Sunday, September 18, 2011

Heritage



This weekend is the Journées Européennes du Patrimoine in France, the European Heritage Days. This always fascinating event opens the doors to the public for some of France's most exceptional historic homes, museums and sites. It is an opportunity to discover and appreciate the best of France's heritage and long history. Here in our region, it was an extra special day as Remi's photographs for an archaeological dig are being exhibited on the site in Nimes as part of the festivities. We both were so thrilled to see his work featured as part of this event. I am always so proud of my incredibly talented honey and was grateful that they included his accomplished resumé alongside the photos. 


As it is indeed a small world, albeit a wonderful one, my friend Frederique was the graphic designer involved in printing up Remi's photographs onto waterproof canvas. She works for INRAP, the National Research Institute for Preventive Archaeology. While much attention is given to the most glamorous aspects of archeology--Jewel bedecked mummies! The fossils of ancient man!--there is a real need in countries such as France to study land that is being developed for modern uses.




The site in question spreads out over 1000 square meters in what is today the heart of downtown Nimes and will become a residential complex. In Roman times, it was near the Gate of Augustus and as with many major transportation hubs of the period, was frequently used as a mausoleum. As my friend Marie (whose fantastic hospitality I have written about here) worked on this dig, she took me on a private tour of the site, explaining it to me with patience and professionalism. Marie, like the rest of the team that I met, loves what she does. 


Interestingly enough, it seems as though the living and the dead existed side by side. Multi-tiered esplanades sprawled away from dolia or giant vats used for storing foodstuffs that neighbored elaborate private tombs! Yeesh. Complicated, those Romans. The most ancient remains date to 2 BC. In the 13th century, the Carmes Convent was erected with an attached cemetery. So yes, more bones for the archaeologists to dust off and remove as they reach down, down through the layers of time. 



Happily, more than skeletons were offered up for oggling. I couldn't help but think that many of my designer friends would be thrilled by the iridescent lustre found on these small glass vessels. Isn't incredible to think that they have been sleeping thousands of years underneath the ground? Similarly, for the two fragile dangling pendants, one caressed with gold, the other in jet and possibly of African origin. 




Now, all of this is worth noting but archaeology is far from France's sole line of heritage. Mais, non! As a thank you to Remi's contribution to the dig, the team invited us to a lunch at their offices with each member bringing something to the table. And as it was a day celebrating discoveries, it was all too appropriate that I tasted something that I had never heard of before. The papeton is a dish that originated in Avignon and was named for being cooked in a mold in the shape of the Pope's crown. A mix of eggplant purée, eggs and garlic, it is Provence on a plate. But so much was wonderful--and homemade: the goat cheese and red pepper tart, the prosciutto, roquette and balsalmic pasta salad, the insane apple, cinnamon and creme fraiche pie for dessert. Such generosity amidst a table of gossip and laughter.



All too soon the team needed to finish up so as to open the gates for the afternoons visitors. It was also touching to see my friends in their element and sharing their knowledge with the public. Call me snarky if you wish, but I could hardly imagine such throngs for a similar event in America. INRAP welcomed 500 visitors on the site in a single day! I am not big on generalizations but the French are on whole extremely curious with an avid will to learn.




Once outside the gates, we lingered, watching the reaction of passerby to Remi's photographs. What a fantastic, accessible way for the locals of the neighborhood to understand what the project was all about and take in all of the history that lays beneath their feet. Their heritage.




The last to leave was the photographer, camera in hand, working even then to create images to help others travel back in time...in the future!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Color and crunch in Arles





We don't go out to eat that often. Not only is it far less a part of the everyday culture in France than in the States, but when you have as good a cook, and as handsome a one, as Remi in the kitchen, well, it just doesn't make sense. Often, either of us could make what is on offer at the local joints--if not better! But that is not the case for L'Autruche, the Ostrich, which is tucked away on the tiny rue Dulau in the heart of Arles.


An agreeable young couple runs the establishment. Ouria is as exotically pretty as her name but yet has welcomed me from my second visit with a hearty "Salut, ma belle!"--Hello, gorgeous!--and a bisou, a peck on the cheek. The more formal Fabien is quick to extend a firm handshake to Remi. When we arrived late recently on a sunny Saturday afternoon, all the tables were filled on the terrace. "Not to worry," Ouria assured us, "I'll just bring another one out." Once installed, we settled in with our fellow diners, largely locals, including a table of hotel owners, a picky bunch if ever there is one. They appeared to be well into their wine. We were soon clinking ourselves with a crisp white from Chateau Gigognan just outside of Sorgues (ps. if you are looking for a place to stay in the area, their Chambres d'Hotes looks fabulous). All of us were preneurs for the lunch formule--which at 17€ for a starter and main is the best deal in Arles--but there are only two choices. As Remi had already started marinating one of them, a magret de canard for that evening, we left ourselves in Fabien's hands. He spoke with the chef and came out with a nod. Something had been arranged.



