Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Something like Heaven?

There are moments of discovery while travelling that morph into a slightly out of body experience. Time becomes slippery and the rest of the world beyond what is smack in front of your eyes blurs like the borders of a first kiss. I was so very lucky to have had such an experience while chasing the sun as it set over St. Saturnin Les Apt. I remember long ago reading that the town was a hidden bijou, or treasure, but couldn't for the life of me remember why. I simply was along for the ride as Remi hurtled through the countryside. We had already driven to the farthest points of the Luberon and seen wonderful things, but more of that another day. He was determined to also make it to St. Saturnin, despite the rapidly waning light. It was far from the first time that we have been in such a situation and I can tell you that it is thrilling. Remi hunts light with the avidity of Hemingway on a safari. We saw the chapel, reigning atop the remains of a fortress, from afar. But how to approach and at the right angle? Instinct took him around the side of the village to rise up a cliff on the opposite side. Just when I thought that he had made a drastic mistake while every minute counted, he pulled the Range Rover off road and on to a rocky unmarked piste or path. Down, around, Ben bumping in the back, we came to a halt directly across from our goal just as the light exploded into gold. Amazingly, a small bridge led from our perch across a lake to the long winding road up to the chapel. Here is where time started to let loose as I became lost in beauty. The stone's glow, the gift of black eyed Susan's and walnut tree blooms, the utter quiet as we climbed, alone, to find a chapel of unutterable grace. 

Grace. To be touched by something greater than ourselves. Missing for so many of us, myself included, in this world of noise. How lovely to want to believe, to believe in general, to believe in everything. I could feel my heart. 

Remi and I lingered until the night came on, until we were forced to leave for fear of not being able to find our way in the dark. 

Afterwards I read about the "Rosette Tamier Scandal" in 1852, so named after a young woman who swore that she had beheld tears of blood falling from a painting of Christ in the chapel that we had visited. It was a story that gripped national headlines and yet was never explained, nor disproved.

Friday, March 25, 2011


The light is changing here in Arles. The softening of that harsh winter white into that lovely Provençal gold is more than welcome, it's desperately needed! And as is befitting with the arrival of warmth, the town is preparing, primping for "the Season" when visitors from the world over wander and ogle at all of our old stones and stories. As Arles counts on tourism to supply a whopping 70% of its income, you can well imagine how so many here are looking forward to the possibilities that this time of year brings.

On the fabled Place du Forum (so named for the traces of the Roman Forum that once stood on this very spot), the tables have been brought from out of storage. Already a few brave folks huddle in the direct sunlight believing in the idea of Summer long before its arrival. A note to the wise, if you are ever in Arles, do not even think of eating on this gorgeous square, no. You will regret it and pay dearly for it as well. A glass of rosé? A morning crème? Fine. But even for that better to join the rowdy locals at Mon Bar or who knows what you will be served. 

As a little update on the real estate situation, we decided to definitely abandon the house for sale in the Roquette because you don't buy a home simply because it is well-priced. That is even more idiotic than buying shoes that aren't quite your size because they are on-sale. So the searching continues and we are keeping our options open. I am also looking at other rentals because frankly, I am starved for light, the one thing that our current apartment, glamorous though it may be, lacks entirely. And truly, I don't know if I can pass another winter here with the lights on to keep me sane. I found an apartment near the Arena--with a bedroom window even looking out onto its arches--how lovely would that be to wake up to?--that was absolutely drunk with sunlight. Alas, Remi gave it a no, wisely noting the terrace directly below a bedroom window and the ramshackle quality of the kitchen. We both were also so frustrated to see that the gorgeous stone had been covered with wallpaper (what is wrong with people?) and the two Napoleon III fireplaces blocked up. More to come. The hunt goes on and on!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Light in the dark

Off we went. Piled up into the car to seek out a bit of lumière, the sky too blue to be ignored. The search for the new continues, it seems as natural as Spring. With a quiet buzz in our hearts we turned around the village of Roquemaure, papparazi-like, to find the secret access to what we were seeking. Across a canal, up a steep slope--et voila!--the Tour de L'Hers rose above the further banks of the Rhone, an elegant guardian. A diadem and not a crown. But the Mistral was at play, pushing the waters into waves and nearly knocking me to the ground. A force so insistent, no matter how pleasant, that I finally conceited defeat and sat on the grass, happy to be connected with something still. 

