Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nimes, Part One

Remi and I spent a truly fantastic day in Nimes recently. Now, I have to say that I have never been a fan of this town. It never clicked. The energy seemed a little flat. Well, sometimes all it takes is the proper key to open the door and we had three! Some of you might remember reading about the adventures that we have shared with this very busy group of friends, who, along with the Arles contingent, make up the members of the Brotherhood of The Wine Tree. A large part of our camaraderie lies in jests over which town is superior. The Nimois gave it their best shot and I have to say that I left highly impressed.

It helps when discovering their Roman Arena for the first time to be taken on a private tour, far from the crowds, by the man who has done extensive archeological searches in it and is a director of preventative archeology in the region. Thank you Marc as well as his stunning wife Bettina who opened the doors for us everywhere! 

Now, I understand the genius of its architecture. How drainage systems were built through the rocks to carry down the runoff from the rain, how a contrast of descending ramps and mounting staircases allowed the rich spectators to avoid the riffraff. We even saw the secret staircase that was used by the seamen that were hired to control the enormous vellum sails that could cover the top to provide shade. Roman technology. Not bad, not bad at all.

Unlike Arles, which has been blanched to a white perfection--not unlike a movie star's teeth--the Arena still retains a magnificent patina. All the better to feel the sense of time and see why this monument is heralded as the best preserved Arena of the Roman Era!

But oh my, was it hot. The noonday sun was drilling a hole in my head. Rather than stop off at this charming old-school brasserie, which has a perfect view of the Arena (and where I have already imbibed, I'll have you know), the group trudged through the Historic Center of town and over to our friend Marie's apartment. 

We passed on the way this magnificent palmier which made me think of the symbol of Nimes--a crocodile chained to the base of palm tree. It represents the idea that Nimes was given as a bounty to the  soldiers that followed Caesar into Egypt (Remi just reminded me that this hasn't been proven, further fuel to the fire in the Arles vs. Nimes feud). 

Ah, luckily such politics have no place in Marie's shaded interior courtyard. Another cherished aspect of this so-called brotherhood, an especially important one, is that we are all, down to the last one of us, excellent hosts. Perhaps no one takes that task more seriously than the wonderful Marie, who made nearly everything that we ate (and the table was groaning) herself. We started off with a rather lethal apero of rosé embellished with grapefruit syrup. If you are ever offered this, just say no. It is light, it is cold and trust me, it is impossible to keep track of what you are drinking. Luckily, Marie had baked gougères (think monster cheese puffs), anchovy-filled pastries, and what else? Oh, I don't know--blame it on the wine!

I snapped to enough to take notes for all that followed. Yes, I will be stealing some of these ideas! Verrines, or yummy things in glasses, are all the rage right now in France. Marie had made two and both were insanely good: a ratatouille and goat cheese crumble and a sun-dried tomato and goat cheese topped with spicy dried fruit with rosemary sprigs. Sigh. I am so piggy, I finished one of Frederique's verrines for her. How could she not eat that?

What else? Cherry tomatoes stuffed with brandade, a local speciality. Tomate farcie, or tomatoes stuffed with a meat, pine nut and spice mixture. Moules escabeche (mussels) and a charcuterie plate with cured ham and chorizo. Baby pizzas topped with veggies. And one of the few things that she bought at a traiteur, or caterer, round pastries shaped liked champagne corks that are filled with pork, called Patés Nimois. They were decorated with the symbol of the town--it is everywhere! On the street posts and lamps...these folks are proud of their town's heritage....

Needless to say a nap was in order after all of that deliciousness. Marie's apartment is a true haven in the heart of town, hidden in the back of one of the grand hôtel particuliers. Can you imagine that at one time this belonged to one family? Well, I can imagine having it all to myself as well! Yes, more patina, here in the beams and stone columns in her kitchen and the wrought iron balconies that grace the main courtyard. 

Once, we had been corralled by the others to get a move on, we once again head out. Our day was far from finished, so I will be posting more about all that we saw soon...there is still so, so much to share...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Let there be light


We picked up the keys to our new apartment on Saturday! 

So, please, come on upstairs and into the entry hall. But really, we'll be spending the most time in the pièce de vie, the main room which is, somehow, going to hold our living area, dining space and kitchen. I don't know how but we will figure it out.

