Friday, February 25, 2011

Just the salad, please

Now that sounds reasonable enough, doesn't it? Just a little salad, that's all! Well, yes, this is France and I am talking about a salade composée, a composed salad. No, not composed as in calm (though I must say it gives me a terribly peaceful just looking at it), composed as in built. Constructed layer by layer. So an oh-so innocent beginning of mesculun leaves quickly becomes swallowed by tomatoes and hearts of palm--veggies!--then a smattering (ok, bacon)...fried goat cheese...and topped with a boiled egg. At least the egg is boiled! The dressing is a homemade mustard vinaigrette that is so thick that you could stand a spoon up in it. But it is fresh! Good for you! Sigh. We do try to be good but somehow even with the best intentions, gourmandise always wins.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yes and no

My Mom surprised me the other day with a comment that shouldn't have, I suppose. "You know that people think of your life as glamorous, whether it is or not to you." I forget that at times, as well as the assumptions, the easy clichés tacked on to the idea of living in France, let alone Provence. It hasn't always helped me with my relations that are far away. When I was working full time as a travel writer? Yes, that I agree was decidedly the stuff that glamorous dreams reside on. I spent my 35th birthday as a producer for Remi's ad for Apple at a luxury camp that we had hired out in Botswana, along with their trained elephants. Once the shot was in the can, we cracked a bottle of Veuve and then headed off on safari, where I spotted the Momma lion and her cubs before flying out in a private plane towards home. Now, that, to me, counts.

In this odd time while I am not working, when we are posing mega questions about everything--where we should live, what we should do, let alone truly feeling the pinch of not having money coming in--no, it doesn't feel so heady. Remi is pushing so hard to make things happen, to advance on his projects that I worry, even though I understand. So at times we find ourselves brushing up against a fistful of 'no's. 

Although it may seem that we spend our days aimlessly slicing through the region, all is done with the  goal of advancing Remi's current project. Every kilometre is counted, especially as the price of gas (or petrol) is roughly seven times what it is in the States. So imagine our frustration when, after nearly two hours of searching, we arrived at our first stop, only to find that it was on private property? Barred. Or that the scenic point on the infamous Col de la Madeleine (often the back-breaker and occasional life-taker on the Tour de France) was actually an unmarked bunker from the Second World War? Scarred. I couldn't help but wonder if it had been Germans or French using this lookout. Or both. 

The clouds seemed to suck up all of the ash that swirled above the vineyards and orchards where farmers burnt last year's branches. A false evening surrounded us, covering the thousand year old Notre Dame d'Aubion all too soon. "What a shame, " an elderly gentleman out walking with his daughter noted about our visit, "Yesterday was perfect." He shrugged and tottered on. The church's tower, supposedly founded by Charlemagne, seemed to pull away from my regard.

Now do I sound a bit whiny? I don't mean to and I am well aware that those of you who visit this blog from afar, from Albania or Brazil (which thrills me to no end, truly I am delighted) are not necessarily interested in what doesn't work but by what does. So where is the "yes"? Happily, everywhere but only when I could let myself see it. In the earth sprouting wildly, scenting the air with almond tree blossoms that seem too soon, too good to be true. In the rustle of sleeping olive groves. Ben running so hard amongst them that he bounces like a rabbit. In the base beat of a new musical find thrilling us over the hills as we bounce along in our beat up Range Rover. That Remi and I can shake off our disappointments and not end up getting into a petty fight over a strange day that we can't help but take personally. To end up laughing. Yes, yes and yes.

Friday, February 18, 2011


For all of the nay-sayers that have wagged their heads surreptitiously because I dared believe in the power of Spring, I insist that it is indeed on its way. And finally, I have proof. After months of watching the buds on our camellia tree swell from peas to olives to Brussels sprouts, they have simultaneously exploded in a riot of hot pink.  Which I find a rather funny joke on the part of Mother Nature after all of our efforts to plant an all-white, uber-elegant garden. Little did we know. Out of nowhere pops in a wacky aunt from Tuscon with a "Yee-haw!"

