Archive for the ‘…a la Maison’ Category



July 20, 2010

A moment of peace before the day begins.


I sit in the wooden lounge chair in the early morning hours, a hot mug (the French drink their coffee from a cereal bowl but I always feel like I’m going to spill half of it on myself) of café au lait warming my hands and my body.  This mornings air is brisk – a welcome change from the constant heat of the last few weeks.  Although the temperature promises to rise into the mid 30’s again today.   

Soon the girls will awaken, always up with the sun, never letting us forget that we told them one winter morning when the sun rises around 7:30 am that they were not allowed to wake us until they see the sun.  We forgot that the sun rises at 5:30am in the summer months.  We’ve regretted that rule for a few summers now. 

The guests will arrive shortly after expecting breakfast and conversation which we are happy to provide.  Everything is ready on the stone tables in the garden overlooking the vines.  The coffee is hot.  My mother-in-law’s homemade apricot and cherry preserves await the hot bread and croissants that Raphael went to fetch from our favorite bakery in town.  

This is my moment.  The water, which flows from a Roman source deep beneath the earth, trickles over the tiny fall at the base of the garden wall.  I never noticed its music before, covered by the daily noise of playing children and the rumble of the tractor as it makes its way up and down the fields.  

I watch a lizard scurry along the wall and remember something one of our guests said in parting the other day.  Clasping my hand and wishing me a good day, she said that I complete the place.  Raphael said later that it was the highest compliment.  It meant that without me, this place doesn’t work.  I wonder though, if I, like Raphael’s mother, will ever feel that this is truly my home.   

Raphael comes up behind me and runs his hands through my hair.  As if reading my thoughts, he says, “Without you, I don’t work.”  And I know that my home is with him.


Crazy old ads…

May 18, 2010

Olivia got caught sneaking out of the attic again.  This time she thought she’d be sly and come down the rickety steps to the wine cellar which might have been a good idea seeing as how it was early Saturday morning.  Except she didn’t count on her Papa working early that day, until, that is, she ran into his chest as she opened the door directly facing the sun. 

This time she was sneaking out with her ‘treasure’, 100+ year old town newspapers.  After the standard lecture about the dangers of the grenier and how she mustn’t touch things that don’t belong to her, this time explaining about the age, “This one is older than Papi,” Raphael said.  “Papi’s papa was only 10 year’s old.” of the items she was swiping, Raphael and I had a look at the papers.  

The oldest is dated August 26, 1894.  Usually sold for 5 centimes an issue, this one, issue #9 of Le Riverain Agricole, cost a whopping 10 centimes because of the headline, a special competition, Concours Agricole Artistique et Industriel.   

I opened to the inside spread and given the name of the paper, expected to see articles on harvesting, treating various plants, animals for sale – anything and everything to do with agriculture.  Hélas no.  These are some of the headlines from inside:  Cronique Littéraire – Les Livres Sensuels.  I read most of this articles which talks about writers (they use the word artists) who put their characters in positions of ‘fièvres lacives et grisantes’, lascivious and exhilarating fevers.  “The women are disheveled and crazy with passion,” the articles author wrote.  The men, well, the word translates to minced meat pie and then the author gives an example of the male characters in a popular novel of the time.  I guess these books were not taboo in the late 1800’s in France since the article seems to praise them and goes on to suggest titles and authors to read.  A surprising article for an agriculture newspaper.

Another article was titled “Aux Etrangère“, the strangers, and went on to explain all the wonderful things to do and see in this ‘charming city,’ but with a poetry only the French could write, “Coquettement parée comme une femme…” Adorned coquettishly like a women…” was one description of the city.  The paper also included a small ditty to sing entitled, “You will love me a little.” 

The back page is devoted to advertisements.  Some of the names we recognized;  a current winemaker, who’s family, according to this ad, once fabricated wine filters.  There is a nice sized ad for the town public baths.  “Open all day from 5 am to 7 pm.  For 60 centimes, one can take an ordinary bath without towel and for 5 francs one can have a card for 10 baths.”  And let’s not forget the ad more the ‘marvellous hair lotion,’ with a 100,000 franc offer to the person who could prove the ineffectiveness of this lotion! 

The next two papers Olivia had were from 1946 and 1949 by which time the Riverain Agricole had become just the Riverain and cost 6 francs.  By 1949, the ads and articles resembled a local paper of today announcing a concours de boules, the local soccer scores, and, of course, the possibility to purchase vegetables which heal, price 90 francs, although they didn’t say what the vegetables were nor what they healed.


The good luck bird…

May 11, 2010

We have a new guest at the bed & breakfast.  Thankfully this guest doesn’t need a bed, towels, a mirror or a clean bathroom. Since this bedroom is currently being tiled and repainted, none of these things are available.  This guest sleeps on the chandelier or perched on the curtain rod.  Our guest is a hirondelle or a swallow. 

