O! TO BE IN PROVENCE, NOW THAT MARCH IS HERE!

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know that, although this blog is devoted to beautiful, and all-too-fragile New Jersey, I am always longing for Provence.

Mediterranean with Crimson Esterel Massif at its Edge by Popoff

Mediterranean Sea from Esterel Massif, en route to and from St. Tropez

I lived in Cannes from October of 1987 into August of 1988 – in other words, I saw the seasons ’round.

pine tree by Meditgerranean from Internet

Normal Provencal Drive for me, even in winter

In February and March, along the Riviera, trees bloom.  Driving in closed cars up to the sacred hill towns, the perched villages, the fragrance of blossoms fills the vehicle.  Almond blossoms like snow against gnarled hillsides.  Menton’s lemons, grapefruit, mandarines, clementines, and yes, oranges filling the air, until breathing was like drinking Cointreau.  Mingled with the sweetness of flowering fruit trees was always the pungency of wild herbs in the garrigues: thyme, marjoram, rosemary in tall shrubs, oregano, savory and pebre d’ail, a truly spicy wild flavoring.  Animals who fed in the herblands absorbed those savors into their meat, their milk, therefore infusing Provencal cheeses.

Menton's Citron Festival in February

Menton’s Citron Festival around George Washington’s Birthday

The sense of smell was literally intoxicating during my stay there.  One bitter January day in Biot, I was walking its narrow streets, marveling at flowers in small terra cotta pots even on back stoops of houses, blooming in what we know as winter.  Then, I smelled peaches.  I decided I’d just been in this land of enchantment so long that I’d ‘gone round the bend.’  Instead, I strode ’round the corner to find a small fresh food marche, with some of its produce out on the sidewalk in January sun.  Peaches filled the air, as though someone were baking a peach pie.

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Peaches in an outdoor market in Provence

The sense of hearing was newly called into play, not always pleasantly.  The mistral reared its inescapable head day after day in winter, roaring down the Rhone toward that usually placid Mediterranean Sea.  Some say, and I’d believe it, that Van Gogh cut off his ear because driven to this by the mistral.  It can roar for days, causing pipes in your home and shutters on your windows to whine and twang.  We don’t know anything like this wind.  It’s as though Provence wind came through huge faucets, all turned on at full blast at the same time and the same impossible speed, by day and by night, interminably.

Le Parfum des Garrigues

We don’t know wind like this, not even in hurricanes, which I’ve now lived through.  Our winds rise and fall in intensity and sound.  One of the greatest horrors of Sandy for me was the relentlessness of that howl.  The mistral’s is more infuriating, more intense, –a more ceaseless and inescapable blast.

Cheese of Goats, perfumed by wild herbes des garrigues

Cheese of Goats who Roam the Garrigues/wild herb fields of Provence

One time, my daughters had a good laugh on their romantic mother.  Somewhere in the South of France, high above the sea, I enthused, “Isn’t Provence wonderful?  The air smells like champagne!”  We were at a picnic ground high above the sea.  The mistral was so strong, it had blown over a family’s champagne, literally spilling it all over those ancient rocks.

perched village of Provence

Typical perched village – driving through fragrant collines to reach these treasures

It probably doesn’t make sense even to miss the annoying mistral, but I do.  Afterwards, the Provencaux would say of that wind, “Il balayer le ciel.”  (It sweeps the sky.)  No bluer blue ever existed than post-mistral skies, unless you count the Mediterranean, reflecting that ethereal hue.

typica drive near St. Tropez

Everything’s electrifying in Provence.  Breathing itself is intoxicating.  Around any corner, anything can happen.  In St. Tropez’ s Musee de l’Annonciade, one looks at Fauve masterpieces on the wall, then through the windows at the very scenes those vivid colorists painted so masterfully.

Baie de St. Tropez from Musee Annonciade at Sunset

Fishing Boats of St. Tropez, from window of Musee de l’Annonciade

Typica View from Window of Annociade Musee on Baie de St. Tropez

Baie de St.  Tropez from windows of Musee de l’Annonciade

But the queen of all Provencal sense experiences is the amazing mimosa/  Delicate as these blossoms are, they come from a tree.  One filled my second-floor bedroom window in Cannes.  Tiny puff balls moved in the slightest breeze, wafting a scent of lemon and nutmeg in through those bottle-green wooden shutters.  Nothing surpasses waking and sleeping to the delicate mimosa fragrance.  Another miracle was peering through mimosa branches to discover Napoleon’s Corsica so very far away, but only in early winter months.

