Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sand


I cannot take credit for this all too happy handwriting. Full of optimism, isn't it? Not that I am other than a hope addict. I soar on those wings every moment that I can. But look at these circular loops that declare "I am here!" with a confidence that what comes around does indeed go around. How we build ourselves up with every gesture despite the uncertainty of the oncoming tide. Persistence.


Remi and I are not, actually, beach people. There have been moments when we were on assignment in some exotic locale known for its waters where we did not even dip in a toe. Last Sunday I was dressed in black capris and a long sleeve t-shirt, even though I had been told that the water was still warm. Remi, essentially the same. Only Ben, our lovely dog, was beyond himself with excitement, having immediately sniffed out a turn south towards the sea, away from the destination of our usual hikes.


Undoubtedly because of his recent swimming success in the Alpilles, he dove right in. What a difference from the timorous pup of yore. Wild abandon. Yes, for the millionth time, our dogs show us the quickest path to least resistance. He certainly doesn't ask himself "should I enjoy myself?"--he just does.



I loved the privacy of the end of September day. Far from the "look at me" each and all were doing their best to squirrel away memories for the months to come. So were we with each footfall. However, I could tell that after walking for quite some time, Remi was all too ready to relax but didn't dare. "It's just sand," I reminded him. "We can brush it off."


And so all three of us plopped down, quiet as could be, sipping the surroundings into our skin--the chuchotement of the waves, the caress of the sun's warmth and a feeling that we weren't quite who we thought we were fifteen minutes before.


"Fireflies in daylight."That is the phrase that kept dancing through my head as I was taking in the glimmer skipping across the horizon. But isn't that the best gift about what it is to go to the sea? To let our minds wander? To travel without moving? So amazing with the Mediterranean to think that on the other side of this wide blue lies...Africa.


The sand between my fingers, at the nape of my neck, tickling my scalp...oh my, it was absolutely everywhere, for once we gave in, we gave in. Ben didn't help, splaying a wet paw across my chest as he thumped down beside me with a sigh. So be it. And it did wipe off. But less so the memory of my big achievement of the day. Those of you that know me well or have been reading here for a while know that I don't drive. Honestly, I am of another time but what was I thinking when I was young that I didn't want to learn? That it wasn't ladylike? I swear that was a part of it! And that I would just prefer to be driven. Yes, all of this when I was around 16. I believe that I was an older soul then than I am now. And certainly more of a diva.

The boundless beach is a place to be brave. And so I had two lessons, one with Remi and then a go all by myself--for the first time in my life. At 42? Yes. And it felt fine. I was proud and beaming. We shall see what comes of it. Slippery as sand I can be but hopefully, it is a start. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Talking to the stones



Call me jaded. Spoiled if you prefer. It isn't that I don't appreciate Arles' many amazing Roman monuments, I adore them. It is just that I spend so much time amongst them that I tend to not think on their history; I don't carry it around in my pocket. I pass more time admiring their bones. Just another extension of my love for patina, I suppose. Not to mention that I find in their age a sense of comfort and calm for they are worn but beautiful.

At the entry to the Théâtre Antique this morning, the pin-striped blonde gazed up at me with an erased expression as I handed over my passport as well as my free entry pass to the monuments that all Arlesians are entitled to have. She handed it back to me in silence. "C'est bon?" I finally stammered. She blinked. "Oui." I do hope that she is more charming with her paying visitors. 

Ben was with me, welcome as long as he is on his leash and soon he was scrabbling ahead over the pock-marked plaza encasing the arched remains.  The Antique Theatre was edified in 1 BC as part of an effort by Emperor Augustus to develop the urbanization of what was then called Arelate. And what a project it must have been. It was one of the very first such Roman theatres to be built entirely in stone and the cavea or hemicycle could hold ten thousand people! For those of you that know the theatre in Orange, it was just as large, if not even more ornate in its presentation. Alas, time was not nearly as kind to our theatre. By the 5th century AD, the stone was quarried for the construction of a Christian basilica, one that was located where St. Trophime rises today. Along the back wall of the stage, hundreds of columns lined three levels, only two of which still stand. Of the statues that filled the walls niches, happily, the Vénus d'Arles was dug up in 1651 and offered to Louis XIV. Today, she is one of the Louvre's stars. 

