Monday, September 29, 2014

Our first vendange

One of the most romantic elements at our new home is the vine-covered trellis that takes up a third of the courtyard. It charmed me immediately. In the mornings, I would be bathed in a soft green light in the kitchen while my tea brewed...

...this after having pushed back the shutters in our bedroom to sail on a sea of green below. Such a lovely start to my day.

The vine's branches twist under and over each other like happy snakes and the grapes grew downwards with a lush promise...

...until they didn't. 

Oh, dear. 

Remi and I watched with consternation as our beautiful bunches turned sour. Within a week, they were shrivelled with disease and began to fall in moldy clumps to the ground. While we scrambled to pick them up, the dogs soon learned the hard way that those left behind were not exactly the tasty treat that they had expected. The sickly sweet odor was attracting a steadily increasing swarm of bees that would dive bomb us throughout the day. Ben is very allergic to bee stings.

Something needed to be done.

The owner had already assured us that as the vine is so old (one friend estimated that it is seventy years of age) that it only produces a decent crop every other year. It was clear that a good pruning job was definitely in order as well. 

Remi and I had already helped a friend pick the grapes for his wine and know what back-breaking work it is. But what to do when the branches are far overhead? We headed to our trusty Mr. Bricolage, the hardware store, for the longest cutter that they had. It was an investment but one that would also be useful for trimming the olive tree in the courtyard at the end of autumn.

 Remi angled the instrument in-between the leaves as best as he could and then with a tug on the red cord to pull the blades shut...snip! snip!...

...the grapes fell to the ground. My job was sweep them into a pile as best as I could. I chased after the rebel rollers with determination. The fruits of our first vendange - or harvest - left little to be desired!

As the hours passed, more of the sky peeked through our previously shaded canopy.

I kept turning my head upwards, missing both the privacy and the touch of character that the grapes had represented.

Eh, oui. Sometimes what is beautiful needs to be sacrificed for practicality. That is just how it goes.

And besides, there is always next year... :)

Have a wonderful week ahead everyone.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Disappearance of the Fireflies - Avignon

I spent my birthday in prison.

Now hold on there, before you hit "delete" and then "unsubscribe", let me explain for it is not what you think.

I have mentioned that I like to see an art exhibition on my birthday whenever possible. It is just one of the things that gives me the most sparks for the year ahead. And while summer is often the time for many big shows in Provence, I was most intrigued by "The Disappearance of the Fireflies," which came about as a means to transfer elements of the truly amazing Collection Lambert (each a donation by Enea Righi) during the museum's current renovations into one of France's oldest prisons, the Prison Saint Anne.

I felt my skin prickle as I passed the entry, shielded with thick glass riddled with bullet holes. Even though I was walking into prison on my own decision, I immediately felt Barbara Kruger's demanding, "Who do you think you are?" destabilizing me and challenging my will.

The Prison Sainte Anne is located in the heart of Avignon, directly behind the Palais des Papes - aka the Pope's Palace - and is an unusual example of "purpose-built" architecture from the late 18th century.

This building was not a conversion of another site. It was created from the ground up for the specific use to be a prison. There is no respite in the architecture.

It was only closed down in 2003. The ghosts are recent. For the exhibition, nothing of its condition was altered.

At the entry, signs clearly warn that a thorough visit can take up to three hours as there are numerous video and sound installations. Remi and I plunged in willingly, giggling nervously at first and then quickly falling silent.

Art can be found throughout the prison, lining the corridors and courtyards but it was in peeking into the over 200 cells that held specific works that I was especially moved.

Each contains a little world...

...just as it had for the prisoner's that had inhabited them. 

Both direct and indirect expressions of the themes are presented.

The patina on the walls, the history present was at times quite beautiful but was also capable of invoking in me a feeling bordering on fright or disgust.

The currencies of darkness and light clank and ching...

How deeply they must have been both cherished and detested.

The name of the exhibition was taken from a quote by the Italian poet and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini in which he used the disappearance of fireflies in the countryside as a metaphor for both the fading light of a bygone society and a past sense of "youth" that can't be conveyed to the "new" generation - or of as a lost youth, if you will.

 Each piece presented is meant to be a firefly, a fragment glowing tenuously and yet with determination. Within its resistance can be found something akin to a feverish hope.

Walking through the halls, I was chased by the sneaking suspicion of a whisper evaporating two steps ahead of me...

