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...

Friday, June 17, 2011

It's not me, it's Baudelaire


The pillars of Nature's temple are alive
and sometimes yield perplexing messages;
forests of symbols between us and the shrine
remark our passage with accustomed eyes.

Like long-held echoes, blending somewhere else
into one deep and shadowy unison
as limitless as darkness and as day,
the sounds, the scents, the colors correspond.

There are odors succulent as young flesh,
sweet as flutes, and green as any grass,
while others -- rich, corrupt and masterful -

possess the power of such infinite things
as incense, amber, benjamin and musk,
to praise the senses' raptures and the mind's.

-- Charles Baudelaire

Wondering where we are going and am glad to know que je ne suis pas seule. Please feel free to take a look at Dominique Browning's post and a grateful thank you to David Terry for putting me in such fine company: Slow Love Life.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Pay attention. Pay attention, nature seems to be saying to me as of late. Take in all the beauty surrounding you and within your life. All that costs nothing save for a little looking, hope and honesty. For as detached as I can sometimes feel as an American living in a small town like Arles, I am very fortunate to be connected to such beauty and to some pretty amazing human beings as well.

I will admit that I was as nervous as I was excited to see Wesley Fata again. It took me awhile to untangle why. True, Wesley is something of a legend. He danced under Martha Graham, was in the original Broadway production of "Hair" and then went on to teach movement at the Yale School of Drama for over thirty years, coaxing everyone from Meryl Streep to Angela Bassett to Liev Schreiber to inhabit their best selves. I know Wesley from my time there. He taught me more than anyone and saw something in me that he did his best to pull up and out. Luckily along the way, a friendship developed. A rarity, which I knew then and still do. 

And yet he was incredibly supportive when I decided to change lanes by putting the unimaginably hard world of acting aside to have a life and a love in France. When he wrote last February that he would be spending a week in Provence this summer, my heart leapt! It is a rarity for me to have visitors from the States and more so from my "past life", one that has been largely buried under the new. No one here knows me in that previous context at all. 

I launched into a lengthy exchange with Wesley's fantastic, brilliant partner Christopher to help make their planning as worthy as it could be. I can tell you, if I may be smug, that their itinerary--whether they stick to it or not--is a spectacular one (and anyone that would like ideas for future visits should not hesitate to ask). It was decided that we would meet the day after their arrival on the steps of Saint-Trophime church.

And here is where the nerves started to vibrate, but not for long. Because I have had an interesting life even if it is not the one that I had bargained for, a really good one. And at 41, it is more than beyond time to embrace that. 

When I crossed the Place de la Republique and fell into his welcoming embrace, I knew that my worries had been for nothing. I have had the experience already in my life of seeing a friend after a long absence and picking up right where we had left off as if no time has passed but this was different. Because neither of us were exactly the same people that we had been before and yet we were still able to have that connection, moving forward. Yes I know, people are always changing but it can be surprising how many from our past want us to stay who we were, which leads to disappointment for all involved. Not the case here, at least on my part. Remi pulled out the stops yesterday evening for a dinner that could not have been lovelier. Out in the garden with the candles lit. Enjoying his stuffed cannette and squash gratin and fine, quiet conversation. Strolling through town afterwards and passing the gates of the church just in time to ring in what I hope is a very Happy Birthday for Christopher. Walking back to the house, my hand in Remi's, I felt lucky.

