Friday, April 29, 2011

In the Alpilles, Part Two

I awoke uneasily on Easter morning, having slept poorly due to a dose of unaccustomed silence. Luckily, our hosts were ready with as much café as was needed to get going. When I was asked how I took it, I explained "comme un camionneur", like a truck driver, which elicited a wry smile. After a bit of toast slathered in jam made from the apricot tree from the other side of the kitchen door, I was out breathing in the sun. Ben followed after my call. I admit I was thinking of this blog and had my little Pentax in hand. As often happens, doing things with others in mind can lead to something positive for yourself. My Tod's crunched along the path, my eyes adjusted to the scope of the countryside, to its undulating shadows. Walking until I stopped thinking. How long it had been since I had been in nature alone. Remi and I live together, work together, are joined at the hip. That is the life that we have chosen and I love it. But to have enough time to just see for myself what was laying about and to fill up the inspiration tank was a great gift. And a very appropriate one for that particular holiday. Beauty as hope, hope as beauty.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

In The Alpilles, Part One

Saved. I have to say that was exactly what Remi and I felt when we received the invitation from our friends to come and stay with them in the country for Easter. We had felt as if we were being cooked under the pressure of the Feria and I was worried that one of us would snap. A town of Arles' size has a hard time containing the energy of a million pastis fuelled visitors and by Saturday afternoon, I could tell that trouble was brewing in the streets. We both sighed in sync then started grinning as we pulled beyond the police barriers and left the chaos behind. 

The Alpilles isn't the most famous corner of Provence, but for me, it is its heart. The olive groves and vineyards are actively farmed, the homes lived in instead of being a showcase for two weeks out of the year. There is a charm, a douceur that I have never felt anywhere else. And that certainly pertains to hospitality as well. As soon as we arrived, we were immediately shown to a cocoon of a guest room. Everything possible had been thought of to make us feel at ease. We have spent many long afternoons at this wonderful home but it was the first time that I slept there and the experience left me feeling slightly dizzy. Such a drastic shift towards quiet and peace. To be served foie gras and champagne and a gateau de poisson (which sadly translates to an unassuming "fish cake") in a lobster sauce that I will dream of for months. Conversation a plenty but also knowing when to be left  to have time to breathe.

There is nothing more enjoyable than going on walks in the open--more of that to come. Beyond their wonderful property, we were also shown the Chateau de Manville, a 16th century stronghold from the time of King François the First. The patina from such a date can't be invented and although they are more recent, I could imagine that these moss covered roof tiles would tickle the fancy of some of the interior designers that visit this blog. As for the stone wall, I couldn't help but wonder if it had come from a previous outbuilding of the chateau? On the other side of the iron gate, a small creek rustled and irises swayed in a slight breeze. 

The light seemed to trill, fingers pulling harp strings, as we headed back to their house. In good company and with the knowledge that we would be well taken care of. Remi and I don't belong to such a luxurious realm but are fortunate to have friends that are generous in sharing it with us. Such a break, a relief and I am very grateful to have had such a wonderful experience. Sometimes the best travelling isn't what we planned for, just something that provokes a shift inside, no matter how subtle.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Dichotomy Deux

Photo © Remi Benali

Just a quick addendum after yesterday's post concerning the odd melange of the Easter bullfights. During yesterday's corrida, two surprising events occurred. The young Tomasito, who after many years of training was in the ring as his first turn as a torero, was brutally stabbed twice in the thigh by his bull's horns, an injury which will possibly keep him from returning to the ring. Earlier in the day he had told the local paper, La Provence, that "there are so many people who never get the chance to make their dreams happen. The bulls are my reason to live. I think that I am extremely fortunate!" Fate was far kinder to one of the bulls, Pasion, who was spared his life by a public that was won over by his intelligence. The red bull managed to avoid every single thrust of the torero's blade while following his cape with the ease of a swaying cobra. Despite my having mentioned this very possibility in the comments yesterday, this act of pardon is rarissime.

