Monday, January 31, 2011

The King and Queen of Petrol

We woke last Saturday to drizzle falling from a silver ceiling of a sky, hanging low, leaving us all with a case of the blues. Perhaps dreaming of Paris, of elsewhere. I know when I catch myself reading San Sifton's restaurant reviews in the New York Times something needs to be done so that I remember why I love it here. 

Remi and I bundled up and headed out, making ourselves small under a tiny, broken umbrella. I had thought that the market would be empty but that just goes to show how much I still underestimate the French attachment to their food. It would take more than a little bit of pluie to keep them away! Pssh!

Our shellfish guy greeted us with his traditional smirk and a handshake. Weekend lazy birds that we are (or that I am to be more precise), we seldom make it to his stand before 11am, by which time all of the best oysters have been sold out. But for once! Aha! The tiny, briny huitres de la mer. Sigh. And the miracle? They are only 3.80€ the dozen. That is just over five bucks. For the dozen. I tell ya, I have paid that much for one in some of my old martini joint days. Their perfume of the sea is an instant link to sunnier times and climes. 

As the sky opened into a downpour, Remi headed home with our moving mop of a Golden but I had a mission in mind. Customers had to shout at the vendors to be heard and yet everyone wore a goofy smile at the ridiculousness of bending about to avoid bumping umbrellas. At the very least, I thought it polite to stop by the Vietnamese dumpling seller that we had first visited last week. Loyalty is no joking matter in the Provençal markets. So it was a big deal to convince Remi to give this new vendor a try. Her truck is blue and beaten up, looks like nothing (but as any foodie knows that is a good sign). We often get Vietnamese food on the weekends as a treat and were delighted when she had immediately shoved two piping hot samosas in front of us to nibble on. Her cooking is fantastic, simple but with the exact clean taste that we knew in Vietnam. She was clearly delighted to see that she had, indeed, won a new customer and set about asking a rapid-fire list of questions. Within minutes she had decided that I should teach English and promised that she would keep an eye out for possible students. She told me of how she is putting her son through his studies in Paris, paying 1000€ for his miniscule apartment. As she gathered up my purchases, she placed the above chicken and shrimp salad in the bag as well. "This is from me," she said simply. Sometimes the surprise of unexpected kindnesses can change your world around. 

How wonderful to come home to a roaring fire and such a luxurious lunch..for practically nothing. As we settled in for one of our long eating and talking marathons, Remi made one of my favorite declarations. "Nous sommes quand même les Rois du Pétrole".  It translates to living like a king! An oil magnate! Here in Provence, that is one of the simple joys that is available for everyone to appreciate. Yes, of course, now I remember...

Friday, January 28, 2011

Magic in the Drôme Provençale

And I'm not talking about a sparkly sentimental sort of magic either, but we'll get to that in a bit. 

Arles is really at its most quiet. Certain restaurants and shops are closed and there is not a soul to be seen wandering the streets most mornings. Definitely a shocking shift after the rush of Paris. So it was with a bit too much enthusiasm that I yelped out a "Yes!" when Remi asked if I wanted to go exploring with him for the day. The goal? Two medieval churches in the Drôme Provençal. The Drôme, though not technically in Provence, holds nonetheless all of its charm. Hills lined with shorn lavender fields and vineyards roll out one after the next. Rusty flower distilleries vie with stone farmhouses and fortresses. We pulled off the highway at Montelimar, known to anyone driving down from the North as the spot where the sun pops out from behind the clouds. Works every single time. 

First up was Comps, after a brief stop at a bakery in Dieulefit that proved, sadly, that yes, it is possible to get bad food in France. Barely edible food actually. And can you imagine how much we had been looking forward to munching our quiches alone with such a view?

The church is a prime example of the Provençal style of medieval architecture--no frills, decoration or spiky gothicness here. Call it the Little Black Dress of ecclesiastical design (yes, yes it is Fashion Week in Paris!! I can't help it! Ahhh!). Perfect for the region, which still seems much more modest than the showier (and greater known) areas to the South. I truly fell hard for the lay of the land--a calming mix of pine and oak trees. For those of you that have been following for a bit, this is also truffle country. Signs declaring "Absolutely No Foraging!!" followed us throughout the day and I couldn't help but be a tiny bit hopeful every time Ben sniffed around at the base of an oak. "Get the truffle! Get it!" I hollered encouragingly. Alas, Ben is apparently not a truffle hound in the making....

By 3:30, the sun was already starting to dive between the folds of the highest hills, so our timing couldn't have been more fortuitous to have arrived at Notre Dame la Brune d'Aleyrac with the last rays of the winter day. We first made out its roofless form from the road above. All bones of stones from a distance. A spot of crumbled past in the valley below.

