Sunday, July 3, 2011


Why do something the easy way when you can do it the really, really hard way? It's my fault, of course. I admit that right up front. We were just supposed to clean and paint and decorate. Basic, non? Well, I found this tiny crack in the stucco behind the double doors leading from the living room. A quick revisit to my vision of the entire length of wall along the street to be in stone flitted through my head. I picked at it, just like that scab that you know will leave a scar but you can't help yourself. A swath of cream--could it really just be the stone, right there, so close? I called Remi in, sheepishly. We started picking a little more, then a little more, looking for the stone's joint. No such luck, it was just plaster, but the more that we dug, the more that we could see that in some places, the stone was visible.

Days later, the stucco is off of the length of the wall. I assumed my rash act and did most of the grunt work with Remi polishing and brushing down behind. He also took care of the covered over placard, which has a lovely faint greenish tint. I had hoped that when we were finally able to open the top half that there would be a hidden treasure stashed inside--a forgotten Van Gogh perhaps?--but in vain...

How fantastic to be rid of that linoleum in the bathroom! The tiles beneath, though not the loveliest brown are a close enough match to the rest of the tomettes in the apartment. I proposed a whitewashed parquet to go over it but that idea has been nixed...for now. I also took care of one of the sillier things that had been done--the charming glass panes in the bathroom door had been painted over--not any more! Yes, even with the addition of a sheer curtain, those windows will let in light to the hall.

My hands are ripped to pieces and my whole body sore but it feels wonderful to bring out the finer aspects of this beautiful space that has been mistreated for far too long. Remi is over at the apartment as I type, mixing the pigments and materials for the lime-wash that we will hopefully put up today. Then we will get rid of the garbage bags full of stucco and attack the paint. Did I mention that this upcoming week is the Rencontres International Photography Festival and we have friends coming to stay? 

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.