February 25, 2017
We are just a couple of hours from great skiing here in Aix. So, we made a plan this year to rent a little chalet and head into the mountains near Briançon. The tiny cluster of chalets called our village (Le Laus near Cervières) was out of a picture book with a great pyrenee dog and lots of untouched snow. It is just under the Col d’Izoard (the famous cycling route through the French Alps in the tour de France) and on the Italian/French border of the Alps. We signed the girls up for the ski school of France (pretty amazing national program) the l’Ecole du Ski Français.
Xavier took the initiative each morning to get the girls up early and drive them to the ski resort not far from (but not just next to) where we were staying. I must say, this is an example of where his parenting style really outshines mine. I would have pulled them out the first day. He is determined to let them do hard things and to struggle. It was hard. They had snow in their masks and tears in their eyes and they felt immobile in their huge ski boots. But Xavier, knowing the end result, would consistently drop them off in the morning, tell them they could do it and wouldn’t stick around to allow their doubts to sink in. By the end of the week, little Colette was propelling herself down the mountain and couldn’t get enough. Romy has her snowplow down and glides down a slope easily. I was terrified when I saw where Colette’s instructor took them - down slopes that had huge drop-offs on either side. The instructor told Xavier that if he warned them of the danger, they would get scared and freeze up. Better just to let them follow him in his turns down. Eight little four-year olds in a line, down the mountain, following the ski instructor way up ahead. Marguerite was already a pro, having experienced 6 years of ski school herself. She followed Xavier down the hardest pistes, only occasionally provoking a “hurry up” from her Papa below. Xavier is a phenomenal skier, setting the bar high for his girls to follow. I imagine the 4 of them darting down the mountains in a few years, racing each other all the way.
I loved snowshoeing on wild paths, finding fresh snow and feeling my heart beat pound. We had brilliant sun for half the week. Snow sun dispatches a special sort of warmth. I’ve always loved the contradiction of freezing snow and blinding, warm sun.
We signed up for a dogsled ride. The girls caressed the dogs for 30 minutes before we took off. They rolled over and offered their bellies for a rub, licked their faces, and howled a little when they moved on to pet another dog in the line. They were so powerful. I sat in the sled with all three girls, plus their owner standing at the back and they tugged us up a mountain pass and bounded with spirit back down. Romy felt their tug and the sway of the sled and went right to sleep.
On a different day, we hiked about 2 hours up the mountain pass to a refuge near the Col d’Izoard where they serve warm, hearty meals and pints of cervoise. After a great meal, we borrowed sleds to glide all the way back down into the valley - a 30 minute continuous ride! It was so fun and alone worth a trip into the mountains.
Marguerite with some of her Joly cousins
We also visited a traditional sheep farm in the little village Cervières. 300 sheep (including a few 10-day old lambs), chickens and roosters, bunnies, a live shearing…the girls were pretty impressed. The barn was full of a thick, reassuring smell. We didn’t want to leave.
We didn't just mingle with the live animals, we also ate lamb - a very traditional meal called 'gigot d'agneau' - cooked by fire, voilà. It was served in the small inn near our chalet and the whole experience was uniquely French. We walked in and the owner of the restaurant was miffed because we had reserved for 5 adults, but one of the adults was actually a teenager who wouldn't eat a full portion of lamb. On top of that, about midway through the meal, Xavier requested more gratin (he couldn't get enough - it was so delicious). She looked exasperated and explained it was certainly not possible given that the table next to ours had four additional people show up and that they had consumed any extra gratin she might have had that evening. Xavier put up a fuss, in a funny and charming way. By the end of the night, she had a special gift for him: a little personalized carton of gratin - just right to bring back to the chalet with him. She gave it to him ceremoniously and with a kiss on each cheek, of course. The whole thing was so particular to France. I loved it.
February 8, 2017
Every day we pass this field of flowers next to our house. After school one day, we walked there to meet the blooms. They are winter whites - growing in most of the vineyards. They remind me of snow, but they smell thick like honey. The girls listened to their first instinct and immediately ran to the thickest patch of flowers to swoop down and start gathering bouquets. It was a moment I wanted to keep - early February in our life here in Provence. Slower season, heavy rains and winds, but when the sun shines it layers the fields and our skin with affection.
