trip to Paris and Provence
May 5 - 17, 2006
Notes by Madeleine
All the chestnut trees in Paris are in bloom
What good fortune it is to be here in time for such a treat. I always loved them in Bern and here they are everywhere, lining the boulevards, which are more grand than I had remembered.
I had forgotten how extraordinarily beautiful Paris is, with its comfortable architecture, mansard roofs, wrought iron balconies, all built on a human scale, so pleasing to the eye.
The sidewalk cafs stretch along the street, and are inviting, tempting us to just sit, eat, drink, and watch.
The surprise is the Arc de Triomphe, coming up, a hulk, but graceful, with an enormous French flag flapping from the center of the arc, held up by one corner, as if by a clothespin.
The Arc is at the top of our street, Avenue Carnot, so we see it first thing in the morning, as I crane out our hotel window, and then again when we circle L'Etoile in a taxi at night. Our location is amazingly convenient, The Air France bus stopped at the top of the street so we could wheel our luggage down to the La Rgence Etoile, John's hotel for many years. It was just a block and a half from the bus stop, after the Hotel Belfast and the Hotel Stella. All have three stars.
Startled by two rows of beautiful black- barked lavender blossoming trees, reaching as high as the third story, where we can look down on them from Room 403, a room with rich yellow-almost golden-walls, not displeasing, rather sunny, and French windows. Stuffy when we first walked in, opened the windows and felt a lovely breeze. Gray sky, hint of rain, cool.
No one seemed to know the name of the trees, blossoms like Wisteria, except not vines clinging to houses like we admired last year in the Cotswolds. There were free standing trees. This is the only street in Paris where we saw them.
Our concierge looked up the name in the inside cover of her notebook, in pencil, and said "Polonaise, je crois."
Must ask Micheline Lyons, who had told us all about Provence. She had lived on Avenue Carnot.
Three packed days in Paris. Slept the first afternoon, had read "A Year in Provence" on the plane, finished it that afternoon.
Walked to the two-star restaurant John had chosen, Michel Rostang. We were early, 7 or so, it was almost empty, but we were in a small no smoking (thank goodness) room off the main dining room. Slowly, it filled up.
Very solicitous wine steward, as the Guide Michelin had said, also the Maitre d', waiter, no one was intimidating or overbearing. There seemed to be a quiet calm rhythm. Later,"Madame" (the wife of the chef? The owner?) made the rounds to see if everything was going well. The importance of food as an art form, as a great skill, is evident from the effort-the highly professional and well trained effort that goes into it.
It was quiet, small conversations here and there that could not be overheard, helped by thick carpets, drapes, dark wooden walls, displays of crystal, silver.
First course-amazing jelly with minced vegetables and cream at the bottom. That was the amuse bouche. Crab dish inside a crab, very delicate, lamb chops, mashed potatoes, souffl.
An experience. Exorbitant price. John is so relaxed about the cost, and so capable of enjoying the experience. It constantly amazes me. Not what I had been used to.
Slept late, breakfast in the basement dining room, self service, with dream like faux Monet wall paper in grays and greens. Yogurt like I remembered it as a child in Forest Hills, bought at the Big Bear market, "natural", sour, except for the sugar, which I sprinkled on top. Contrast between sour yogurt and crunchy sugar is delicious!
Lightweight croissants filled with air, round brioche, hot milk with coffee.
Took a taxi straight to the Muse d'Art Moderne to see the Bonnard show. Last day, long line. John had a blue ticket from his friend Deb Abrams-showed it to man letting people in-it worked. That, and, I suspect, our age. Extraordinary show, so much. Wonderful colors, large canvasses which I had never seen before, bathtub paintings which I had seen and loved, but never saw so many of them, white light, some paintings required the viewer to play a detective game to find people, cats, dogs, always so pleasing--an enormous oeuvre. No catalogue could translate the colors to the page. I can recall a few of the paintings in my memory, wish I had catalogued them all.
Took a taxi to a small, elegant museum restaurant, Muse Jacquemont Andr, for brunch. Long wait while one woman cleared tables for 18 people, but worth it. A discovery, thanks again to Deb. Great salad, discovering that the French eat salads for lunch, including men. Mine had smoked salmon, slice of Lobster and salmon terrine, a tiny feather light quiche, and for dessert we shared a mille feuille.
Off to the Muse Nissim de Camondo, which John wanted to be sure to show me. The home, with a beautiful collection of 18th century furniture, ceramics and art, belonged to a Jewish family from Istanbul, very wealthy, and then was given to the French Louvre. The son died in WWI, father became a recluse, his daughter and grandchildren were taken away in 1942. John told me that when the Germans occupied the house, they did not confiscate the objects-only the people.
The thread of the Holocaust is running through these days, so real, so personal. Leaving the house and knowing that the family had literally died out with the Nazi occupation of Paris, left me sad and sobered. Juxtaposition of art and terror, propensity of French for both.