I'll admit to a fair amount of dancing under the stars (and a dusting of rain) last night but not too much either, as I stick to my NYC credo--"always leave the party while it is still good". I can assure you, bouncing around the cobble stones in high heels is not an easy feat. Now, Remi and I are taking Ben and running away to the country, delighted beyond belief that we have been invited to stay with friends for the next two evenings. Time to leave the noise behind and think of what Easter can really symbolize. For no matter what your religious beliefs, from time to time we all can use the opportunity to renew, to start again.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Hole in the wall

The sacred and the profane collide up against each other during the Easter bullfights, le Feria de Pâque. A million visitors pour in to Arles from all over the world for this weekend, which opens the season of la tauromachie. Have I been to a corrida, where the bull is slaughtered? Yes, I have. Remi and I try to not judge the traditions that we experience in our travels elsewhere in the world and so felt it was important to go at least once to witness this very controversial art (as it is defined in Wikipedia). I won't go back. Although I had to admire the courage and at best, the élan of the torero, or matador, there is nothing to be said for the bull--despite the audiences cheers to the contrary--nor of its heart-rending moans in its final moments. After two hours of watching man face his death, a palpable excitement bursts from the spectators in the Arena with the brashness of the trumpets that sound endlessly. Les aficionados, that have included the likes of Picasso and Hemingway, are ready to assuage their thirst for life. And so they drink it down, at the bodegas or open bars throughout the town. More come to party than for the bullfights and it can be as equally messy as the bull's blood. Think of Spring Break but amidst adults who are definitely old enough to know better. 

There is one exception and that is the bodega of Les Andalouses, located in the desacralized Frère Prêcheurs church, the walls of which line our garden. Thursday evening draws those that follow the traditions involved with la tauromachie with a nearly religious fervor. Perhaps it isn't so strange after all that the event is held in a former church? As Remi was firing up the BBQ, we could hear the stomp of flamenco dancers resound. "Go" he encouraged and so I did for just a moment as I love to watch the proud swirl. It was an elegant crowd, one that was waiting patiently for the cue to pair off with their partners. Back in the garden, as the music echoed around us, the conversation turned to how surprising it is that this festival, which at its height becomes absolutely pagan, is held at Easter in a country that is still profoundly Catholic. So much so that last week a band of men, their faces covered in ski caps, burst in to the Collection Lambert in Avignon to smash Andreas Serrano's Piss Christ, which is being featured in a current exhibition. Another example of controversial art. The attack was a very organized affair, one that came the day after over two hundred protestors gathered to demand the photographs removal. This weekend is a revealing glimpse at the dichotomy of this country, one as surprising as the hole in the church wall that let us watch the dancers turn late into the night. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Feeling a gratitude as wide as the sky today. My sister's surgery was a great success and she is recovering well. Already making jokes with the nurses. Thank you so very much to those of you who sent good wishes. I was especially touched by those that came from the folks that don't know her or had just found this blog as so many of you did yesterday. Which leads me to...

A huge thank you to Brooke Giannetti for featuring some of my photos on her fantastic blog, Velvet & Linen. When Brooke asked if she could publish them, I imagined one, maybe two--but no! I was also delighted by her kind words. That Brooke remains such a generous and lovely person despite her overwhelming success is inspiring to say the least. For those of you who don't know her blog, allez-hop!Velvet & Linen.

Spring Fever is bubbling up for the Feria de Pâques, the Easter Bullfights and parties that accompany them. More on that soon for I am not quite ready to dip my hands into that yet. Today, you'll find me just floating happily up in the big blue, saying thank you, merci

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Beekeeper's House

I am learning to let chance hold sway when it comes to encounters in Provence. Just say yes, just go, don't look but see. Quite a drastic shift from the suspicion imbedded in my previous New York bustle and how I have changed because of it, outer armour melting under a tricky sun that draws my eyes up and out.

Remi and I were both squinting under the noonday glare as we walked up to the tiny house for sale a stone's throw from the Roman Arena. It was one I had walked past many times with our Golden, Ben but had never noticed, as if it had pulled back into itself, an introvert. That was definitely not the case of the balding, elderly man who stepped out of the shadows of the open front door to greet us. He was as far from the showy Mediterranean macho mold that I could imagine and yet exuded a quiet confidence as he spoke--looking me directly in the eye, a rarity here--that won us over immediately. He spread his hands wide as he told us up front that the house had been empty for some time, that he had estimated an additional 50K in renovations when he had initially thought of splitting it up into studios. A plan that he had decided against. 

He continued chatting amiably with us as we wondered through the rooms, also being wise enough to let us discern the good and the bad for ourselves. Lovely touches remained, such as the intricate cement tiles that have become so fashionable again and the gracious curves of the iron railing lining the stairs that twist slowly, like a snail coming out of its shell. I love trying to imagine who had decided on covering the main bedroom in a 1960's wallpaper covered with images of jazz men, smoke and the promising words "New Orleans". Such a contrast to the classic terra cotta tiles that were left behind.