But apparently it is the color of the day, as touted by no less than the ever inspiring Scott Schuman, who is showing just such a color on his "blog that broke the sound barrier", the Sartorialist. It might very well be a fitting reaction to what has otherwise been a disappointingly disparate NYC Fashion Week. My goodness, all of the nods to the 90s just seem so out of the blue--and I am not talking about the one hanging over the garden...

When current fashion darling Jason Wu referred to how the women in that time dressed "as a means of expressing themselves" my immediate reaction was, "Well don't they always?" True, I might be missing something here, having grown into my heels during that very age in that very town where it was an adventure to run to the corner deli or Duane Reade. But it was, of course, a self-imposed challenge, as I was always only dressing for myself. Who are women dressing for today? And why on earth are they paying so much for style that isn't their own? Yes, I realize that I am sounding more Frenchy than American in saying so, but trust me, these are my guns and I am sticking to them.

One last little bit of query before I hoist up my Côte du Rhône (times is tough, kids), who on earth OKed the "$100 for a weekend in Paris" article in the NY Times? Now I worship at the Times altar but this one left me stupefied as the author skims the surface of Paris in a way that makes you wonder "Why go?". I certain can only imagine the folks across the US trying to see his reasoning in hanging out at beer halls in the City of Light. If you want to know the feeling of Paris, let me know. I'll take you there. And it just might leaving you tickled...well, you know.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Isn't it romantic?

Happy After Valentine's Day everyone. Blogger was not on my side yesterday so I was unable to post this until now but hopefully your roses haven't faded just yet, nor all of the chocolate eaten, so that you can handle one more wistful musing on romance...

What is Romance? On this Valentine's Day? Many things to many different people, I would imagine and nothing at all to some. I actually did go into my local flower shop this morning to replace my orchid near the front door. The usually jovial women that work there looked at me with a slight wince of "help" as their male customers hemmed and hawed. Often, it looked as if they were trying to pick out something that wouldn't look cheap while spending the least amount of money. I remember so well in Manhattan how this evening, of all out of the year, would create the most awkward moments with the highest expectations, leading more often than not to disappointment. In France, there is less of the pressure to conform to an idea of a commercial holiday but it is felt nonetheless. I can see that my unattached girlfriends are trying to put on a brave face and I know all too well how that feels. As a single, working girl, I once crossed midtown in a snowstorm on this day to buy myself a trinket at Tiffany's because I knew that no one else would.

So I think it is good to remember that romance takes many forms. Is not only about love with a partner, of course. And I had a lovely surprise the other day in our perpetual wanderings. I had heard of Oppède le Vieux, one of the storied hill towns at the beginning of the Luberon. It is lesser known than those made famous by Peter Mayle and I was quickly able to see why. It is in ruins. And has been for centuries.

Apparently, Oppède was once home to a line of blood-thirsty Barons with little tolerance for those with different religious preferences than their own. Slash, burn and horror ensued including a battle that killed 3000 residents on a day in 1545. Why is it that some places are left to be forgotten while others rebuild and thrive? The village certainly didn't feel haunted by its scarred past. The stark Notre-Dame-d'Alidon was reconstructed in the 16th century and remains the villages most solid structure, a reminder of what could have been. 

In the 19th century, the remaining residents slowly retreated lower into the valley, weary of the isolation and the pounding mistral winds, and dismantled the roofs of their former homes so as to avoid paying tax on them. Slowly, Oppède le Vieux was left to its own demise, becoming completely abandoned. The medieval fortress that dominates the valley was left to crumble with nature making a swift invasion where armies once could not.

And yet how elegant the remains are, holding their memories tight. Of budding faith in this small chapel of Les Penitents Blancs, of a bustling village coursing through a fortified castle closed up tight. How odd to see their bare bones in the stark winter light. I wanted to cover up the whole village in a  blanket to protect it. A feeling that had luckily been shared by a group of artists after the armistice in 1940, including Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, wife of Antoine de Saint Exupéry (author of Le Petit Prince and famed pilot) who brought the world's attention to this lost corner of the Luberon in her novel, Oppède.