Strolled a bit in a nice park behind the museum, Parc Monceau, where Proust used to walk, now dotted with families, children playing and riding ponies, people strolling, lovely scene, spring flowers. This is the way the world should be.
The full import of French collaboration was shown at the Shoah museum the next afternoon. Across from the Ile St. Louis, almost hidden, most of it underground, opened in 2005 or 4. Exhibits about Vichy government, Dreyfus Affair, horrible cartoons of Jews, photos of children who died, names of French victims inscribed on the outside walls. Looked for family names: Bloch, Brunschwig, May. Who knows who is related. The one I know for sure is Andr's brother who was imprisoned and never returned, but do not know his first name. I wish I knew more of who they were. My mother had talked of Tante Anna, whom she had loved, and about the family in Nice who was betrayed by a neighbor: mother, father and son who was home on leave from the war. Who betrayed them? Where did they go? What did the person who turned them in (Nazis were living in the same apartment building, they thought they would not be taken away, because he said, "We are French,." according to the story).
Exhibits showed in France, Drancy and others. 3,000 French Jews died in those camps, probably from disease. 86,000 were deported. 2,500 came back. The worse was a horrible agricultural machine that the Nazis used to grind up bodies or bones.
Even today, the museum is a fortress, guarded, hard to get in, hard to get out, afraid of today's anti-Semites.
After the Parc Monceau, went to the Marmottan -Monet museum, which John wanted me to see. The collection of Monet's son, Michel, another surprise. Located near the Bois de Boulogne. A surprising Monet collection, considered the most important in the world.
Afterwards went into the Bois, but it turned out to be a small triangle of a park for children, lots of them, playing, parents, prams. I knew there was more but we couldn't figure out how to get there. Not as I had remembered it, so many years ago, when I was part of a young couple sitting on a park bench.
Finally asked a man for directions and discovered that the Bois was on the other side of the museum--had to cross several highways and a wild area with unkempt paths, and then we found it-beautiful lawns, bicycle paths, and a long serpentine lake with large rowboats gliding everywhere. The sun had come out after a cloudy day and it was warm. Took a small ferry across to a little island in the middle of the lake-small caf, no dogs. Walked around the perimeter of the island, found a perfect bench by a stone wall at the far tip of the island, looking through a screen of branches formed by an enormous drooping tree that touched the water.
There was a modern statue of a nude man and woman--lovers kissing. One man, on his walk with another man, patted the woman's derriere affectionately. Two small boys were very interested in the couple's anatomy and circled the statue carefully, pointing and giggling.
At the nearby tree, little boys stopped and peed against the base. Reminded me of when the children were young and peed against the VW bus tires.
Our view of the passing scene was perfect, lovers, rowers, strollers, a contemporary "La Grande Jatte." It was as if we were seated in a theatre, and the stage was before us. Very peaceful, very idyllic.
Back to the hotel by taxi, rest. Off to the bistro recommended by Deb,"Ma Bourgogne" At Place des Vosges, under the arcades of Paris' s oldest square.. Cool again, sat outside under an overhead heater--too much smoke and tables too close on the inside.
Specialty was "boeuf tartare." Saw the big machine that made it and the bloody handed woman who worked it. Best not to see the process. Ordered salad and fish, a mistake, asked for a sample of tartare. "Pour mon mari qui a jamais degout steak tartare." The waiter gave us a large sample. Turned out to be delicious, already seasoned. A brutish dish, but once in a while, special. (Stomach did not feel good that night, perhaps the penicillin. Last night felt great.)
Nice conversation at the Bistro with a Dutch couple, they are always friendly, had come for a long weekend, three hour trip from Rotterdam. He was an architect, trembling arm, what illness?
Home late-had asked taxi to take us along the scenic route to see Paris illuminated-- exhausted, had walked miles. We are such good company for each other. Never a dispute, a harsh word, impatience. Shows what love can do when you are in the same tempo, soul mates, like the clich says, but we really are, responding to the same art, architecture, words.
Yesterday, May 8, woke up to the sound of marching music coming from the top of the street at the Arc de Triomphe. When we drove by in a taxi, saw a ceremony taking place. After many inquiries, including the Shoah museum, found out from one cab driver that it was the date of the signing of the Peace Treaty, WWII, official holiday. Place de l'Etoile was closed. Flags were on every lamppost on the Champs-Elysees, on either side of the post, like in a Dufy painting.
Took Mtro to the Louvre. Suddenly we were there, under the pyramid, looking up through the glass. Big crowds, large groups. Again, our blue museum card worked and managed to get in a short line.
Headed straight for Winged Victory, passed DaVinci, Botticellis, oh, so lovely and two exquisite Fra Angelico angels like those we had seen at the Metropolitan. Familiarity is part of the pleasure of art, paintings become friendly companions.
