As springtime arrives in Provence, life moves from inside to the outdoors. One of the things we love to do is take a nice hike with friends. Well-marked trails crisscross the french countryside, and there is always somewhere new to explore.
A typical afternoon hike will range from 1-3 hours, and is a great way to catch up with friends while burning off a few calories from a two-hour lunch!
Our walks invariably lead to some interesting discovery -- fields of blooming flowers, pre-roman ruins, or just an amazing view that shows off the landscape in a new light.
The way this landscape affects us is always inspiring, and often deeply personal. There is something about being in nature with friends that leads to openness and honesty -- personal exchanges that bring people together.
Provence is the ultimate social media.
One of the first food festivals of the season is the Fête de la Fraise (Festival of the Strawberry) in the town of Carpentras (about 10 minutes from Bédoin). Carpentras is famous for its delicious strawberries, and after a long winter indoors, all of the local residents are ready to come out and celebrate.
The festival features lots of fresh strawberries for sale, cooking demonstrations, live music, and activities for the children.
It was a fun (and tasty) way to celebrate the coming of spring, and share in the bounty of the local harvest.
Le Quatorze Julliet (July 14th) is a day of celebration in France. Fête Nationale (aka Bastille Day) marks the storming of the Bastille in 1789, as well as the Fête de la Fédération which celebrated the unification of the French people in 1790.
In our region of Provence (the Vaucluse) there were fig, melon and apricot festivals. In Coromb at the Fig Festival, local producers were selling all things fig--fig confiture (jam), fig crêpes, fig trees and fig tapenade.
Who knew that there are over 500 varieties of fig? Black figs, white figs, striped figs--all ripe and sweet, and ready to eat! Fig trees grow wild in Provence and it is not uncommon to see huge trees bursting with fruit on the side of the road.
In Bédoin, the village square was filled with dining tables, live music and dancing, carnival rides and even a roulette table! The party went on into the late hours of the night. Here kids and adults alike party until 2am. Seeing toddlers out with their parents at 1am is a concept that took some getting used to, but they seem to have a great time and no one is worried about getting up early the next day.
And while it is always fun to participate in another culture's holiday, we have the happy coincidence of also being able to celebrate my wife's birthday on the same day. To celebrate her birthday we had a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant called La Colombe that we have been wanting to try. We highly recommend it if you are here for a visit--great food and lovely ambiance.
As we close in on our first year in Provence we continue to be amazed at the abundance of the land, the welcoming nature of the people, and the joyful simplicity of life. It feels at once new and timeless, but most of all, it feels like home.
Did you celebrate Bastille Day? Let us know how!
All photos © 2015 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
I'm very excited to announce the start of a new adventure! Fellow expat Bill Flanagan and I have partnered to create a new video web series about life in the south of France.
We call it "Lost in Provence."
Why "Lost?" Well, we think it reflects our philosophy about travel and adventure. We prefer taking backroads and wandering through small villages to being herded around by organized tours through crowded tourist towns. We like to meet quirky artists, eat at family-run cafes, and buy food from local farmers. When we travel we stay in one area for weeks rather than hop from one big city to the next.
Our desire is to share the people and places in Provence (and beyond) that we find fascinating. These won't be the big tourist destinations, but rather places off the beaten path; places you would likely never hear about unless you live here.
We're looking for people who share our passion for knowledge, and have a desire to delve deeper. A typical Lost in Provence episode lasts 20-30 minutes because we believe digging beneath the surface is ultimately the most satisfying way to travel.
And if you don't have 20-30 spare minutes, don't worry! We also have a special section called "Side Trips" dedicated to 2-5 minute segments we think are fun.
We hope you will find Lost in Provence interesting, and most of all, entertaining. So pour a glass of wine, grab some cheese and bread, and allow yourself to be transported away.
