Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fête de la Lavande

To continue with my "what I did this weekend in Provence" post from yesterday, I promised the Lavender Festival in Valensole. I know I've already inundated you with photos of lavender, but I happen to like the stuff. This is a recent taste reversal, however. 

My mother had a bottle of Yardley Lavender cologne or talcum powder...or something, which she never used but whose scent seemed to permeate her drawer full of stuff I was not supposed to dig through. Which, of course, made it the drawer that I spent many stolen hours ransacking...I think hoping to find something really naughty. Which I don't remember finding. I also remember being supremely disappointed. I wanted my mother to have a history! My boys, I'm quite sure, would not be so disappointed and I hope I get all those long ago written journals that are hidden somewhere, properly torn up and burned before they start going through my stuff. Which they probably already have, if I'm going to be realistic about it.

Okay...off track...so.....

Anyway, I always detested the smell of that perfume but since coming to Provence, I've discovered how wonderful it is to sleep with a lavender filled pillow under my head. It's relaxant qualities are truly comforting. And how delicious the apartment smells when I've sprayed the distilled oil on my little clay cigalle that hangs in the bathroom. Lavender's  bug repellant qualities keep moths away in the closet or trunk and beat moth balls all to hell.  I knew all of this stuff. What I didn't know is what else one can do with lavender.

There is Lavender mustard and chutney...

Salts and spices...


Cookies and breads..

Sausage...yes, Lavender Saucisson!

And pâté...oh man, I just don't know about that!

There are syrups, ice creams, and jams but their mugs didn't make it here because my camera battery died.

But not before that I got to see the traditional dancers weave their ribbons

and the tired dancers rest their feet.

We were treated to mounds of freshly cut lavender to make our own bouquets...

and the townspeople decorated for the occasion.

So...my summer weekend in Provence rocked!

But I'm never going to change my mind about Yardley Lavender perfume.


Monday, July 19, 2010

A Bad Wing and a Summer Weekend

I'm suffering from some sort of writer's arm....or texting arm....or carrying-too-many-sacks-plus-a-far-too-heavy-purse arm. More than likely a mixture of all of the above. All I know is it hurts and it really aggravates it when I write. I've been told my chair is too low, which is true, and what I really need to do is buy myself a decent office chair. 

It's just that my Provençal yellow, vide-grenier-find chair looks so pretty with my desk (anyone who knows me also knows my desk is never this neat and that there is a pile of assorted crap tossed on the couch for the snapping of this photo and will probably remain on the couch until I have to clean up for the next round of visitors).  Thus, little writing will be done this week. And since I don't have a Monday Memory article for today, it's going to be picture time.
 As in "What I did this past summer weekend in Provence".

Earlier in the spring, my friend Lynn and I bought tickets to Saturday's Chucho Valdes concert.  I knew nothing about him, mostly because I'm a complete jazz imbecile, nor did I know where it was to be held. But Lynn is my esteemed ticket advisor and she hasn't gone wrong yet! I was delightfully surprised by both the musician and the milieu. Valdes is a world renowned, Cuban improvisational jazz pianist. An enormous man with an enormous sound and a kick-ass percussion section. The concert was held at the bucolic Chateau de Beaupré, which is just outside the village of St. Cannat near Aix en Provence. Aside from a cold mistral that kicked up and froze my bare shoulders in a permanent, protective shrug, it did not succeed in cooling off his smokin' fingers and the hot, latin riffs coming from the piano. 

Check out the setting. 

Sunday morning, the mistral blew itself out and the summer heat moved in quickly. I ended up going to Lac de St. Croix, near the Gorge du Verdon, in an attempt to cool off. It's about an hour north of here and though it is not the sea, it's turquoise expanse is thrilling to see...and even more thrilling to paddle around in and sooth the sizzle.

Lac de St. Croix is a man-made lake; a canyon flooded in 1975 by the EDF (electric company)and the Verdon River. In all it's beauty, it caused a lot of heartache when the decision was made to destroy an ancient village in the name of progress. Click here for an interesting photo history. The village has been rebuilt which is what you see in the photo above. But of course, what you see in the black and white photo can never be "rebuilt".

And since it's only a hop, skip and a jump away from Valensole, late afternoon was spent at the Lavender Festival.  Oh boy...more PURPLE! 