And Oppède le Vieux has remained an artists haven attracting painters and the occasional movie star or two. Maybe that is also the reason why this little village has remained more discreet than its camera-ready cousins Ménerbes and Bonnieux (both of which were featured in resident Ridley Scott's pean to Provence, A Good Year). There are no souvenir shops selling glossy postcards, not at this time of year at least, nor are there paved paths for easy access. Slippery moss covered cobble stones peter off into sheer drops over the valley. Clambering to the top of the fortress is risky and only for the adventurous. But who did I find tucked up beyond a once magnificent vaulted stairway now open to the sky? A pair of lovers entwined in each others arms. They clearly found the setting as romantic as I did.

Forgotten beauty, what remains. Ideas that I have been thinking and writing much about lately. It is only normal, I suppose, now that I am growing older. A romantic outlook beyond that wild rush that overtakes body and soul. Something simpler. But that still makes the heart sing. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Antiques at the crossroads

Last year, an acquaintance let us in on a great secret--for those that love antiques as much as Remi and I do but don't necessarily have the budget to fulfill our dusty dreams, there is an an event worth exploring. Every two to three months, antique dealers come from across Europe to sell their wares at the Montpellier déballage, or "unwrapping". Montpellier is perfectly placed with easy access from Italy and Spain--both are only a few hours away by car--which brings an especially cosmopolitan mix of sellers. As the sale is normally reserved for professionals to the trade, the prices are up to four times less than what one would pay in a shop. Buyers fly in from across the globe. Russian, American and Lebanese accents overlap incessantly. 

Now, we are not professionals, though I do one day dream of opening my own store as well as including antiques in our next gallery. But if you talk the talk and walk the walk, you are welcome to browse with the pros. Of course, my being American both helps to get me in the door but also insures that any prices that are quoted to me will be much higher than normal--I must be wealthy after all if I am American! So Remi and I have developed a system when we are interested in something where I will discreetly wander away while my Frenchman asks "how much?".

So what can you find? Truly, just about anything that your imagination permits. The most important dealers fill out six football-field size halls, each slightly specialized in a style or provenance. I have a fondness for the Marco Polo Hall, where the most outrageous pieces are usually found. A medieval iron chandelier the size of a compact car? Check. A salon set worthy of Marie Antoinette? Take your pick. Museum quality paintings of a heart-breaking beauty? Yes. 

Admittedly, I felt a bit awkward taking photos, obviously a bit of a no-no as this is no place for tourists and you never know exactly how these pieces came to be here. But I did sneak a few, mainly to send to Brooke Gianetti, whose incredible design blog, Velvet & Linen, is as inspirational as it is charming. I knew that she would appreciate the patina on these Queen Anne's. 

Outside, the sellers are less formal, as is proven by the delightful smile seen below. Gosh was I crazy for these two golden bergères with a delicate but unfussy needlepoint in the back. The paravent, or folding screen was also a striking piece--it is unusual to find Art Nouveau in the South of France. I would have happily taken the lot home!

So what are les tendances? What is in fashion right now? Yes, there is often a theme or two that all of the vendors seem to be pushing. During our last visit it was still life's of post-hunt scenes with rabbits and fowl. This go round there was a great prevalence of anything religious (surprising as I thought that was a trend that had already come and gone) and random architectural elements (as seen up top). There was also more high end 70s pieces--can't say that interests me in the least! As always, the American buyers were snapping up all of the gold leaf mirrors they could find--many taller than I am.

The déballage starts early in the morning and finishes up by 1pm--part of what adds to the excitement. If you want something, you have to act on it right away. For Remi and I, there is little that we could ever afford even at the professional prices but what a plaisir des yeux--a treat for the eyes. After we have seen the lot, we retire to people watch, no, not at the Champagne Bar (yes, there is one) but at the deliciously unhealthy stand where we wolf down grilled bratwurst sandwiches stuffed with salty fries! Luckily, it is a lunch that we only have a few times a year. This being the edge of Provence, a gentleman also discreetly offered black truffles for sale out of a cooler as well. Perhaps a seller that had had a particularly good morning would splurge on them...