Mona Lisa has a small guarded shrine, fenced off, glassed over, but still she is magical, absolutely. She seemed darker to me than I had remembered, but light skin and bosom, wonderful slender hands. I was grateful that I was seeing her one more time, I thought the last, one has to be strong and ambulatory to get to her.
And then, Venus de Milo. Hard to explain the spell of these classic works, but we walked around her again and again. Down to lower floor, new appreciation for Egyptian art after having been there, so much better displayed and lit than in Cairo, dwelt on statues of a Pharaoh and an ancient Egyptian scribe.
Refreshed by a bottle of water, drinking it at a little table in the Louvre balcony, looking down at the throngs, the lovely staircase, the sky. Out into the open air, the broad spaces, the beautiful Louvre buildings, few people.
Walked to 13th century Saint-Chapelle, waited patiently in line while a young woman at the ticket counter, not very happy with her job, slowly dispensed tickets. Walked inside to the ground floor but thought this was it but it wasn't-only an introduction to what awaited us. Walked up a narrow stone winding stair case on the left side of the church. Reached the top, and we were dazzled by glorious long, slender stained glass windows on three sides with a rose window on the fourth. Can't absorb both the total effect and each detailed pain. Ovals, circles, and intricate scenes within each one. Both the old testament and new testament scenes, brilliant colors, plastic chairs lined up on either side of the church, allowing time to gaze, plastic laminated sheets in several languages explaining the windows, cameras allowed. The sun came and went, and when it settled on a window, it came alive, others illuminated by chandeliers. What artistry. What faith.
Had lunch at a caf across the street, "Le Caf des deux Palais"-justice and commerce. An American woman with her granddaughter sat across from us, a nice relationship for both of them.
Just outside the window there was a man sitting talking to another man the whole time, so typically French, a well- kempt beard, cap. We thought he was a prop for the caf. I signaled to him to ask if I could take his picture. He nodded and was pleased, making me think this happens to him quite often.
Walked to 11th-12th century Notre Dame, so many times bigger than Sainte- Chapelle,--the great grandmother of cathedrals--- so many stories high; how did they do it? What wealth collected to create it. This is power and awe.
Walked to Ile St. Louis, looked for Edgar's apartment. Think I found it. Stopped at an interesting boutique on the elegant narrow main street filled with tourists eating ice cream cones. Tempted, but had to save our appetites for dinner. Did succumb to exploring a wonderful chocolate shop, bought some very rich, very delicious dark squares. Thought of it as rescue food for John, who has a habit of needing a morsel of chocolate at lunchtime. Saw an amethyst necklace in the window reminding me of the one that I didn't get in Cairo, tried it on, citrine and amethyst, too heavy, couldn't bear to buy it, twice as much as Cairo. Strange that one regrets what one didn't buy more than regretting those things that are bought, and then there is the search for retrieving it somewhere. Some pleasure in the search.
On a side street, near Edgar's apartment, some faded bouquets of flowers on the sidewalk, decorated with red, white, and blue ribbons, set against the wall. Above was a gray slate plaque, looked new. "This is the house where 112 people were arrested, 40 of them children and were exterminated "dans les camps Allemands en 1942."
It made it so real, these happy streets are where they lived, bought bread and cheeses and went to the butcher shop. I felt guilty about ever having contemplated buying a necklace for 250 euros.
From there we found the Shoah museum. I emerged crying, John held me and gave me his handkerchief.
Walked some more looking for Edgar's garden, found the Jardin des Plantes. Families together, strolling, tree lined paths, so idyllic, in contrast with the museum. Life goes on. Getting tired, but lovely to see the flower beds, perfectly trimmed, such beauty and joy in flowers, especially in the spring when everything is new and surprising.
Walked and walked, finally to Gare d'Austerlitz, where we found a cab. Nice driver, enjoyed talking to him. "Vous parlez bien le franais."
Brief shower, rest, off to Le Cercle de l'Union Interallie." on the Faubourg- St.Honor. John discovered it because they have a reciprocal arrangement with the Harvard Club of Boston. Elegant former palace, beautiful architecture, furnishings. Delicious meal, splendid white asparagus with hollandaise. John had langustine (so tender).I had sole. Gorgeous light white wine. Beautiful garden out back, right in the middle of Paris, attentive service, just a few tables with French people and one group of Americans.
Both a wonderful vacation and a vacation from hell.
TGV (fast train) from Paris to Aix en Provence was wonderful, three hours exactly. Non stop, fast, comfortable, had a packaged salade Nicoise, surprisingly good.
Arrived at Aix station (different from regular station in town), had to find Avis, no trouble finding Aix, only had to figure out how to use the hand brake and how to get out of the parking lot. Toilet in the airport was the most diabolical I ever experienced-30 centimes (in Euros)-had to wait in line after finding right change-when one person left there was an orange light, had to wait three minutes for the green light to go on while the steel chamber went through a contortion of flushing and washing. No way to cheat and walk in if someone held the door. A steel trap, no knob, totally claustrophobic, like a maximum security prison. Saw a small ladder attached to the door, to avoid drowning? How to get out? A red button, only for emergencies? Pushed it, the door opened, freedom!