For the past few days the bird has circled around the cave, flying in and out evaluating places to build her nest.  When Raphael first saw her he was thrilled saying that a hirondelle is a sign of life, a good omen for the house.  The myth behind the swallow says that she arrives for the day of the Annunciation in March and stays until the nativity of the Virgin Mary on September 8th bringing happiness to the house in which she chooses to make her nest.  For Raphael, a believer in signs and possessing a stong faith with a special sentiment for the Virgin Mary, our new resident is a sign of good things to come. 

While I’m not too keen on this bird building a nest in a bedroom, I’m okay if she relocates to the old cave.  The problem I think is Kitty, who has discovered the bird and makes an odd mewing sound while jumping from one place to another in an effort to catch it.  My father-in-law is certain that if we let the bird stay and make her nest, the cat will soon have a meal out of her.  Raphael disagrees insisting that the swallow is too intelligent to get caught.  It’s true, she seems unaffected by the cat, perched, as she is, on the light fixture, looking from side to side, her long forked tail pointing down between the lightbulbs.  I opened the window last nigh hoping she would fly out.  But the girls, excited with this new toy, kept closing the window when I left the room.  Raphael assured them the swallow was not going anywhere last night.  She feels safer in the house with us than out in the dark and rain.  He was right.  This morning she was still there when we woke, flying out the still open window around 8am, most likely off to search for breakfast. 

The window has been closed most of the day and the old cave as well.  I did see her sitting with another swallow, her mate perhaps, near the cave when I returned home from the school run.  She flew off shortly after.  As evening falls, and with the bedroom window once again open to allow the paint to dry, I’m wondering if she’ll return for the night.


Sunny dandelion days…

April 14, 2010


Dandelion necklaces are an excellent way to make use of all those yellow weeds sprouting up in the vines and gardens and pass a sunny vacation day.   

 The girls are halfway through their first week of the spring/Easter holiday and yesterday we enjoyed a perfect spring day playing with friends.  

Justine and Angeline la coquine. Justine, who happily showed Auriane how to make the dandelion necklace, and her two boys, Louis and Augustin drove up from the Avignon area with two roasted chickens from their local market. We ate them in the garden, with rice salad and wild asparagus, the sun burning through the back of my shirt, a welcome change from the chilly rain of last week. The adults lingered over coffee and chocolate while the kids spent a happy afternoon rolling down the hillside, climbing trees, building dams in the water canal, and helping Papi prune trees. Love the belly on Angeline.


In general having a great time putting holes in the knees of their play clothes, getting grass stains on their shirts, and sticks stuck in their hair.  A perfect spring afternoon.


Warming butts and beds

March 28, 2010

Antique copper coal bed warmer used my the family 100 years ago.


Along with the husky winds of Provence come the coldest days of winter.  The days when the sparse electric heaters and the one active fireplace in the house just don’t cut it.  And nights are the worst.  Our bedroom is in a solitary corner of the house nearest to the cave and with the unheated attic above and an unheated storage space below, the tiny electric heater under the window doesn’t always cut it.  On a windy day, it feels as if the temperature drops 10 degrees each time I walk in to my bedroom.   

At night, I lay between chilly sheets under five blankets tucked up to my nose wearing the warmest comfortable clothes I own and thick socks and wait for my body heat to permeate the bed.  My icy nose is the only thing protruding from the protection of the blankets.  I even try to wrap my hair around my face to keep it warm.  I haven’t yet succumbed to wearing a hat to bed although…  

A hundred years ago (or maybe more recently, like Raphael’s childhood, for all I know), the entire house was heated by wood burning fireplaces.  And many still are.  The only difference with our house is that we use electric heaters in the primary rooms.  Four of the six bedrooms in this house have fireplaces but none of them are used today.  In the past, the fire in the bedroom was not usually maintained during the day.  It was started as night fell.  To warm the sheets before bed, a copper bed warmer was filled with hot coals, wrapped in a towel and then slid between the sheets.   

We upgraded this practice last winter with a plastic water bottle.  We fill the bottle with the hottest water we can get from the sink then slip it between the sheets before getting in.  For me, this serves as a foot warmer if Raphael stays up late reading.  The only problem is that it doesn’t heat the entire bed so I have to move it around from top to bottom, side to side.  And it cools quickly.  But it does take away the icy feel of the sheets.  And it’s not as dangerous as a pan of hot coals rubbing against blankets.  

Another tradition held over from the past is the practice of border, or tucking the blankets tightly around the person.  It’s something many people still do for young children as an action of love.  In the past it was a practical way of keeping the sleeping person warm by enclosing the body heat in a small space.   

Raphael is my personal bed warmer.  When he climbs in a little after me, I wrap my still icy feet around his to warm them up and soon his body heat, (He’s never as cold as I am.  Perhaps a result of growing up without central heating.) infuses me with warmth.   In addition to my nose, my hands, feet and oddly my butt are my coldest parts.  There’s nothing like cuddling to warm the body.


Where are you Spring?

March 12, 2010

Almond tree in bloom despite the freezing temperatures.

