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Life in Provence

Here's a sampling of posts that focus on daily life in Provence, local traditions, & seasonal highlights of the region. You can find these posts & more under the label Only in Provence.


My Year in Provence, A Love Story


It's hard to believe that a year has passed since I moved to France, but viola, here we are at the beginning of February - a year & a few weeks to the day we hopped on a small, noisy plane from Rome to Marseille. A short hour away, but clearly altogether different from the joyful chaos that had been my life in Italy.


I thought long & hard about what to write for this post, but found it very difficult to put into words what the experience of moving to a new country is like. I even put a lot of time into the Ask an Expat series several months back, trying hard to work through what practical steps are needed to make such a large transition. But things like making sure your CV is in order & being put in touch with a wondrous creation called 501 French Verbs, while important, do little to prepare you for the roller-coaster ride that starting a new life abroad brings.


Really, the past year has been one of the most exhilarating, exhausting, fall-on-your-face & get back up again experiences I've ever had.  France is not an in-your-face, belly-laugh out-loud culture like Italy (or even the United States) There's definitely a subtilty to the French culture & the French people that requires a great deal of perseverance. In France, you need to be patient...or maybe more appropriately, stubborn.  A rich, multi-faceted world lies below all those air kisses, formal greetings, & haughty cafe-time glares, but it takes some time to get there.

And when you're there, or about half-way in my case, what a pay-off:  warm, caring people, elegant living, & time-honored traditions.  Oh, and of course, whole magazines that talk just about cheese. Provence, je t'amie.

*parade photos celebrating Jour des Rois (Kings Day) our 2nd weekend in France. Aix-en-Provence


Oysters, Gourmet Sojourns, & Epiphany Traditions


Greetings from a very rainy Provence! I've been back in our fair South since last Thursday, with just the right amount of jet lag to keep me going through the New Year's festivities & ring in 2011 with a bang. Well, make that more of a long, rolling *sigh*, since that is exactly how we spent most of Friday evening - oohing & ahhing over the wonderful foodie creations our hosts had put together, followed the next day with a lot of canape time.  

And no need to whip out your French dictionaries here folks - canape means sofa in English.  But just how exactly do we translate "couch potatoes"? I'll leave that one to the experts...


The other fabulous thing about the start of 2011, is the hours I get to spend musing over where to go for the Gourmet Sojourn that my better half (who said that?) was gifted over the holiday season. Just a little something extra-special known as the Dakota Box.


This box just might be the best gift ever (everrrr), and was rated #2 on the list of things that the French wanted for Christmas (#1?...money...there's no fools over here friends) - at least that's what the kind newscasters on channel M6 told us this holiday season.

Mais, qu'est-ce que c'est le Dakota Box?  Just what exactly is this box?  Well, it's not really about the box - more the book inside the box that contains more than 120 options to spend the night in a French hotel with your choice of a gourmet dinner. Again, total awesome-ness! (still can't really let my California trip go).


Well, besides spending hours on the canape with the Dakota Box (how can we choose just on place? boggles the mind...), I'm really looking forward to all the new adventures 2011 has to offer. Among them, learning more about this beloved region called Provence, with all of its fun and quirky traditions.

Like tomorrow, on the 6th of January, when we will celebrate the Epiphany, or the Jour des Rois, in France.  Besides customs of baking a plastic "trinket" of a king inside a round bread (gateau de Rois) & crowning a (paper) "king" to whichever lucky person finds the trinket, there is another tradition of keeping small pots of wheat growing in your home until the Epiphany.  You can buy the wheat at your local bakery, and it's said to bring you fortune & money in the New Year.

Wishing everyone a very happy 2011! Here's hoping your year is full of a lot of wheat & little kings :)


A Colorful Fall in Provence



Just when things were starting to get downright gloomy around here, the sun made a surprise appearance this morning and put everything right again - well, almost everything, considering there is a national strike today (grève) to protest an increase in the retirement age.  No buses, trains, or public transport - nada. And coincidentally, I had an individual lesson with a train conductor from SNCF (English lesson that is) which of course was cancelled. If I can get him to kick-in a TGV ticket, we'll call it even...


So with a free morning, I hit the road early to take a look around and do one of the things I like to do best - check out what's happening around town. I've found I simply can't get enough of the vivid colors of the markets, cafès, and even the bright tones of many houses in Provence.


And when I take some time to think about what makes living abroad so special for me, I always return to the "vibrancy" of Europe.  You might find some of these scenes in other countries, and for sure I have come across one or two pink Vespas in Italy...but when I stumble-upon these kind of "colorful", unexpected surprises, I can't help but smile.



So I continued past the markets, cafés, and the lady offering the first of the season's cade, a oven-fired Provençal savory cake made from chickpeas, and I headed back home.  Of course there were a few pit-stops to be made along the way - I mean how can you not stop when face-to-face with a green & purple door? Or sprigs of purple & orange flowers climbing over a wall...love it.

Strike or no strike, I was very happy to find there's a lot more color to enjoy during a Provençal fall then the changing of the leaves. That, and the fact I snagged a few good-looking croissants for the trip home..long walk & all...



Sunday Breezes, Blue Waves & French Chatter


Well, we didn't make it as planned to Aix this weekend - got sidelined by a Saturday-morning sleep-in and opted for a shorter drive to Sanary-sur-Mer. Guess I had Sanary on the brain from Friday's post & really couldn't wait to return. It was actually our first Saturday visit, and I was very happy to find a bustling market with all my usual Wednesday morning favorites.  A bit reduced in size, but lively nonetheless.  Not to mention we topped off the morning with a stop to our favorite bakery where I bought a huge chocolate ganache.  I've come to realize that I have no more excuses for my pastry-eating; just can't help myself when passing those lovely display cases.