Found the route to Aix but then how to get to the main street, Cours Mirabeau? Tons of traffic, bus loads, difficult to make turns, going around rotaries, split second decisions to make about which road to take, parking lots full. Finally found a lot after asking a policeman. So many decisions. How to pay in the garage?
Walked along the wide Cours Mirabeau, tall plane trees on either side. Huge construction cranes leaning over the city, destroyed beauty, aware of all the building, change. No longer Czanne, even though banners from every lamppost proclaimed Czanne 2006, which ironically, was no doubt the cause of some of the construction.
Stopped to sit at a caf, "Les Deux Garcons," mentioned in "A Year in Provence." Difficulty finding just the right table, not too much sun, or too much shade. Watched people walking by, which is the best entertainment, both locals and tourists. No obese people anywhere. The few we saw anywhere on the trip were inevitable Americans.
Found our way out of the garage and out of the city, an achievement. There is something to be said for a guided tour. La prochaine fois. But of course, there isn't the freedom, privacy or the adventure.
Down to Cassis (the final "s" is not pronounced). Hotel "Royal Cottage." Not what we expected, modern , climb steep stairs to the bedroom. Dangereux pendant la nuit. Looking out from the balcony, deep blue green Mediterranean, even though the weather was cold, gray and windy.
Before dinner, stopped to have a drink, Pastice, at a clear, plastic enclosed terrace. It was cold. Watched a man strip down to his bathing suit and plunge in, awed by his courage on this cold blustery evening. Dramatic castle on the cliffs above. Great to be by the sea at this unseasonal time of year with few tourists.
Dinner at Le Mistral, "restaurant familial,"as the receptionist advised. John had oysters, which made him happy. Fish soup with aioli, potatoes, fish, a whole bottle of Rose. Too much, but delicious. A table of three young Swiss couples next to us, tried to tune the "Schweizerdeutsch" out, talk, talk, talk.
Next day, reached Claudie in Basel to get Danou's phone number. (A second cousin whose father was Andre Brunschwig (and Mimi), who had been a painter during the war, hidden, survived, long story). Agreed to meet for dinner, slept late, breakfast in room.
Beautiful morning-the sun came out, blue sky, like the blue shutters on some pink cream colored houses. Wanted to make the tour of Mt. Sainte Victoire, back to Aix, trying to avoid getting lost, a u-turn that almost landed us in a ditch, found upper road behind Ste. Victoire, very narrow, hoping not to meet a truck. Stopped at a village, Vauvenargues, terrace overlooking the back of the mountain, "Chez Ahmed" which boasted the best couscous in France, but only on Sunday. Had "salade bleu", tons of thick squares of blue cheese and sweet walnuts, dangerous for my teeth. Continued on, down, down, to the other side. Stopped at a beautiful winery, Domaine Saint Ser, a most glorious spot. Vineyard, mountain, alle of olive trees leading to the farm house which was perfectly maintained, elegant tasting room, a surprise, we were the only ones there. Friendly woman gave us a taste of Ros and White. Excellent, felt entranced by the experience.
Drove further toward Aix, alongside the mountain, always discovering new contours, magical. Stopped at a roadside parking area, though we'd walk a bit. Left my backpack in the car,( still trying to figure out why because I never do that.) At the winery, I first took my backpack with me, and then put it back, no one was there so it was safe. I must have applied the same thinking to the parking area, and didn't think of the backpack in the same way as I did my purse; carrying that was more of an instinctive habit. I was in such a happy state and we were just going to take a look at the path. Yet, some fear was in the back of my mind as I surveyed the car in front of us, the only car there. An "L" sticker on the back and we both thought it must mean Luxembourg, A woman had her legs out on the passenger side with the door open, no one in the driver's seat. I assumed he was out walking.
I discovered pretty blue flowers, wanted to take a photo. John went back for the camera. Never through of my wallet in the backpack. Walked further, such a blue sky, the lure of Ste. Victoire, seeing new shapes, crevasses, we were slightly drugged by the experience, could feel why Czanne was drawn to it again and again (60 times). The luxury of being all alone, away from the crowds, our discovery. As we got down, saw a family scampering up another path, leaving their van in the parking lot, and thought how good our timing was, to avoid them.
Glad to see our car still there, a small thought, it might be stolen. Got to my side, and "Oh, my God!! The window was smashed into a thousand fragments, on the seat, the floor-it was a physical attack. Felt anger and fear, like a bodily assault. John's first reaction was, how could anyone do that? He is a greater believer in humanity's goodness, than I am. We frantically opened the trunk-empty. For a moment we both had forgotten that our luggage was safely in the hotel Royal Cottage-as well as my passport, thank goodness. But of course all my credit cards, my identity, SS, Medicare, driver's license. Very upsetting. Evil had raised its fist, just when we had entered a perfect world of harmony with nature.