...and yet was also confronted with the solidity of being forced to endure. The day after day, the year after year, the decade after decade. Without choice and yet evolving or sliding, slowly.

Several different worlds are presented over three levels..

...representing not only "imprisonment" but also "the passage of time", "solitude" and yes, "love."

I have visited the Collection Lambert several times before in its original location but seeing such works as Andy Warhol's "Electric chair" was an entirely different experience in such an environment. One that heightened meaning...

...and shocked my vision into seeing anew. In another cell, my eye drifted between a framed Cy Twombly and "another" that I could also see traced into the wall. The two were nearly indiscernible.

The exhibition has been conceived to play on the senses and it does, strongly. Despite the fact that the prison had been cleaned for a month before the shows opening, the odours were at times very strong, the sounds and lack of horizon stifling.

Although we started out together, Remi and I eventually and wordlessly separated, each in our little cells of thought and emotions.

By the end of the exhibition, I felt utterly exhausted. I mentioned it to one of the guards and he told me with a short laugh that, "Many people turn straight around to the exit after the first floor!" But I was glad that I pushed through the sense of chaos, past the ragged strips of pinup girl posters and scratched graffiti, to understand so poignantly what it must have been like to have been imprisoned, in the many senses of the term...

...all the better to finally step outside under the great open sky and appreciate what it is to be free.

The Disappearance of the Fireflies
Prison Sainte Anne
55 rue de la Banasterie
84000 Avignon

Running until November 25th
Open everyday
Until Sept. 29th from 11am to 7pm
From Sept. 30th to Nov. 25th from 11am to 6pm
Last entry is one hour before closing time
Admission: 10 Euros

I know that it has been kind of a heavy week here at Lost in Arles but I really wanted to present this before it closes, in case there are those of you in Provence that haven't seen it yet. For Remi, it was perhaps the most important exhibition that he has ever seen and I can't stop thinking about it. I am so glad that we went. Plus, I feel like it is fitting companion to my previous post (thank you so much for your amazing responses!) as when it comes down to it, both are ultimately about the importance of finding freedom, something never to be taken for granted...

Have a wonderful weekend,

Monday, September 22, 2014

White bird in the snow

When the world keeps sending me a message, I try to tune the radio in to listen. Certainly when it  insists with a pin-ball urgency sliding me down the chute from source to source and yet each rings true.

My Sister, Robin, gave me a subscription to Tricycle magazine and it was with a profound sense of fascination and then relief that I discovered the article "No one special to be" by Ezra Bayda in the Fall 2014 issue. The tag line is "escaping the prison of your own self-image." "Oh dear," I thought, "this could be helpful...A little scary too."

You see, as I was growing up, my Dad, in his well-meaning way, expressed his love for me through my accomplishments and even those had to not be simply good but exceptional. So I associated being something "special" - in the sense of doing something that only I could do - with getting love in return. It was a lesson that I learned so early on that I am still trying to free myself of its grasp and I find myself often seeking approval. It is an acquired behaviour. We moved around quite a bit during my childhood as well, so I also grasped on to certain identities in order to make my presence felt in a new environment. That too stayed with me but has been surprisingly sliding away all on its own in the past year or so.

I was especially aware of the loosening of the identity grip while visiting in the States this past summer. For while I have always been labelled "fashion forward" and "a good dresser" by my family, I saw that it was not really the case in how I presented myself. I wasn't trying to impress anyone, not even myself. And that felt surprisingly ok. "But isn't that an important part of who I am?" I wondered. Well, no, not really, although it has been a part of my personality for a long time and might be again.

In the opening of the article Mr. Bayda explains that, "One of the main characteristics of a life of sleep is that we are totally identified with being a Me. Starting with our name, our history, our self-images and identities, we use each of these things to solidify the sense that we are living in our own subjective sphere. We experience ourselves as "special" - not in the normal sense of being distinguished or exceptional but in the sense that we feel unique and subtly significant. Interestingly, our feeling of specialness is not just from having positive qualities; we can even use our suffering to make us feel unique or special. Yet not needing to be special, not needing to be any particular way, is what it means to be free - free to experience our natural being, our most authentic self."