And yet, this Notre Dame has been drawing worshippers for one thousand years. Pagan, then Roman, then Christian. The secret to its longevity lies at the end of a steep drop opposite the nave, where a sacred spring burbles and gushes, infusing the stones with an incredible peace. I have been lucky enough to visit some of the world's most sacred places--Tibet and Angkor come to mind. And this small ruin had that same strong pull. Indescribable yet irresistible.

Somehow, it seemed as if there were still a roof overhead and the altars in place. That a fervour was still very much alive. And so it is, for some. For on the rocks surrounding the source were offerings the likes of which even Remi had never seen in France. Seashells, a bracelet, a white flower that looked less than a week old. Magic. And as I promised, nothing of the sham about it. When Remi and I pulled ourselves away from the site, finally, once the light had folded into itself and the cold had come on, we felt as if we were rejoining the world. As if we had been to another place all together during the time that we were within what is most certainly a house of faith. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

City mouse or country mouse?

Pulses racing, bodies passing in a mad mix as thousands cross paths above and below ground. Dreaming, texting, seldom smiling on the metro, faces angled slightly down. Time constantly being checked for the next appointment, for the next breathe or the end of the day. Sneaking glances or thin-mouthed judging with a brazen head to toe stare. So many different styles and skins not connecting, still separate, for this is no melting pot. This is Paris.

Most of us discover Paris already biased by the wonder of its past, thrilled by what we have been told to adore. And there is so much to take in, such uniqueness to embrace. But it is also the capital, a bracing challenge of a city for those scraping to make their place. Or those coming from the country, most certainly considered another breed entirely, hoping to please, to charm their way into getting what they need. Is there a hidden opportunity to be claimed? Again, this is Paris, whose rhythm beats behind a veil. 

Off then, for a few days with Remi driving as I counted chateaus and sheep in the passing and wildly changing landscape. Nothing like sliding off of the Peripherique and onto the quai of the left bank, sneaking under the Eiffel Tower as the already faded sun starts to set. The promise of evening coming on as we cross the Seine with its pin point moon hovering above. A turn with a sardonic wave at the Presidential Palace then down the Fauborg Saint-Honoré, stopped at a red light in front of the maison Hermès. Me, quietly squeaking with delight--the Place Vendôme! Colette! A level of elegance like nowhere else. 

Yes, this is why I chose to be in the 2nd arrondissement, that and its fabulously central location. But why feel cramped in yet another tiny hotel room? After a caffeine-fuelled morning of searching, I found a studio with a sleeping loft on Way to that was tucked into the Passage Choiseul, the longest covered passage in town. The best part? After 8pm, the shops are closed to the public and, armed with a pass code, you return to blissful silence. Very chic, I think.

I am one hundred percent sold on renting an apartment now, I can't imagine ever doing otherwise--that is unless if someone is kind enough to offer me a stay at the Ritz. Our space was compact but clean and quickly felt like home. Breakfast of croissants bought downstairs, aperos of wine and sausage to refuel before the evening, a comfy bed, a stereo tuned into FIP, my favorite radio station in the world--what more is there to ask?

As it is January, that means rain but we were delightfully spared, save for a misty morning that included our one cultural stop, a visit to the Musée Carnavalet (one of Paris' best-kept secrets, hidden in the Marais) to see a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition on the history behind the trunks of Louis Vuitton. Isn't it just so beautiful? True, I would also give up our cosy studio for a chance to sleep in the former apartments of Madame de Sévigné!

Rushing, walking so fast with my heart in my mouth in an effort to soak up as much of the city as we race from one meeting to the other. But what sights on the sidelines. I have a special connection to Notre-Dame. Once, a long time ago, she was there for me when I needed her. I don't know if I would be living in France today in fact if it wasn't for her kind graces. I thank her silently each time I see her.

Amazingly, I found myself at the brilliant Quai Branly museum not to gawk at the towering totems from the Pacific but to attend (albeit only for an hour) an international panel discussion on archeology. Me!

 Isn't life endlessly bewildering? What on earth was I doing there? As the South American scientist droned on about pottery shards I began to dream about...

We all have our safe places where we know that nothing bad can happen to you, yes, just like Holly Golightly felt about Tiffany's. When I first came to Paris, imprisoned by my lack of language and struggling to down shift from New York City, I would take the train into town to wander the halls of Le Bon Marché. Just to finger the fabrics and smell the perfumes. I certainly couldn't afford to buy anything. Not even socks. But it was enough, just to be amidst the gentle hush, to people watch--some of the best anywhere--as the fashionistas pose nonchalantly on the escalators. Remi found me that evening on one of the camel leather couches in the beauty section and we both caught our breath while, for a moment, the world seemed to revolve around us.

It was rare, that moment of stillness, of serenity, but there were others. Walking, walking, walking across Saint-Germain, hand in hand, across the Pont des Arts with the Seine reflected in the glow of the Beaux Arts. Empty. It's what we all long for. 