To check out "Lost in Provence" go to: http://www.lostinprovence.com
Ten months ago we made the move from California to Provence, giving up the pressure and stress of life in the Los Angeles suburbs for a home in the countryside of Provence. Like the south of France, our blog has been a bit quiet lately. Winter was a time of hibernation. When you are accustomed to sunshine 364.5 days a year, four months of wind, rain, cold and even a bit of snow took some serious getting used to. I can’t say we ever acclimated to the winter weather, but we learned that Provence is definitely a place where the pace of life is driven by the seasons.
Provence is largely built around sunshine. It is one of the most prolific producers of agricultural products in France, and the tourism industry runs a close second. With few mountains for winter tourism, Provence lures tourists with picture perfect villages and sunshine. When the sun goes away, so do the people. Shops close up, and many people (especially expats) head to bigger cities or warmer weather. We hunkered down, warmed ourselves in front of the fireplace, and surrendered to the new experience.
Le printemps brought with it a burst of color to the monotone landscape of winter. The pink and white blossoms of the almond and cherry trees appeared first, followed by patches of yellow wildflowers growing between the rows of dormant vines, and patches of purple irises. Red poppies sprung up here and there, and then took over entire fields, and in just a couple of short weeks the leaves on the vines reappeared and the valley was soon blanketed in wash of color.
Our village of Bédoin is fortunate to have a year-round market, however in the winter the market contracts to just a few vendors in the village center. Throughout the spring the market gradually expands again, eventually taking over the entire town, until it is in full swing again in June. The fruits of spring—cherries, apricots, melons, early tomatoes--begin to appear and our meals change from soups and stews to salads, fresh fruits and grilled vegetables.
The other thing that starts appearing in the village in the spring is a constant stream of cyclists up Mont Ventoux. Since the summit is closed during the winter (due to weather conditions), when spring arrives and the snow melts, it’s game-on.
And now summer is upon us. The days are long and hot, friends and family visit. We dine under the stars, wander the shady streets of medieval villages and sip a chilly glass of rosé. And with each new season we marvel at how much this land has remained the same over the centuries, and yet how much it has changed us in such a very short time.
All photos © 2015 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
Winter in Provence has been a very quiet time of year. The temperature hovers around freezing (32 F/0 C), which is holy-cow-it's-freaking-freezing for this wimpy family from southern California. As far as we can tell, the culture here is built around the sun and outdoor living. During l'hiver people seem to flee public spaces and the cold for the warmth of family and home.
Unlike the rain-culture of the UK where we could always find a cozy pub with a roaring fireplace, Provence is an outdoor culture. Most of the little villages are built around tourism, and without the summer crowds fueling the local economy, the shops simply shut down until it warms up. Even in our village of Bédoin, which is active year-round, about 70% of the shops and restaurants are closed until spring.
But staying at home 24/7 gives us cabin fever, and if you've seen The Shining you know how bad that can get. So we were thrilled when our friend Madeleine Hill-Vedel invited us to join her cooking class for a couple of days in Avignon and Arles. Madeleine is an accomplished cheese-maker, cook and runs a winter cooking school that includes visiting goat farms, truffle hunting, wine tasting, outdoor farmers markets, and of course cooking delicious meals.
On Friday evening we joined Madeleine and her friends at her home in Avignon for our first class. On the menu was fresh pasta with truffles and foie gras, baked squash with lardons and onions, duck breast, a cheese platter and a delicious homemade ricotta cake. We also prepared a terrine of duck, pork and foie gras for the next day, and stuffed ducks' necks with a mixture of duck confit, pork and other decadent and delicious ingredients!
Vegetarian and vegan friends, this wasn't the meal for you.
Our first evening of cooking ended with a delicious meal, and the good company of Madeleine's client and her friend (and fellow blogger) Julie Mautner. We had spoken to Julie shortly after arriving in Provence, and it was a delightful surprise to finally get to meet her in person.