It preyed on me all afternoon and evening, playing the tape over and over again, how could I have been so stupid? I couldn't understand it except to conclude that I had let all my defenses down.
It ruined the rest of the afternoon. Back to Avis at the TGV station. New car. The woman at the desk made no big deal about it. Saw a sign at the French car rental agency next to Avis, which said, "Pour soyez tranquille" take out extra insurance for 9.5 euros to cover against "cassez les fentres et le vol" (broken windows and theft.) Wish we had seen that.
Had difficulty finding the right road to get down to Cassis because we came from a different direction, finally, "on est arriv." Made phone calls to cancel credit cards, worry about identity theft. Now we hear how often this happens, "particulairement dans le sud," never leave anything in the car, hold tight to your purse, " the receptionist told us, and elaborated with the precautions she takes when she enters her apartment in Marseilles.
John went down to meet Danou and Pierre, they drove from St. Paul en Foret, one and half hours. Spoke French, it felt good to make the connection with family even though she knows little about the family during the war. "Nous avons eu de la chance."
She brought herbs from her garden (which went through customs unobserved by the sniffing dog), and a cadeau, a green glass tray with a fern pressed into it. Her life is so different from mine. She and her husband are really "en retrait" (retired). Loves her garden, spends time watching the birds, needed to sleep a lot, no interest in going back to Paris. "C'tait seulement pour le travail." Got married eight years ago. Kept it a secret because she thought it was bad luck after living together (have been together 25 years). So many couples when they get married split up, she said.
I envied her tranquil life. A key part of it is Harmonie, a white powder puff of a dog (Bichon Frise), 14 years old , who is carried around in an open zippered blue canvas bag very happily. She slept through the dinner, Danou doesn't want to leave her for more than a few hours.
Ate at Nino's, a delicious fish soup. Better, thicker, richer than the night before, sole, and crpes sucre. Climbed the steps to bed. Had had pastice, liked it. Once had thought it very strong, remembered a caf near Mons in the pouring rain in 1970-71, had pastice, Arthur backed the camper bus into a tree. The dent always reminded me of that slightly tipsy afternoon.
So difficult to travel then, with all those children, Julia's terrible cough, giving her a hot bath in a pink plastic tub in the middle of the kitchen floor, having heated the water on the stove, all those up and down icy mountain roads. (to and from Mons). A wonderful New Year's eve meal in a tiny family restaurant (wonderful, no menu, set meal) in the cellar of a house, having someone watch the children while we ate. No meals alone otherwise, only the children. Remember Daniel loving some clementines at the house of distant relations in Draginon, who welcomed us. Never have found them so sweet and orange again. Stopping in Toulouse for food, no restaurants open. Children hungry. Finally Arthur brought out some sandwiches from a bar. They were crusty baguettes and didn't have much of anything inside. But the crying stopped.
Now, only the two of us--we go to good restaurants, inns, sleep late, and talk and talk. We are so compatible with each other as if we inhaled and exhaled together, even in a crisis, and there have been crises!.
No thought then, that my life would ever change like this.
Good morning breakfast, sunshine, market in the square, took an excursion boat to Les Calanques at 11:05 (three different tours, short, medium and long, we took the middle one). One hours and five minutes. Thrilling. First the boat was half empty, and then a group of jabbering Italian school boys surrounded us. At first they looked threatening, capable of smashing car windows and each other. John and I both tried to think of the title of the book " Lord of the Flies" (finally pieced it together that afternoon).
The boat went into deep deep blue green inlets, stark limestone cliffs, and caves, looked like stalactites and, like towers, dripping stone. En route, saw a man and a woman lying on top of a low cliff, naked, he putting sun tan lotion on her round buttocks. The boys giggled and we had to laugh too.
Lovely lunch, now pleasantly warm, a restaurant by the beach, protected from the wind (Le Mistral, blows much of the time, warm and cold). Had moules, baked with olive oil, light garlic, and a bit of cheese, delicieux. A fruit tarte for dessert, flaky crust.
Happily off to Avignon, putting the assault behind us.
Got to Avignon more quickly than anticipated. Ah, this is easy, we thought. Then tried to follow Hotel's directions to the center of the old walled city where our hotel was located. Impossible. Stopped three times, once at a bar, which turned out to be a club where everyone was playing cards-seriously-with a score board on the wall. A man at the bar asked me where I was from, when I said "Les Etats Unis", he wanted to buy me a drink. I had to insist we had no time. I probably met the only unshaven, slightly drunk Frenchman who was thrilled to meet an American, and an old woman at that!