Our entrée was right on par for the season and starred gorgeous pink-shelled coco beans topped with fresh crab, tangy agrumes and heavily chopped basil. A perfect dish for a warm afternoon at the end of summer but I also could imagine my blog friend Virginia (she of Glamour Drops fame) whipping this up as an equally suitable dish for a spring lunch in Melbourne.


I always love to read their menu--actually, I'll pass by while out on my walk with Ben just because it usually inspires me one way or the other in my own cooking. Now, I'll admit that dinner is firmly out of our price range--hence going for lunch!--but well worth it for those with the means as the price is reflected by the quality of the ingredients. Wild monkfish, anyone? Good luck trying to get that in Arles, save for the three star Michelin rated L'Atelier de Jean-Luc Rabanel, the eponymous chef of which has been spotted at L'Autruche on his days off...


Ah, on to the plat principale! The presentation is always a well-conceived jolt to prepare the taste buds and I always respond with typically American enthusiasm, even, to my embarrassment "hooray!" Fabien had arranged for us to have a duo of pan-grilled rouget and salmon accompanied by a medley of grilled zucchini, yellow squash and tomatoes on an onion confit. All served with a tomato saffron sirop and, well, bad blogger that I am, I forgot to verify the ingredients of that shocking green swipe across the plate. Blame it on the wine and the fine company. We were all happy as could be, save our host, who felt that the portions were too small and so ordered up another plate for our table to share, gratuitement.


Now, I have read some pretty tough reviews of the restaurant on TripAdvisor and the likes. Complaints of slow service abound. So keep that in mind if you decide to go but for now, it certainly is my favorite here in Arles. Chef Antoine came on board nearly two years ago and is definitely one of the few in this price category to take such risks. Perhaps that is why the restaurant received une fourchette in the Michelin Guide this year. Both Ouria and Fabien have been known to plop down at a table to chat, so that is also something to consider if that is not to your liking. But I prefer friendly to frosty any day of the week, don't you? L'Autruche is a young restaurant, one that I find charming even in its imperfections and I will look forward to watching it grow!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ghosts in the machine


We all have our stories. Of where we were ten years ago today. And some of us feel the need to tell them again and again like a talisman, no matter how mundane or tragic. As if to say "I am still here" because "I was there then". 


I was in Paris that day, full of hope and wildly in love. It was the last trip before officially moving over from NYC. As a treat, Remi and I visited the Musée d'Orsay that afternoon and I have a photo of our faces smushed together like soft white moons. We strolled through the Jardin de Tuileries afterwards to the Ritz on the Place Vendôme. There was no doorman out front, so in we went, just to see. And I do remember that members of the staff were running around but trying to do so quietly. I thought that odd.


It wasn't until we got back to our empty, brand new apartment that I heard a frantic, desperate voicemail from my Mom just saying that my Sister was fine but to please, please call. She needed to hear from me. We turned on the radio, it was all we had. "Les jumelles sont tombée!" Remi shouted out. Of course I didn't believe him once he translated that the Twin Towers had fallen. Remi was still working at the Gamma Press agency and so we rushed to their offices. We were met with chaos and the hardness of professional news. I think someone took a photo of me crying while watching the television but I am not sure.


As a photojournalist, Remi was given priority and was on one of the first planes out. I followed a few days later. Already the cab driver seemed accustomed to the "No!" I let out as we drove across the Manhattan Bridge, the gaping absence. No Towers to welcome me home. The smoke was still so strong in Midtown and it was undeniably the smell of death that we were all forced to take in with every inhale. There were no answers and no escape. We huddled together in my small bedroom, Remi holding me tight so that my fear would not strangle me like snakes. 


And then, as with a sweep of angel's wings, the sense of solidarity. Of fellow New Yorker's looking at each other in the eye, of going out of their way to be, if not outright helpful then at least not to be harmful. Respectful as the Missing Person posters finally came down or were carried away by the wind or faded in the rain. Finally, all at the same level because we had all fallen so far, collectively. It was the closest thing to peace that I could feel during those first few weeks afterwards. And then, pushed forward by a plan that had already been set in motion, I was in Paris, leaving my beloved and wounded city behind. 


In the years that followed as Remi and I travelled for our stories together, I could see the ripple effect of that day and how far it reached across the world and back again. The shock of seeing a pro Osama Bin Laden poster in a desert village in Mali, a woman taking my hand and saying how sorry she was for what had happened once she found out that I was an ex-New Yorker, I don't remember where that was. Vanuatu? India? It is a black ribbon that tied us all together.