By the 7th century, the walls they were a'tumblin' down. Housing for the towns ever expanding population spread across the area. Miraculously, the Jesuits established a college, one later occupied by the Souers de la Miséricorde, in which the two columns were left untouched in a courtyard. Further archeological finds were added to the small garden and it was opened to the public from 1755-1789. The theatre was slowly uncovered starting in 1828 thanks to the efforts of then mayor, the Baron de Chartrouse, who was the first to rally around the importance of saving Arles' historic monuments. In 1981, it was listed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, guaranteeing its protection well into the future.

Can you hear the Roman ghosts calling in the orchestra? As much as this former actress would like to think so, I have to say no. It is just the twittering of birds and tourists that fill the air. But what a bunch of beautiful dust. While a group poses on the proscenium of the stage, Ben and I climb up to meet the sun. Ben loves this, me less so but it is worth it for the breathing space at the top, the view opening beyond and on to the neighboring Arena. Amazing to think of the cries of the actors mingled with the shouts of the gladiators in Roman times. The audiences wandering between the two in an overstimulated daze.

I am always moved by the details, the carving that has been nearly smothered by the wind, column bases giving only the barest of hints of former glory. Amazing to imagine its height doubling upwards from where I sit. As I have mentioned in previous posts, the theatre is still used for many events. But that is superficial, just traipsing figures, passing shadows. So in the morning light, I sit with my sleeping dog and talk to the stones, hoping that they have some wisdom to share with me.

























Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Flowers & Friendships




Flowers and friendships shake each others hands, don't they? They are virtual gifts that we can send across the world or very real gestures that melt the hearts of our loved ones and give consideration to a new acquaintance. Offering something alive is never a haphazard thing even in our casual, frayed at the cuff society. 


Not too long ago, a couple that we adore finally came to see our new apartment. As my copine is German, she brought a traditional house-warming gift from her homeland, for, with a little bread and salt, one already has all that is needed. I loved the little bit of green watercress and the carefully tied bow--it made a thoughtful gift even more so. Her charming husband, who is most certainly French, showed his roots by offering the always appreciated bottle of Champagne--cold and ready to pop!


In turn, I had bought fresh flowers to prepare for their arrival, for nothing makes friends more at ease in a new space than gorgeous blooms to gaze at. And yes, Remi did his part too--hence the wine lined up on the side table. An exchange of flowers and a toast to the importance of creating lasting bonds. Salut!


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Heritage



This weekend is the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine in France, the European Heritage Days. This always fascinating event opens the doors to the public for some of France's most exceptional historic homes, museums and sites. It is an opportunity to discover and appreciate the best of France's heritage and long history. Here in our region, it was an extra special day as Remi's photographs for an archaeological dig are being exhibited on the site in Nimes as part of the festivities. We both were so thrilled to see his work featured as part of this event. I am always so proud of my incredibly talented honey and was grateful that they included his accomplished resumé alongside the photos. 


As it is indeed a small world, albeit a wonderful one, my friend Frederique was the graphic designer involved in printing up Remi's photographs onto waterproof canvas. She works for INRAP, the National Research Institute for Preventive Archaeology. While much attention is given to the most glamorous aspects of archeology--Jewel bedecked mummies! The fossils of ancient man!--there is a real need in countries such as France to study land that is being developed for modern uses.




The site in question spreads out over 1000 square meters in what is today the heart of downtown Nimes and will become a residential complex. In Roman times, it was near the Gate of Augustus and as with many major transportation hubs of the period, was frequently used as a mausoleum. As my friend Marie (whose fantastic hospitality I have written about here) worked on this dig, she took me on a private tour of the site, explaining it to me with patience and professionalism. Marie, like the rest of the team that I met, loves what she does. 


Interestingly enough, it seems as though the living and the dead existed side by side. Multi-tiered esplanades sprawled away from dolia or giant vats used for storing foodstuffs that neighbored elaborate private tombs! Yeesh. Complicated, those Romans. The most ancient remains date to 2 BC. In the 13th century, the Carmes Convent was erected with an attached cemetery. So yes, more bones for the archaeologists to dust off and remove as they reach down, down through the layers of time. 



Happily, more than skeletons were offered up for oggling. I couldn't help but think that many of my designer friends would be thrilled by the iridescent lustre found on these small glass vessels. Isn't incredible to think that they have been sleeping thousands of years underneath the ground? Similarly, for the two fragile dangling pendants, one caressed with gold, the other in jet and possibly of African origin. 