But not good directions, even though several people at the bar pored over our maps. We had followed the signs for Les Morilles d'Avignon, and we both had thought that meant the walls. As we drove a long distance on that road John expressed the terrible suspicion that Les Morilles might be a separate town, and so it was.
Finally stopped at a lumber store, and John emerged with a map. Had wasted two horrible hours. The hotel was right by the cathedral. La Mirande. To get there had to stop in front of steel posts, talk into a speaker phone, the posts were in the middle of the road, they went down when a yellow light flashed. Hurry! They may go up again at any moment and smash into the floor of our car. The new wall, or moat.
Hotel room is beautiful, glorious bathroom. Rushed to make a phone call to Aline (John's parents had hosted Aline Gilles Menusier in York, Pa as an exchange teacher from Arles) before they left their house to meet us at the town square in St. Rmy at 6:30. No way would we try to get there by ourselves. Caught her just in time and her husband Pierre picked us up at the hotel. Such a pleasure to drive when you know where you are going.
Beautiful house, great care to have everything just right. Very house proud, lovely garden, pool, olive trees, view into the fields with the limestone mountains in the background. Still, she said the kitchen was too narrow, needed three more meters, and on the veranda, pointed to the two houses nearby, and said they had not been there before; the view had been better. Always something is not quite right.
I liked her and Pierre, felt very comfortable with them and appreciated the great care with which she had prepared a wonderful meal. (Later, when we saw some Van Gogh paintings-- I realized that she looked very much like a Van Gogh Painting L"Arlsienne).
Little puff pastries filled with fish paste to go with the champagne in crystal glasses, appetizer of fois gras filled with tiny quail eggs, steamed long green, peeled asparagus cooked in an amazing machine-a three layered steamer which puffed steam out the kitchen window in great clouds.
She told me how important her kitchen was, I cook all the time, "Le petit djeuner, le djeuner, le diner, trois fois par jours."
She had stayed with John's parents 46 years ago. After dinner she brought out two framed photos of John's mother and father which she kept in their bedroom. They were like parents to her, she said. "Ta mere, elle a chang ma vie." She liked his father too. "Your mother smiled, but your father laughed."
John was so pleased. The next day, when we said good-bye, he said the visit was like a dream come true. She told a story about how his father had convinced the tax collector in York-"because of a comma" that she didn't need to pay taxes. With that money she took a Greyhound bus trip all around the U.S. and was surprised to discover that she was with a group of retirees who referred to her as "that little French girl."
Pierre liked to talk about politics. She claims not to be interested. Both are " droit" but do not like Chirac, has been in power too long, only job he's ever had, only wants to get re-elected. They will vote for Le Pen as a protest vote (contestation), he will never get more than 10%. I countered that he was dangerous, and anti-Semitic.
He nodded and said, "Oui, un peu."
I said, "Je suis juif et il me donne peur."
Not much to say after that. Still, I couldn't help but like him. They both read "Le Figaro." She reads about art, music, theatre, and he reads about politics and business, he explained. It seems they have their lives divided up in a comfortable way. When I said I was grateful to John's mother because she because she brought him up to be comfortable with strong women, and that not every man can do that. She pointed to her husband in the kitchen and said, "C'est lui."
Not entirely docile, she was angry when he went on trip to the US with his club without her (other wives went). She said, "Now it's my turn", and went by herself to the US. I was pleased to learn that she had read "Suite Franaise" but we didn't have time to discuss it.
Back to Avignon. Lovely sleep, early morning in bed conversation. Breakfast in beautiful hotel dining room, fruit, rich 100% cream yogurt in a brown ceramic pot, brioche, different breads, and jus d'orange, freshly squeezed.
Out to the square and the Palais des Papes-took a little toy tourist train around the town, fun. Saw the gardens, the famous bridge, which spans only three fourths of the river. "On y danse," though now historians doubt that they ever danced there, too bad. I had sung the song when I taught after school French to private grade school students when Julia was a baby.
Visit to the Palais, what enormous wealth, staff. Have records of ordering thousands of chickens for the installation of the new pope. Only bare walls left, except for some murals. No wonder, the revolution. Lunch in a quiet square, surrounded by shrubs and flowers, salad Nicoise. Found our way to Les Baux with only one correction. Pierre had given us the Guide Michelin version of Mapquest, great.
Les Baux is an extraordinary spot, totally unexpected, set deep in the mountains, arrive there after ascending winding road. Our destination, Hotel La Riboto de Taven. Immediately welcoming and friendly owner, asked if we could carry our luggage up the stone steps to our room, nestled in the rocks. Gorgeous, breath-taking room, elegant, wooden ceiling, maroon canopy bed with canopy fixed into the rocks with iron rods, yellow, white and black flowered bedspread, iron gate in front of the door (our very own), enormous bathroom, overhanging rock. We live in a cave, literally. Feel very safe.