What is wrong with this weather?  Where is the Provençal spring I had been dreaming about the past two weeks?  Quelle horreur!  Ten minutes before arriving at our train stop in Valence, Raphael woke me.  I sat up groggily and looked out the window.  To my horror, the ground was covered in a fine layer of white – snow!  Raphael had warned me that the weather had taken a turn and it had snowed Sunday through Monday.  Enough that they closed the schools Monday morning.  I didn’t think much of it.  It doesn’t take much snow to close a school in Provence.  It sometimes only takes the possibility of snow for the locals to worry. 

 That’s what happened during Olivia’s first year of school.  One Tuesday in February I arrived at the school to pick her up and received a notice from the director asking all parents to keep their kids home on Thursday, if possible, as the weather is calling for snow.  I walked outside with Olivia and looked around.  The day was sunny and warmish giving a hint of an early spring.  They’re crazy, I thought to myself as we walked leisurely to the boulangerie for a pain au chocolat.  Sure enough the temperature did drop to near freezing by Wednesday night and on Thursday morning a few flurries were blowing around in the wind.  So few that, in Pittsburgh, people would probably not even notice as they went about their day.  I was new enough in Provence that I bundled Olivia up and headed out to school.  It wasn’t closed but few teachers had risked the weather to show up and even fewer students occupied the classrooms.  The teacher looked nervous and mentioned that she lived far out in the country and she worried about getting home that afternoon.  I decided to take Olivia home.  I’m sure I had a look of disbelief on my face as we made our way off school grounds.

Last weekend’s snowfall was much more than the flurries of Olivia’s first year.  And it came as a surprise.  A strawberry farmer south of us lost his entire production.  Good thing we’re late in planting our garden.  My in-laws spent the weekend at the sea.  On Saturday, they said, people were swimming.  Sunday morning promised the same.  They called Raphael mid morning and said they’d be back later that evening.  You’d better come sooner he told them.  It’s snowing here and not planning to stop soon.  They left shortly after and hit snow around Nimes.  So much snow, they said, they couldn’t see the road. 

As we neared home, a good hour south of Valence, I happily noted less and less snow on the ground.  There are only a few patches in the courtyard and along the sides of the road.  But the weather is barely above freezing during the day and falls below freezing at night.  And it’s windy.  I had been planning on packing up the heavy sweaters, hats and gloves this weekend.  Guess that’ll wait a little longer.  I left the girls’ snow boots in Pittsburgh.  This weather makes Pittsburgh look balmy.  I imagine everyone I left behind is laughing now.  Spring will be here soon.  I have faith.  A sure sign, the almond trees are blooming their pale pink blossoms.  And once it arrives, there will be no mid April snowfalls that haunt the northeast United States.


Glacial wind and rattling houses

January 28, 2010
Caught in the Mistral

The frigid wind nearly blows me over as I step outside of the warm house and dart across the gravel path (otherwise known as the Cousignac wind tunnel) to our kitchen in the building next door.  With temperatures in the negatives and the howling Mistral, the weather feels glacial and I have no desire to battle the girls for shoes, coats, hats, etc. just to get them next door for dinner.  We’ll be eating on the coffee table tonight, an adventure that’s becoming a regular habit this winter due to the negative temperatures, the periodic rain storms and the two days of snow we had at the beginning of the month. 

Cringing as the girls drop noodles (thankfully, only lightly buttered) on the living room floor, my sighs are drowned out by the whooshing of the wind through the cracked roof tiles in the attic just above, the banging of the shutters in the empty bed & breakfast room down the hall, and the whistling the wind makes as it seeps under the door in our living room – the one leading to the unheated cave.

In Pittsburgh a wind like this usually announces a raging thunderstorm on its way – or tornado perhaps.  In Provence it’s common and something the locals don’t even notice, most of the time.  I imagine my kids do not think twice about the wind.  In fact, today they went out to play with the dog in it.  (I’ll take snow over wind any day.)  In a drafty stone farmhouse, winter is a learning experience. 

In my early days in France, if I found myself alone in the apartment on a dark windy evening I, well, it freaked me out.  A house with 400 years of history, much of which is unknown, in the middle of dark fields, the only sign of life an odd light shining in the distance, my mind would start to imagine all sorts of spooky or frightening things.  I had to turn the TV on loud and leave all the lights on until Raphael got home. 

He’s out this evening but I’m used to the sounds of the house on a windy night.  I would prefer not to have to go out in it.  It’s bitter cold and goes right through my heaviest coat, clothes, and skin all the way to my core and stays there until I take a hot shower. 

It’s said that the wind in Provence, which has two types the more famous Mistral or south wind and the north wind, comes in series; one day (preferred), three days, or seven days.  This is the end of day one of a strong Mistral.  How they can tell it comes from the south I don’t know.  To me it seems to be coming from all directions at once.  With the force with which it’s blowing tonight, I doubt it’s a one dayer.  But that’s the thing about wind in Provence, it could stop as swiftly as it’s currently blowing.  With any luck, tomorrow I’ll wake up to calm and sun, the reason Provence is so magical.