Provence used to be Italian. Many foods, customs, and sayings remain from that time – which ended by plebiscite in the 1860’s. One of the dearest, and most challenging to this Type A American, phrases is the Italian concept of “La dolce far niente”, — the sweetness of doing nothing.
I didn’t know how un-Provencal, how un-Italian, how un-far-niente I was until my first Thanksgiving in Cannes. I decided to do something very un-American on that day, –since I couldn’t find any cranberries anywhere. I went strolling all along La Croisette.
If you care about the Cannes Film Festival [developed to magnetize tourists during the rainy month of May], you’ll have read about all sorts of stars out upon La Croisette, — dressed and not-so-dressed, singly and together, by day and by night. And some, –like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward–, being robbed of their passports the year I was there . I used to picture the border-crossing guards as one headed into real Italy at La Bordighera, — laid-back uniformed men studying Paul’s and Joanne’s passports, passing those clever thieves right on through with languid waves of the hand.
That Thanksgiving Day, moving right along, Mediterranean to my left, towering palm trees casting flickering shade, the Pailais (Palace) of the film festival dead ahead, I heard a most unpleasant sound. I stopped and looked around. The sound stopped. I set out again. So did the sound. It was my rapid American feet on the broad wave-splashed sidewalk.
Nobody else walks fast. They have a verb I was never taught at St. Mary of the Woods College — “se flaner”. It means “to stroll.” We didn’t stroll in Detroit, let alone when I moved to Manhattan. But that’s another story.
Today, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, I am doing nothing. None of the tasks of the season, not even the tasks of the bill-basket. And certainly not the tasks of the marketplace.
I am languishing with a superb history of FDR as Politician Par Excellence — H. W. Brands’ stirring Traitor to His Class. Chapter-by-chapter, I am tugging us through World War II and learning more than ever before about strategies and justifications, –in Franklin, in Winston, in the brilliant George Marshall, in Harriman, and even in De Gaulle and Stalin. This is not anything I need to know, but I cannot get enough of it. Sheer luxury.
In between, –in my ever-present journal–, I am taking notes on the politics of yesteryear and the same field, if you can call it that, now. In 1942, FDR insisted upon raising all taxes, –especially upon the wealthy, especially those who were being enriched by the war–, “so that the sacrifices demanded by the war would be shared equitably.” Imagine.. But that’s another story.
On my Retreat Day, I am neither making nor taking phone calls. I am not initiating e-mails — although a few prove irresistible. I certainly am not going near Facebook.
I make two delightful meals, and eat them at a table rich in items Provencal, because I never get enough France, but you already know that.
At 3 p.m., I walk outside on my tiny patio with bare feet. I sit on a white ice-cream chair, tug slacks up over my knees, shove turtleneck sleeves halfway up my arms, and face the sun. I do all the sitting yoga and p.t. exercises that normally take up morning hours, there on that chair, in that hot sun.
The grass is silken and of an aggressive green suitable for Easter.
There isn’t a sound – not a car; not a voice; not a jet; not a team shouting on Lawrenceville playing fields so far away except auditorially; not the mew of a cat or a catbird; not the caw of imperious crows.
A small miracle is that I can sit here, gently exercising, while ‘my’ goldfinches nourish themselves daintily at the thistle seed. Not even they are murmuring. But these small, seasonally muted birds are usually so skittish. If I move fast, inside my study, behind my monitor, they, outside on their thistle socks, all explode away into the sheltering ash tree. Not today. We are all outdoors here together.
What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s not Easter.
It’s Christmas Day.
Ice caps and ice sheets are melting, and nobody in power gives a damn.
I spend many hours, when I’m not saving New Jersey at D&R Greenway Land Trust, signing urgent protests about the plight of the Planet. Not today.
Today I am remembering La Croisette, before I’d ever even heard of Catastrophic Climate Change, and it was supposed to be warm on Thanksgiving, on Christmas.
Today, Christmas 2016, I learn that I possess resources for this level of solitude. Worth knowing… One of the major lessons of my own Year in Provence.
Tonight, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on December 25, 2016, I am sunburnt — proof that I have practiced “la dolce far niente” this day.