In the back hall, the moving companies carefully put stickers on the pieces that had been sold and scribbled their destinations in floppy notebooks. From there, it was fun to think of where they would go--all over the world. To store windows or direct into clients mansions. What a wealth of culture we have here in France. It really is something. And do you know what was boxed up with the others? That gigantic iron chandelier! 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Promise of Spring

After the coldest, gustiest winter that many can remember, a bit of a reprieve. It arrives every year around this time, a gift from Mother Nature to encourage us to hold on a tad longer. Imagine the clouds evaporating to reveal a story-book blue, temperatures jumping to 15°C (59°F!) inciting folks to fill up the café terraces, hungry for a bit of light. 

We made the most of it. Saturday we held the last of our winter get-togethers after the market. Glasses of cremant raised, we toasted that the worst has passed with a cheer. A table full of the usual suspects kept us picking for hours. Two of Remi's tartes--fruit de mer and provençal tomato, oysters, two kinds of olives, crudités, salmon stuffed with cream cheese, dates stuffed with roquefort and wrapped in bacon...a cheese plate that was forgotten about completely, samossas from my new Vietnamese vendor (who gave us a salad yet again). And for a wonderful treat, our friend Anne brought along her made from scratch batter for the most delectable crepes topped by her always stellar apricot jam. Sigh. Alas, the photos are all too blurry as much cremant had been consumed!


Nearly all of us reunited that evening for a bal populaire, a village get together, that is put on each year by the world music festival Les Suds, also as a promise of fun things to come in warmer climes. The band was all horns, the music a cross between flamenco, Italian pop and polka! And yet, everyone was dancing, so desperate for a chance to be out, to let off a little steam. All ages and styles mixed and moved and shouted out. As always, we left while the party was still good (a mantra of mine).

Our Sunday drive was a meander through the Camargue, the marshy park land to the South, towards Aigues Mortes. Saint Louis built the fortified walls in the 13th century and it was the departure point for the Seventh and Eight Crusades. Less hard to imagine that sea used to come up to the walls when you see the presence of water constantly interacting with the sky in the surrounding region. 

One of the greatest gifts of this seasonal shift is the subtle but assured change in the light--its length, its golden quality careening over every surface. Warming inside and out.

We don't get often enough to the Mediterranean, despite it being forty minutes away. But timing was on our side yesterday evening as we passed the beach at Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer just as the sun was flaming into the pink of the flamingoes that line the local lagoons. How happy we all were to be calmed by the swish of the surf, the simplicity of a horizon extending off to Africa. 

This morning the gray was back in the form of a cottony fog clinging to the banks of the Rhone River. So it was just a taste, not a meal. But enough to fill us all with a boost of the hope that is Spring.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hometown beauty

My goodness, I have been a bit remiss in writing. I have things to share but have been perhaps caught up in a bout of winter sluggishness. A bit of sadness too as Emma, my Mom's incredibly loving Golden Retriever, passed away. She will be missed as she gave unconditional love to everyone who crossed her path. Sometimes I think we all forget the power of being kind.

And the power of beauty. Especially that which lasts for centuries. Arles is home to one of the greatest concentrations of World Heritage Sites in France--the richness of its historic sites being one of the reasons we were drawn here. Of them, the cloister of Saint-Trophime is the most fascinating for me. Built in the second half of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, it is constructed with both Provençal Romanesque barrel and gothic vaults. Each column is unique, dedicated to different scenes sculpted by members of the School of Arles, who set the standard at the time. Lions, monsters, kings and vagrants all given a stunningly realistic twist. 

The mark of time is also present in the graffiti left behind by the visitors that have passed. Here, one dating from 1747.

Even though in the heart of town, once inside the cloister walls, there is no sound but the whisper of the trees. Perfect for soothing the mind, for finding a bit of peace amidst the winter winds. As a resident, I am always welcome to come and sit under the arcades and plan to return in Spring with a book. Yes, I am well aware of the good fortune of having access to such inspiration, at hand whenever needed.