I am most excited about the light that pours through the extravagantly high windows in the afternoons. What a complete change from where we are now! That and the lovely, very Parisian enfilade or succession of rooms. 

But oh my, was I freaked out--I'll admit it!--when we first met with the site inspector to verify the state of the apartment. Under the bright light of noon, every single crack and stain was glaring. He repeatedly noted that things were in mauvais état, terrible shape. We have so, so much work ahead of us. Not to mention that the three students who had previously occupied the apartment left it filthy. Predictable. But I mean really, to not even clean the windows? Sigh. 

In the main living room is just one of the little "projects" ahead of us. For some inexplicable reason, at some point a placard, or built in cupboard was partially covered over with the same horrific stucco that is everywhere. As it is peeling off, we will try to carefully remove it. One of the covered doors was replaced with a sheet of plywood so hopefully we can find some shutters to fit.

I brought Ben's blanket and toy over in the afternoon and explained to him that we were now in our "new house"! As you can see, he seems to be making the transition with far greater ease than his human counterparts.

After the main room is a connecting space that we plan to use as a study. If all goes according to plan, shortly I will be writing from this room with a view over the rooftops and the big blue. The study leads off of the entry to the main room to the right, Remi's office to the left and to the bedroom on the other side of the hall.

Remi's office will be at the end of the enfilade so that he has greater privacy. And yes, that means so that I don't bother him when he is on a deadline! One of the most important things that we have learned from working at home is that we both need our own separate spaces to be.

Goodbye Villeroy & Boch bathtub. Hello, skanky miniscule shower! Oh, my. Well, at least there isn't a mirror, which gives me an excuse to buy yet another antique piece. Thankfully, Remi discovered that the sadly retro plastic linoleum lifts up to reveal a brown tile. It's not attractive but thank you, I'll take it. 

Two views of the bedroom and yet they don't convey how large it is. Actually, I'll go ahead and include another from the real estate listing to give a better idea. The gray marble fireplace is in better shape than the one in the living room. Imagine if we can get them both to work? We will be calling in an expert for that soon. Something exceptional about this bedroom? The built in closet space! Absolutely unheard of for an apartment in the center of Arles. Let's just be up front about it, I will need every inch! I also appreciate the unusual cross-beam ceiling and the view out the window down the quiet side street. Ben was happy to pose to give an idea of the ceiling height. Please note the various marks and mysterious blobs of paint on the walls...

We invited our dear friend Frederique over for the apero. Time to ring in our new home with a bit of crémant. Cheers! 

And there is nothing like a floor picnic to start things off. Tapenade, saucisson, olives and goat cheese. Yes, a second bottle of crémant -- just in case! 

Time to kick off the espadrilles and relax. Well, or at least gather up a bit of strength for the tasks that lie ahead. We ended up staying until nearly 10 pm. This being summer at its finest, the light stayed with us until nearly the end. A wonderful welcome gift.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Esprit du Lieu

One of the things that I admire most in Remi's photography is his ability to express a sense of place,  l'esprit du lieu. Even if that idea is completely subjective, it is tangible, covering what we see with a fine film. Last Sunday, Remi and I were out with Ben and found ourselves in the seaside port of Cassis. Cassis, where I had gotten my first glimpse of the Mediterranean ten years ago. A friend had recommended the tiny hotel "Le Jardin d'Emile", perched above a little known pebble-covered bay. That evening we sipped rosé on a private terrace overlooking the million shades of blue. Miraculously, even though it was July, the beach wasn't crowded and the sole sound was the scream of the cigales. Of course it has changed since then. I had heard that Cassis had become quite the chic spot and so was prepared when the view from the terrace was blocked by an outdoor cocktail bar, full of studiously louche hipsters. A large part of the bay has been taken over by the "Same Same Same Club" with bikini babes decorating it's tropically fluorescent pool chairs. It is "their" Cassis just as before, for one evening, it was "ours". The spirit has changed even if that magnificent view has not. As Ben was with us, we couldn't descend down to the beach and so remained slightly outside of the experience, which was somehow appropriate.