I'm sitting on pillows, my wrist in a splint, but my entire arm still hurts. So I'll save those photos for tomorrow. If you have any tendonitis advice, please send it my way.

What did you do this weekend?


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Le Fête Nationale or Celebration of the Sales

Today is 14th Juliet…le Fête Nationale… or as we say in English…Bastille Day. This national holiday in France celebrates the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789 and the beginning of the French revolution (or at least one of them). And with the French Revolution, came the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793. This document, following in the footsteps of the Declaration of Independence of the United States, established the natural rights of men…the end of the monarchy (or at least one of them)…and the right of self-determination.

It did not however give merchants the right to self-determine when they ought to have a sale. Unlike the United States, where the celebration of the birth of the Easter Bunny or the first spreading of manure on the farm fields of Iowa might trigger a wild 50-percent-off-everything-purple-on-the-3rd floor- of -all 5-floor department-stores, and Christmas is just another word for markdown, sales in France are regulated by law and occur only twice each year. Those dates are determined by the minister of economics and are generally universal. This practice is centuries old and is supposed to protect the smaller merchants…the mom and pops…from being crushed by the big guys. And it’s true; France continues to have hundreds of thousands of small boutiques and shops, which makes for fabulous, interesting shopping.

This year the Soldes d’hiver (winter sale) began on the 6th of January and here in my region, the Soldes d’Été (summer sale) began on July 7th. This momentous occasion is allowed to continue for 5 weeks with a total of 3 markdowns.  As you can probably guess, it’s a bit of a free-for-all, lines are long and lines are drawn in the sand. Don't expect someone to be nice and let you have the jeans you've both grabbed at exactly the same moment. Seven p.m. at any given shop looks like the Bastille must have looked like at the end of that fateful day in July 1789. And the French have perfected their strategies for getting the best deal. For instance, depending upon your size and tastes you might benefit most from beginning this sport on the first hour of the first day of the sale. However, after the 3rd markdown at the end of July…they’re nearly giving stuff away and you can bring home a haul for very little. If you’re a brand name or haute couture shopper, this is when you buy your Hermès scarf or your Chanel suit.

I obviously haven’t perfected my strategy. My feet are monster size here in France so I can probably wait until the end for shoes. But I bought a beautiful dress the first day and it was marked down…6 percent. Six percent! That’s sales tax in Wisconsin. So I bought a dress tax- free! Which I can do in Minnesota, (where there is no tax on clothing)…not just on Ground Hog’s day but any day. I obviously need more training. And please note...not one of these photos mentions one single thing about a 6% markdown!

By the time the French had given us the gift of the Statue of Liberty nearly 100 years after the storming of the Bastille, they had been through 3 revolutions, 2 restorations of the monarchy, 2 Napoleonic empires and were well into their Third Republic. Still, no Halloween sales!  I mean, how far does a country have to go to get the most basic, inalienable rights anyway?

I think they’ve just given up. C’est comme ça!  But they take out all of their frustration at sale time.

This afternoon I’m going to the military parade at 5 o’clock. That gives me a little shopping on the walk to Cours Mirabeau and another hour or so on the way home. We’re in second markdown…3rd quarter… T minus 2 and counting… and I gotta get my game on.


Monday, July 12, 2010

My Inheritance

I'm a little late with my Monday memories post...I treated my visitors to a view of the lavender fields today. To make a lovely day even more perfect, my friend, Vreni from Switzerland, joined us and acted as chauffeur. It was so much fun to watch Steve jump out of the car, camera in hand, so excited to see and photograph the beautiful fields of purple that don't seem real when viewed on a calendar page. So...again...an article from this same time last year. I wonder what will be left behind this year?

Earlier this summer I met my friend Paulo at the Vide Grenier to keep him company while he worked his booth. A Vide Grenier, which actually means “emptying the attic”, is like a giant yard sale minus the daunting task of having to clean your garage first.  Rather than having the sale in their yards, people rent space at these markets, which occur all summer in various towns and on different weekends. It’s a village event and I try to go to them whenever I can.

Paulo is an Irish barman and thus tends to work in bars where English speakers congregate. Because we have such a high student and transient population in Aix, people are constantly packing, cleaning house, throwing things away, leaving things behind in an attempt to stay within the airline weight limits, and moving on. Because Paulo likes to read, he has become the recipient of a huge collection of books.