This past summer, my favorite exhibit in the Rencontres International Photography Festival was a tribute to the Mexican filmmaker Gabriel Figueroa. Screens were set up in the alcoves of the desacrilized Frère Prêcheurs church, the very same where flamenco dancers have been twirling and stomping this weekend during the Feria. Each screen featured different themes in Figueroa's work, all occasionally showing the famous "Figueroa skies" that I remember hearing about when I was an actress. Such depth, such contrast where black is black and white is white. Similar to how so many of us behaved in the days after 9/11.


Two screens were also set up at the opposite ends of the church, both showing a beautifully edited "best of" from his career. It was made up of small moments but I was riveted by the pull of a couple's embrace, a psyche floating amidst the clouds, the slow lift of eyes brimming with tears. The pull of pure humanity. None of us can resist it. I watched the series over and over again.


We are all marked by our memories of this day; they are our ghosts in the machine. I am feeling especially grateful as I type, listening to the Sunday morning bells chime, grateful for Remi in the next room, for my family and loved ones and friends. I am sending out love and strength to any and all of you that are suffering on this Memorial. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Batten down the hatches


Because it's the Feria! Yes, yes and no thank you. For those of you that have been following for a while, you might remember the chaos at Easter that I wrote about 
here and here as well. Now, normally, this Feria is not as, let's just say it, all out pagan as in April when the desperate hordes rip out of their cocoons to suck all of the life out of the air after a long Mistral-logged winter. But then again, this will be the first Feria spent in our new apartment, which is a mere 20 meters (or yards if you prefer to think in football field terms) from the Place du Forum, aka Party Central. Oh my. Tonight is for the locals, so it will not be a barometer of what is to come this weekend, although it worries me slightly that our quiet café across the street is, for once, bolting down its tables and chairs. Ah, what is a little lost sleep you might ask? All too true but my goodness will it get...messy. 

We have our dear, dear friends Sonny and Michael coming for lunch tomorrow (yes, the rosé has already been chilled) and I will be content if they get out before the madness starts, say at 3pm. Our handsome caviste or wine merchant Jean-Michel, admitted that yes, he will be going out tonight "just to get the temperature of the Feria this time around...but not too long...I have three more nights to follow!" "Ah, so it is for professional purposes?" I asked winsomely (or what I hope was winsome and not overly sarcastic). "Mais oui!" Jean-Michel is, needless to say, born and raised in Arles. 

That is also the case for Thomas, the 20 year old who cut my hair yesterday at the hair salon "Cheveux des Anges", or "Angel Hair". Now, I really detest going to the salon with an intensity bordering on dentistisme. Sadly, I have had too many horror-show experiences (the worst a coked up newbie just across from Le Bon Marché who kept cutting up, up until I yelled "stop!") and do not enjoy the chit-chattey pressure in the least. So I took a book and the young man was charming, accommodating while expressing his intense interest in travelling to New York. I think that I convinced him that he should take a round trip for LA with a stopover in the Big Apple on the way back. Something tells me this boy could be thrilled by the West Coast, something that no one aspires to here. At the very least I hammered home the point that it is now that he needs to cast his net far and wide. Can you imagine being 20 again and having so many possibilities in front of you that you have no idea where or what or who?

But perhaps, no, it certainly is, the mentality that we need to keep at hand. So many possibilities. Such a big, wonderful world. Just perhaps not exactly right here, not this weekend...


Monday, September 5, 2011

Ashleigh & Burwood


Those of you who read my blog on a regular basis know that there are some genuinely kind people in the world, precisely because you all are exactly such people! But in the rush and push of everyday, it can be all too easy to focus on the negative, la galère, the struggle. This I find is especially true in pessimistic France.

So how lovely to be given a gentle reminder of how present goodness is. 

The other day I opened up one of the last of the moving boxes and immediately was enveloped by a familiar perfume--a forgotten box of "The Ocean" incense by the exceptional firm Ashleigh & Burwood out of London. It had been given to us as a gift and we had used it sparingly as it is our favorite. Only three cones were left. I lit one and as the gentle veil of smoke wafted over me, I set about trying to find more of this delightful fragrance.

Ah, my disappointment surged when I saw on their website that they don't seem to make it anymore! Just in case I wasn't seeing it (their range is quite impressive), I sent off an inquiry to their Customer Service department. To my delight, a charming gentleman named Alex responded promptly. No, they had stopped making that fragrance some time ago, but along with his managing director, he had found a deluxe gift set and a box of incense sticks and would he happy to send them to me pronto! He believed they were the last in existence! Wouldn't he prefer to keep them "for posterity"? No, he felt that it was better that they go where they would be appreciated. And so, just like that, a box arrived at my door this morning.