Remi surprised me by suggesting that we drive back right through the heart of Marseille, a town that we barely know, despite its being only an hour from Arles. Traffic is notoriously difficult in this city, the second in France but he felt that, being a Sunday evening, it could be the opportunity to discover it under less stress. He was right. I noticed this panel proposing "free expression", even if, really, that just meant an area where anyone could hang up posters. How different that one idea was from the dangerous, dark environment that Marseille is reputed to be. And so I opened my eyes a little wider and sure enough, was bathed in light. 

Golden light, actually. On the buildings that line the Vieux Port, which laps up against the skyscrapers and in the Belle Epoque architecture that has remained elegant even though it is more often than not in disrepair. Reflecting off the skin of the many families out strolling, reminding me of the throngs of Bombay. Mapless, we followed signs in a zig zag, for a while crossing a cartier or neighborhood where I could see struggling and emptiness. So many layers then, many personalities and not necessarily what we think that they should be. Clichés are so easily leaned on in that they don't force people to make up their own minds. 

Or to try and puzzle it out. We get the keys to our new apartment tomorrow morning even though we won't be making the actual move until next month. I am preparing for the change and so have been thinking more than usual about my personal sense of place, what my environment means to me. Some of my ideas on the subject that I have been throwing about on the blog are a bit awkward, hopefully not too cringe-worthy for the professionals that are reading along. I am still working it out. 

Only a year after our last move, I will be taking a cold eye towards our possessions and am determined to give the heave ho to what is just taking up space. We have been talking excitedly about what we want to do with the new apartment and I have come to see that the shifts in our tastes are linked with changes in ourselves, or at least who we hope to be. Perhaps that is why I was so dismayed yesterday. I was working as a stylist and assistant for a photo shoot of a house in the Luberon for Remi. I couldn't find any connection to the houses décor and its magnificent setting. Every surface was covered with objects, as if to distract, to take you somewhere else. I know that everyone has different priorities but it seemed like such a lost opportunity.

Coming back to Arles from Marseille, for once, I was struck by its softness. How the patina of time has taken some of the hardness out of those solid stones. History worn on the sleeve. We fell in love with Arles exactly for son esprit du lieu, now that I think of it. It will be interesting to see how our sense of that evolves as we do.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Taking time, time taken

Technically, today is the longest of the year but I will make a strong case for yesterday evening. Frederique had sent off a quick email: "Drinks on my terrace?" and I instantly shot back "That would be lovely!" Fred, as I call her, is the type of friend that extends herself towards others when she is having an off day, wanting to make them happy. Something, I think that says a lot about her character. Is that just a ridiculously old-fashioned thing to say? Maybe. In France, we talk about les bonnes manières, or manners (or these days have increasing conversations about the lack of it) but not what the core of who someone is or can be. Maybe we assume that we all know each other by now, in this capitalistic industrial world that we have all morphed into a uni-being. I shouldn't exaggerate but sometimes it seems like so many of us spend more efforts getting ahead than being true. 

Heavy thoughts to take into such a light evening. Luckily, climbing the stairs to Fred's rooftop terrace is like being shot out of a cannon filled with feathers. Lifted out of the wear and tear into a realm that is just this side of different. To have a view, a subtle shift in perspective and a bottle of rosé--what more can you ask for? Remi, Fred and I settled in while our dogs whipped and rolled around us. Me on the sagging Indian daybed that had been a cast off from our garden and not quite comfortable. Popping tiny cherry tomatoes in my mouth that were still warm from the vines sneaking up a trellis. None of us were in a hurry to make conversation and what a luxury that is in any friendship.

We let the evening settle in around us. The sun gaped out an open-mouthed yawn. Nobody moved. We had been warned that we were invited "just for one drink" as Fred had things to do but at some point she popped downstairs and came back with a bunch of little plates on a tray. Saucisson, chorizo, cubes of cream cheese dusted with herbs. And so of course we stayed. I shifted on to a stack of thick cushions on the floor and mainly listened. Occasionally lost in my own thoughts while the others talked over and around me.

