Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Week in Provence, or, Franco-American Relations Remain Friendly

NOTE: Kurt and I arrived in France a couple of weeks ago. I seem to be working backward, blog-wise. Meaning that the most recently written post is ready before the one I started three weeks ago. Sigh. I'm sure real writers - oh, like Jackie Collins and Danielle Steel - never have this problem, but such are the challenges of life as I know it...)

We're currently sitting on chaise lounges the front lawn of our vacation rental. With an ocher plaster and stone wall separating us from the road, along with cypress and other trees pruned within an inch of their lives, the air redolent with pine trees, jasmine and honeysuckle, songbirds are singing their little lungs out (Kurt swears that the doves have a French accent) and the air the exact temperature as our skin; it feels absolutely perfect. Also in the garden are olive trees, numerous shrubs, irises (not yet in bloom) and a swimming pool in the back. 

Don't get too jealous - the pool doesn't open until June 1st, the day before we leave. It currently has pond scum in it, so we won't be swimming. If we wanted to swim in pond scum, we could do it happily at DR. Anyway, Kurt, who is sitting beside me with a glass of local Cabernet practicing the Ancient Art of Doing Nothing, is cracking himself up with punchlines of jokes. “Spit it out” he just said, and laughed out loud. If you really want I'll tell you the joke later.**

 OK. I know I look totally stoned in this picture. I am not. I am merely relaxed, after finally reaching my destination and having a Kir (my new favorite drink), my mini computer perched happily on a pillow on my lap. The real point of this photo is the red (ocher) hillside about a mile in the background. Enough already!

We took the train from Paris to Avignon, rented a car (which wasn't there*) and drove about 45 minutes to the village of Roussillon. It is, as the sign reads when one drives into the town, “one of the most beautiful villages in France.” Can't argue with that. The soil around here is bright orange and has been mined for ocher pigment. All the buildings here are as you would expect – old, gorgeous, ocher-colored, slightly ramshackle. The town has the air of somewhere like Tahoe or Reno – vaguely vacation-oriented, lots of tourists in vacation homes, no parking in the tiny downtown. I'm a little disappointed, but I really don't think I could have picked a better spot to completely unwind (“veg” says Kurt from the next seat) before heading home to the Mercantile to save Mandy from a total nervous breakdown.

We're in the foothills of an area called the Luberon. It is where Peter Mayle wrote “A Year in Provence.” The drive here was, of course, very southern France. I've never been here before, but it feels as if I have. I've been hearing countless stories about France, and seeing pictures of the food, the people, and every geographical area each and every school year since 7th grade. One would, of course, assume that I would speak fluent French after all those years of intensive study. One would be wrong, of course. While I was voted “Mardi Gras Queen” by my French class in my senior year, it was not because of my scholarship. Much to the chagrin of my various French teachers I could mimic what they said fairly well, without much of it actually sinking in... but I digress...Soon after leaving Paris we began to see red poppies in the fields. So very gorgeous. By the time we got here there were fields full of them. The lavender isn't out yet, but the poppies are!

The one thing that continues to astound us is just how friendly and helpful everyone is. People stop and help us when they see that we are confused (which is, unsurprisingly, often). These are FRENCH people we're talking about! Even if they don't speak English they try. I can't believe that I spent so many years being afraid of Paris. And maybe this is all new. When my college roommates and I were in France (Marsielles and Paris) on our grand European backpacking spectacular in 1981 I remember practicing over and over again “Je voudrais trois tranches du jambon sil vous plait” before taking a deep breath and going into the charcuterie where the lady was MEAN to me and made me cry. The only people who were nice to us then in Paris were the cute young guards at the national monuments. But then, we were cute and young too, and there was beaucoup de flirting going on. ANYWAY! Now I'm old and not so very cute except to those who love me and everyone is NICE. In PARIS! And in train stations all over the country. I am just gob-smacked. And very, very grateful.

Kurt says “we create our own world” and I'm starting to believe him. By this he means that because we try to speak French, and we smile, and make eye contact and try to learn the various customs and rules (like not demanding coffee with our dessert and instead enjoying it AFTER dessert when it doesn't really make any sense but that's what the French do so we smile and have an espresso after our mousse au chocolat or creme brulee) our trip has largely gone smoothly and without life-threatening disaster or stress-induced apoplexy (on either side), or an international incident. Life is tres bon (Frenchy-talk for swell).

That's it for now. I'll backtrack in the next couple of days and fill in some of the blanks. Thanks for reading!


* After arriving on the train from Paris and realizing that our rental car was at the other Avignon train station (ah, the perils of planning a vacation from a desk in Rutledge, Missouri), and taking a bus (after doing our best to understand the walking directions which included "behind the ramparts" in French as given by the really nice girl at the wrong car rental booth) to the right train station, and filling out the voluminous forms, signing our names in dozens of places and agreeing to give the nation of France our first-born grandchild should we dent or otherwise maim the car, we were finally given the keys and directed to spot #127. We walked and walked and walked, and finally came to spot # 127, and it was empty. No car. There were cars in 126 and 128, and in every other spot imaginable, but not 127. I wish we would have taken a picture - it really was like a Fellini film. Kurt went back to the rental desk and the very cute rental agent came back with him, fully expecting (I think) to find that those goofy Americans can't tell one number from another. But she, too, had to concede that spot 127 was indeed empty, sans voiture. After ten minutes of looking for the correct license plate number she finally found it, in #117. C'est la vie!

** Kurt's politically insensitive joke: An Englishman, a Frenchman and an Irishman are sitting around having drinks. Each notices that there is a fly in his drink. The Englishman flicks the fly out of his pint and continues drinking. The Frenchman says “Sacre bleu! Bring me another glass of wine!”  The Irishman grabs the fly and yells “spit it out!”.