Isn't that fantastic? And what made the gift even more special was the delightful exchange between Alex and myself. I tried to explain why this particular fragrance was so special for us. That Remi and I are a team of photographer and travel writer (Alex later perused Remi's websites) and "The Ocean" took us to some of our favorite destinations quicker than the crunch of a Proustian madeleine. Especially as we are not taking the plane as often as we would like these days, we are so grateful to be transported to, say Bora Bora...




Or Bali...




Actually, the description on the box is a perfect way to describe its appeal: "borne on the wind, the calm open scent of freedom with a touch of fine ocean spray under an endless blue sky"...yes, please. La liberté!

That the scent of "The Ocean" had not wavered or faded over the years attests to Ashleigh & Burwood's commitment to quality. We already know that their customer service is exceptional but the prices are very reasonable to boot. To discover their products, please see their websites in London and in France:
 http://www.ashleigh-burwood.fr/

Wishing all of you in the States an excellent Labor Day! I am sending out gratitude and respect to all of our workers and for those that have come before us as well.




Thursday, September 1, 2011

Les Baux



I take Les Baux de Provence for granted. It is so close to Arles that I forget that it is the second most visited attraction in France. Or maybe that is exactly the reason why I choose to forget it. The run of shops selling ceramic chanting cigales embarrass me, as do the bonbon bins piled high with fluorescent treats. There is little in this "grab for the gold" that corroborates with the sites phenomenal past. So best to go in winter, when at least the howl of the Mistral winds covers the Muzak and keeps the largest of the tourist buses in the valley below.


For you do have to go up, up to reach the heart of Les Baux. It was exactly its position on high that called to its first inhabitants as long ago as 6000 BC. An oppidum, or hill fort was built in 2 BC and the rocky outcrop (which is the source of its name in Provençal) has been inhabited ever since. But not without its ups and downs. 


Certainly its most glorious period came in the Middle Ages. The Lords of Baux, whose lineage is believed to have descended from Balthazar, one of the Magi at Bethlehem, ruled 79 towns and villages over a region that stretched beyond Provence into Italy. They had a fearsome reputation and were willing to go to war at the drop of a gauntlet but they were equally voracious in love. The songs of their troubadours are still strung and woefully warbled.


But even the greatest of fortunes can fade. Battles can be lost. By the 15th century, the Lords were at rest. Fortunately, Anne of Montmorency took over their castle in the 16th, transforming it into a Renaissance masterpiece. Again, the power swirled upon the hill, until Cardinal Richelieu, in fear of its strength, had the castle destroyed once and for all in 1632. From there it was left to ruin, rediscovered and acclaimed by the Provençal poets Frederic Mistral and Alphonse Daudet but uninhabited save for a band of beggars. That is until after the Second World War, when Raymond Thuillier brought the likes of Picasso and Churchill to this sleepy corner to eat at his restaurant, L'Oustau de Baumaniere. And the world followed suit. Only in France could such a site be saved by the heft of a golden spoon. Les Baux de Provence has been a marquisate of the Grimaldi family since the 17th century. Prince Albert of Monaco is the current marquis and sightings of the Royal Family in the tiny chapel for Christmas Eve service have also added to the village's timeless allure.


A bit of advice on visiting. If you must go during the summer months, I strongly urge you to go either very early or very late in the day. If you wish to see the castle, I would suggest the latter as the ticket price is greatly reduced one hour before the official closing time and once inside, you are welcome to stay as long as you like. And that, my dear friends, means that if you plan wisely and tuck a bottle of rosé in your sack, you may have one of the finest apéros imaginable with thousands of years of history all to yourself.



Sunday, August 28, 2011

Back Light


A truly stunning morning. The heat has broken. Friday's rain wiped away the white smudge in the light and something has changed. Yes, I know that autumn, my very favorite season, is on its way because of that subtle shift towards gold in the air. 

And so a walk with Ben was in order. Sunday mornings are always the best time, less horn honking, less tourist pushing. Just the bells of St. Trophime, calling and calling the faithful then thanking them heartily.  I could feel that sound in my bones as I headed up the hill towards the Arena, watching the shadows bend as my path did. At one moment, the ringing was so loud that Ben startled and looked up at me with wide eyes. "I know, Ben, it's the bells"--I always talk to my dog at length wherever we are. Just another one of those wacky ladies, I suppose.

I am certain that Remi will criticize this post as he has similarly in the past: "Stop only looking up!" But after so many years of living in New York City where I spent so much time looking at my feet, it feels wonderful to change my sense of orientation. Happy to see. And I do look straight ahead, at the details. Grapes dangling over an arbor in a small square. Or even down at the mix of pastels swishing in Van Gogh's garden at his former hospital. Beauty is after all, the best treatment there is, no? 

In between two seasons, with a new apartment, a happy dog at my side, a Sunday full of promise.