If the owner of the house was most attached to the cave, or cellar, where he played as a child amidst the coal chute (and which was lined by an unusual stone trough that very well might be Roman), he seemed most proud of the parfeuille tiles that lined the highest floor. "Three hundred years old," he confirmed with a nod, "I had them exptertised." He seemed pleased by our appreciation of these details, that we were willing to look past the flaking plaster and pine panelling. The conversation rolled around, as they tend to do here, with Remi making a joke about playing the stock market. "I wouldn't know about that, " the owner acknowledged with a wry smile. "You see I've been a beekeeper for the past 35 years." He then launched into a lengthy discussion of the politics of pollution and how it was effecting his Queen Bees. We were fascinated.

As I made my way back down the stairs, the image of this man clicked into place. I could see his large hands moving slowly towards his hives, his gentleness a necessary trait of his profession. To earn the trust of the bees. I stepped outside to take a last photo of the facade, to get a better idea of the neighbors and view. I could hear the men's voices lower as they reached the doorway. The beekeeper explained to Remi why he was selling the house, why he wasn't going to turn them into studios to rent. That plan had originally been discussed as a means of income for his son. But he had committed suicide at 40. "C'est unparable," he said as he lowered his eyes.

We took our leave and walked home in silence, trying to grasp how something so terrible could have happened to such a kind man. But it was, as he had said, "unanswerable" on many levels. We knew by the time that we reached our front door that the house was too small for us but I think that we both secretly wished that it wasn't so that we could have made some positive gesture in his direction by buying it. As if saving the house and bringing it back to life would have helped. But the right person will come along. When they do, the beekeeper will move to Montpellier to be closer to his other son. He will pack up his hives and go.


I just want to send some good energy towards my very beautiful and incredible sister, Robin, who is having surgery tomorrow morning at 8:30 EST. If any of you have a moment to send out a thought of strength and healing, I would be so grateful!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Picturesque, Part Two

Travelling with a photographer is wonderful as I am often shown things that would have gone by unnoticed and are certainly not in any guide. The other afternoon we were buzzing down a back road when Remi came to a screeching halt and swiftly shifted the Range Rover into reverse, pulling up by an old farm building that was draped in blooming wisteria as a queen is in diamonds and ermine. Bees were swishing about and there were so many little details to dive into. The fig tree pushing out its fruit, powdery irises cooling in the shade, the ladylike Montmirail Mountains holding up the horizon. No sound but the bees and the rustle of oak leaves in the breeze. Moments like this seem too perfect in a way that is almost harder to take in as they are so unexpected. Perhaps that is what I was trying to get to the other day in my post on Vaison La Romaine--I held it against that famous village that it seemed so desperate to be liked when all the elements were already in place. It shouldn't have to work so hard. A little forgetting can be a good thing.

A lot of forgetting on the other hand can be mystifying. Our friend Jean-Pierre took us to visit a mas that had been abandoned for over twenty years. Closed up tight to keep the squatters out. Due to French zoning laws (the basics of which I will spare you) this lovely stone farmhouse will never sell. So it sits. The peace there was something not to be believed. I spoke of it for days. Ben was quite thrilled there as well, he seemed so at home. Remi wants to try and contact the owner to see if he would consider at least renting it to us. A bijou in the middle of the Alpilles, surrounded by the scruffy garrigue that is redolent of flowering thyme and rosemary. How many designers had copied the patina of just such a home? We have been told that such "ruins" dotted the landscape forty years ago and even then, they were expensive.

Back in Vaison, in the lower village, Remi photographed the truly elegant Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, with its multiple facades and unusually delicate carvings. Unfortunately, I was too busy in the act of looking to take many photos of the church itself. I couldn't help poking around the surroundings. This 1930's house was certainly in a far better state than the others we had come across that day but I won't penalize it for that. It too was closed up waiting for its owners to arrive. How inviting to be able to push the gate, open the shutters and let the sun flood in.

One last thing worth mentioning about the cathedral. Do you know how I am endlessly running on and on and on about the layers of time in Provence, how succeeding civilizations built on top of each other? Now I have proof! Voila! For it was built on Roman ruins, strong columns on which to install a weighty Christian faith. Isn't that something? In Arles, I have always been told that Roman stones were used to build houses but I have never come across such a stunningly clear cut example as this one.

And Ben? Yes, he was happy here too. He is nearly everywhere he goes and is all too willing to share his goodness with all he meets. The joy he brings me each day is beyond words. One special dog. This is actually one of my favorite photos that I have ever taken of him--nestled at my feet, half-asleep with his nose in the wildflowers. Typical of a born and raised Provençal, he truly knows how to get the best out of life.