Wednesday, June 08, 2005

We recently returned from ten glorious days in the South of France. Along with our friends Jen and Paul, Lise and Richard and Bev and Gary, we rented a house from Chris’ friends Will and Tara in a sleepy village on the Languedoc side of the Rhone River. It was absolutely lovely, all natural wood and stone, with a huge kitchen and eating area and roof terrace where we spent much of our time. We spent our days out doing sightseeing, visiting the amazing and bountiful outdoor markets of Provence and having picnics and our in nights cooking, eating, drinking and playing games.

Each town has its own market day and they are amazing. We went to one in Arles that took my breath away. The selection of local artisanal cheeses alone was enough to humble me (a favorite quote of mine is by Charles de Gaulle, “How can you be expected to govern a country that has 246 kinds of cheese?”), but on top of that were tables filled with saucissons, ripe cherries, freshly picked artichokes, fish, meats, pates, locally made unfiltered olive oils among many other things. The vendors are all cheerful and offer you abundant samples. I am very open minded about food and had no problems trying the saucissons made with donkey and wild boar. I am happy to tell you that both were delicious and I even managed to convince some of my less adventurous companions to try them and they agreed! Overall, it was a feast for the senses and really showed me how much value the French put on cooking and eating.

We were in the heart of the Rhone near Chateauneuf du Pape so had some wonderful wine tasting opportunities as well. We all wanted to have a bit of wine, but are getting responsible in our old age so one day we hired a Scottish woman with a minivan to drive us around to the various domaines to taste and buy. That van was groaning by the time it dropped us off and we were giggling, to put it lightly. It was great to try some wines from small producers, including a very chic woman who took over the vineyard from her ailing father. She was classically sophisticated in a way only French women seem to be capable of pulling off, but told us on many days, she drives a tractor! She was super. I really liked her. We had another session with a Chateauneuf du Pape producer who has radically changed his wine making technique so that he might make a wine more palatable to the American market, a bigger, fuller wine, and a bit more homogenized for lack of a better word, which is sad because his older wines had a completely different and more individual taste. So far his efforts are paying off, having gotten a huge nod of approval from American wine guru, Robert Parker. It was really fun talking directly to these folks who showed a real zest for their work.

Even the huge supermarkets had great food, meat and fish. It was amazing. We were running to the Carrefour constantly, which for me was like a huge American hypermart but only French and much better, but to our traveling companions who have been living for years in Germany, home of Soviet style supermarkets (lines, shortages, lousy food), it was a revelation.

One day I bought a huge pork loin and cut into big slices and marinated it all day in honey, mustard, herbes de provence, salt and pepper and alcoholic cider. We grilled it that night. Was to die for - juicy and tasty. Another day I bought some nice fish filets - fleshy - god knows what they were. I put olive oil on them, more herbes de provence, black olives, capers, tomatoes, shallots and a bit of garlic as well as a splash of white wine. Tented them in foil and tossed them on the grill and voila - fabulous meal! Also made a ratatouille par excellence with great local produce. For some reason, the house did not have an oven, so we were grilling everything on the roof terrace, which was fun. After we ate a ton of appetizers, we'd eat the meal at nine or ten every night, then take a breather and then start breaking out the cheese and sausage again. We'd be at the table for hours drinking wine, laughing and playing word games. It really was fun and very relaxing.

The sun was setting well after nine which was terrific. One night at sunset we took some sparkling rose and cheeses to the Pont du Gard – part of a 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct - and it was one of those magical experiences I’ll carry around with me for the rest of my life. There were very few people around and it was a lovely moment to share with old and new friends. We’d conceived the trip as a way to say goodbye to some of the folks here who mean the most to us. Jen and Paul are important – they introduced us. Lise and Richard are close to us as well, and it has been wonderful getting to know Gary and Bev, who share a lot of interests with us, and who like a good feed and a good laugh as well.

The Provence/Languedoc area is home to many remnants of the Roman empire. Nimes, Arles, and Orange have some wonderful stuff, theatres and arenas among them. Avignon is amazing with its popes palace and bridge - upon which we all sang the song "Sur la Pont" from our French lessons in school. Avignon also has the Palais des Papes, or Palace of the Popes, the seat of the Catholic church from 1305 – 1378, and a really fascinating place to visit. We also had a picnic high on a hill at the ruins of the Papal Summer Residence. It’s a beautiful place, falling down, but beautifully placed above hectares and hectares of vineyards.

We spent seven days in the house and then we all split up to go our separate ways. Chris and I headed to the Riviera and Nice, which I absolutely loved! Great belle époque architecture, friendly people, awesome food. The whole place had an intriguing air and even now one can still feel a bit of fin de siècle corruption and dissipation to the place, but that only added to its pull for me. It reminded me of Naples somewhat as it sits very similarly on a bay and has a riotous feel to it, but it is nowhere nearly as chaotic as Naples. I’ll add this to my list of favorite cities. It was that magical.

I went on a shopping spree of sorts - lots of lovely pottery and a few antique pieces as well. Also bought about a dozen bottles of wine, which we have to drain before returning to the states, but that should not be a problem. Had we been staying would have bought cases, but our relocation company won’t touch alcohol, so we kept our purchases to a minimum. Our friends, on the other hand, really bought a lot, some to drink now, and some to cellar.

I have to say that after years of vacationing in Italy, it was wonderful to go somewhere different. I have spent a great deal of time in Tuscany, which I have loved, and which is more beautiful than Provence, but there was something truly magical about France and the people that really attracted me. Italy seems almost jaded by all the tourists wandering around agape at all the endless art and beauty - not so in France. I have always found Italians to be friendly and from my times in Paris, have found the French to be remotely friendly - if you know what I mean - always the veneer with them. But it was much different in the countryside. Everyone was genuine - not so many people spoke English - and it was great the entire time!

We leave here on June 30th. Chris got his visa last week, which was nice, and pleased me with the announcement that he intends to become a United States citizen. He’s not giving up his British passport, but feels strongly about participating in our system.

Saying goodbye to everyone is going to be tough for Chris, as he has been here for over twelve years and some of these people have become like family to him. We’re organizing a party, but have lots of dinners and stuff planned with people too. For me, it’s familiar and much like the run-up to my own departure from the States last year. I doubt Chris will be as emotional though! He says he is ready to leave, that he has done all he can here career wise and otherwise, and that he is ready for a new life and new challenges. He just finished his MBA and is ready to slay some dragons! I’m touched that he is making such a radical and permanent change for me and am looking very forward to making a new home with him, a place we can truly call our own.