One thought kept chasing the other in my brain these past few days. How did I feel about all of this racing to and fro? The speed of it. And I realized that I loved it. That after so many years in Manhattan, that jolt of energy is also part of who I am and I have missed it. Sometimes we all need to put the engine on high and let it run. 

I was delighted to come home and stretch out my arms. Let our charming dog Ben run into them. But it is good to remember how big the world is. The possibilities of a town like Paris, made up of restraints and dreams.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Off to Paris!

Hooray! We are heading up to the City of Light for a few days of meetings and general running around. And it just happens to be the Winter Sales too....Back soon....

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Shopping in the closet

When you are as design obsessed as I am, it is good to change things around from time to time. And as the Arabic saying goes, once a home is "finished" it is dead and we certainly don't want that feeling now do we? There are certain restraints. Part of our rental contract forbids us from putting holes in the walls or in the wooden beams in the ceiling as the apartment is listed as a Historic Monument. Hmm, what to do with massively heavy mirrors and artwork that was collected to fill our old house? Luckily, there is the laid back style of stacking--on shelves, on tables, on the floor. And as things aren't attached, it makes it much easier and much more fun to shift pieces from room to room depending on my mood or the season.

The gold-framed antique mirror that was resting on the mantel of the bedroom fireplace (another nail-biting tragedy of our contract is that it has been closed off, though we have a sneaking suspicion that it works) wasn't really glowing like it should and seemed imposing in the space despite the high ceilings. Shouldn't a bedroom be as cosy and welcoming as it possibly can? For anyone that has had as much trouble sleeping over the years as I have, the answer is a resounding "Yes!". A little softness and comfort go a long way in luring one off to dreamland. Here is the little tableau I came up with below. One of our favorite ochre drawings of a voluptuous Indian goddess in a garden, a Buddha brought back from China and a small terracotta statue from Mali. How fun to rediscover these treasures. I also added a leather and velvet topped Victorian bench, Remi brought in a lamp with a gold-lined lampshade and for good measure, we lit the candles. 

I have always loved the simplicity of the living room fireplace--look at those lines! It is the real thing. The iron plaque in the grate dates to 1777 and I wouldn't be surprised if the fireplace was original to the house.

But there are only so many spaces that can accommodate such a large mirror, so off to the mantel it went--an idea that I had initially resisted as being too traditional but I have to say, if folks tend to put mirrors over their fireplaces in France, there is a reason--it truly makes the room sing. I also think that Remi would have killed me if I had asked him to lift it another time! It seems as if we are going to be in this wonderful apartment for longer than we had originally thought. Life hasn't yet shown us the right opportunity to buy, so we are slowly relaxing into being in this space, enjoying it while it lasts.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Truffle lunch in the Vaucluse

Up, up the twisting road, through a silvery fog spread across a leafless forest like cobwebs. The peak of Mont Ventoux, "the Giant of Provence" and perennial back-breaker in the Tour de France, is cloaked from view as are the closed for winter hillside towns of Peter Mayle's Luberon far below. Where are we going? It is a surprise, an invitation from our friend Jean-Pierre and his wife Anne. Their nervous but loveable Jack Russell terrier, Marius, lies curled up between them asleep. Ben, our Golden, stares stoically out the back of the now repaired Range Rover. As we finally pull into the sleepy village of Saint Christol, our curiosity is peaked for there is nothing but a few houses huddled together under the eaves of a modest twelfth century church. Remi spies a tiny sign for L'Auberge de Loubion and we pull into a back lot that is shadowed by broken windows and the streak of a passing cat. Did we really drive nearly two hours for this? But Jean-Pierre is a man of the world and so we put the dogs on their leashes and followed him trepidatiously to a low-lying stone building.

Ah, the rush of warmth as we enter and are seated in the small but exceedingly cozy dining room. The dogs settle in as we are sized up by the diners at the two other tables. There is a mysterious scent in the air that mixes delightfully with wisps of smoke sneaking out of the crackling fireplace. Agnes, who owns the auberge along with her husband Eric, the chef, has a quick explanation and one to make us all gasp a  little: truffles! Here we are in prime truffle country and so it is with glee that we dive into a menu gastronomique, each course of which features the fragrant fungi.

Truffles, a mystery still and as always what is rare is expensive. Cicero thought that they were 'children of the earth'. A Macau casino owner spent $330K for a pair of white Alba truffles last November. We will be tasting the black Perigord truffle, the winter version, which Anne explains that some true truffle lovers appreciate over the more expensive white Albas. Soon enough, a small glass bowl filled with scrambled eggs arrives, dotted with black bits--the butter and warmth of earth. Three perfectly pan-roasted scallops topped in a truffle tartare follows. The main plate is a perfectly cooked stuffed capon with blanched celery and mashed potatoes all dusted with the tasty stuff. A cheese plate of offerings from the region was brought to the table and left there for us to taste and take as we wanted. A simple chestnut cake topped off a long and lovely lunch. We were, as usual, the last to leave.

