Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where we are now

Remi and I signed the contract for our new rental on Friday and so we will soon be moving on. Before we do, I think it is worthwhile to say a few words about our current rental as it is truly something exceptional. We first started making trips down to Arles with the prospect of moving here in 2003. We visited several astonishingly inexpensive houses to buy (oh, if we had only known how much the prices would go up!) but the real estate agent wanted us to see one rental that was on the market because it was so unique. "You will never see anything like this again," she said and she was right. We fell in love with the space but did not yet have all of our ducks in a row enough to move. Back in Paris, we told all of our friends about the most incredible apartment that we had seen and that was--gulp!--the same price per month as our tiny duplex. We never forgot it and it became a symbol of what the quality of living in the South could be. It ended up taking nearly two more years for us to find another possibility, which we pounced on. That was the house that we ended up buying and then selling with a heavy heart. Can you imagine our surprise when shortly after, another real estate agent started to describe a new rental that just come on the market? "It is in a hôtel particulier and has a garden attached to the back of the Frères-Prêcheurs Church." Remi and I turned to each other in disbelief, it was the very same apartment that we had visited all those years ago!

At the time, it seemed as if life was giving us a gift, an encouragement to ease the transition of leaving our house behind. And we settled in so quickly, celebrating with a garden party for 35. We lit a million candles everywhere as night came on. Actually the photo below of the font in the hallway is from that evening. I had filled it with rose petals for the occasion. So many happy memories. 

There are many things that make this apartment special. And to think it was in ruins when it was bought in 1993! Luckily, the owner took the greatest of care in the renovation process, including hiring experts to restore the hand-painted wooden beams that top the two bedrooms and the hallway. There are one of the reasons why the building is listed as a Monument Historique. He once told us that the delicate flowers actually graced the beams in the living room but that the process was so lengthy that he couldn't afford to save everything!

Ben loves to recline on the cooling dalles de pierre, the large stone blocks. They are quite rare today, even in Provence.

There are many interesting details--the woodwork in the bedroom, the mosaics and the vaulted ceiling in the bath. The cast iron hearth in the fireplace is marked with the date "1777" but we do not know if it is original to the house or not. 

But, what makes this apartment so very special is a feature in the cave, the lower level. A group of archeologists were brought in when vestiges of Roman ruins were discovered during the renovation process. The owner decided to construct a glass flooring above them so that would remain visible. Sadly, the thick glass panels have become slightly fogged with time but we can still make out what was the road leading from the Rhone and the remains of what is thought to have been a market building. This makes for a rather dramatic movie room for us!

Back on the ground floor, arched glass doorways lead from the first courtyard into the house (where there is a well that purportedly once led to a tunnel that ran under the river as an escape route) and from the house into the garden.

I took the final photo below the night that we signed the contract. Ironically, the light had never, ever been more beautiful. So why are we leaving this special place? Because dreams and reality are not the same thing, as we all know. We are going for me. I am incredibly sensitive to light and there isn't any here. Even now, at 3pm on a June afternoon, I have to have the lights on while I type. As we both work from home, we are forever in the dark. The thought of spending another Winter here is unimaginable. The street-facing rooms all have bars on them for security, leaving us to feel as though we are, if not in prison, then at least in a gilded cage. And so we are moving on to a smaller, humbler apartment (an aspect that also pleases both of us enormously) but we will always, always have such gratitude for this special place that brought us to Arles and comforted us when we most needed it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

One of life's secrets?


I would say that I had humble pie for lunch yesterday but fortunately it was a creamy fruit de mer tarte that was absolutely to die for. The company however, moved me very much. We were at our dear friends Sonny and Michael's house in St. Remy for a special gathering of some of Sonny's closest and oldest friends from several continents. At 41, I was the youngest, followed by Remi and a very elegant interior designer from South Africa in her 50s, then the age went up through the 60s to the 70s until 87. That particular gentleman fought at Iwo Jima in World War II and actually saw the famous flag raise. As a fellow American, I thanked him for all that he had done for our country. From what he made Remi understand, the movies cannot begin to convey the horror of the reality of war. His hearing was blown out at Okinawa and he survived the Battle of Guam. Others at the table remembered family members that fought the Battle of the Bulge. But the conversation was not somber and ranged wildly from what it was like to discover a still unknown (and unmined) Angkor or Bali in the 1960s when the only house on the beach in Sanur was that of the painter Le Mayeur. To the Dominique Strauss-Khan scandal  and disappointment in Obama or the advantages of the Kindle. When we were surprised at their being more technologically on the ball than we are, one of the guests responded "If you don't have the advance at 80, you're going to miss the boat!" with a glorious laugh. 

And everyone at the table is most certainly not missing out. Ideas sparked like firecrackers, with everyone speaking so excitedly over one another that it was difficult to hear. What incredible stories they all had to share. As Remi wisely said at one moment "We are living in your shadow, the spirit of the Postwar." And it is true. Remi and I have had our fair share of adventure but these people have lead such Technicolor lives, so much fuller than what most folks even dream of today. And why is that? True, I do not wish the experience of war on anyone, but that same soldier was also capable of taking a cab uptown to his sweetheart after their first date and proposing to her. What have we been dulled by? Remi and I were quiet in the car coming back, thinking about the experience and how fortunate we were to have been invited. It also made us realize that if they had remained so young in spirit it was because they were still so interested in life and beyond that, to have émerveillement, the wonder of a child. What a fine lesson that is for all of us as we age. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

First purchase!