Saturday morning we met Madeleine and her client in Avignon and headed 45 minutes south to the huge outdoor market in Arles. The Saturday market in Arles is the largest in Provence, and the winter chill and a bit of rain certainly didn't deter the hundreds of food vendors. We bought fish for Soupe de Poissons, bread, baclava, some greens, and just strolled the walkways and enjoyed the ambience of this beautiful Provençal city.
After the market we gathered at the home of Erick Vedel to prepare a lunch of Soupe de Poissons, fresh oysters, fried mackerels, the duck terrines from the previous day, and of course wine and dessert.
After lunch, Madeleine was off with her client to tour the Roman museum in Arles, but we had a long drive home and everyone was ready for a little rest chez nous. The Roman museum will be there for us to return to another day, and now that we have "discovered" Arles we are excited to go back again soon.
But maybe when the sun is out.
All Images © 2015 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
A few days ago I noticed that the moon was full in the morning sky, and so I threw my camera in the car and left for the morning réunion de covoiturage at the nearby rond-point with the hope of a little detour on the way home for a photo.
I turned off towards the small hamlet of Saint-Pierre-de-Vassols and saw the moon just setting behind this cluster of buildings. I barely had time to get the camera on a tripod and find a good vantage point before the moon had dipped out of sight.
réunion de covoiturage = carpool meeting
rond-point = roundabout (a circular intersection without stop signs popular in Europe)
The Dentelles are a range of mountains with sawtooth rock formations stretching west of Mont Ventoux. We see them almost daily on our morning and evening school run between Bédoin and Avignon. They are positioned perfectly to catch the dawn and sunset light. The other evening I decided to do a bit of wandering to see if I could find a nice vantage point for a photo, and I wound up on a beautiful little country road that twists through vineyards and olive orchards.
I could have spent hours shooting in this little hidden valley, but I only had about 15 minutes before the sun set. I'll definitely be back!
Thanksgiving marked our third month in France. As I reflect on the past year I can’t help but think about how much life has changed for us in such a short period of time. As the title might suggest, it hasn’t always been easy, in fact I can safely say nothing about it has been easy! It has without a doubt been the most difficult thing we as a family have ever done.
I find that when we get a bit homesick, or when we struggle with the various details of negotiating the curves of day-to-day life in a new country, we often make comparisons to life in California.
A few examples come to mind:
Southern California is a place built around convenience. Roads are paved, and organized into grids to make it generally easy to find your way. It’s pretty tough to get lost in L.A., especially for someone who has lived in there his entire life. I know the city well, and have used most of the shortcuts to get from one place to the next. Of course I’ve also spent my share of time stuck in gridlocked traffic too.
In France the village roads were built for horses and people, not automobiles. Many of these narrow lanes are still cobblestoned, and car traffic is prohibited or restricted to residents.
The small winding road and 100 yards of unpaved gravel that leads to our house is barely wide enough for one car. Oncoming vehicles, usually driving wildly fast, must slam on their brakes to avoid a head-on collision, then pull into a driveway or squeeze onto a bit of shoulder so that one car can pass. Folding in a side mirror is a popular strategy to gain a precious extra few inches of clearance between vehicles.
These windy narrow roads are even more fun at night, in the rain, in the morning fog, and when you have no idea where you are going. We were invited to a party and failed to realize that the invitation didn’t bother to include a house address. I’m sure they just assumed that anyone who didn’t know where the house was would just ask for directions.
After about 45 minutes of searching for a house with no number on a street that didn’t show up on our GPS, and calling cellphones that weren’t answered, we happened to run into a party guest we recognized walking towards his car. He led us up to the house, which was only 5 minutes from where we live. We were almost an hour late, missed dinner, but happily the entertainment hadn’t started (a group of folk musicians from Madagascar) and there was still plenty of dessert left.
It is worth noting that many houses here didn’t even get numbers until just a few years ago, and I have a feeling the residents really haven’t caught on to using them yet.
In Los Angeles the weather is generally a predictably comfortable 70-80F most of the year.
