Sunday, October 31, 2010

Fall back

Why the time doesn't change on the same date the world over I'll never understand but today leaves me feeling as disoriented and untrustworthy as it always does when we lose an hour. So no Happy Halloween here. No flickering Jack o'Lanterns or martinis downed while sporting an unwise Lady Gaga meat dress. Just rain whimpering through most of the day, mottling out the sun. Nothing better to do than keep the fire stoked and The World of Interiors handy.

This evening was the first with Ben's post-dinner stroll in the dark and the streets were appropriately empty. Everyone is elsewhere as Toussaint is the French Thanksgiving of family gatherings and I find myself missing mine. Remi and I spoke of my Dad's passing over lunch. It was the right thing to do. Tomorrow I will head to the cemetery with a friend as she pays her respects at her father's grave, bringing flowers, clearing away leaves.

For a bit of light amidst the shadows of this very serious holiday, I accepted Frederique's offer to take in the last day of the retrospective of the photographer Pierre Jahan's work at the Musée Reattu. Housed within the former Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta, the 17th century fortified structure was once the center of a network of such priories between Toulouse and Geneva. Gargoyles hover over every corner, a poignant contrast to the tender nudes shown within that Jahan took to illustrate a poem of Jean Cocteau's celebrating love, life. After all, best to appreciate on this All Soul's Day that we are still here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Diamond in the rough

One of the great pleasures of exploring the real estate market in Arles is that you never know what you are going to come across. As the historic center is protected under the auspices of being a UNESCO World Heritage site, no new constructions are permitted and modifications on existing buildings are heavily regulated. Nearly every building, even the most heavily renovated, has at least some tell-tale traces of its past. The apartment that we are currently renting has Roman ruins in the cellar and while this is extraordinary, it is not unheard of in a town also known as "The Little Rome of the Gauls." There are even whispers of treasures discovered but kept hidden for fear of being taken by the government.

I had the pleasure of visiting a treasure hidden in plain sight this morning. I have always liked the building from the outside, its 18th century paned windows still intact, the venetian shutters less so, the hint of a rooftop terrace barely discernible from the street below. When I saw the "for sale" sign, I quickly told Remi, my companion, about it and an appointment was set. On paper, it was perfect with a large business on the ground floor that would make a wonderful gallery and a total of 300 square meters of space (3229 square feet) above. At 280, 000 Euros we knew that we couldn't afford it on our own, but if we sold a floor? Maybe.

Well, my curiosity had been well-founded. Truly, it is one of the most interesting properties that I have ever seen here (and having been to nearly 150, I consider myself something of an expert for the Arles market) from the arched cellar dating from the Middle Ages to the charming studio overlooking the rooftops of Arles. Nothing but that gorgeous stone from Fontvielle, simple lines and a hint of Bourgeois design, a rarity in this Provençal town. Despite having been closed up for ten years, the air circulates easily through the high-ceilinged rooms that turn around an inner courtyard. But my, oh my does it need work. Alas, too much for us, even with another buyer, but it is an incredible opportunity for someone patient, willing to invest, willing to do the work. An elegant lady sleeping, however it wasn't meant to be for me to her Prince Charming. We will keep looking for another house to bring back to life and I will watch and wait, hoping that this little jewel gleams once more.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Postpartum blues

When the rip roar of the Mistral wind has passed, leaving those in its trail as if waking up from a dream, it offers a gift, perhaps a "sorry for the disturbance" type of apology. The French have an expression "faire table rase" which translates as wiping the slate clean but also implies an opportunity to start over, a new beginning. If the pesky Mistral likes to shake things up, making couples fight and dogs bark, it also levels the playing field,  pushing past the clouds to create a sky so open and light so pure that anything seems possible.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Temps de la Toussaint

Well, the Mistral wind did rear its ugly head yesterday, rather sneakily too, I might add, slowly building to a crescendo that was positively Wagnerian. But, alas, this is France, so we can't go without bread, no matter the weather. In Soulier, my permanently rosy-cheeked friend behind the counter explained simply "C'est le temps de la Toussaint"--the weather that traditionally arrives with the All-Saints Day holiday. With a shrug she added "it's just a little early this year. Be careful going home."

Warning well-heeded. With the garbagemen still on strike, there was even a greater number of UFOs to worry about than usual and at 110 kilometers per hour--we drive that fast!--the Mistral can rip off loose roof tiles and whip them through the air like playing cards. Even once, safely inside, I was hounded by the howl of the wind whiplashing the garden and shaking up the chimney. Maybe all of those souls for Toussaint were visiting a bit early too.

