Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My Stylish French Girlfriends by Sharon Santoni

As some of you know, I came to blogging via a convex route: aka my companion Remi telling me that, as my career as a travel writer had been put on hold, I had to start doing something creative as an outlet because my restlessness was driving him crazy. He suggested that I start a blog. This blog, actually. But at the time, blogs were still...questionably legitimate. Coming from the background of already being a professional journalist, I puffed up as a snob. That is until I started looking further into what they were. The very first blog that I found which clicked with me was My French Country Home. As soon as I began delving into the fine phrasing and poring over all of the lush, original photography, I quickly changed my tune to, "Oh my goodness, I can't do this!" Finally, I decided to stop reading it for a while until I found my own voice, my own way of doing things.

Interestingly enough, today I am really grateful to call Sharon Santoni, who is the blog's author, a friend - albeit one that I haven't met yet in person, as hard as that is to remember sometimes. She is an amazing woman - smart as a whip, thoughtful, romantic yet driven, extremely generous in her support, incredibly funny and has pitch-perfect taste. My French Country Home only continues to grow and accrue enormous success with thousands of readers all around the world. And she deserves every bit of it as she is an unbelievably hard-worker who has persistently pushes herself and her aesthetic at a non-stop pace...all while making it appear...effortless.

Eh, oui. C'est ça l'histoire. And it something that she has very much in common with the subjects of her new book, "My Stylish French Girlfriends."

Now, listen. I am as over the deification of the French woman as the next person. I know plenty of seriously hot messes here in Provence and remember thinking when I first moved to Paris fourteen years ago that, "New Yorkers dress better than les Parisiennes! Ha!" But...but...I have to admit that when the French woman gets it right...she nails it. Because for her, it goes far beyond appearance to constructing an interesting and interested full life, one that often has been settled on her own terms too.

Does money help in this process? Well, of course it can. And I will admit (with embarrassment) that when Sharon first told me about this project I had a wee apprehension of "Will this only be about wealthy women who have access to everything?" shimmy over me but of course I should have given my friend more credit than that (sorry!) for she was determined to present twenty women of all age ranges with varied careers and economic statuses who live throughout this glorious hexagone called France.

The common thread that unites them is that they are not in search of perfection (an evil, poisonous word if ever there was one) but of authenticity by making specific choices to build a life true to their spirit and dreams. We are first introduced to Alicia, a charming young redhead (a-hem) who left school at the age of fifteen to join a circus and now is a gifted stylist and brocanteuse. Several chapters later, we meet Evelyne, une femme d'un certain age, who, as the fifth generation to run Boizel, her family's champagne vineyard, is searching for new resources to keep their bubbly relevant in this digital age. Amongst the women there are quite a few designers and decorators of varying tastes, as well as artists, antique dealers and business women with quite different lifestyles.

Through the gorgeous photography by Franck Schmitt, we are invited into the personal spaces that they share with their loved ones, creating an ambiance as intimate as the stories that Sharon reveals about each of her girlfriends. I know her writing well and her naturally calming cadence perfectly compliments Franck's use of depth of field to softly guide the eye. Is the result quite glamorous? Yes, delightfully so but also grounded and real. The women do not appear to be overly made-up for the camera and Sharon states that the homes were not styled beyond the addition of fresh flowers. For me, that makes it especially appealing. Finely printed, it is a beautiful book.

Another aspect that Sharon fought hard for during its inception was its size. It is big but not too much, just perfect to balance on one's knees and yet not so small as to be shuffled away on a bookshelf...ça serait dommage. I was given "My Stylish French Girlfriends" as a birthday gift from another wonderful friend, La Contessa. That was in August, so why am I only sharing it with you now? Well, I wanted to savor it. Rather than read it all at one go, I would sit down on the terrace in the end of summer light with a glass of wine and read a chapter, maybe two. It was enough to give me quite a lot to think about or swoon over, both equally important. And I still go back to simmer over the images and the text because in creating "My Stylish French Girlfriends" Sharon Santoni has given us a wonderful resource to something that all of these women exude...inspiration.

