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!

 

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Easter Running of the Bulls, Arles, France

Running of the Bulls

Running of the Bulls – Pamplona, not France

Once upon a time, I lived in Provence, on Observatoire Hill, high above Cannes, and within walking distance of Picasso’s pottery town, Vallauris.  In February, I waked to see, through fragrant blooming mimosa at my bedroom window, the serene but blindingly blue Mediterranean.

In winter, I could see Corsica from that same aperture.  With my passion for Napoleon, seeing his homeland was a thrill.  Even though my neighbors in the villa snorted at all my visits to the Musee Napoleon in nearby Antibes:  “That Corsican!”

My narrow curving balcony was planted with the wild herbs of the “garrigue”, the scrubland, which Provence shares with Corsica.  It’s local nickname is “le Maquis”, which basically means a tangle of nearly impenetrable shrubs and weeds – and gave its name to the noble Resistance in the South of France.

When the wind blows over the garrigue, especially le mistral, it is scented with rosemary, thyme, savory, and something the Provencal call “pebre d’ail.”  My balcony held and transmitted that perfume, by night and by day.

I traveled all I could each day of my year in Provence.  Friends from home came and shared some of those incredible, indelible excursions.

One of the best was my Manhattan roommate from the 60’s, Joan Stouffer, an architect who specialized in historic restorations in Washington D.C.  She was soon to be headhunted from her D.C. firm to work on the Holocaust Museum in Manhattan, returning home to transform the support building for the Museum, which holds all the nuts and bolts of machinery required to keep the Museum functioning.  Joan is now Joan Scharnberg, still my friend since college days at the Detroit Free Press, filling in for vacationing women’s editors.

Joan was graduated from Smith, having spent her junior year studying in Aix.  When she’d be in Paris, the locals would not her Aixoise accent.  I, on the other, hand, this one-year habitant of Provence, has studied French for two college years with a nun who had never left Indiana and never wanted us to.  She certainly hadn’t taught us how to converse with French people, especially not men.  I didn’t know the familiar endings for any of the verbs.  So when my Cannes neighbors began to ‘tutoyer’ me, to use the familiar with me, out of affection, I didn’t know how to do it back.

Joan loved haute Provence, la France profonde, the hill towns, the garrigues, the scruffier and more paysanesque (peasants) the better.  By this time, I had tired of La Cote d’Azur, and was ready for any remote setting Joan desired.

Arles isn’t THAT remote, but it’s OLDE Provence, and very not Cote d’Azur.  We went there for Palm Sunday weekend.  Posters alerted us to a custom we would not miss — the running of the bulls.  We’d both been Hemingway addicts in our teens, so of course we were going to do this.  It wasn’t Pamplona, but we will never forget it.

Arles has many convoluted cobblestoned strees near the Arena, where the bullfights themselves would take place the following day.  It was before noon, long shadows, coolness in the ‘rues” (roadways).  There were pretty flimsy barricades of metal pipes alongside these roads, behind which we took our places – the only Americans we saw or heard.  Everywhere, the young people of Arles began sprinkling each other wildly with flour.

Joan’s perfect French and my insatiable curiosity + Indiana pre-school French, were of absollutely no use.  Not a single person could tell us why.

It was somewhat hilarious.

Boys and girls were running, flinging flour, skidding on the cobblestones, now white as snow.

Then they began cracking fresh raw eggs on one another’s hair, already white as their grandparents’.

Again, our “Comments?” and “Pourquois?” were inutile/useless.

Suddenly, the crowd changed.

It hushed.

People began to move against the ancient walls, tense and all staring in one direction.

A roar went up, such as one hears while a bullfight is going on.

Many young people, mostly garbed in white, now egg-and-flour bedecked, were moving erratically. We pressed up against the metal rods, trying to understand what was taking place.

Black heads, dark horns, glaring eyes, flaring nostrils, huge furry bodies came hurtling toward us. The bulls, also, slipped on the flour, now mixed with raw egg as though for some bizarre cake.  The bulls also began to wound the runners.  Blood on white shirts, white pants.  Blood on the cobblestones, mixing with flour and egg.  Angry bulls, who did not like skidding.  Confused bulls, who reversed partway through this strange corridor, and somehow turned round and kept pouring toward us

This is all I remember, and I have no pictures of my own to share.

Those bulls ultimately ended up at the arena, where they would engage with matadors, toreadors, and picadors the next day.  Yes, to the songs of the opera, Carmen – which had been written about bullfights in France, not in Spain.

Aerial View of Arena, Arles, South of France

Aerial View of Arena, Arles, South of France

Joan would attend the next day’s full bullfight.

I would drive over to Tarascon and Beaucaire, for ancient literary reasons, and on to Maussane, where the Provencal Nobel Prize-winning Poet Frederic Mistral had lived.  I would stand in the shade of Mistral’s trees outside his home, honoring his determination to preserve his true native language, no matter how the French would strive and even battle to take it from these staunch people.

Joan would brave the bullfight entire.

Reunited, we would figure out at last that the entire bullfight had been something of ancient times, purely pagan, an inescapable fertility rite.

A far cry from the Palm Sunday rituals of childhood!

Runner and Bull, Arles, South of France

Runner and Bull, Arles, South of France

Here is a soupcon of a web-explanation, about what we experienced:

Easter Feria in Arles

updated: November 5, 2014

arles feria poster

Arles (13 Bouches-du-Rhone, Provence) starts its bullfighting season with theFeria de Pâques (Easter Festival) from 3-6 April 2015.

Many visitors may feel squeamish or even disapproving about the spectacle of bull-fighting, but it is a long-maintained tradition in Provence and southern France, especially in the Camargue.  You can however still enjoy the spectacle (and avoid the risk of any gore) by seeing the noisy and colourful parades and bull-running through the town. My view is that if you really object to this form of “entertainment” then avoid the area.

The bull-fighting (corrida) takes place in the spectacular Roman Arena in Arles, and there are other options such as the  Course Camargaise, which is another local form of bullfighting without the drawing of any blood.

About course camarguaise:  It is a summer pastime practiced in many small towns around Arles and the area. There are local leagues which are reported in local newspapers..
This different kind of bullfighting is known alternately as “course libre” or “course camarguaise“. This is a bloodless spectacle (for the bulls) in which the objective is to snatch a rosette from the head of a young bull.

The participants, or raseteurs, begin training in their early teens against young bulls from the Camargue region before graduating to regular contests held principally in Arles andNîmes but also in other Provençal and Languedoc towns and villages.


Before the course, anencierro — a “running” of the bulls in the streets — takes place, in which young men compete to outrun the charging bulls. The course itself takes place in a small (often portable) arena erected in a town square.


For a period of about 15–20 minutes, the raseteurs compete to snatch rosettes (cocardes) tied between the bulls’ horns. They don’t take the rosette with their bare hands but with a claw-shaped metal instrument called a raset or crochet(hook) in their hands, hence their name. Afterwards, the bulls are herded back to their pen by gardiens (Camarguais cowboys) in a bandido, amidst a great deal of ceremony. The star of these spectacles are the bulls, who get top billing and stand to gain fame and statues in their honor, and lucrative product endorsement contracts!

See what I mean?  No explanation about the running of the bulls, the flour, the eggs — some mention of blood.  That’s Provence!

Vive la France!