It's that time of year when quite a few of us have antique-hunting on the brain. For Remi and I, it is a regular activity and has been as long as we have been together. When we first met both of us were starting over and so each piece that we acquired had a story, a provenance. At the time, we lived a short walk away from the Porte de Vanves flea market in Paris and would scour the rows of sellers each weekend, occasionally on both days. It was a wonderful introduction to French design for me as every conceivable period was represented. More often than not we couldn't afford to buy, but would go for le plaisir des yeux, a feast for the eyes. After our first visit to Arles, we both started being attracted to things that were very different from our Art Deco style. More Louis XV and much lighter. We realized eventually that we were buying for a new life, one in the South of France. It took us two years to actually make the move but when we did we were already well-equipped, almost as if we had forced this major life change into being.

And that process is already happening again with our next move. Yesterday afternoon, I pulled Remi away from his computer and we drove out to Troc-Soury. A little bit of everything is crammed under the tin roof of a hangar that is stiflingly hot in Summer and freezing in Winter and yet I love to go--namely  to be fussed over by Michel and Jean-Philippe. Sure enough, Michel pushed Remi out of the way jokingly when we arrived saying "Excuse me, I need to say hello to a beautiful lady." My hair was pulled back in a bumpy bun, I was floating in enormous wrinkled lined shorts and yet I gratefully offered up my cheek to be kissed. Let's just say that unlike our experience this weekend, the welcome put me in a shopping mood. 

And it didn't take long. Within fifteen minutes, I spied a gorgeous mirror stuffed into a crowded wooden chest. Napoleon III in shape, it has an air of the 1920's with its delicate etchings scratched into a gold frame. The mercury mirror is completely faded and splotched. En bref, patina. I haven't had such a coup de coeur (think love at first sight) for a piece in a long time. And to top it off, it was a true steal. Vendu! 

Other pieces tempted me. The wall sconce with its lovely pampilles could be charming if given a Gustavien touch. Maybe with candles in it for a hallway? Not bad for 30€. Sadly, all of the chandeliers need to be rewired but again for 40€, the delicate Marie-Therese could be interesting as a candelabra. For the furniture, I was initially drawn to the massive teak Indian bookcase. Remi nixed it as kitschy. We both felt that the Henri II buffet (only 120€!) would be quite something if well painted, not that we need it. Just fun to imagine.

Once home, Remi set to work. Look how the mirror glowed once he stripped away the black layers of dust and grime. 

I had a little "aha" as to why I had wanted it so immediately. Its rough around the edges-ness reminds me of one of our very favorite pieces--a fantastic lithograph of Henri IV riding back into Paris that is currently pushed off to the side due to its heft since we are not allowed to put any holes into the walls of this Monument Historique building (and yes, there is a very good story to go with the crocodile skull beside it, in case you were wondering). I have been missing Henri and all of the other unusual characters parading about. Hopefully, they will return to the spotlight soon. As for our first purchase for our next apartment, it is sitting on the bedroom mantle, reflecting the headboard that we made out of old shutters.  The mirror isn't appropriate for the room and suddenly everything else is starting to  look awkward to my eyes. Out of place. A sure sign that I am getting ready to move on if ever there was one. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Cricket Symphony

Remi and I went looking for inspiration yesterday late afternoon. Nap-deprived, we both felt the weight of Summer's first wave of humidity. But were off to a fail-safe destination, one that always cheers me--the Depôt-Vente in Eygalières. Call it a consignment shop for antiques and bric-a-brac, somehow there is always something that catches our eye. The owners of the regal stone farmhouses in the area, one of the wealthiest in the Alpilles, are often willing to cast off porcelain and paintings for a song. And it is hardly a secret. The parking lot was so full that we had to squeeze into a spot that wasn't. Immediately after, a finger-wagging woman shot out of the shop--"You can't park there!". Now, the Depôt-Vente is run by a lovely gay couple who know us by name and welcome us with bisous, not because we are big buyers but because we have always gotten along. The wagger chased us down until Remi gave up and manoeuvred the Range Rover into a precarious spot that also wasn't but that pleased her. I often have to struggle against the "expert" attitude in France but wagging is outright rude and I couldn't soothe my ruffled feathers, even after the owners came out from the back and explained that their friend was just trying to help. And with antiques hunting, you have to will the good pieces toward you. There is no room for crankiness. We left with nothing, not even ideas for our new apartment. Time to try another path.

Remi pulled over and parked in a corner of the country that we had always remarked upon but had never explored. It was already starting to get late, the sun was tired. Ben leapt from the back and turned in circles, his back feet swishing into the air like a rabbit. He lead us up, through fields of genévrier, juniper bushes glowing against blue-black pines, past the tracks of a sanglier, or wild boar, towards the summit. 