Isn't that interesting? What a change from the stories that I have been telling myself and propping myself up with! Very much in the lines of "I am __ because of __." Easy to do, a little too easy. It also brings to mind one of the best pieces of advice that I have ever read about insomnia in the book, "No more sleepless nights." It was simply to be aware of and let go of the attention that "being an insomniac" brings you. If I no longer define myself as an insomniac, then what does that make room for in my life in return? It helped me sleep better far better than warm milk did.

As someone who has experienced several truly different phases of life, I am aware on a surface level that we have many selves, many feathers to our personality. They are sometimes ruffled, sometimes smooth. But at the same time, I have struggled with a very American phenomenon (it feels American to me) of being characterized by one's profession, by what we do. I was "an actress" then "a travel writer." Now I am neither of those things. Does that change who I am? Am I less of a person now? It doesn't feel so, just different. 

On the blog A Cup of Jo, I saw a quote from Nora Ephron at about the same time as I had read the above article. While waiting in line, say at restaurants, she and her family would play a game where they would "define" themselves in five words. She came to realize that the words that she would have used in her twenties never overlapped with those in her 30s, or in her 30s to her 40s and upwards. Ever. We change. Especially if we let ourselves. Certainly if we open up our perspective.

My Sister then sent me a link to a post that has been floating around the web from the amazing Glennon Doyle Melton's blog Momastery. The post is called "Give me liberty or give me debt" and it is one of the most fantastic examples of shifting perspective that I have seen in a long time. Plus, it is hysterical. You can read it by clicking here. Once on her website, I had to look around more, listen to her very inspiring TED talk and then found a true gem of a post, "Beauty Routine" in which she redefines (literally) what it is to feel beautiful. Certainly, of all of the self-images and identities that we create and then cling to, those concerning our looks and our bodies are incredibly forceful. As someone who was always "skinny" and is now not, I can raise up my hand in recognition of that.

This is why I was really moved to read the photographer Carla Coulson's update on her battles with several auto-immune disorders, including Graves disease. Despite her doctor's initial reluctance, she has basically cured and/or drastically improved all of her conditions through radically changing her diet and lifestyle. She was true to herself, she was willing to look beyond the obvious story of what both her docs were telling her and her own loves of pasta and coffee and the like, things she believed to be true but she made the changes anyway. While I understand that some of you might be tired of hearing about the "No Sugar, No Gluten" bandwagon, I can see all around me that many people are suffering due to their choices. Is that too how they want to define themselves? Maybe. As an added bonus, Carla  no longer has chronic headaches and her husband has rid himself of terrible eczema through this shift. It takes courage. She has put together an amazing batch of resources and information that is good reading even if you are in fine health. You can find it by clicking here.

Perhaps some of this is just my age but I am nearing the point where I am willing to look at my own long battles in the eye. Or at least to try and shyly side-glance at them clearly. Just try. Lately, it has been the acknowledgement that "Fear is running the show." Not a great defining force and something that is definitely getting in the way. I want to have a greater awareness. If I do strive for that, where could that take me? As Ezra Bayda writes towards the end of the article, "When we do this repeatedly, the sense of who we are, with all of our stories, loses its substantiality, its heaviness. There is a transformation out of the narrow subjective sphere into a more open experience of reality. When we bring awareness to our cherished self-images, such as our need to be special, they begin to lose their power over us. No longer puffing ourselves up or trying to stand out means we are coming closer to living like a white bird in the snow. That is, we no longer feel the inner compulsion to see ourselves or be seen in a particular way - there is no ulterior agenda. The result is true humility - no one special to be."

So why this long post? I realize that this isn't a subject that touches everyone and that there are plenty of you that are already living true to your authentic selves. But it is interesting to me, now. And I am listening. And besides, what is the underlying force that lies at the root of us all? Connectedness. It is, wonderfully, what is always present in our ever changing world. You are a big part of that in my life and for that I am happy to spread out my thoughts just in case that someone else is helped by any of these interesting sources as I have been. We never know and it can be good to explore blind terrain from time to time as just maybe, maybe we will sense those nearly invisible territories in front of us, as yet indiscernible as the white bird in the snow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Our new home in Provence

It comes down to a question of trust. There are things that we share and others that we keep a secret. And certainly in the blogging world it is an issue that pops up nearly every day. How much of me is going to go down on the page? How much of my life? Will Remi, my loving companion, be involved more than he prefer? Yes, there are certain issues that we have talked about since the beginning as being "no go zones" but otherwise, the choice is up to me.