May 13 (Sunday)
Yesterday Aline picked us up promptly at 9:15 at Les Baux, went to Glanum, Gaul, Greco, roman ruins. They chose the spot to settle there because of the protective wall formed by the mountains and a spring which had healing powers, similar to Lourdes. Afraid of Barbarians, who came, plundered, and moved on. And afraid of illness, death, just like today. So many fragments-small vestiges of former lives, a column, stone work (Greeks were different from the Romans), and a site where a house stood for thousands of years, one civilization after another. Much imagination fills in the spaces.
Visit to Sanatorium where Van Gogh was hospitalized. The hospital is still in use, closed to the public. Cloister next door, wonderful flowers. Could see the landscape and the cloister through the eyes of his paintings. Upstairs, there was a replica of his hospital room, very stark. In another room, metal narrow bathtubs, covered by wooden boards, attached by steel locks. Electric shock treatments, can only imagine how primitive and horrible that was, thoughts of my father. Patients worked 10 hours a day, but they had art therapy and that perhaps is why Van Gogh was allowed to paint. Exhibit of present patients and their art. Whole experience very sobering. On the way, concentrated on a flowering chestnut, olive trees, vineyards-what Van Gogh must have seen.
Lunch with Aline and Pierre at their house -"tres simple" Croque monsieur, salad, assortment of cheeses (ate cheese twice yesterday), incredibly aromatic melon from Cavaillon which is famous for melon. Left over dessert from the night before: pear and orange sauce with slivers of peel -must have taken hours to prepare.
We all napped. I lay down outside in a chaise lounge. Aline covered me with a red wool blanket, and I looked out at the olive trees, tres calme.
In the afternoon, we went into St. Rmy, shopping, bought beautiful expensive table cloth, ( hard to decide which one), gentle rain, a wedding at the town hall, passed house of Nostradamus who was Jewish, Passed a locked Jewish cemetery.
In the evening walked up to Les Baux, visited three Michelin star hotel, Baumanire. It had lost one star. Conclusion was it was not what it used to be, quel dommage.
As we did last evening, delicious dinner at our no star. Found out later, that they had had one star, but it required staff and an a la carte menu to keep it. So they decided to just run a family operation, husband (waiter, host, gardener), brother (chef) and wife (hostess.) Just the three of them (Christine and Philippe and brother, Jean Paul Novi). Exceptional menu, beautiful dining room. The first night we were the only ones in the dining room because of the holiday weekend-were treated like royalty-the second night, more people, but still very quiet, leisurely, and great food and wine
Bath under the rocks, asleep. The days are disappearing. Don't want it to end.
The next day we stopped at an extraordinary sound and light show outside of Les Baux-Cezanne's paintings projected on the walls of a former quarry-many feet high, quite dark, spectacular. A real art connoisseur would frown upon this commercialism, but it is an experience nevertheless. Sound, too: Bach, Ravel, Mozart!
Then drove to Bonnieux in Le Luberon, written about extensively in "A Year in Provence."
10:55m Train left Aix TGV at exactly 10:41. Whew! Nervous breakdown en route from Bonnieux. One wrong turn quickly rectified (2 ways to get to Aix), had Michelin map, then got off to soon at Milles, tried to get gas before returning car, credit card wouldn't work, tried to figure out where to go to pay cash-impossible labyrinth. Finally decided to go back on the highway, and once back on, found the TGV station was well marked-arrived at the wrong side of the train station, went round and round with 11 minutes to spare. Exhausted. The second time I seriously thought of a guided tour John was great. I was awful, too anxious.
Nice to be a first class car with a numbered seat. John, with his graciousness, was the last person to get on the train.
Yesterday was beautiful, relaxing, winding roads, but it didn't matter if we got lost since we weren't on a schedule. Went to LaCoste, Menrbes-drink in a garden, Roussillon, ochre cliffs (ochre factory there), very striking, houses all in rose, and gold colors. Bought a plate with the local colors from a nice woman in a pottery shop, Gallery des Ochres. Felt for her because she was elegantly made up, especially her eys, but had a woolen cap on her head-cancer? She was proud of the work she showed the work of serious artists, different from the souvenir shops below Splendid view at the top of the town -the plain of Le Luberon.
Lunch in Roussillon, an ordinary restaurant recommended by the green guide Michelin (not the restaurant guide), called simply Le Bistro. It was almost empty and the one next to it was bustling so I wondered if we weren't making a mistake. We sat on the balcony out back, facing the russet colored cliffs. One other English speaking couple was there. Had the most incredible gazpacho with tiny crevette and truffle oil, paper thin smoked salmon floating in golden olive oil, a glass of rose, which is wonderful in Provence.
Then went to Gordes, a hill town, did not stop, and then to the Abbaye-very strict order of silence for the monks, enormous, huge gift shop, bought a tiny dyptich for Veronica.
