MISSING PROVENCE

at-cap-d-antibes by Claude Monet.In case anyone wonders why I am always homesick/depaysee for my life in Provence, this is Monet’s answer.

In 1987, I sailed free aboard the good ship QEII because I gave two lectures based on my decade of Transition Consulting: one on Success and one on Change, key topics in the Transition years.  I was also blessed to launch my poetry chapbook, Gatherings, , which had just been published prior to sailing.

The French line didn’t exist any more; and Cunard ships did not deign to dock in Le Havre.  So I tooled around Cornwall in search of King Arthur for a bit, after arriving in unwillingly in Southampton.  I then flew to that adorable casual palm-fringed gull-populated airport, right on the sea, named Nice.  Once, in early February of 1976, my MIchigan friend Bernadette Thibodeau went for the luggage there, and I for the car.  On the autoroute to St. Jean-Ca–Ferrat, we discovered that neither had somehow gone through customs.  Ever since 1964, Nice had been the gateway to paradise for me,.  It has not diminished in importance in all these years.

That view, which you might think Monet embellished, was a normal everyday scene for me, living on Observatoire Hill above Cannes in 1987 and ’88.  The simplest errands also took me past this idyllic spot in Cap d’Antibes.  After the market, I would take in either the Picasso Castle or the Napoleon Museum, if not both.  My neighbors scoffed at my Napoleon-mania:  “O,” they would sniff.  “That Corsican!”

Cap d'Antibes beach FRanceThis scene is but my screen-saver now.  I yearn day and night for the Mediterranean’s beauty and the hearty human interchanges bestowed upon me, year upon year, in that environment.

For example, in 1976, Bernadette Thibodeau and I dined nightly at table, next to Leslie Charteris (author of The Saint televisionseries on television, as well as of priceless gastronomic sagas in Gourmet).  Charteris was there for the winter.  We for around ten February days.  Both exquisite tables tucked into a glass corner of La Voile d’Or, one of the most perfec establishments I have ever encountered, even in France.

The sea wrinkled and twinkled at our feet as we supped.  As night fell, the three Corniche roads glittered, sinuous ruby and diamond necklaces bedecking dark velvet rocks.  The identity of the gems depending upon whether vehicules were hurtling toward nearby Italy or back into blessed France.

On our second night, I dared question our sommelier’s choice of red wine to accompany our legendary lamb of Sisteron.  If a person can twinkle, he did:  “I’ll just bring it, and if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it myself.”  We laughed so very hard.  Of course his choice was perfection with Sisteron lamb, so much more delicate than ours in the States.  My fear had been that his suggestion could not stand up to that entree.  Soon we were laughing,  rather ruefully, in the elevator returning to our rooms, discovering that that our mentor had just been named Le Meilleur (BEST) Sommelier de France. 

Do not forget that it was February in St. Jean-Cap=Ferrat.  Sweaters over our shoulders were enough, sauntering the exquisite shore path from our hotel over to Beaulieu-sur-Mer and back.  Blossoms framed every view out our windows.  Their scents suffused our senses, as we drove through stony garrigues to Provencal hilltowns:  Almonds.  Mimosa, Cirtons, such lusty fragrances penetrating through closed Renault windows.

back streets old antibes

NJWILDBEAUTY readers know I spend my life praising New Jersey.  I do my best.  I mean my enthusiasms.  But sometimes, I just cannot bear not being on the South of France.

Especially as I tuck into interminable layers of gear just to drive to work – from earmuffs to lined gloves to lined hiking pants to fleece-lined tights and thick boots with crampons on for New Jersey’s invisible ice. January and February returns to the South of France, as well as my wanderjahr residency, proved me that it’s not winter in Provence, not EVEN when it snows!

This street scene just above is in old Antibes.  But it could be almost anywhere — Roquebrune, Mentone (although more colorful, because closer to Italy), San Rafael, Biot.  Each a town of magic — Roquebrune for its castle’ Menton(e) for its citrus festival, San Rafael where the Invasion of Provence (Le Debarquement) took place August 16, 1944, Bior of the bubbly glassware and the Leger Musee.  Mougins with its multi-starred temple of gastronomy, Le Moulin de Mougins, found along La Route de la Transhumance — the way that shepherds, goatherds led their flocks to and from winter pastures.