And so I was surprised to find myself hesitating - my fingers hovering over the keyboards yet not striking - when it came time to write a post about our new house. Especially as it is a lovely story, how we rented it. One day while walking the dogs, we came across a couple and Remi, ever the charmer, started a conversation. They were kind and invited us in to see their home once we had expressed interest in moving to such a wonderful little village. A few weeks later, we heard from them again. They knew of a house, something quite special that would soon be available to rent. It was never put on the market but rather passed off between friends or friends of friends and would we be interested? We would.

The first time that we walked up to the address, Remi and I looked at each other in disbelief. The beautiful. All during the visit, my hands were shaking with excitement. I have the blurry photos to prove it. And those same photos would be all that we had to go upon in the weeks and then months that passed while we meet the owner, got her approval and then set the moving date. It all seemed too good to be true. The rental of the house is the same price as our previous apartment in Arles!

We picked up the keys on July 8th and Remi started to work. He repainted nearly all of the rooms in this three story house, sanded the parquet floors where needed and started gardening in the courtyard. When the 21st rolled around, we were relieved as it was finally happening! The following weeks have been spent slowly emerging from the sea of boxes. We have taken our time and there are still things to be done, which feels right. In the evenings, we walk around with a glass of wine in hand to visit the house, to take it in, for we still can't believe our luck. It is so very peaceful here.

So why the hesitation in sharing this gift from Life? I think a part of me is still having a hard time knowing that this can last (even though that is a big part of what I am working on this year) and for the other part? Well, it feels...important...for us to be here and that is precious and to be protected. Plus, to top it off, will it sound like I am bragging? Ai! That goes against everything that Lost in Arles is all about! Remi and I are both clear that we don't own this fabulous place but are just taking care of it, so I dearly hope not.

But as I have said it is a matter of trust. So...*once again, big intake of breath*...let me open the gate. Please, do come in...

Nearly half of the walled in courtyard is covered with a trellis that is topped by an enormous old vine. I will tell you about going through our first vendange soon but all summer long we ate under tumbling grapes!

We think that the core of the house dates to the 18th century. It can be hard to tell in places but that is what we are guessing in looking at the classic facade and windows.

In her initial renovation, the owner took out a layer of concrete (!) and installed antique dalles en pierre for the courtyard floor. She also planted what has grown to be a good-sized olive tree - Oh, how I love it - as well as a towering magnolia that showers hot pink blossoms in the spring. They provide shade... does a mini cabanon that we will repaint. It will be the perfect spot for a post-lunch siesta. We are using a trunk bought years ago at a Paris brocante - one inscribed with Remi's initials in an iron flourish - to store the garden tools.

And everywhere, there is patina...

...texture and time coming together to make something beautiful. It is a wonderful reminder of how many families have passed here before us.

Just inside of our front gate we have a lovely example of la calade. This once typically Provençal mosaic of galets is becoming increasingly hard to find.

...and over the front door there is a rather surprising combination of ironwork stamped with fleurs de lys and a farm lamp that has seen many a year pass already. Something tells me these two weren't always together...but then again, such a mix of formal and casual is a lot of what this house is about.

The entry has a floating staircase that made an architect friend start with surprise. Those dark grey slabs are not concrete but a stone that is new to me, la pierre de Beaucaire

For the ground floor rooms on the right, we made two decisions. One, we wanted to bring in the light. Even though the house is south-facing, which is beyond wonderful, we knew that it would need all the help it could get during the winter. We have never used off-white in our other houses but here? It absolutely makes sense, certainly as we hoped to set off the cement floor tiles dating from the beginning of the last century in a simple, clean manner. All of our Persian rugs are rolled up in the attic. They just don't work with the color schemes or feel of the rooms.

And I have to give Remi credit for the second idea. The smaller room had been clearly destined to be a dining area. But as A) the sole working fireplace is there, B) we love to have a fire every night that we possibly can and C) we would love to watch movies in front of the firelight, then why not make this into a small sitting room instead? That set-up - minus the working fireplace - served us very well at our previous apartment so I will just have to put away my grand idea of a cosy formal dining room - and I don't even like formal dining rooms! - for now.