A flock of migratory birds valiantly flew upstream at such a speed that my eyes, already teary from the wind, could only make them out enough to snap and they were gone. What determination. From what exotic lands where they coming from? I wished them well on the rest of their journey and thanked them, for if that isn't the official announcement of the sunny times ahead, then I don't know what is. Ben, our Golden, turned his nose upstream and followed their scent long after they had flown towards the sun.

A darker shade entirely hangs over the back-streets of Roquemaure. I am assuming that this was once a wealthy wine town, based on the architecture of the abandoned storehouses. Despite having lived in the South of France for over five years, I am still surprised when a town declines the role that is expected of it in Provence. No posturing, no postcards. I won't say that it lacked charm, for that would be far from the case. A quiet life is lead here, with old mixing into new, tv antennas attached atop medieval walls like victory flags.

Remi pointed out to me several odd niches on either side of the road, built to hold back the Rhone when it floods. Can you imagine the force and the fear when it was necessary to put all three panels in place? Of course, my thoughts and heart made an immediate detour to Japan. 

Sometimes detours can be a blessing, certainly when you are not rushed and we weren't, for once. After coming to a stop at a route barrée, we followed the signs of the dérivation through the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. That the vines themselves are clearly as pampered as babies or divas says much about its well-deserved reputation. Rocks, loam and herbs are carefully arranged under a golden sun, storing energy for the grapes that will start to push into being in several months. But even though we were tantalizing close, a wine tasting was not to be. Our detour blocked us from from the center of town, curving swiftly back towards the our side of the Rhone, towards our Alpilles.

I am crazy for the moon, would look up searching for it on all of those lonely nights in New York City when I needed a friend. Unfortunately, I have one of those personalities that are highly effected by its waxes and wanes. I have never known why. So it was with both trepidation and excitement that I announced to Remi that Saturday would bring on the giantest full moon in eighteen years--a fact that had somehow gone unremarked upon in the French press. What photographer can resist such an opportunity? Remi chose well and I was equally thrilled as he headed towards the Chapel Saint-Sixte in Eygalières. As with so many of the most amazing religious sites that we have known in Provence, the chapel was originally built around a sacred spring in Roman times, it's waters running where? To Arles. 

The wind seemed to pick up speed as the evening came on, pushing my already shaky hands into a blur of images. And can you believe that the orange fire on the horizon is the moon? When it first peaked over the hill I clapped my hands and jumped up and down. I couldn't help it. It deserved the acclamations. So bright, such light, it could have been mistaken for the sun. Turning the world upside down. But since it has already been this week, perhaps it turned it the right side up again. I can only hope.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Day of Silence

I am joining my fellow bloggers in observing a day of silence in honor of Japan.

Sending prayers of strength, hope and solutions.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Last of the Winter Walks

Somehow I never published this post but I am glad to have rediscovered it as I believe that we could all use a bit of color today.

The Abbaye de Montmajour lies just on the outskirts of Arles, rising above the fields where Vincent Van Gogh loved to paint. Founded in the 10th century, the abbey has a long history of hardships. It has been blasted by wars, political manoeuvers and plagues. While briefly enjoying a period of success during the 13th century, when it housed sixty resident monks and sponsored parishes as far away as Grenoble, it fell into disarray while under the control of the Maurists monks in the 17th century, who were reportedly known more for their acts of greed than good. In 1786, the Cardinal Louis de Rohan, in keeping with the shoddy behavior that later ruined him during the scandalous "Affair of the Necklace" involving Marie Antoinette, stopped paying for the maintenance of the abbey. When the French Revolution arrived, only nine monks roamed its crumbling halls. The churches of the abbey were sold to local farmers and later turned into an armory by the German army during World War II. Fortunately Prosper Merimée had the insight to add Montmajor to his list of monuments to be preserved in France. Its slow restoration began and continues to this day. 