We also picked up some flowers and I guess I forgot to mention the pit-stop for a cheese-plate and a few glasses of Pinot Blanc.  All & all, these impromptu weekends aren't half-bad.


Sunday found us enjoying bright sunshine with a touch of the wind that makes us all shudder a bit, the Mistral. Thankfully nothing strong, our old friend only seems to be dipping his toes in the water to see if it's okay to come out and play. And what a beautiful water it was this weekend.




Nicolas has a childhood friend visiting (from grade school) which I found quite special as they both come from a very small town in the north of France, Bar-le-Duc, and besides the beautiful views & fresh fish we enjoyed for lunch, maybe the best thing of the afternoon was being able to chat...in French.


I don't know exactly when it happened, but being able to chat in a natural way and maybe show a bit of humor is a major milestone for me.  It feels like the point when people really get to know you, your character & personality, and you move from a somewhat timid observer to a full-fledged participant.  Plus, it just feels...cool... a petite Française for a day.

Happy Monday & cheers from a now-chilly South, xx


Slow Sundays in Le Sud...or the Careful Art of Doing Nothing


Things have really slowed down in the South.  It's hot, humid, the cicadas are chirping away, and  the most strenuous activity involves stuffing a towel in a tote & lugging yourself down to the beach. If there's a better word than languid to describe this time of year, I'm still searching for it.

Then we have Sundays. It took me a great deal of time to get used to Sundays. It seems the art of doing nothing actually involves just the tiniest bit of planning. We did the lazy, sleep-in until 11am and drag yourself to a cafè thing, only to find that almost all organized-life shuts down somewhere between 12 & 1:30pm - wait too long to hit the markets, and you could find yourself dining on whatever is left in your pantry. I'm still praying Nicolas' mother doesn't find out about one of our first Sunday dinners starring a hunk of Camembert and a stale baguette. Quelle horreur! 

That was a quick lesson learned, so the first order of any successful Sunday à la Provençal is Get Thee to Market.  Now that the summer has arrived, it's easy to pick up some fresh vegetables and a bit of meat for the grill, but our usual Sunday favorite is roast chicken.  There are chicken vans and ad hoc chicken stands set up around the local outdoor market, and grabbing a bird or two for lunch is quite popular. We learned this the hard way; arriving late one Sunday (12pm) and having a (greasy) business card thrust our way by one of the stand owners. Chickens were sold out, and if we wanted to hedge our bets for the next week, we would need to call ahead to reserve our roast. The early bird gets the worm...or in this case, another bird.

  

After procuring our chicken, we like to make the rounds at a few other stands to pick up other Sunday staples:  fresh olives and tapenade with a choice baguette (I'm particularly keen on the pain aux noix variety at the moment; warm bread with nuts...heavenly).   Our favorite stand carries a wide variety of olives, tapenades, & also capers, marinated artichokes, and various salted goods; including sardines & cod.  If you can't squeeze it all in at Sunday, this is excellent Provençal picnic fare.

                              



After a trip to market, it's difficult to have any more ambitious plans than going home & spreading out our feast. We do stroll the streets a bit; taking in a bit of the neighborhood rhythms of the morning- the idle chatter in the cafès, the flip-flop of women passing in their casual summer finest, and the pretty flower-laden balconies & terraces we pass en route.  

   


Some Sundays we have more ambitious plans; local festivals, barbecues followed by rowdy games of Pétanque, or trimming our lone olive tree.  Quite frequently though, as with this past Sunday, after chicken, a pleasing bottle of Rosè, and a tad too much tapenade, spending some quality time on the canapé (sofa) is all we can hope to accomplish.


Summertime in Provence: Cicadas & Pastis


The Fete de la Musique took place last Monday in Provence, and the rest of France, to celebrate the arrival of the Summer Solstice. Some of our local favorites covered everything from bossa nova to U2 & the White Stripes. I'm thrilled our small town can rock with the best of them; although I think I could have done with a bit less techno at 2am (I surely don't remember any techno DJs in A Year In Provence).

We were getting our groove on that night (well, I swayed back & forth to Where the Streets Have No Name at least), but I didn't really feel the coming of summer until this past weekend; or more specifically, ever since the cicadas started chirping day & night outside our window.  These little creepers are the first real signal summer has come & quite a mascot for the region. They are also over-represented in tourist shops in the form of giant, brightly-painted ceramic decorations (Provence's answer to the garden gnome).  But, I do get it. After months & months of rainy, Mistral-whipping weather, I too feel a fondness for these creatures (although I still couldn't bring myself to post a picture of my new summer friends).


At least the other Provençal summer favorite comes in a pretty bottle.  Until about a year & a half ago, I had no idea what Pastis was until Nicolas offered up a glass as an aperitivo in Rome.  I've always liked the smell of anise, but like many liquors flavored with this licorice-wannabe plant, Patis can be an acquired taste. If you've taken a walk on the wild side & tried anise-flavored Sambuca in Italy, you might also like a tall glass of Pastis on a hot summer day in Provence.  But make sure it really is a tall glass (locals traditionally add ice and water to their splashes of liqueur) as this "summertime friend" is 40-45% proof.