To get a glimpse, watch the video below...
This video and all images inside the book courtesy of ©MyStylishFrenchGirlfriends

To buy "My Stylish French Girlfriends" in the US through Amazon, clickhere.
To buy it directly through her publisher, Gibbs Smith, clickhere.
Pour l'acheter en France, cliquezici.
While there is a Kindle edition, I really think that the hardbound is best in this case.

To discover Sharon's blog, by all means go tohttp://sharonsantoni.com/
To follow her adventures on instagram+Sharon Santoni
Her online brocante shop can be found: here.
For more information about her brocante and lifestyle tours, click: here.
And to inquire about staying at her guest cottage, click: here.

See? I told you that she is a hard-worker!

Sharon has no idea that I am doing this post today. But this month's By Invitation Only topic - which reunites a group of bloggers around the globe to discuss a pre-determined theme - reintroduced last October's question of, "What is the one thing that you can't live without this Fall?" and I immediately thought, "inspiration" which lead me pronto to Sharon's book. I know that quite a few of you already know and love it but for those of you who don't, well, I hope that you enjoy "My French Stylish Girlfriends" as much as I do. Brava, Sharon!

To discover what the other bloggers have cooked up for this months theme, please visit: here.

With all of my Best from Provence,

PS. It goes without saying that, especially as he is a ladies man, Ben gives his hearty approval to "My Stylish French Girlfriends"...

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Apple song

It is funny the frustrating things that slow-motion blur into helpful, then hop into good in the long run. 

I don't tend to expound too much on Kipling's rougher nature but it is something that we live with everyday. Our adopted dog was definitely beaten in his previous life and bitten too. So let's just say that he tends to strike first when in doubt. I have learned to be as careful as a CIA agent when out on our walks for good reason, certainly as many folks tend to just open up their doors and let their dogs roam unaccompanied in the South of France. I tighten my grip on his leash and scan the horizon; I pay attention to the snap of each twig breaking, ready for what might come up at the next turn in the bend. Frankly, it can be a little exhausting but it is just a part of love. And over months - certainly since we have moved out to this village - I have come to rely heavily on my instinct. I listen hard to that inner voice far more than I used to. It can be uncanny how a "Wait. No, stop here," has continuously averted potential dangers. 

I trust my instinct.

And it serves me for light-hearted pursuits as well. 

It was already late yesterday evening when I decided to ride my bike out to the garden. A big storm had been announced for today - yes, one that hit hard and had both dogs, including Kipling, hiding under my desk - and I wanted to make sure if there was anything that needed to come in. Remi had given me the black vintage bicycle for my birthday present. It needs huile somewhere up front - I am the veritable squeaky wheel - and so call my ride The Cricket. It was already wheezing heavily when I made a last minute right turn after la pharmacie to take the back road out. It is much longer, so much so that I had never ridden that path before but something had tugged me, go. 

I weaved around speed bumps and passed houses spinning chimney smoke before bumping down a dirt path next to an apple orchard. Yes, it was good that I had come as there were several newly tumbled tomatoes to rescue. I didn't linger, the light was blooming. I pushed the pedals, rose up in my seat and caught my breath as I pulled up alongside the apple trees once more. Their perfume was calling me in a way that I had been too rushed to feel upon arriving. A smell that was far more complex than the rubber band word apple can convey, it was a song that ran from blossom to fruition. I stopped, awkwardly as I am still not confident on my bike and fished in my pocket for my camera, any modern testimony to something so time-worn and true.

Breathing in, breathing out fast, I cut across the pétanque court, wheels wobbling, light fading, straight to home, grateful for hearing and believing what I do.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Ambling after the moon

"Do you ever walk through the village at night?" C's question surprised me, I had to think. "No, no, I don't really..." "Oh, it's wonderful," she responded with that soft Southern accent belying her to be "the Other American" (in truth, she is L'Americaine and I am the other but no matter) here. "I do it all the time, it is so quiet."

She went on to tell me of how she loves to take visiting English immersion exchange students on evening strolls, including a young girl from Monaco who delighted in the ability to do cartwheels through the empty streets...such freedom to be seen unseen.