We see the abbey constantly in our comings and goings, the tower and filigreed remains a beacon that we are close to home. I don't know what possessed Remi to turn onto the tiny dirt path that we had driven by so many times but it led to a wonderful perspective not only on the abbey but Vincent's countryside as well. Despite the deceptive green in the fields, the day was bitterly cold and my skin drew tight across my cheeks, slightly frozen. Soon, even Ben was ready to head home to a spot in front of the fire. 

It was worth all of the brrring to have taken in that last ray of sun crossing the Camargue to bring the abbey to life again, just for a moment, in its glow.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I usually do all that I can to keep the content on this blog my own but I really feel strongly about passing on this beautifully expressed post about the aftermath of the tsunami that was written by the prolific Dominique Browning on her wonderful blog Slow Love Life:

I spoke to my Mom this evening and we both had similar concerns as to the state of affairs in the world and wondering, as drastic as this may sound, if the end was sooner than we think. Our Earth seems to be so strained, so overburdened. How hard it is to be so far away from her and my sister with such thoughts racing though my head, despite my overwhelming love for Remi and the life that we have created here. I imagine that all expats have these feelings from time to time. 

I have been to the Ring of Fire, the area of unstable tectonic plates on which Japan is also situated. Remi and I were fortunate enough to do a story on the tiny island of Vanuatu, of which I will share more another time because it was so fascinating on several levels. One of the most incredible evenings was spent on the crater of Mount Yasur. It is the world's most accessible active volcano and we both stared down deep into the inner churning of the earth until our guide had to lead us away. We all tend to forget that an unending push and pull is just below the surface of where we live and breathe until such a tragedy reminds us of otherwise. I think if more people had seen such power first hand, they would treat our planet with more respect, but enough of that. Tonight I am just wishing that the tide of fear, of terror, will pull away from Japan to let its people grieve and recover as they can.

Friday, March 11, 2011

New Leaves

This will be a less verbose post than usual as there are too many thoughts swirling around my head for me to corral them into much of an order. My heart goes out to Japan and the Pacific, to those that have lost their homes and loved ones. 

I have long been aware of the irony that in our odd world things can be at the best and worst at the same moment. So while such destruction was hitting hard on the other side of the planet, I was focusing on the minute and the beautiful in our garden. 

Time to get out the rakes. Away with winter's waste. The camellias are in full bloom and the mystery plant is unfurling with a startling newness. Remi had pruned the wildly wandering fig tree last week and just in time as there are now the tiniest shoots giving promises of what is to come.

It seems to soon, this Spring. I don't trust it but am embracing it anyway. Because who can say no to a 3.50 € bouquet of tulips? Not me. 

Endings and beginnings. Remi and I have been asking so many questions about what is next. The real estate agent who showed us the house that I wrote about in my "Bones" post called to say that, in fact, the owners need to sell very quickly and are willing to consider a large enough price drop (30K) to make it very tempting. So much to consider at this time of year when creation is brimming just below the surface.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Past Adventures: The French Amazon

Photo © Remi Benali

Photo © Remi Benali

Journey in the land with no name

Heralded as the “King River of French Guiana”, the Maroni courses through a land of adventure. Secret African traditions, gold mining fever and the struggle to survive, all simmer underneath the canopy of the emerald Amazon and an illusory French flag. The law of the forest prevails in this unknown wilderness.

The widow is laughing. The brightly colored pom-poms of her traditional dress swing from side to side as she dances, hand in hand with the women of Galibi. Their faces are tattooed in cat-like lines for this occasion, a chagrin commemorating the one-year anniversary of the passing of her husband, a shaman. Groups of men gaze laconically at the dancers, immobilized by the stultifying heat and the force of the cashiri, a beer made from fermented manioc root. Two young men never stop rotating around the group, offering bowls of the brew, muddy-pink and smelling of vomit, and we are not allowed to refuse. The rhythm pounded on a row of jaguar skin drums bounces like a heartbeat. The dancers begin to call out to the Amerindian ancestors that their village is named after, "Come dance with us, be happy with us…" Their chant ripples through this hamlet in Suriname, down to the coast of the great Maroni River. Across its divide, a passing thunderstorm rages over French Guiana.