I’ve felt the slower pace lately. At the risk of sounding rotten, I find some elements of life tedious. I thought I would come here and discover my domestic side - that it had just never been given the space and time to come alive. Alas, even with endless space and lots of time and markets full of muddy vegetables, fresh from the ground - I find cooking drab. Small children come with schedules and nutritional needs that buck the free wheeling style I love. Pots and pans have to be scrubbed three times a day. I can confirm that one cannot run away from drudge work - it hounds whether in the south of France or New York or Iowa. So, an attitude shift is key. I often ask my mom how she managed to stay so motivated through eight children and years of meal-prep, bedtimes and schedules. I think it came down to the ability to find beauty in small things and interactions and her deliberate choice to assume a do-it, dig-in sort of attitude. Also, humor - small children are full of that. Romy has been doing this thing where she pretends to be a doctor who speaks in English with a French accent. All the 'r's are thick with the French ruh. Cracks me up.
I do appreciate these moments in nature with the girls. I think kids are best outside. Fresh air brings out the best in all of us.
February 3, 2017
I dropped Colette off at school this morning and since I had volunteered to bring the snack for the class today (limited to peeled fruit or applesauce with no added sugar), I spent some time talking to Madame Maîtresse. She asked me how I was doing and if I felt isolated here. I responded and told her I had actually made quite a few friends and really loved life here. I told her how I loved hiking and exploring. About 1.5 minutes in, she looked at me and sort of cut me off by saying, “c’est bien” in a curt, closed-mouth way. I immediately stopped and realized she really didn’t want me to tell her about my life at all. I suppose that often happens between two people, but I admired her assertive way of signaling that I had gone off course. She did add, generously, to conclude the conversation: “Colette est une vraie élève” (Colette is a true student), with a slow, serious nod of approval. I don’t think she could dole out a better complement.
Next, I made a stop at the boulangerie. This summer and through the month of September (when we had guests straight almost every day), I would begin each morning by heading there to buy bread and croissants for breakfast. When it is the same person working the counter (the wife of the baker) every day, you come to know each other. We would exchange pleasantries. One morning about mid-September, she looked and me and asked when will our vacation be ending/when would we be returning “la-bas” (back home). I explained that this village is home now - that we would be staying. Open-mouthed, she exclaimed, “Super! Bienvenue!” and she gave me a few extra croissants that day. Since then, we’ve chatted more and more. Over Christmas, their family had the flu and everyone knew because the bakery had to close down for a few days (unheard of!). After they were back, I and everyone else inquired about the family and if Mr. Boulanger was feeling better, etc. It is funny that the simplest of purchases is highly personal in a little town. This morning we exchanged phone numbers - she was hoping that her son could come over and practice his English with us.
I was walking out of the boulangerie when across the street I heard, “Bonjour, Madame Joly!” It was the boucher. I love the boucher (the famous stuffing-maker for my Christmas chapon). I walked over - he was out cleaning the windows of his shop in big powerful circles, as a butcher would. We greeted with kisses on both cheeks, as he remarked that I am quite ‘matinale’ (always out and about in the morning). Then he said, “Allez, un peu de viande pour vous aujourd’hui” (Come, a bit of meat for you today). I agreed and said somewhat apologetically, “Nous sommes pas très viande en général” (We are not big meat eaters generally). He agreed, “Vous ne venez pas assez” (You don’t come often enough). I explained that we eat a lot of vegetables and only occasionally add meat. He looked very worried, almost stumped.
The French, by and large, are real meat eaters. He cleared his throat and gave me his perspective on the matter. “Regardez-moi,” (look at me) he instructed, his hand running down the length of his body guiding me to take it all in. I gave him a good look-over. He is a hearty fellow. Just as you would imagine a boucher in Provence. Burly - a real powerhouse, in his bloody apron.