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Sometimes, what I miss most are the olive trees. Renoir bought his property in Cagnes-sur-Mer because he wanted to save the (then) 100-year-old olive trees.  He would paint the late nudes under their leaves.  It is said that the artist did not ask if a new maid could make the beds and serve the meals, or a new cook could cook.  All that mattered was the way the light of the Provence sun bounced off the silvery olive trees and onto their flesh.  We think Renoir was being an Impressionist.  He considered himself a realist.  And this man painted, despite crippling arthritis, with his brushes and palette taped to his two arms, wheeled in a wheelbarrow to his olive trees.

I also am a realist.  I cannot live in Provence now.  I won’t be seeing flame-hot tomatoes at Thanksgiving or pale feisty daisies in January.  I cannot buy an ancient liqueur made of wild thyme by the monks of Isles de Lerin.  I cannot walk the open Cannes Marche, the mistral swirling my scarf hither and yon, as the olive oil man won’t take my francs because I am an American, and he’s pleased that I chose the fruity one.  I won’t be buying lace-delicate ravioli from a costumed young woman who rose at dawn to make and bring and sell it.  I won’t encounter dates so dark and succulent that them seem to melt off the table.  Or try to choose a fish, when all are so near to having been in the sea that some, especially sandre, flip themselves off the oilcloth-over-ice on the fishwife’s table.  I won’t walk past the Provencal woman selling her white chickens, tying their legs, balancing them in jer hand-held scale, sending them home flapping wings.  The apicultrice isn’t bragging to me about the succulence of her lavender honey.  There are no brioches still hot from the wood-fired oven hewn from  ancient rocks of old town/Cannes, otherwise known as Le Suquet.

When I’m this homesick, I have my most courageous friends over for a Provencal Sunday supper.  It’ll be some peasant specialty I encountered there, and cannot find authentically in this country.  (I was once served cassoulet made with KIDNEY beans, in Kingston!.)  At my Lawrenceville table, we’ve shared cassoulet de Toulouse; choucroute garnie such as filled South of France markets abruptly in November, though its newly ready sauerkraut and all those hefty sausages came from Alsace.  On a hot May afternoon, golden aioli took center stage, each friend bringing a different vegetable or hard-boiled egg, I supplying the prepared salt cod.

No, this is New Jersey and this is February, and soon it will be boeuf a la gardiane — otherwise known as le boeef sauvage — which thelegendary cowboys of the mouth of the Rhone concoct with the meat of the wild bulls of the Camargue.  Friends will bring a lighter Rhone wine for the Provencal cheeses and an artichoke melange; a heftier one for the boeuf; and a delicate Muscat de Beaumes de Venise to accompany the dessert tart. This dish I have not tasted, but it’s a question of flavorful real beef (Brick Farm Market of course, my being fresh out of cowboys and bulls ).  It’ll be crafted with fresh herbs, Rhone wine, a swirl of orange peel, a pig’s foot.  No, I haven’t made this before, but the Intrepids weren’t given that name for nothing.

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The gardianes’ stews were cooked long and slow over driftwood fires on Mediterranean shores.  Mine will, of course, depend upon the Crock Pot.

My Provencal specialties will have one ingredient more precious than all the rest, however.  When we savor our boeuf with wild thyme and Rhone wines, the multi-hued South of France vegetables from one friend,  a complex tarte from another — all will be seasoned with Fellowship.

In my year in Provence, I lived alone.  My neighbors in the villa became dear friends.  But somehow, they would not let me cook for them.  We could dine out, and I could lead them to places, like Auberge des Seigneurs in Vence after the Matisse Chapel, which I knew better than they.  But I was not to be in the kitchen for their sake.  Thank heaven, my New Jersey friends have courage, eagerness, and I will even say, Love.  They let me play in the kitchen for them.

My wildest wish, I must admit, is that we could all appreciate Provence together.  Meanwhile, boeuf a la gardiane will have to do!

