garden – to Vincent Van Gogh. And it is the physical remains of all this history that is so comforting. Really, I came out of a cathedral and sat on the sunny steps looking across the square to more ancient buildings and I thought, well, if this has all survived this long, through all its tribulations and pestilence, maybe this poor old world can survive a little longer.

We sit in the ruins of the Roman theatre – even older than the Amphitheatre – and read that comedies and burlesque were especially appreciated by the audience. I can’t help thinking Mel Brooks must have brought the house down. 
We have an ice-cream sundae. We watch a class of 8 year-olds excitedly working on an art project while sitting on the ground that Roman solders marched on. We aimlessly wander the labrynthian streets, knowing we can’t get lost, which allows for timeless exploration – destination unknown. We buy an old piece of handspun cloth. We watch the locals, carrying briefcases or shopping baskets – and of course, baguettes – and realize what it is we’ve come to love about all these old towns: the French love them. More than that they treasure and respect their history. It is natural for them to live modern life amongst the ruins and ancient dwellings. Every corner you turn you get another glimpse of breathtaking houses, raddled stone, crumbling pillars, faded shutters, plants growing out of every crevice, laundry hanging from a a window. There is no conformity, no straight lines or grids, no street wider than a wagon, only centuries of tradition.
We wander back to our hotel, The Hotel D’Arlatan which deserves a mention. A 15th Century residence built on 4th Century ruins, still visible through a glass floor, it is a rambling pile of a building. Our room faces out onto a quiet courtyard, the kind space that has me thinking I could write a novel there. Our room, actually a small site, has stone walls, beams, shuttered windows and a red clay tile floor. The bed is comfortable, the furniture homey and breakfast generous.
It’s evening and I lie on the bed looking at the tiled roof across the courtyard. Clumps of yellow flowers stir in the breeze and a tiny bird, the same color as the mustard lichen on the tiles, flits in and out of its nest in the eaves. All else is silent.
I catch up with some writing while Joel downloads photographs. We talk of our deep pleasure and our gratitude to Barnes & Noble for bringing us here, and then we stroll down the street to a restaurant which instinct tells us is the one. And so it is. Le Brin de Thym – a sprig of thyme – which seems an apt metaphor for one’s life. We share two medallions of fois gras, which we spread on crusty baguette along with fig preserve. Then Joel has an Aoli which arrives looking like a carnival: his plate consists of fish, a little bowl of escargot with a boiled potato serving as a pin cushion for the escargot pick, a hard boiled egg, cauliflour, beets and 3 carrots cooked whole, a large tomato, chick peas and, of course, the aioli sauce.  My dish is visually demure by comparison but not by taste. I have pave of veau, basically a fillet mignon of veal in a sauce of cepes – the mushrooms famous in this area – a little dish of veggies and a frisee salad. The boiled potatoes, in their skins, are the best I’ve tasted outside of Ireland.  We share a nougat glace drizzled with warm honey. The whole meal eaten outside as the last of the day’s light fades into night, the moon full of promise.

A Beach Revisited – 9 April 2011

9th April 2011
On this Saturday we visit Villefranche and the beach I slept and lived on in July 1965, a few weeks before my 19th Birthday. I don’t even know where to start: that it was 46 years ago? That I was traveling, well hitching, around Europe with a friend? That I had a rucksack from the 40’s that I had sewn a Union Jack onto before leaving London – so that I wouldn’t be mistaken for an American. My money was stolen the first week and Marie gallantly agreed to lend me half of her $150. We lasted 3 months on this. Everyone once in a while we’d treat ourselves to a hostel or pension, but mainly it was beaches and fields that housed us.
I don’t know how we found our way down to Villefranche, but in some way I never left it. To be 18 and curl up in a sleeping bag on a beach, under the stars, with no fear! I can’t remember falling asleep those nights, but I remember waking up with the sun each morning, bathing in the sea – including brushing my teeth. And then, famished, we’d climb up the steep hill to a road at the top where there was a small grocery store. The same breakfast every morning: a banana, chocolate milk and a shared donut, sitting on a stone wall. Then we’d walk back down the hill to the beach and swim and sunbathe, smoke cigarettes, swim some more and gaze out to sea. I remember from where we were camped we could look along to the sea front where some ritzy boats were moored and a lone restaurant remained beyond our pocket and our reach. But apart from those few moments of longing to be “one of them” I felt both at peace and wild. It seemed perfectly natural to live like that.
Now, all these decades later, the place remains totally recognizable to me. Oh, sure, there are a few “modern” unattractive apartment buildings on the hillside where once there were only a few villas. But the sea front is unchanged, the buildings slightly shabby perhaps, yet still gay. A few more restaurants. We lunch at the one I couldn’t afford back then. Prawns with a vanilla sauce, daurade with squid and snow peas, the best tart tatin yet, deeply caramelized and accompanied by a rich vanilla ice cream. The restaurant bears what could have been my name back then – L’Orsin Bleu the blue urchin. For those five days I lived in my pale aqua bikini with its matching belt at the hip. We walk back along the bay and I see my spot on the beach. My impression is still there, my spore and my spirit. All that was wild and free is right there in the sand where those four young girls now lie. 
When I get home I feel a deep urge to draw this place and what comes out is, I believe, the wild free place it must have been centuries ago.