C and I had been chatting about the upcoming arrival of the Supermoon, the Blood Moon, so rare. 

She imparted that she had been charting its progress this month along with her two children, who were coloring its stages nightly for class and told me the best place to see it at the top of the village. I wondered why I had never had such cool and engaging projects in the Midwestern schools I attended as a kid.

Just after 7:30pm, the time that Mr. Moon was supposed to be on the up and up, I was sipping a glass of wine and listening to Miles Davis. I was feeling mighty comfy in that Sunday evening cook a chicken way. But the image of that whirling girl enticed me enough to walk up the two flights to grab my camera and attach its 300 mm lens. All right then, go see, go see...

I climbed the hill and breathed out a "Oh there you are" at the glowing bone ball. I was standing on what had been the cemetery, long ago. The description seemed appropriate and yet C had been right, I felt no fear. Only that quiet that she had mentioned, sinking in, calming my breath and steadying my often shaky hands as I lifted the heavy apparatus time and time again. I shifted the manual settings with squinting eyes as the dark settled in. "If only Remi were here," I thought nearly automatically, "he would know what to do." How many times I have literally seen him run to be in the right place at the right time to catch the light, such a precise hunter. Well, instead, I just ambled after the moon - I played, I was a little artsy, at other moments I felt like a grand reporteur on a mission, I leaned into the fuzz of the sunset - and all the while the moon just rose and rose, shifting shades and cutting clouds. I stayed until I was content and paused before swinging the camera over my shoulder and trotting down the hill to whisper "thank you" - to C, to the daring girl, and to the beauty of la lune. Such a mystery still and how I love it that way.

to listen to:

Have a wonderful beginning to your week everyone...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Our first olive harvest - 2015

I cupped my fingers loosely around my tea mug, tapping the tips. Today was the first morning where I needed the cardigan, felt comfortable in the weight of jeans. I looked up at the olive branches poking the bright sky of morning and thought, "Here I am sitting in our courtyard, in Provence and it is a beautiful day." Those words came out of my mind in bold print and I seemed to pull a part from myself for a few seconds as if to check, yes, I am really here and yes, it is beautiful. Just the tiniest of pauses on the stop-watch before life kept rolling on.

My Mom, Linda, was here visiting with her Husband last week. It was Leonard's first trip overseas and I witnessed quite a few of those moments of discovery, some of which were punctuated outright with thought in a bubble statements of delight. 

When they left last Friday morning, I admit that I cried, 46 years old and all. But I love them so much that it is the impossible pull of the heart that an expat knows which works its way on me. Remi is used to this reaction and was exceedingly kind. He thought it best to keep me busy, to have a project to do.

And so we decided to harvest our olive tree.

The grape harvest had been a resounding success and everyone has raved about Remi's jam and jelly. Emboldened, he has decided that we will try to brine our own olives, to make the olives cassées that are such a symbol of la vie Provençale

Last year, the olives had been victim to the same flies and disease that decimated the crops across Italy, France and Spain. We simply swept them up as they fell, soft and rotten, in hopes of arriving before the dogs did. So Remi had research to do in regard to the hows but started by simply pulling the car over in the Alpilles one day and asking an oléiculteur directly.

As we do not wish to turn our olives into oil, the moment is now for the picking. And that is what we did that afternoon with my rhythmically plucking at the lower branches while leaving Remi to perch on progressively taller ladders to try - and fail - to reach the top of our unusually tall tree. We wanted the fruit unbruised, so "combing" the branches was not an option. It was a slow process but as Remi had imagined, it was just what the doctor ordered.

The dogs watched on with growing impatience as our work continued on past their normal dinner time. The light danced through the branches until it warmed into that golden glow that exemplifies this time of year. I dotted around, snapping away with my camera to document yet another "first" of living in this wonderful home. Remi made a joking remark about how normally, as the professional photographer in the family, he should be the one behind the lens! 