Drove to Buoux -such a funny sound-had forgotten why "Year in Provence " had mentioned it (turned out we missed stopping at a Vineyard for a memorable dinner, but it may no longer exist). Found Buoux (boo), turns out 10 people live there (130 in the commune, the owner of a small restaurant told us.) Peaceful garden, fresh crunchy olives, pastice.
Dinner in Bonnieux-wanted something simple after the two star meal the night before at our hotel, Le Bastide de Capelongue that has a two star chef.
Everything is touristic in Bonnieux, once in a while spot a local who is not a shopkeeper. Many art galleries, most of it bad. Couldn't go into one restaurant because the art was so repelling.
Ate on the front porch of a small place, Bleu de Toi, facing the mountains, soft summer evening, the food was not extraordinary-lamb kabobs and baked potatoes, but every meal can't be like that, need some contrast.
The night before had an exquisite meal at La Bastide, everything in the inn is color coordinated in natural grey and white natural fibers, table clothes, outfits of the wait staff, furniture coverings, bedroom. Our room had an upstairs bedroom, but stairs not as steep, view out to the lavender planted garden, about to bloom.
We first arrived at lunchtime-rather late, and said we wanted a simple meal, because we had reservations for that evening. It was obvious that others were there for a big holiday lunch-all French, eating seriously. The waitress said the chef could prepare anything we wanted. John had an omelet; I had a salad and soup-beautifully presented. And then we had a little tray of wonderful small pastries, each a work of art-for dessert.
Rested a bit, sat by the pool with a view, not warm enough to swim, read, relaxed. Then found the pine forest (Foret des Cdres) a few miles down the road, walked in beautiful protected woods, forest smells, few people, getting late, back to our car, which we had carefully parked where there were other people.
Later, drinks on the veranda, had a special cocktail of the house made with Champagne with truffles, hors d'oeuvres tray-beautiful as the pastry tray had been, can't remember it all, but each morsel had its own flavor and creative genius.
Dinner beautifully served. First course, the essence of lobster bisque, and then went for it---fois gras, in two forms-chaud et froid. The chaud was cooked, slightly rare, melt in your mouth consistency, and the froid was a pate, very rich, very special. Served with lightly toasted rye bread. Rose wine, excellent. A dessert of rhubarb decorated with ribbons of candied rhubarb arranged like a sculpture. Trs content. To sleep in a canopy bed which had a yellow quilt, provencal, which I coveted. Love the Provencal crafts.
Day of departure, everything relaxed. Plenty of time to get to the airport. Sad to leave Paris. It is the most beautiful city in the world---I reaffirmed. Had thought London exciting, and it is, and the food we had in England excellent. But France still is different. Such a sense of beauty, all the trees, the buildings, the Seine, the bridges, walking, everyone walking .So many couples walking hand in hand.
The day before, we went to the Muse d'Orsay after we arrived back at our hotel from the railroad station. Had forgotten what a stunning building the former railroad station was. Saw great Toulouse Lautrecs, new appreciation of what he could do with a few lines, strokes of pastels. Degas, lots of Degas, Monet, Manet, Le Djeuner sur l'Herbe, two men fully dressed, vests, hats, and one woman seated nude, pleased with herself. A great scandal at the time.
Saw The Piper, John's favorite, and l'Odelisque, very seductive. Were lucky to get in, long line, blue museum ticket worked again.
Came to life in the fresh air. Took a taxi to see Andre Sartin, she and Robert were good friends of Edgar's, I got to know them on a visit to Paris and liked them.
Robert had died April 26-not long ago, found the apartment within a courtyard, on the Ile St. Louis, overlooking the Seine. She is like a wounded bird, totally, emotionally crippled. Felt our visit was good for her. Talked about reading Suite Franaise, told her I had forgotten that Robert was Jewish (she had said he wanted a Jewish funeral). Asked her what she had done during the war. It was as if I had opened a door long shut, she talked and talked, and her mother had been arrested but then released. Her father was taken to Auschwitz and worked as a doctor (one wonders, a doctor in Auschwitz?). They moved to different places and then someone took the family in back in Paris. "That's why we survived-par hazard." So much of survival is by "La chance" et "par hazard." Too bad the author of Suite Franaise could not have had such luck that is the terrible poignancy of the book.
Andre said she hasn't talked about these experiences to anyone. I said she should write it down or tape it. It is important for her children and grandchildren and the Shoah museum to know these stories. Strange that my questions had opened up these doors, as if she had been waiting to walk through them for a long time.
The final evening ate at a restaurant near the hotel, which John had known, La Graindorge on rue de l'Arc de Triomphe.
To the airport in plenty of time, time to luxuriate with a 20 minute airport massage (John unfairly took a picture) and buy little Eiffel towers for the grandchildren.
Uneventful flight, made the connection to Jet Blue, back to English language, my ear had gotten used to the sound of French, as with German, it opened up another part of my brain, which I love to explore.