Magnificent Mimosa in ad for l'Occitane, Provencal's quintessential fabrics

Magnificent Mimosa Tree in Ad by l’Occitane, house of superb Provencal fabrics

Even with my love of New Jersey’s soul-filling beauty, I miss the many electrifications of Provence, especially as March — the month of flower fragrances in that land – begins, with a nor’easter, no less.  No flower fragrances for us, let alone peaches around the corner.

flowering almond treeFlowering Almond Tree – subject of Pierre Bonnard’s last painting – he lived at Le Cannet, one hill over from ‘mine’, L’Observatoire of Cannes

flowering orange treeIn

In Menton, flowers and Fruit at Same Time, on February Trees

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REALITY – Joyeux Noel

NJWILDBEAUTY readers and all my friends know; and some powerfully share; my longing always to be in France in general, in Provence in particular.

Writing in my journal this morning, Christmas Eve, I discovered, “I wish it were 1987.”

Then, I was a resident of Cannes, although it was far easier to walk into Picasso’s Vallauris than to drive down into Cannes on those cooked-spaghetti roads.

The scene below does not take place in an unheated, unscreened, capacious apartment above the Mediterranean, while magenta rose laurier bloom in my garden.  There aren’t Alps out my kitchen window, frosted with first flakes.  There are no un-snowy pre-Alps processing beyond living room windows, wreathed with all those Corniches, leading from beloved France into redolent, resonant Italy.  There is neither the Esterel Forest nor the Esteril Massif (mountain range), — all coppery and russet and terra cotta and sometimes even magenta and claret and ruby; the turquoise sea frothing at their feet.  No, this is Lawrenceville, New Jersey.  It’s the home of a person who was only an expatriate for one year; but who thinks she was born that way, and will never recover.

The poster in the scene below celebrates an exhibit at Galerie La Licorne, (the Unicorn) in Juan-les-Pins.  My firstborn and I, back in 1981, were enthralled by it, in the lobby of the establishment of potters in that storied town.  Madoura are solely licensed to bring Picasso’s platters, plates and pitchers to life in the years after his death.

The Madoura staff watched that young girl reverently touch, study, absorb Pablo’s work throughout those bountiful rooms. Her hands, in the presence of Picasso’s ouevre, were as full of awe as a priest’s at his first mass, holding the Host.

Entranced from the first, we’d asked the owners if we might buy the poster (l’affiche.)  “No,” they instructed, “you’ll have to go to Juan-les-PIns.”  We explained that we’d been there only yesterday, and that we would fly home the following day.  We regretted together that a return to the Unicorn was not possible.

Ah, but the owners of Madoura Poterie were so impressed by Diane’s attention to the Master’s work, that they presented her with the rolled, beribboned poster, when we finally brought ourselves to leave.

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Santons de Provence, the Large and the Small, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey

No that is not a Cezanne, nearer the viewer, needless to say.  It is a Bernard Ungerleiter (of Lambertville, New Jersey), our Cezanne.  I have two of his works in my dining room – the other of garlic.  I had been with his wife, Peg, as she bought the fat pale heads, as juicy as l’ail de Provence, at a Pennsylvania farm market in the early 1980’s.  Bernard wouldn’t let her cook with it – he had to paint it!

The large santons (terra cotta figures that accompany the manger scene in Provence) were bought by my Swiss husband for our family, in Vence or St. Paul-de-Vence, when the girls were 7 and 8 years old.  The tiny santons, –not garbed as are the older sets, are of plain terra cotta (terre cuite in France — cooked earth).  One is supposed to buy them at the smart art store on Rue d’Antibes in Cannes, then take them home to paint  I love the hues and textures of the roof-tiles of Provence.  When I can bring myself to arrange those santons each current Christmas, I am very glad not to have altered them in any way..

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Close-Up of the Santons, and of Noel Provencal — which I re-read each December, savoring hearty rituals of the land I cherish, from the wheat of the feast of Saint Barbara to les treize (13!) desserts of this night of the birth of Le Nouveau-Ne

Why do I want this Christmas Eve to be 1987’s?  Because, then I’d be taking my French gifts, –bought in the Nice Vieux Ville (Old Towne)– across the way in the dark to the tower where my young neighbors lived:  L’Observatoire… 

We’d had so much fun exploring together, since my late autumn arrival.  Even though everyone back home had said, “You’re going to be so lonely.  They will never invite you into their homes!”  Wrong.

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Santon de Provence, Shepherd’s Cape

Jeanette et Didier and their little ones  wanted me with them for Christmas Eve supper next to their real tree, abundant with home-made ornaments.  They wanted me to share gift-opening with their family.  But the heart of the matter would be Midnight Mass (La Messe de Minuit) in Le Suquet.  This is the oldest part of Cannes, its barely known rocky promontory.  It served as a major watch site for hundreds of years and conflicts, dating back to Phonecians and Saracens. .