I had spoken to my friend Brooke on the phone for the first time earlier in the day. I think that it is going to be too complicated for us to meet during her upcoming holiday in France. For her to drag her entire family down here would be hard work and that certainly isn't the experience that I would hope them to have in Provence. But something that she said during our brief but full conversation (this despite an annoying international cell phone lapse that left me feeling as if I were stepping on her toes) got me thinking about the importance of the time that we have in our lives: how we perceive it, how that shapes how we see, then how we go through the world. Does it weigh on us like wet clothes or does it buoy us forward? I have experienced both, or otherwise I would say that the answer lies in our character. An answer that is trop facile. I have made some unusual choices in my life and currently I have an ample amount of it. Something has shifted in me in that I don't feel so afraid or greedy about that. So maybe I will meet Brooke next year or the year after that. Suddenly, everything doesn't have to be now.

We didn't know what hour it was when we finally got up, stretching and smiling at the same time. The birds swishing past at eye level, making their last dive before nightfall. The red at the last of its run. Lost in the heart of Arles. And yet no, not lost, not at all.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

A walk around Arles, Part Two

I haven't forgotten about you, left to wander the corridors of the Roman Arena, looking nervously over your shoulder for stray bulls. Mais bien sûr que non! Built in 70-80 AD, this stone couronne, with its two levels of 60 arches each, was drawn to scale as half the size of Rome's Colosseum and became the epicenter of popular entertainment. Here, gladiators pulverized their opponents, the throngs sucked down oysters, servants pulled elaborate sails over the top to provide shade and incense wafted through the air to cover the scent of blood. When violence surrounded the exterior of Arles in the Middle Ages, the Arena was transformed into a fortress that contained over two hundred houses and two churches. It is hard to imagine, isn't it? The facade has been scrubbed clean, in sections entirely replaced as part of a lengthy renovation. I preferred it as it used to be but am content in the knowledge that it now will stand for centuries to come.

Directly behind us are the remains of the Amphitheatre, one of the largest in Roman Gaul. Of the hundred columns believed to have comprised the proscenium only two remain. Pink and black marble slabs dust the orchestra. A third of the seating--that which wasn't carted off to build the surrounding houses--rises up to the sky. The Venus d'Arles has long since been hauled off to the Louvre and chunks of broken capitals creep towards the stage as if seeking the limelight once more. But the space is still very much alive and I love that it is used for everything from local dance school presentations to the dramatic evenings during the Rencontres Photography Festival. I will be swaying in the aisles to a crooning Bryan Ferry next month!

Down the Rue du Cloître, past mansions with hidden gardens to the Place de la Republique, our main square, with the town hall (and it's Mansart-designed ceiling) holding court over what was previously the Place Royale. The obelisk was originally a marker in the Roman circus (think chariot races, not dancing monkeys) that was topped with a golden sun during the time of Louis XIV, then a rooster during the French Revolution and an Imperial eagle for Napoleon. I have been told that the tip of it was missing for years and was discovered in a nearby garden where it was being used as a bench but that could be just gossip. Folks in the South are not beyond telling tall tales. My personal favorite is the one where a Van Gogh painting was found in the back of a hen house. It was being used to patch up a hole in the wall.

More on all that lines the square another time. Or if you are just too curious, here is a post on the magnificent cloister of Saint-Trophime: Hometown beauty. As lunch is fast approaching, I need to pop into Soulier for a baguette. Don't worry about Ben, he has been trained to sit out front (no doggies in the boulangerie especially not slobbering Golden Retrievers) and if he has been good, will get the tip of the bread.

Next, we'll just turn off of the Rue de la Republique towards the intersection of the Rue Balze and the Rue Frédéric Mistral for it is one of my favorite spots in Arles. From the distinctive hôtel particulier on one side with its wrought iron balcony (I want to live there someday!) to the building en face whose corner edge was shorn off by years of passing carriage wheels yet is graced with a faceless angel. The sky opens here just so and the contrast of the blue against the cream stone never ceases to take my breath away. It is the condensed form of Arles at its finest.

Not so the end of the block, which has been tagged with layers upon layers of graffiti. The old and the new blending into oblivion. Well, that is Arles too. Both wanting to be remembered and forgotten, simultaneously. And finally with Ben tugging at the leash, in through the front doors and past the corkscrew winding stair, cross the courtyard and into the apartment. One that will not be ours for much longer as the first person to visit it said, "I'll take it." Of course she did! No matter where we live, we will always have our interesting town to discover, for small as it is, on no two days does it look the same. Ben and I roam these streets willingly. As I mentioned previously, this was just one of the paths that we often take. More soon...