Now, all of this is worth noting but archaeology is far from France's sole line of heritage. Mais, non! As a thank you to Remi's contribution to the dig, the team invited us to a lunch at their offices with each member bringing something to the table. And as it was a day celebrating discoveries, it was all too appropriate that I tasted something that I had never heard of before. The papeton is a dish that originated in Avignon and was named for being cooked in a mold in the shape of the Pope's crown. A mix of eggplant purée, eggs and garlic, it is Provence on a plate. But so much was wonderful--and homemade: the goat cheese and red pepper tart, the prosciutto, roquette and balsalmic pasta salad, the insane apple, cinnamon and creme fraiche pie for dessert. Such generosity amidst a table of gossip and laughter.



All too soon the team needed to finish up so as to open the gates for the afternoons visitors. It was also touching to see my friends in their element and sharing their knowledge with the public. Call me snarky if you wish, but I could hardly imagine such throngs for a similar event in America. INRAP welcomed 500 visitors on the site in a single day! I am not big on generalizations but the French are on whole extremely curious with an avid will to learn.




Once outside the gates, we lingered, watching the reaction of passerby to Remi's photographs. What a fantastic, accessible way for the locals of the neighborhood to understand what the project was all about and take in all of the history that lays beneath their feet. Their heritage.




The last to leave was the photographer, camera in hand, working even then to create images to help others travel back in time...in the future!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Color and crunch in Arles





We don't go out to eat that often. Not only is it far less a part of the everyday culture in France than in the States, but when you have as good a cook, and as handsome a one, as Remi in the kitchen, well, it just doesn't make sense. Often, either of us could make what is on offer at the local joints--if not better! But that is not the case for L'Autruche, the Ostrich, which is tucked away on the tiny rue Dulau in the heart of Arles.


An agreeable young couple runs the establishment. Ouria is as exotically pretty as her name but yet has welcomed me from my second visit with a hearty "Salut, ma belle!"--Hello, gorgeous!--and a bisou, a peck on the cheek. The more formal Fabien is quick to extend a firm handshake to Remi. When we arrived late recently on a sunny Saturday afternoon, all the tables were filled on the terrace. "Not to worry," Ouria assured us, "I'll just bring another one out." Once installed, we settled in with our fellow diners, largely locals, including a table of hotel owners, a picky bunch if ever there is one. They appeared to be well into their wine. We were soon clinking ourselves with a crisp white from Chateau Gigognan just outside of Sorgues (ps. if you are looking for a place to stay in the area, their Chambres d'Hotes looks fabulous). All of us were preneurs for the lunch formule--which at 17€ for a starter and main is the best deal in Arles--but there are only two choices. As Remi had already started marinating one of them, a magret de canard for that evening, we left ourselves in Fabien's hands. He spoke with the chef and came out with a nod. Something had been arranged.



Our entrée was right on par for the season and starred gorgeous pink-shelled coco beans topped with fresh crab, tangy agrumes and heavily chopped basil. A perfect dish for a warm afternoon at the end of summer but I also could imagine my blog friend Virginia (she of Glamour Drops fame) whipping this up as an equally suitable dish for a spring lunch in Melbourne.


I always love to read their menu--actually, I'll pass by while out on my walk with Ben just because it usually inspires me one way or the other in my own cooking. Now, I'll admit that dinner is firmly out of our price range--hence going for lunch!--but well worth it for those with the means as the price is reflected by the quality of the ingredients. Wild monkfish, anyone? Good luck trying to get that in Arles, save for the three star Michelin rated L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, the eponymous chef of which has been spotted at L'Autruche on his days off...


Ah, on to the plat principale! The presentation is always a well-conceived jolt to prepare the taste buds and I always respond with typically American enthusiasm, even, to my embarrassment "hooray!" Fabien had arranged for us to have a duo of pan-grilled rouget and salmon accompanied by a medley of grilled zucchini, yellow squash and tomatoes on an onion confit. All served with a tomato saffron sirop and, well, bad blogger that I am, I forgot to verify the ingredients of that shocking green swipe across the plate. Blame it on the wine and the fine company. We were all happy as could be, save our host, who felt that the portions were too small and so ordered up another plate for our table to share, gratuitement.


Now, I have read some pretty tough reviews of the restaurant on TripAdvisor and the likes. Complaints of slow service abound. So keep that in mind if you decide to go but for now, it certainly is my favorite here in Arles. Chef Antoine came on board nearly two years ago and is definitely one of the few in this price category to take such risks. Perhaps that is why the restaurant received une fourchette in the Michelin Guide this year. Both Ouria and Fabien have been known to plop down at a table to chat, so that is also something to consider if that is not to your liking. But I prefer friendly to frosty any day of the week, don't you? L'Autruche is a young restaurant, one that I find charming even in its imperfections and I will look forward to watching it grow!