Our normal French Christmas Eve supper was nothing less than canard a la orange and frites’ and o, my, such slender, savory golden turnips!  Jeanette had tossed it all together without any fuss, the way my Michigan mother had made meat loaf and baked potatoes.

My gifts of large comic books (Tin-Tin — the French never lose their taste for comic strips) for the children, and candied fruits from the legendary Confiserie Auer near Nice’s Place Massena, were enormous successes.  I was one with this family, wrapped in their fondness, uplifted by their merriment.

These qualities have been in pretty short supply ever since.  Some who know me; and some who read my blogs; realize that I work very hard to survive Christmas every year, deprived as I am of my own family.

Usually, I ‘run away’.  Last year, I fled to Cape May, and often to the Brigantine. I pretend that birding the day away is all that matters.  I never did this with my lost daughters because I didn’t know any interesting birds in those days.

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The Basket-Weaver and the Garlic-Braider observe Le Nouveau-Ne

Midnight Mass in Cannes was spoken and sung in three languages:  Latin, English and Provencal!  I knew two, but not three.  It was a thrill to hear the old songs in all tongues, and be able to sing some, even remembering Latin.

How I marveled to hear the gospel begin, “Dans le temps de Cesar Auguste.”   Indeed.  The very day before, I had spent in Frejus, favorite town of Augustus Caesar.  I’d found his port, his forum, his theatre, and something called La Lanterne d’Auguste — a species of lighthouse.  I’d feasted on rare lamb and Salade Antiboise across from that forum, writing feverish poems about the sense of ancient bullfights suffusing me near the ancient chutes through which animals had exploded innto the sawdust arena.

This is not the first time I’ve said, “Call me a dreamer; well, maybe I am…”   But when the French priest spoke those words of the emperor in whose footsteps I’d trod all the previous day, I suddenly realized the bible was real!  I didn’t know I didn’t know that until the holy night alongside my dear new friends of Cannes.

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Traditional Santons de Provence, in hand-made costumes

The Mass was enlivened with living santons.  Women and men and children of the village had practiced for months for these few moments of procession and recession (which had NO economic tinge in that place!)  They wore the noble costumes of ancient times, in this region that has never fully been assimilated into France itself!  Accurate down to the lace on their petticoats, and the heft of sabots (like Dutch wooden shoes) of other eras, making a venerable sound of hollowness on the church’s marble floor.

Shepherds in flowing cloaks, the hue of camels, demonstrated why their hefty garb had the extra fabric on the shoulders.  They carried real lambs and real kids, on those capelets, to be blessed by the priest and to honor the Infant, Le Nouveau-Ne, the Newborn.

Others bore grapes; demijohns of wine; clear glass globules of golden olive oil.  The oldest women preceded the parents of the newest babe, these honorary grandmothers presenting layettes freshly made for this precious human child.  The young ones knelt and placed their infant in straw in a manger at the foot of the altar.

Then, all who carried the season’s fruits, alive and otherwise, recessed to the enormous terra cotta creche (Nativity Scene) on a far wall.  High in the back, where mountains loomed, the Three Kings and their servants (one of whom, Balthazar, is said to have founded nearby Les Baux) moved in stately array, ponderous and elegant as any wedding in Westminster Abbey.  Epiphany would have to wait until January the 6th, but the royal ones were already en route, following the star.

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Portrait of my Daughters by V. Durbin Thibodeau, Artist-in-Residence of the Sacred Heart School of Grosse Point, Michigan

1987 was the year in which my daughters were taken.  I realized this fully at the time of my fiftieth birthday.  Standing on my luminous balcony, overlooking the midnight-blue-black Mediterranean, I watched stars wink on high.  They seemed to fall right into my shallow champagne glass, joining tears.

But Christmas Eve, 1987, for those few hours with friends in the tiny stony church of Le Suqauet, beloved traditions in my favorite favorite region of my favorite land, washed over me, banishing grief.

It became clear that night, and I must return to this certainty every year.  My loss was as nothing, compared to what had happened “dans le temps de Cesar Auguste,” in a time in the world when Peace ruled.

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La lavandiere, Provencal Santon

Tonight, many will follow La Messe de Minuit in tiny churches all over the South of France.  When they eat their ‘meagre supper’ (meatless), it will be followed by les treize desserts.   At a certain time during the family gathering, the eldest will lead and the youngest grace the rear of the family parade in to the Yule Log.  Vin cuit, cooked wine, will be sprinkled onto this hefty log, chosen just that afternoon for the purposes.  A prayer will be said, hearthside.  I wish it for all of you:

“Next year, if we are not more, may we at least, not be fewer.”

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Santon – Bread-Maker:  [ALL SANTONS CLOSE-UPS ARE FROM INTERNET)