The beauty of the sun was rankling him and it warmed me to melt any lingering tristesse

Now, we have our first little harvest. I say petite for half had to be thrown out immediately - according to the olive farmer, the ones that float when rinsed are kaput. The remaining firm green globes have been nicked cross-wise and will soak for the next ten days or so. As Remi is away for work, it is my task to change the water twice a day. Then he will work his magic - he already has very specific ideas for the "sauce" - and we will put up our olives for the winter months ahead.

I might even need to send a jar back to the States as a reminder to my family that they might again be far away but are always right here in Provence with me, right within my heart.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Remi's fund-raising in honor of Cecil the Lion

Today's post is a serious one but very important both to me and Remi. If this is not your cup of tea, please don't simply "unsubscribe" but come back later in the week, there is plenty of Provence to follow...

Ben froze at the sound of the first shot. At the second, he took off at a run. Kipling, our wiry rascal looked up at me with confusion. Amazingly, Ben is still well-trained enough that I was able to get him into a sit just long enough to slip the leash back on him. All around the outskirts of our village, we could hear the loud firecracker pops. Ben's eyes widened until each one resounded as "fear, fear, fear" and he began to tremble. He strained on the leash as we all headed home at a pace just under a run, to safety in their minds, for today is the opening day of hunting season.

In France, the hunting of most species is highly regulated but you wouldn't think so today for it would seem as if everyone wanted to use up all of their allotments at once for the number of gunshots ringing out at the 11am start time. So now, I will have to be more precise with not only the when of our walks but most certainly the where, as a man was killed last year just beyond the village by his colleague who mistook him for a deer.

As I sat down to type, my heart still beating fast with adrenaline, a mad rush of images flurried through my mind while I tried to flip file my sentiments on the act of hunting. A sentence began to form: "In the different traditional societies that I have had the good fortune to cover in our travels..." pause...what was it that they did? No actually, most of them did not rely on hunting to survive, meat is often precious, rare and agrarian gains were key to nourishment. But that too is changing, as modern society infringes on their lands, certainly that is the case with the Maasai. We are pushing them to change. And certainly we are the ones that have convinced ourselves of the need for hunting to be a sport. 

As I have mentioned repeatedly recently, Remi, my companion, has been creating a tribute to our incredible wildlife in tribute to the needless slaughter of Cecil the Lion. Now, I should say that from the beginning of Lost in Arles, Remi has not wanted to be a part of this blog directly, so this is of my choosing but I know that quite a few of you have been following along. For those of you that are interested, the end of his six weeks of storytelling has culminated in a fund-raising drive for the Frankfurt Zoological Society, whose efforts have already saved 26 black rhinos in the Ngorongoro Crater (and have set up the security to protect the entire animal population) and are now focusing on the very high risk zones of the Serengeti National Park. Remi is calling out to the 31,000 members of his feed as well as the 2.3 million members of the feed for The Photo Society, which features the works of photographers that have been published in National Geographic.

I am incredibly proud of his work but especially so in that Remi, being Remi, has tried to raise the debate beyond just the horrific example of Cecil the Lion's death. I will leave you with his words:

"Last July the killing of Cecil the Lion troubled me deeply. Mankind has definitely become the hyper-predator of planet Earth, who now possess the power to destroy anything we want while changing the global climate as well. And because of this super-power I feel that we have arrived at a turning point in our history and evolution: How can we control our own animality which sleeps in each of us from the dawn of time? It is my feeling that it is the biggest challenge of Mankind ever. To be able to grow together empowered by a vision: Responsible for the planet and respectful to all forms of life. And to do so, our societies should not think about the future as the idea to keep growing anymore, an overdue concept because we have already gone way too far. We should think of the world in terms of creating and keeping Harmony. Harmony versus Growing. The winning concept is the one you choose, yes, you reading here, because everything begins with oneself. From this awareness depends our own survival. On Sunday, pass the word, we will move to action on ig to feed together the Harmony and to balance the bad energy of one of us, a dentist who killed for pleasure."

For those of you on instagram, you can find more information at @remibenali or @thephotosociety

For any of you that are interested in donating directly (thank you!) please go to: www.fzs.org/en/ or if you are in the US you can go directly to: www.us.fzs.or/en/support

Any amount, even a dollar, would be welcome and if you are so inclined and it is tax-deductible.