As a result he is now selling the more than 600, mostly-in-English, books that he has accumulated. They are novels, schoolbooks, books on economics, art and religion, paperbacks and hardbacks and the most amazing thing about Paulo, is that he has read every single one of them and remembers them all. It was amazing to watch him sell them. Every potential customer who stopped to peruse the collection would be asked what sort of book they enjoyed and the recommendation process would begin. The guy is a born salesman!

I have become a collector of travel leave-behinds as well. However, books are not what I'm accumulating. I am the gatherer of personal products. I realized the extent of my collection while I was cleaning the bathroom after my friend Jeanmarie left to return to Boston. I spent an inordinate amount of time lifting items, washing them off, cleaning under them and returning them to their rightful but congested place. My bathroom is being taken over by shower gels, shampoos, facial masks and bath salts. Mind you, I'm not complaining. It's like a smorgasbord for the body. I am now able to slough dead skin, eliminate white heads, save the color in my hair, tighten my facial skin and wash my private parts safely (how have I lived 50 years without that little item?). I have medication for infections, cream for rashes, and some pretty powerful sleeping drugs. I have shampoo for men (the directions are in Swedish and I will save it in case a tall, beautiful, Swedish man ever shows up at my door), I have baby oil (one of these would not be so welcome), lotion for psoriasis (ditto on the last comment) and my underarms will now smell like baby powder or white flowers depending upon my mood.

My hair doesn't know if it is blond or brunette, male or female, or if it is supposed to become tangle-free or less sun damaged. My skin isn't sure if it's over 50, under 19, or in need of a prescription. And I'm sure if I should ever need a medication (which is rare but I’m a good girl scout and try to be prepared), that once I get through the directions in every language but English, I will either get well or get dead in a flash.

I am unable to throw any of these things away. I get a certain satisfaction out of using every last drop of these potions and then tossing the bottle or jar. However, my skin has discovered it is, in fact, not 19 and I really haven’t seen a whitehead in years. My hair can't remember what it's original color is and if I’m not careful, my face is just going to peel away and then I won’t need any of this stuff.  But hey, all in the interest of curiosity and frugality!

Jeanmarie left this morning. She left behind the remains of what must be a 50-gallon drum of Metamucil (I could float a pontoon boat on four of these empty, plastic bottles). She needed to make room for wine, olive oil and lavender honey in her luggage. I really don’t need the stuff but am thinking perhaps it will mix well with Pastis (the anise flavored drink of Provence). Or perhaps I could use it to remove any remaining dead skin on my body. It also might make a fine bathtub scrub...like Comet. Or maybe when the Swedish man shows up, a single woman with no face, a bucket of orange flavored Metamucil and some Swedish-shampoo-for-men will be exactly what he’s been looking for!


Saturday, July 10, 2010

Strokes of Lavender and Sunshine

There are moments when I see things…wherever I am…and I feel as if I’ve walked into a painting. I’m sure everyone has these moments…. you know, when you are just knocked out by the beauty of it all. That moment when you are sure that even if you had the ability to paint, or take a photograph, or write a song or a poem…that with all the talent you could possibly posses, it would never be enough to express this most beautiful thing that you are privileged to view. But you ache to do it just the same.

Today’s article was to be about lavender, that venerated plant that grows abundantly here in Provence. 

But as I was looking at my photos from last summer, I realized that the endless fields of lavender growing next to the luminous expanse of sunflowers…. cannot be explained.  They must be seen.! 

Enjoy…but try to imagine the low drone of the bees as they feast on their buffet of purple… 

and the perfumed air as the hot sun cooks and coaxes the oils and a light wind stirs the scent and wafts it past your nose.

 It’s like art…. but better… because all the senses get to participate.

It's lavender time in Provence. I just had to share!

 photos courtesy of Tony Neuman, lavender connaisseur and tour guide extraordinaire

Monday, July 5, 2010

French Country

It's festival time here in the south of France and today is Monday...so another Monday Memory, written this same time last year. My friend Jeanmarie is coming back again this year and she'll miss this particular event....but I think she'll be here for the Garlic Festival!