Sadly, a farmer recently shot and killed a truffle thief in Grignan. These wonders are worth much but certainly not the price of a life. As wonderfully rare as the experience was, it was not the extravagance of the truffles but the memory of a well-thought out surprise of a hidden gem amidst the mountains that will remain.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sunday Driver

I was fortunate enough to be invited to Nimes, an important Gallo-Roman city on the other side of the Rhone that is home to the Maison Carée (one of the world's best preserved temples from the period) as well as an Arena that looks as if it has been blow-torched by pollution to crispy crême-brulée status. As it is still, just barely, the holiday season, I wasn't there to hunt the old stones but rather to take tea with Frederique at our amazing friend Marie's vaulted ceiling apartment on the ground floor of a hôtel particulier or bourgeois mansion. As if it isn't glamorous enough to be able to list your address as the 17th century Hôtel Villard, the building is located on the rue Dorée--a street of gold!

The style of Marie's apartment is French charm personified. A million books--all of which she has read--stacked amidst family antiques and wonderfully delicate glass treasures brought back from her yearly archeological digs in Syria. And let me tell you, she serves a proper tea. We were so thrilled with the delicately oriental flavor that we bundled up and headed around the corner to discover its source, the Palais des Thes--a tea palace! Here we were able to smell such treats as Geisha's tea, Lover's tea and a black Russian tea that immediately transported me back to long winter days spent in Saint Petersburg. 

Next up, Marie led us through the maze of criss-crossed byways to the Galerie Jean Louis Fages, an Ali Baba mash-up of antiques and the most unique lampshades that I have ever seen. Stately bears, gayly colored parrots or Marie Antoinette like powdered ladies were all lit up from within. The owner of the shop is so proud of his work that his business card clearly announces them as an abajouriste or lampshade maker, something quite rare, I think, even in France.

As I stepped out of the shop, my eyes glittery with delight, Marie made a snarky remark about what a shame it was that I didn't have my camera with me, that this would be perfect material for a post! Oh and how she was right! Of course, the more I struggled with that, my two friends harped on me until it was declared that I was a "blogueuse du dimanche"--the blogging equivalent of a Sunday driver!

To make matters worse, everywhere we walked turned out to have been the perfect photo opportunity. The sun's last rays were not only brilliant but a burning rose gold against the orange stones. A tiny 1950's style cart was decorated as a choo-choo train selling hot chestnuts. At every turn, Marie would just look at me and shrug as if to say "mais oui." She worked that joke to its end! But who is the victor? For here I am, sans photos, determined to write about a lovely day spent laughing against the cold in the ancient town of Nimes. 

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Start in beauty

The following is a repost as we are still in the mountains:

Coming from a family of jinxers, I am superstitious about many things. How to properly begin the New Year is most certainly one of them. Already, the evening before is not to be bargained with, tradition reigns. And tradition clearly states: "Stay in with your honey, eating well and dancing after midnight. Going out is for amateurs." It is one that has worked for the nine years that Remi and I have spent together, with money or without. Our friends know and respect this but my dear friend Frederique offered up a compromise too tempting to resist. So it was that I tippytoed down the street in my very highest heeled over the knee boots, bottles of champers in hand, to spend the apero with a wonderfully boisterous mix of friends, their kids and our dogs. Lovely talking, much laughing in front of a warm fire. Perfect.

But Cinderella-like, poof we were off far before the stroke of midnight as my honey had been preparing all afternoon. I didn't really think it possible but he might have outdone himself. Sea bass roasted in bacon with a chablis cream sauce topped with a weighty mix of sautéed fresh shrimp, mussels, calamari and squid. Seriously? Seriously. Allez-hop, a wonderful little-known bottle of Rapatel and we were still dining as we could hear fireworks popping in the distance to announce the arrival of 2011. As usually happens, we end up shimmying around the living room before collapsing into a deep, well-deserved sleep. Sigh. Waking up, groggy as all get out near noon. Just in time for brunch! Mimosas and eggs benedict. Yes, we like to eat just a bit.

Towards the end of the day, Remi took me to a secret spot, the ruin of a twelfth century church that is so hidden in the countryside that only the most intrepid can find it. St. Veran. Surrounded by an olive grove and bathed in a golden "God" light, it symbolizes all that I love of Provence. Here you can still find such incredibly peaceful places and have them to yourselves. Just us and the birds swooping overhead. How wonderful then, to start the year in beauty. Wishing the same for all of my readers and friends across the world--health (most importantly), happiness and making the most of all that makes life wonderful!

Bonne Année! Happy, happy, happy New Year!