The hills outside of Eygalières remind us both of the "backs of the dragon" that we love outside of Huê in Vietnam. There is something Asian as well in the heavy layering in the plants and minerals that shift the senses in sight, smell and touch. Remi gathered up bouquets of rosemary and thyme, I slid across the rocky terrain in a pair of poorly chosen Prada mules, Ben lifted his nose to the wind. From the grandeur of the horizon to the microscopic spiders clambering over the purple bud of a flower. Best to stop talking for awhile and just take it in.

And to just let my head be drained enough of sound to hear, as we descended back to the grasslands and the light sifted into flour, a symphony of crickets warming their bows for the evenings recital. These are not yet the monstrous, hysterical cigales that are a symbol of Provence. No, they are still sleeping. May is the time of the simple cricket. The one of your childhood that you held in your palm. And yet, as their vibrations were joined by hundreds of others, they gave me the inspiration that I was looking for. Not in any concrete form, nothing that I can put on a shelf. Invisible yet resoundingly true.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Begin the beguine

I have already been through the end of the world once. So I can't say that I am afraid if by some, eh-hem, miracle that wacky preacher is right today. Remember Y2K? Where were you for the New Year's Eve of the millennium? I was in my apartment on 51st Street in New York City, a mere two blocks away from Doom Central. Decidedly célibataire, or single, though certainly not by choice, it was up to me to face destruction alone. So I did what any wise girl would do. I filled up the tub with bubbles, opened a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, put on my all time favorite Sarah Vaughan album and settled in for the long good bye. At some point I heard the cheers rise from the crowds and realized that midnight had passed and we were all still here. 

Cue Artie Shaw and his orchestra and put on your dancing shoes. For with every end (perceived or real) comes a new beginning and I have a bit of news. We are moving! Now, no, I won't need to change the title or content of this blog as we are just hopping over two streets in Arles. But I am so excited. I'll properly tell the story of our current apartment soon as it is truly worthy of its own post and explain why we are leaving. Remi and I are wanderers, we live for the new and of course love to create our environment. And we will have our work cut out for us as these are decidedly less glamorous digs than our current residence--which is part of the point. We will be heading to another rental but it is an entire floor of a hôtel particulier and one that is filled with light. Sadly, no garden but imagine what it could be after we paint and clean and uncover. Light up the chandeliers! 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Past Perfect

Kind of cranky. It happens, even in Provence and I have to say that Remi, Frederique and I were all in some sort of funk as we found the trail leading up to the ruins of the vieux village at Ongles. The day hadn't been going as planned. We had an excellent restaurant recommendation for Forcalquier, only to find it closed. The only other option was decidedly mediocre and the service moyen. At the end of the overly long meal, thunder clouds rolled in and we were caught in a down pour before we could blink. Not exactly the best conditions for Remi's photography. But don't give up. Keep moving. At the very least. This we know from our travels where you have to bring back the story no matter what the weather conditions. "Il ne pleut pas au paradis!"-- how many times have we declared that, fist shaking towards the heavens. "It doesn't rain in paradise," at least not for the magazines who publish nothing but blue skies.

No one spoke as we picked our way up the path, indicated only by a yellow slash mark on the trees, stepping gingerly over the fallen stones that had once been homes. An oppidum, or fortified site, had topped the hill since Roman times. A village was formed in 1074 then abandoned after the Royal Army  beat the Huguenots in 1586. As in Oppede-le-Vieux, its occupants moved further down the valley, no longer needing the high vantage point to protect them from invaders. 

The view was rewardingly stunning as we arrived at the summit. The Luberon opening up before us with a bow. Each of us still in our own world, lost in thoughts. Remi furious when he realized that he had forgotten his battery charger, so the day, despite the two hour drive to get here, would be cut short. At some point amidst the grumbles, I laid down in the grass, giving up. Eventually both Remi and Frederique did too. Each one in their corner. And we slept. 

The light had changed when we woke up but that wasn't all. Something had shifted within us. A link had been cut. By letting go of our expectations, we found that they weren't that important after all. It was a relief, a weight lifted and it seemed as if it was the ghosts of the ruins that were behind it. Or if that is too romantic, the trumping of time over an obnoxious and overly insistent in-between, neither now nor  the past. 

I didn't want to move. A grillon, or cricket was clinging to my ankle. It seemed like a good omen. When I finally did shake him off and we moved down the hill, the clouds had cleared and the town took on a rosy glow. Silly me, silly thoughts. Bells clanked as a flock of sheep grazed. One lifted its lips to me in a mocking smile.

Finding ourselves liberated, we all wisely chose to be in a fine mood and the light followed us willingly. The Prieuré de Salagon, which had seemed so sad only a few hours earlier, now presented us her best side front and forward as we retraced our route. Remi's batteries even held out for the tiny but unique Chapelle Saint-Paul de Saint-Michel-L'Observatoire, the last goal of our day.

As we piled into the Range Rover, ready to make the long drive back, we received a call, inviting us all to a fancy dinner party. We accepted but insisted on going as we were, grass stains and all, sweaty from the country walk that somehow had cleansed us inside but not out. Not perfect, but present, we arrived smiling and just in time to raise a glass of Champagne. Santé, Health, to us all.