Photo © Remi Benali

Photo © Remi Benali

Remi has been encouraging me for awhile to occasionally open up beyond Provence and share some of our past adventures with you. Above is the opening of an article that I wrote for the French travel magazine Grands Reportages along with a few of Remi's amazing photographs--for more, please feel free to visit his website: www.remibenali.com. As I was working on re-editing it this morning, it seemed the time to jump in. I am including a few of my souvenir photos (that are glued into an album so my apologies for the quality) as well.

Our voyage in French Guiana was perhaps the most physically trying that we experienced. Our pirogue, or motorized canoe, was expertly manned by a captain and his assistant over deathly rapids and across shallow sands but we were left open to the elements, most especially a brutal Equatorial sun, for hours upon hours. We waded across a chest high creek while thoughts of pirañas made my heart race. At night we slept in hammocks to protect us from insects and yet one morning I nearly stepped on a mygale, one of the world's largest spiders, the size of a dinner plate. One afternoon Remi and I clung back to back, splitting the seat on a quad as it bumped through the jungle for an hour and a half to arrive at a land-scraped gold mine.

And yet I am so grateful for the opportunity to have experienced the Amazon. There is a precious beauty there that is the breathing belly of the world. I remember one evening as we turned a corner on the river just as the sun was setting to see orange and red fireflies that were enormous, fire-working across the sky. Emerald parrots streaking and shrieking. Exceptional.

So from time to time I might talk of our previous stories. I miss travelling so. But life gave me a surprise in that it happened in the first place, so who knows? Perhaps it will bring our travelling back to us as well.

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Oh my, I'm not talking about my own! Thank goodness, I have nothing to divulge on that subject for the moment. No, I am referring to the bones of a house. What lies beneath all of the torturous things we can put them through especially in a town such as Arles where there can be centuries upon centuries worth of layers. I saw an especially good example of that this morning.

Isabelle, one of the many, many real estate agents that we have come to know in Arles (and yet one of the few that hasn't given up on us due to our winning combination of impossible pickyness and a restrained budget) rang us up. "I think I might have something for you," she announced and then proceeded with a brief description of a large home dans son jus, literally translating to "in its juices". Hmm, it was possibly within our budget and sounded appealing enough. Besides, there is nothing that I love more than going to visit these old homes here in Arles. You never know what you are going to find...

Well, beyond what was arguably one of the uglier kitchens that we have come across, we found something, that, in the right hands could be turned into something lovely. Can you see it? No? Well, perhaps you need to know the workings of how homes have been renovated here. After the Second World War, the gorgeous stone that all of these homes are made of was considered far too old fashioned--something for the peasants! And so it was covered up, either with cement and plaster (or even, gulp, stucco) or with sheetrock walls set inches away to let the stone breathe. The same shame treatment was given to the stone or terra cotta tile lined floors as well as the wooden beamed ceilings.

So, with that in mind, just take a look at this room. Now imagine ripping up that linoleum--with pleasure! From the sound of our footfall, we were fairly certain that there were tomettes, terra cotta tiles, underneath. If not, then a parquet could be installed, which would reflect nicely the sunlight traipsing in from that typically 18th century window. Next, strip down the hollow plaster walls to reveal the gorgeous blocks of cream colored stone from Fontvielle. Beside the built in armoire on the right is a hidden conduit for a huge firpeplace--add that to your mental picture. Finally, also remove the at least three feet thick fake ceiling, paint the beams underneath a pale cream and voila! Gorgeous! 

And that is just one room. After climbing up the final flight of the stone staircase (note the cement on the side wall--heart-breaking), we were rewarded with an open loft like space, much bigger than what my little camera can covey, something true of all the rooms actually. Here, if you look past the thick whitewash, you can get an idea of the stone walls but also look at the parfeuille tiles on the floor--centuries old and increasing rare. What could you do up here? Well, several things. Simply finish off the insulation for an extra room, or open up the ceiling to create a terrace complete with a summer kitchen. Or a combination of the above by building a patio on the roof off to the side above one of the bedrooms.

Is this the house for us? No, it isn't. The work that needs to be done, even though I can imagine doing alot of it ourselves, puts it out of our budget. Nor did it make our hearts go thump, thump which is definitely called for on a project that requires living in dust for a year. But it is an interesting opportunity for someone. Let's hope it falls into the right hands...