Only one thing to do in such circumstances, eat a meal to knock the life back into you. So here is the Mistral Menu that we served yesterday evening:
For the apero, toasts with tatziki dusted with paprika and red pesto dotted with balsamic reduction.
My soup--this time with butternut squash, sweet potato, apples, ginger and mystery spices.
My honey's Made In A Rainstorm Duck Confit served with garlic potatoes and chanterelle mushrooms.
A barely touched cheese plate with fig jam.
Our friend Patrick's compote made with apples from his brothers garden in Alsace.
All of this washed down with a 2008 Crozes-Hermitage and an insane Gaston de Casteljac cognac.

We had to huddle in a pack to walk our friends back to their hotel but there is nothing like an evening spent in fine company to take the mystery out of the Mistral.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Under the wine bar lights

Here is the thing about Arles: it is small enough to walk everywhere and yet large enough that there is always something going on. Usually culturally oriented to boot.

So it was last Saturday as my friend Frederique and I explored the exhibition by Vincent Lajarige at the Chapelle Sainte-Anne on the Place de la Republique. The cream stone interior of the desacralized church (dating from 1627) had sprouted a forest of Mr. Lajarige's sculptures created out of tree branches found washed up on the shores of the nearby Camargue or burnt in the scrappy forests of the Alpilles. At times lit from within, holding gold-dusted lichen, they were as stripped bare as Brancusis. Lovely.

We strolled on the quay of the Rhone with our respective dogs in hand, watching the sun as it spread into nothing. Time for the apero, or aperitif. Not a cocktail hour, it is something more, a bit of a ritual, especially here in the South of France.

Rather than mingle with the usual suspects at "Mon Bar" on the Place du Forum--the type of joint where cowboys and hunters can be found nursing their first pastis of the day at 10am--we decided to give Chez Ariane a try. It is funny how you get preconceived ideas about certain places. It is true that Ariane is a formidable character with a steely gaze peering out of a bird's nest of curls and yet we instantly felt welcome as we settled at one of the three outside tables on the sidewalk, inches away from passing cars rumbling over the cobblestones. For Frederique, a delicate type of girl, Ariane served a floral Givernay. Having asked for a red that was "earthy, terroir", I was poured a Cote du Rhone Villages from outside of Avignon that sang its own praises with a heady bouquet.

True to its "Bar à vins" origins, there was zero pressure for us to order anything to eat, but, feeling peckish, we asked for some saucisson sec from the nearby Cevennes Mountains and were delighted by the bowl full of paper thin sliced sausage, not too salty and smelling slightly of mushrooms. "There is no way we are going to eat all of that," I protested. But we did, sometimes talking, sometimes just watching the passerby already dressed for a Saturday night out. As the night came on, a string of circus lights popped on overhead, diffused by the vines dangling over our table. We could have stayed. But the apero is just that, a starter. I stepped inside to pay, listening to Ariane chat with an American couple at the bar. They were relaxed in a way that is unusual with visitors under the pressure of expectations but I realized that it was because they had found what they had come looking for, a bit of their dream of Provence. And for an hour or so, under the wine bar lights, so had we.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

You have to love an evening when... is raining so hard that you can hear it even with the windows closed, even with Sarah V. screaming on the stereo and your only job is to be sous-chef, crying over your shallots while your honey prepares duck for tomorrow's dinner guests.

A good a day as any...

The bells are clanging heavily as I pass under the tower of Saint Trophime with my trusted companion, Ben, our Golden Retriever. A group of locals, recognizable for their unwillingness to look at anyone else, huddle together on the church steps. A Sunday morning in Provence. Ben and I wander the streets, strewn with garbage due to the current strike, both of us hunting for an open bakery. Inside De Moro, the owner announces that the Mistral, our Northern winds that both inspired Vincent Van G. and drove him mad, would attack in full force tomorrow. "They say they will reach 110 kilometers per hour. Best to stay inside." Realizing that the equivalent in miles per hour was that equal to a small hurricane, I pull my Max Mara cardigan a little tighter around my shoulders as I share the end of the baguette with Ben on the way home. Yes, it is definitely Fall, my favorite season.

Now I am snuggled into my club chair in this wonderful apartment that we are renting while we look for a new house to buy. Or not. We love this incredible space so much it is difficult to imagine leaving. What a year it has been--selling our house and gallery, losing my Dad. I am definitely wandering, not only these streets of Arles that I have come to love so much since moving here in 2005, but also looking for that next step, that sign of the direction of what is next for me. A good a day as any, then to start a blog and share my experiences of living in Provence that I find along the way...