It’s both a joy and a luxury to travel freely through gates of time and place, to explore and to return, as we have done this year. Arriving home after living for a year in France, everything seemed strange and familiar all at one. As our friend Linda, who had cared for our home for all these months, drove us down the long driveway our first night back in California, the sight of the open gates to our fields and to the front garden awakened alarm in me. Instantly I wanted to shout out “Close the gates, the dogs will get out!” But there are no dogs at home now; none to come running out barking to greet us. SweetPea me manque. I know well that grief does not respect the boundaries of time, or of a fence or gate; still it doesn’t seem right to leave our gates open.
Friends ask: what is it like to be back home? My honest answer is – I don’t know. I go through the days busy with activities and long lists of things to do. I’m happy to reconnect with friends and with my beautiful home. But I know I’m not fully present yet. I find myself wondering if it’s true that I spoke French just a few short weeks ago. Aix me manque.
Perhaps the most jarring difference between life in Provence, and my life here on the Central Coast of CA is the reality that I live in the desert. Although the Pacific Ocean is only 5 miles away from our house, the land that surrounds me is entirely dry and totally dependent on irrigation for its vegetation. The vineyards, mostly new, that spread out across the low hills in this valley, seem temporary – an expression of a wish to make this golden desert green- a wish that will ultimately be defeated. There just isn’t enough water. Recent headlines in the local papers proclaim that “water wars” have intensified in the county since we’ve been gone.
In all my travels in France, I never saw land used in the way we use land here. Our land here is overgrazed and undernourished. We are a young state and a young country. Like feckless adolescents, we haven’t yet learned to care for what we have. We continue to live with excess, as though there is no end to resources: excess in our habits, our consumption, our emotions, our wants. It’s a hard lesson to learn one’s limits.
Time-traveling. How can it be that only six weeks ago we were departing France, having to say goodbye to our dearest friends Monique and Dominique. Of course, the best way to say goodbye, or hello, in France is to share a good meal together.
For those of us of certain age, we like having a relaxing drink in the garden.
Simone and I enjoyed so many good talks, a movie, music events and stories. Her novels, which recount the history of Provence through people whom she knew or whose stories were told to her by family and friends, are treasures. Each one gave me a deeper understanding and love for the area in which I was living. A piece of my heart remains with Simone in Aix.
We received from Monique, Dominique and Simone the greatest gifts of acceptance and friendship. At our farewell dinner at a neighborhood Turkish restaurant, Monique gave us an “award” of one of her beautiful paintings: “Les Coquelicots à Puyricard,” poppies in the fields near Puyricard. Monique is a genius at capturing the warmth of a summer day, the brilliance of nature’s colors, and the calm of painting in nature all on one small canvas. And her generosity allows her friends and students to experience with her these special places in Provence. You can see Monique’s work on her website ateliersdusoleil.free.fr/
Dominique understood so well my love of words and my desire to learn French. He sent me off with a small book, “Les Mots de Ma Vie,” with a reminder to keep alive my yearning and my efforts to learn the French language. More than all of that, they sent with us an abundance of love and kindness, and the sureness that we will see them again, bientôt.
Before leaving Aix and France, there were a few special places and people we wanted to enjoy right up to the last minute. With Monique, Dominique and family we spent a wonderful evening at a 16th century chateau/vineyard north of Aix where a troupe of Japanese drummers performed ritual music and dances. Monique and Dominique are at the heart of a cultural alliance association with Japan and they have been instrumental in many important cultural exchanges, including assisting survivors of the Fukushima disaster.
There’s a famous rock climbing area just north of Aix on the way to Apt, that we had talked of visiting all year. With time running out, we made a full-day excursion, beginning with Sunday lunch at the Auberge de la Loube (mentioned in Peter Mayle’s book “A Year in Provence”) where the proprietor has an unparalleled collection of horse-drawn carriages stored in his small barn next to the auberge.
The Auberge is situated near the old village of Buoux. To access the Fort de Buoux and the climbing walls, you travel down a small winding road from the top of the plateau into a deep valley surrounded by steep granite cliffs. This was a world-famous rock climbing site in the 80’s, and remains a popular place today to practice high-level technical skills. From the valley floor, Ken and I climbed the long trail up to the remains of the old Fort, dating back to the 12th century. The area, however, has been used for millennia as a secure site for habitation.
During a late winter excursion to the Gorges du Verdon, Ken and I had made note to return when we had more time and the weather was warmer. The end of August seemed a perfect time. This is an area of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence in which one could spend many days of happy exploration in the mountains and along the lake shores. One can also spend moments of terror traversing the length of the gorge on a narrow road that hugs the rock face with drops of thousands of feet on one side. (I know – I was there.) And so we returned to the town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie at the northwest entrance to the Gorges to climb the steep cliffs to the old church and to see the faïence: world-famous ceramics and porcelain. This lovely, remote town so proud of its history and culture, built into the rocky face of mountains, served as a summary of all that I love best about France.
Of course we were eager to see our Norwegian friends Erik and Helen for a few final rounds of golf before we returned home to the States and they to Norway. We met halfway between their vacation home near Grasse and Aix to try out a well-known course called Saint-Endréol, located north of the Mediterranean in the little town La Motte. At Saint-Endréol, electric riding carts are obligatory since the slopes are severe throughout the 18 holes. A river borders the course, and defines the famous 16th hole in which the green is positioned in the middle of the river. It’s true! Perhaps we will travel with Helen and Erik to see the northern lights in Tromsø.
In the summer of this year in which the metropolitan area of Aix/Marseille was designated the Cultural Capitol of Europe, we were overwhelmed with choices of internationally acclaimed artists in performances of music, dance and theatre. In August we attended concerts in La Roque d’Antheron to hear Brahams and Beethoven piano concertos. In Aix we attended the best performance of the Fauré Requiem I have ever heard. We heard Corsican polyphonic singers in an ancient church in Aix, and in the streets were readings of poetry, jugglers, aerial performances, and medieval lute players. It was a riot of culture; and we witnessed only a tiny portion of what was offered. France me manque.
And now we are home, traveling across time and cultures and landscapes. People ask me: do you wish you had stayed in France? But that was never a question in my mind. I knew I would return, and this is firmly my home. I love this desert/ocean home. I love my trees, so different from those in my garden in France. I love my birds and the frogs in my pond. This is my home, despite my disappointments with our immaturity and the dysfunction of our political system.
On Bishop Peak, in the heart of San Luis Obispo, I found steps recently carved into the mountain that reminded me of the ancient steps carved into the mountains in France centuries ago. These newer stones have yet to register the tread of centuries of boots. But they are beautiful, also, in their newness. The stoney flanks of Bishop Peak can awaken in me a longing for the rocky promonories of Provence.
And on the golf courses, here and in Pacific Grove where we recently played, we see wild turkeys and deer. I can’t say I miss the wild boar of French golf links.
The sunsets are miraculous in France, especially in the Luberon region of Provence. But they are exhilarating along the Big Sur coast also. There is no competition for honors here – just moments of deep inspiration. Provence me manque .
Only time will tell if this journal will continue. At the moment, I have no idea. You can stay tuned by leaving your email address on the “updates” area and responding to the request for confirmation when you get it. I appreciate the opportunity to tell you my stories, and your willingness to listen.
We always enjoy hearing from you.
Karen and Ken