 

WHEN A DEAR FRIEND DIES — for Alan

Christmas Fog Brig Tasha Alan 2015

Alan MacIlroy and Tasha O’Neill birding foggy Brigantine on Christmas 2015

The news we always knew, but never believed, slashes out of morning, startling and impossible as thunder snow.

Although creativity is the heart of the matter in the home Alan MacIlroy has left for our true home, — neither words nor images come to my summons, as mourning descends upon me.

My dearest Tasha is widowed anew.  Alan’s ruddy car sits in their driveway with its subtle license reminding us of his priority:  TH JRNY.   Now he has embarked on the universal journey.

Over more years than I can tally, Tasha and Alan and I have shared priceless rituals, from fireside lobster in Maine to Christmas picnics at Brigantine Wildlife Refuge.

The day of our foggy Christmas feast, a peregrine falcon had stationed itself upon a speed limit sign — “15 mph” — just beyond the Brig’s northeast corner turn.  My camera does not do justice to this monarch holding court for a rosary of reverent automobiles immobilized upon the dike road.  Alan, Tasha and I quietly slid out of his Christmasy car to stand in silence, worshiping.

After a significant interval, Alan announced, “Let’s not go over to Scott’s Landing for our Christmas dinner.  How could we leave the peregrine?”

Only as I type this, do I realize, the word peregrine means wanderer.

Alan is the consummate mentor.  “Mr. Fix-It.”  Every problem solved, especially in advance, especially for his cherished Kingston church, and local businessmen and women.  Each wooded trail at their Maine home maintained.  Every lobster boat observed upon stormy or tranquil bay.  Each wood fire, kindled on a cooling summer’s night.  His dazzling, impeccable TR 4, shining on the driveway, ready for a jaunt.  He is each woodworking project magnificently accomplished, including caning two chairs for me, burnishing the Provencal olive wood cutting board that had dimmed since I lived there.  Grace, gentleness, generosity.   Smiles and that quiet voice we will no longer hear.  Alan was the essence of tranquility.  Alan is love.

His quietly merry  spirit will be with us on every future excursion. Yet the glow of that luminous man has become memory.

Mary Elizabeth’s crystalline phrases echo as I find myself bereft of words.  May her inspiration be with NJWILDBEAUTY readers  — in this dire era, –in which too many days begin with yet another cancer call:

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.

 

I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;

 

I am not there. I did not die.

***

 

Brigantine Christmas PIcnic 2015

Tasha Prepares our 2015 Christmas Feast

***

“How can we leave the peregrine?”     Now, our wanderer has left us…

Territorial Peregrine Brigantine Christmas 2015

LA DOLCE FAR NIENTE – “The Sweetness of Doing Nothing”

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. 

 

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Aerial View, La Croisette Boulevard, Cannes, Provence, France

 

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.

 

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Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward Image from Internet

 

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.

 

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Not Strolling, but a good American clip — and definitely not on La Croisette

 

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.

 

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French Marketplace Scene — See, Even Here, They Emphasize Sitting, Relaxing, Doing NOTHING!

 

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.

 

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Traitor to His Class, H. W. Brands

 

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.

 

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Frank Capra’s Iconic D-Day Image – June 6, 1944, Normandy, France — A Day That Will Life in … HONOR

 

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.

 

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Ice Cream Chair, Tiny Patio, in another season                                                                       Cups in Plants Courtesy of Sociopathic Upstairs Neighbors…  But that’s another story…

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.

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Goldfinches on Thistle Sock (Breeding Plumage)

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s not Easter.

It’s Christmas Day.

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For Unto Us A Son Is Given

Ice caps and ice sheets are melting, and nobody in power gives a damn.

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MELTING – 21st Century Reality

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.

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21st-Century Reality – Does No One Care but Bill McKibben?

 

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.

 

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Along the Boulevard

 

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.

 

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Flaneurs Along La Croisette in Earlier Times

 

Tonight, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, on December 25, 2016, I am sunburnt — proof that I have practiced “la dolce far niente” this day.