I couldn't stop giggling when I saw my face, a grinning Ben and my living room on the latest post of Brooke Giannetti's perennially inspiring blog, Velvet & Linen. What on earth was I doing there? Alongside the likes of famed interior designer Axel Vervoordt? Well, Brooke is heading over to this side of the pond with her entire family and we are hoping to meet. Though I must say that it is requiring Herculean efforts on her part to make it happen. Something I am very much aware of and have repeatedly begged her to let it go if it is just too complicated. We'll see. I don't need to meet her to know that she is a good egg through and through but it would be fun to make the jump from virtual to "Hello". And, I admit it, I would love for all of them to see just a tiny bit of this gorgeous region. Certainly now, right on the cusp before the heat starts to wilt the flowers that are gracing my friends gardens that I have featured here. We are making the most of this last month before we leave our own behind. Craning our necks upward to watch the martinets race through the same golden light that Van Gogh admired. It is right now. And perhaps always if you want it. Full bloom.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A walk around Arles, Part One

Arles, formerly Arelate in Roman times, my current home town. The old stones glowing under a féerique light. The brusk haughtiness of red-eyed Gypsies in the streets. Girls with hair dyed too black, clothes too tight. Muscle men in faded Souleiado shirts pounding through the Camargue on horseback, chasing wild bulls. The flock of the world to discover, uncover the Rencontres International Photography Festival. Being blasted by rapid-fire gastronomical feats at L'Atelier de Rabanel, our Michelin two-star. Dancing under the rain during the Féria, the twice-annual bullfights or in the Amphitheatre to Massive Attack. Sitting at Mon Bar on the Place du Forum at sunset with 2€ glasses of rosé, trying to be patient as the heat simmers down. A passing car screaming local boys done good, The Gypsy Kings. The ringing bells of Saint-Trophime calling the faithful on a Sunday morning. Tai-chi stepping through the throngs of Provence's largest outdoor market. Closing the shutters, then opening them for a new day.

All of this is Arles, if just a tiny slice of the pie. But if anything, the Arles of my everyday is best experienced while walking with Ben, our Golden Retriever. Certainly on the Rhône, which makes its last sweeping curve towards the sea just yards outside my front door (and which I am so attached to that it calms the voice in my head that beckons me towards the chic St. Rémy). Strolling with my friend Frederique and her yippy-sweet mutt Galinette. Or alone, or with my companion, Remi, in all seasons. And since it has been far too long since I have written about my town, I thought that I would take you with us, especially as the day was as lovely as they come with a slight breeze puffing around mushy white clouds. So this is what I saw on one typical day but I will divide it up into two parts, to start, to leave a bit of room for the future.

Before we hop up the stone steps on the quay to breathe in the river, we pass the Thermes de Constantin. Built in the 4th century AD by the Emperor Constantin, the thermes or baths, were only uncovered in the 19th century and were a part of his palais or palace. Didier, the wood-carver on the corner, remembers playing in it as a child when it was still largely abandoned. Archeologists have come to realize that the structure stretches out across the neighborhood and originally included not only hot and cold baths, but a library and community meeting rooms. Personally, I prefer the architecture of the Musée Reattu that lines the quay. Formerly a Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta, the 15th century structure was saved by the painter Jacques Réattu after the French Revolution when such monuments were sold off to the public. It is currently home to an avant-garde collection of sound based art as well as a series of fifty-seven drawings that Picasso gave to the museum in gratitude for the wonderful moments that he had spent in Arles.  Gargoyles stand guard over the treasures.

I love this random arch on its roof and wonder if it previously held a bell for the priory. The street below offers the perfect balance of light, shade and protection from the Mistral winds. More importantly, it is also piétonne, or closed off to cars for most of the day. Ben knows this and usually kicks into one of his rabbit hops of delight just beyond the red light. Safe to run as he pleases. There are petitions that circulate every so often to close off the entire historic center of town, what a miracle that would be if it ever becomes law.

Winding away from the museum, we pass the gates of the Hôtel Montblanc. Remi and I wishfully tried to imagine squeezing into a small apartment that is for sale in one wing of this Renaissance monster with its courtyard stuffed with sagging orange trees. Alas, not possible but I really need to post photos of the front hall if I haven't already.