“I am 59 years old. I have never had a broken bone or any kind of rupture.” He let that sink in with a good pause. “It is because I eat meat. Every day. Beef, lamb, veal, pork, even chicken and fish. It gives the body the strength and nutrients one needs to stay strong. You see all of these people coming back from the Alps from skiing and they are walking around on crutches and they have casts on their arms and they look miserable. What do I tell them? They aren’t eating enough meat. More meat and none of that would have happened to them.”
It seemed like self-serving advice, but he was walking evidence of his theory. We settled on some home-made sausages (hanging out, freshly made) and a bit of pork.
Xavier is going to be grateful to this guy. He has always thought my aversion to meat very very odd. When we first met, I was a full-on vegetarian and he pronounced, “You are the first vegetarian I have ever met.” I think it might have been true.
(The road to Lourmarin)
After my village stops, I was a bit of a traitor and headed to Lourmarin for their competing market today. Lourmarin is a little Lubèron village full of charm. Quite near. Their market just happens to be on Fridays as well. I wanted to compare their vegetables, cheese, honey, fruit to ours. Happy to report that the market in our town is really A+. I did find a honey-vendor there that was really special though. She had just a few jars out on a yellow tablecloth, lined up. Homemade stickers on each that marked the type of honey (lavender, prairie…) and their origin: a little town in this region called Cornillon Confoux. I bought a few varieties. One is a pot of honey with almonds floating inside - a delectable treat, she informed me with cheeks squished right up to her eyes in a grin. I also bought a pot of flower pollen. She gasped when I picked it up and informed me in a hushed tone that it is like a magical medicine. Take it each morning - a teaspoonful. Chew up the pollen. Or in a yogurt if the taste is too strong by itself. She warned me not to take the pollen at any other time of the day - it can make a person much too excitable if taken after the morning hours.
(Village fountain in Lourmarin)
January 31, 2017
The order of our move here was particular. #1: House. #2 Sell the other house. #3: Find jobs and stuff. When people ask us about it, they often look at us with arched eyebrows, questioning the order. But, the house was really key. As the French say, it was a 'coup de coeur' (to fall in love immediately) - we walked in the house and forgot our other life. Immediately imagined the one we could have here.
This house is full of saga - it is palpable. Colette was convinced she felt and saw ghosts when we first arrived. I don't doubt it. It sounds dramatic, but we are living among 400 years of history and layering our story on top of it. We feel undeserving sometimes.
We went caroling around Christmas time to our neighbors (we have 3 near us). Each has a very specific take on our house. Historically, it was built and then theirs were built in relation to this house. I can always feel the scrutiny in their eyes when we meet - sizing me up: am I a good attendant/curator of this place? (I have a few strikes against me right off the bat as an American - I am seen as having very little appreciation for history, my own is far too short). To them (and maybe objectively) we are merely a historical episode in the long thread of this story. We listened to one of our neighbors play back some of her memories in this house when she was a girl; she had lived here with her family when the house was configured differently. The stonework out front chronicles a time when there was a large pond in front of the house and she spoke of when she and her sisters would try to catch the fish swimming in it. She has stories from the staircases, the old kitchens. I want to have her over and follow her around as she narrates the space.
All of the neighbors are curious about what we are up to and how we are changing the house. They are all connected in some way to it. Most riveting is the question of water! Jean-Marie, the prior owner of this house, was not exaggerating in our introductory meeting when he cited water as the key issue in this region. Both lack of it and flooding. Everything is extreme in Provence. When it rains, we are inundated. One of our neighbors has taken the others to court over water pathways and lines of property in relation to rain. Xavier is making good friends by having huge pits dug around our house, filled with stones, and then re-covered (puits perdus) - essentially, pits to consume the floods.
I like the small details best. The ceilings and the walls and the floors. Nothing we fill it with is interesting compared with the bones of the house itself.
This is the original kitchen/oven of the house (on an upper floor) - now laundry room
I love where the floors meet like a strange puzzle that wasn't assembled quite right
Shutter people, heads holding the wooden shutters open when the mistral comes whipping things around
And the roof tiles. Xavier told me that these tiles were originally molded on women's thighs - hence their shape!