I met my friend Jeanmarie in 1980 in while attending the university in London. We were living next door to each other in a convent of all places.  At the Convent of Maria Assumpta, the rent was cheap, you could have your own room, it was much more fun to cause trouble, and it took Jeanmarie and I about 5 minutes to become fast friends.  We have managed to see each other almost every year since then. We’ve met in Aspen, in Barbados, in Arizona, at each other’s weddings, and at each other’s homes. For the past 15 years or so, she has come to Wisconsin in July to attend Country Jam, one of our big, summer music festivals. We’ve only missed one or two years, and even though neither of us are country music fans anymore, we still try to make the Jam. It’s tradition, after all.

Tradition was going to have to be broken this year because, of course, I’m closer to the Rhone River than the Chippewa River. And money is tight all around; not enough for either of us to make a long journey to see each other. However, a few weeks ago, Jeanmarie sent me an email that basically said “To hell with it…I’m coming to France in July!” Yippee skippee…. really?

The tiny problem with her visit is I’ve have been inundated with visitors since April and have squeezed every dime out of my savings in order to travel with them. I just couldn’t afford any more sightseeing, tours, hotels or meals out and told her so. Luckily, she was in the same boat and we decided to use my apartment in Aix as a base, use our pooled money to rent a car, and make day trips to nearby treasures, which are plentiful here in Provence.

I began researching things to do in the area and found an extensive list of summer festivals. They included Jazz Festivals, opera festivals, tango festivals, gypsy festivals, wine and craft festivals, a melon festival and…yessireebob…. a country festival! My mouth dropped open as I read the description in the English version:

Two days of free Country Music concerts (and also Blues, Bluegrass, Cajun, Rockabilly) in the heart of the village. Fun and good atmosphere with Line Dancers, nice american car, Harley and Goldwing, shopping at the western market and to be in perfect total immersion: barbeque spare ribs, country chiken, Chili con Carne and more US speciality.

Well, of course we had to go, mostly because I needed a hot dog! So, two days after she arrived, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we ventured to the tiny village of La Roque d’Antheron, which is apparently much more famous for it’s classical piano festival in August… and we walked into another world.  Actually, it was the world we had left on the other side of the ocean.

We meandered past the line-up of American Mustangs,Chevys, and Harleys, sauntered through the market and sorted through the leathers, chaps, garish colored cowboy hats, sterling silver jewelry and mini donuts. We stopped at the beverage truck under the giant American flag to order a beer (of course wine was on the menu but I did not see a single person order it) as we wandered toward the stage.  We nodded to the tattooed bikers, dressed in black leather, and skirted the line dancers, adorned in boots, hats and assorted American flag attire. I took the photo of a man in his green John Deere hat, which brought on a long conversation in broken English about his love of country music, various country singers and his 2 trips to Nashville.

We followed the sound of American bluegrass until we finally reached the stage. The band was French but singing in English, sans accent. However, they spoke in French in between the songs and Jeanmarie and I just kept looking at each other, wide-eyed and completely delighted.

We listened to the bluegrass band, a rockabilly band and good old country band, whose lead singer was Australian.  It took me awhile to realize he was speaking in English between the songs until he shouted to the crowd, “You havin’ fun yet?!?!?

Complete silence. I thought, man, this must be a tough gig. He tried again.

“Ça va bien?”

A roar went up from the crowd. This guy’s done his research.

When he began the choruses of both“Take Me Home Country Road” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, the crowd sang along enthusiastically. I had to giggle because I’m sure most didn’t know what they were singing.  It’s sort of like singing Frère Jacques as a child. You sing it because it’s fun, but you don’t know what the words mean and most likely are pronouncing them in a way that would make a French speaker wince.

We spent the entire afternoon and evening drinking beer, eating hot dogs (still served on a baguette and no pickle relish in sight) hamburgers, and roasted corn, wiping the dust from our eyes kicked up by the energetic dancers, hiding from the sun under the giant Platane trees, and feeling just a little appreciated for being American.

I don’t know where Jeanmarie and I will meet next year, but I am confident that we’ll figure out something. However, I’m not sure if Country Jam is ever going to cut it again. And word has it on the Country Musique circuit here, that there is an even bigger and better festival near Paris in August.  I gotta get me a hat!


photos provided by Gérald Wiechert