Please feel free to share this post or Remi's feed on all social media, merci!

There is so much beauty in our world and I am grateful for it.

With my Highest Regards to all of you,
Thank you for being here,

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

La vie en flamant rose

"It was a good day, non?" Remi asked as we settled back into the car. "It was Coeur, it was a really good day," I replied.

We both were sleepy from the excitement of discovery, kids post-aquarium style and squinting into the rose gold of the sunset as we headed for home.

It can be tricky nostalgia, looking back. Even in that word, if you roll it around on your tongue there is a whisper of a warning in it. And yet that is exactly what we have been doing as of late. Spending copious amounts of time on what once was.

As I mentioned previously, Remi has been doing an amazing storytelling on his instagram account this past month to raise awareness about the importance of protecting our wildlife after the shameful killing of Cecil the Lion.

He is a wonderful writer in his own right, although these days it is limited to instagram. It was because of his capabilities that we were able to convince the magazine Grands Reportages to give me a try just months after my having moved to France by his saying, "If you really don't like what she does, then I will write something instead." He didn't need to rewrite that article and we set off on a series of adventures together that I could never have imagined possible.

One of the biggest surprises for me - who had still only recently been an "I can run in high heels to catch a taxi if need be" New Yorker - was my astonishingly deep love for being on safari. For me, there is no more direct route to feel one with the blinding bright beauty of our earth. It can be overwhelming and yet utterly reassuring at the same time. "Yes, this exists and somehow I am right here, a part of it. I am alive."

Twice we were able to visit the Ngorongorgo Crater in Tanzania, the second of which in 2006 was for a story that was exclusively on this sunken caldera of twenty kilometers in diameter that is home to roughly 25,000 large animals, a true Cradle of Life. It was an exceptional experience, especially as the authorities had accorded us a few days of rare passes permitting us to leave the road to better explore, to get closer.

Remi's photographs from that time are exquisite. Looking at them now while he puts the story together has brought out strong feelings for both of us, pride and wistfulness amongst them. Both of us peering back at our incredibly exciting past through the computer screen from the padded quiet of our house in a tiny, sleepy village in a forgotten corner of Provence.

Nostalgia. I said it could be a dangerous word.

And yet. And yet...

Last week Remi invited me to tag along with him as he made a repérage for another of his photography workshops, this time not in the Alpilles but in the Camargue. It is an area that I am not often fond of in its mix of rough terrain and touristy vibe. And yet, in visiting the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau we were surrounded by both. But I have to say that the experience was...fantastic.

The paths and pass-rails covering the swamps allowed us to walk amidst the thousands of birds - pink flamingos or flamants roses, egrets and herons, just to name a few - and as they are habituated to the proximity of human presence - just like in the Ngorongoro Crater - they don't flee but continue to eat and fish and chat amongst themselves.

After exclaiming with joyous disbelief, we fell silent with wonder. And then we began to take photographs, both of us aided by telephoto lenses. Mine was a 300mm, heavy enough to make my Olive Oyl arms wobble. Remi was using one of his Leica's - even more monstrous - but after having shot five Olympic Games, well, he is used to it.

We moved and focused and focused again. Eyes searching wide and hearts leaping until we felt like we were flying on wonder - that same exhilaration we had known before - until we understood that we did not have to go to Africa to experience it. We were still capable of finding it all on our own.

Yes, it was a really good day.

This post was written as part of the series called By Invitation Only which unites a group of bloggers to express themselves on a specific theme. This month a question was asked, "What are you afraid of?" Now, that is a topic that is just across the border of what I am willing to discuss here literally. But there is one thing that I can tell you that I have always been afraid of: stagnation. Amongst the glorious birds of the Camargue, I found a way to keep growing, to keep moving forward, open.

To discover what the other bloggers have written on this very challenging theme, please find the links by clicking: Here.

To read Remi's storytelling on instagram about the Ngorongoro Crater: @remibenali
To follow my feed: @lostinarles

As always, thank you for being here.
With my Best from Provence,