Besides, happily there is room for our monastery table in the main salon. In theory, this space would be used more for entertaining but it has quickly become my second favorite room in the house. And yes, there is a rug that works here. It is an antique Provençal woven rattan rug that we found and saved from being thrown out at our last apartment. The workmanship is amazing. In the far corner, la Vierge Marie (she is an antique lithograph of the original in the Louvre) is holding the place where a wood-burning stove will be installed when we can afford it, probably next year. The cost of installing the stove will definitely be worth it as it will offset our heating bills enormously.

I find myself wandering into this room whenever I need to breathe a bit. In the heat of this past summer, I would love to lay on the couch for la sieste in the afternoon - sometimes Ben or Kipling would join me - and look out onto all of that green. And yet I feel perfectly protected. No prying eyes can follow me here. We nearly always have some sort of music playing in the house and the stereo is also here, tucked away in the green Indian cabinet.

Needless to say that in the evenings, this room is a Bougie Bonanza! The flames from the candles flicker in the wavering glass of the lithographs and the glazed mirror. Up goes the music and...magic!

But if we are talking magic? Tah-dah! *Poof! Rabbit out of a hat* After years of cooking in what was literally a converted closet, we finally have a kitchen that is in line with our most important standard...

Big enough to dance in.

Yep, the marble countertops, vintage crackled back-splash and amazing floor tiles (from a former ballroom) are nice and all, but let's get our priorities straight here, shall we?

Allez, hop! Up to the first floor. That is one of Remi's abstract photographs in the stairwell (What? Me? Copy him? How dare you!). Wherever we could, we have tried to balance out the old with the new. In no way do either of us want this to be a "Welcome to the Charming Yee Olde Provencey House." And you know what? The house doesn't want that either. 

Now here is something interesting. That's our bedroom. Shhhh...the key word here is quiet. We have made a deal that there is nothing in there to make extra noise. No dirty clothes at the end of the day, no electronics, just a book on the bedside table. And as someone who has suffered from chronic insomnia for over twenty years I ask you, "Why has no one mentioned this before?" It works. We sleep like happy kittens.

It helps that there is a big dressing room and a nice bath down the hall (I have a bath again! I no longer have to piourette like a jewellery box ballerina in the world's smallest shower!). Remi's atelier is down that way too. It is huge and he can make all sorts of wonderful photography happen in there. Of course, I initially wanted that room for our bedroom...

Up one more flight...can you feel your calves getting stronger yet? I can. 

Are you ready for my chouchouBienvenue into what is my favorite room in the house...for it is my room. Yes, a room of one's own. I love everything about it...

...but it is still a work in progress. While Remi fixed the hole in the roof for the floor below (it was literally raining inside on the day after our move!), we will have to call in a roofer for the rest, so I still haven't hung up a lot of things (although my little Art Shelf will most likely stay as it is), so more of that room later on.

But trust me, everyone loves it and wants to spend time here, which is nice. It isn't just me. Look at the view from my desk!

My unbelievably patina-ed door opens out on to a palier that we have designated as Remi's reading area (the bookshelf that you can't see is full of photography and art books) and then towards our guest room (with its own bath -  may I say again: finally! Hooray!). We have already welcomed friends and family and my room can be used as well if there are children staying over as there is something of a princess bed (ah-hem) going on.

But, again, there is still much to be done. Happily. Although I think I am going to end up making the light fixtures for the hall if I can't find what I want soon! 

Yes, I do like to sit on those stairs and dream and peep, down, down, down all the way to the bottom. Remi and I also like to communicate via this central stairwell too. So much of this house just makes sense to us.


Already, I feel so welcomed here. I have kicked off my espadrilles and along with Remi and two extremely happy dogs...

...we have made ourselves at Home.

So there you have it! In the nearly four years of Lost in Arles, I have never put so much into preparing a post. I know that some of you have been waiting a long time for this, so thank you for your patience as well as respecting my choice to not name the village that we have moved to - which is a matter of privacy as well as, let's face it, security. That too is a matter of trust and with all of my wonderful friends here, I know that I am in good hands.

Today's post is part of the International Blog group, "By Invitation Only" and the theme for this month is "sharing." To see what the other incredibly talented women have to say on this subject, please join the party by clicking: here at Splenderosa.

PS. I also want to thank those of you that responded with such incredible kindness and generosity to my previous post concerning my Mom and Leonard's wedding. We were all very moved and yes, the event itself was simply wonderful....

Thank you for being here.
With all of my Very Best from Provence,