All roads lead to the Place du Forum. Two stately columns are all that remains of what was previously the entry to a sprawling complex that was the heart of Roman Arles. They are firmly entrenched in the walls of the extravagant Grand Hotel Nord-Pinus, famed for having welcomed the likes of everyone from Henry James to Stendhal to Yves Montand and Jean Cocteau. The fabulously sexy photograph of Charlotte Rampling sitting naked on a dining table was taken by Helmut Newton here as well, which says not a little about Arles itself. Speaking of celebrities, yes, there is also the Café Van Gogh, once represented by a certain Vincent in the painting Le café, la nuit. Charming as that might be, as I have voiced before, no, no, no. Don't be tempted by the shade of the plane trees nor the wily smiles of beckoning hostesses. Do not eat here. Or anywhere on the Place save for the new Chez Caro. Otherwise, a pastis, a glass of wine, ice cream if you must. Ben and I will keep walking.

I often turn up the Rue des Arènes as it is is lined by some of the finest hôtel particuliers in Arles. What  examples of grandeur remain in this fine city and I can only imagine what lies behind such finely carved doors. Exceptional details are everywhere. Best to walk slowly enough to take them all in.

The street eventually narrows into a cobblestone alley that squeezes you out with a pasty-chef style plop, ? Where? At the Arena, of course! It is something to behold, isn't it? I'll leave you here to explore, picking you up soon, I promise, to tell you all about it and then continue our walk...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Taking away

Some of you might have already heard the Diana Vreeland quote that "Elegance is refusal." And in my mind, I am capable of stripping things down to their essence but in reality? Well, not really. I came to realize this while reading the "Moody Interiors" post on the blog From the Right Bank. I loved every single one of those complicated rooms. All of that tactile velvet, worn parquet and massive chandeliers. Proportions out of whack and a little messy. I wrote in response that I am so earnestly trying to force myself towards a cleaner aesthetic but that is not who I am. I am a complex person living with an equally complex man. We have picked up things from all over and love the stories they tell. So I tend to add not subtract most of the time. 

However yesterday, we were forced into doing a little simplifying. As I have mentioned, it is stipulated in our rental contract that we can not put any holes into the structure of the apartment, something that we have gotten around with our artwork by gallery hanging from the ceiling. This too, is technically a no-no and as the estate agent was arriving to do her first visit, we carefully removed everything. She has an eagle-eye. All went well but we were given the gift of rediscovering the beauty of the space. More open,  more peaceful. Remi has promised me that we will try to not put anything up on the walls for a bit in our new place. Something I find it hard to believe as it is usually the very first thing that we do. 

Spaces are not always what we think they are, nor people, nor objects. Oh, the candelabras that I brought home looked so scruffy the next day. Black with soot and forgotteness. I don't know what their history is to have arrived in such a state but I am slowly erasing the traces of the past. An act that is as beneficial to their appearance as it is to my peace of mind. 

Remi felt the same last week when he launched into taking care of our little garden after an especially stressful day. It too had been abandoned and we moved in was completely overrun by les petites bêtes--insects, slugs, potato bugs that had grown fat from free reign (the previous renter only used the garden as a storage space). We had to bomb everything so strongly that nothing bloomed. Not being horticulturists, we couldn't even figure out what some of the plants were. But in clawing away the parasites, everything could come back in fine form this year. The chest-high green thing that Remi nearly pulled is actually one of the biggest hortensia, or hydrangeas that I have seen. We still don't know what the tree is next to it and naturally are open for answers.

This morning, as I was beginning my yoga practice, I had a surprise visitor. With a calamitous rumble and a showering of ashes, a pigeon fell down the chimney, scraping wings as he went and landed with a plop next to me, just behind the fire grate. I kept my breath as calm and spoke low to him while shooshing Ben into the bedroom then reaching for a towel in the bath. By the time I returned, the pigeon had gathered up enough strength to pop onto the log pile. He then strolled into the kitchen as if looking for a mug of coffee and with a whiff was out through the open door. 

Taking off, taking away to find something different, something new.