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.