Provence may also be known for its sunshine and blue skies, but I can tell you that it definitely has seasonal weather. Autumn has brought with it the legendary mistral winds, intense rain, lightning, thunder, power-outages, thick fog, chilly temperatures, but also crisp sunny days, puffy white clouds, and glorious sunsets.
In L.A. stores are open all day, seven days a week, many even 24 hours a day. The consumer is king—heaven forbid a business should miss a sale because a customer felt like shopping at 2am and the store was closed!
Here in the south, most stores are only open mornings and evenings, closing for 2-3 hours in the après-midi for lunch (which is when people should be at home with their families). During the winter months, when the tourists are gone and the days are short, many shops close a couple of extra days a week, and some even shut down completely for a month or two to enjoy the holidays.
There are cultural differences as well, and these differences manifest themselves in unexpected ways.
In France the customer is most certainly not always right. While shopping in a local market where there was a long line of customers, Felicia witnessed one impatient woman, obviously late and needing to get home to prepare lunch, chastise the clerk. She suggested that the stock-boy should open a register. The clerk fired back that it was the stock-boy’s job to stock, and her job was to ring up customers. If the woman didn’t like waiting she could leave. She waited.
This is not to say that business owners are unpleasant—on the contrary we are now cheerfully greeted by name at many of the village shops we frequent. I have also noticed recently that the occasional complimentary croissant, or tasty dessert has been added to my shopping bag, perhaps as a small token of thanks for being a regular customer.
Prices can be confusing too. In the US there is an accepted practice of discounting quantity. Buying the 64 oz. jar of peanut butter is cheaper than buying four 16 oz. jars. That isn't always the case here--sometimes it is cheaper to buy multiple smaller items. I won't even pretend that I understand why.
How is it possible for the same culture that designed the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Metro to also be responsible for the water heater in my basement? It is a maze of pipes, dials, electric switches, and valves!
When the weather began to turn cool I asked our landlord to turn on our radiant floor heating. Apparently, turning the heat on is something so complex that it requires someone to come and activate the system. There are literally dozens of valves that need to be set to direct the water flow from the heater to the various rooms of the house. And unlike thermostat-controlled heat in the US, our heat is on 24/7 because once it is working you really don’t dare touch it again.
It seemed to be working at first, but after about a day we not only lost heat in the floor, but all hot water to the rest of the house as well. As luck would have it, this happened on a Friday and it is impossible to get anyone over the weekend. We spend a few long days heating water on the stove for baths, and bundling up in blankets at night. I have perfected the art of taking a shower with two big pots of nearly boiling water.
Fixing the heat ultimately required bringing in an expert heating technician who determined that the pilot light had gone out. After only an hour of work he was able to set the appropriate switches and dials so that hot water was properly directed where needed. Given that we’ve already used 70% of the propane in our tank in the first three months, I understand why many people here still rely on their fireplaces to heat their homes over the winter.
There is a respect for history and tradition here that, for Westerners with very little of either, can be unexpected. Most of our holidays in the US are noteworthy because they are a day off work or school. We even move the holidays around to make it more convenient to have a few days off in a row.
In France, if a holiday is on a Thursday they don't move it to Friday just to get a three-day weekend. Instead, they just take Friday off too (I've heard the phrase "a bridge day" used) and make it a four-day weekend.
On Veterans Day we took part in the village memorial to the soldiers who died in World War One. In the US the First World War is not something we really discuss much; most of our veterans are from the WWII era. The USA came into WWI quite late, and had far fewer casualties than the French and British.
In Bédoin, the children gathered in the centre cultural and sang a song, which was followed by a procession of a couple hundred people (including the mayor) through the village that stopped at several memorial sites, ending at the cemetery where the names of the local soldiers who died were read while the crowd repeated “Died for France” after each name. It was very touching.
The Great War tribute continued with a local reading of soldier’s letters at the English Library in nearby Beaumont-du-Ventoux. There were about 50 people attending to listen to a reading of letters and poetry from British, French and American soldiers. We were invited to attend by a British woman who directs local theater events. When I told her it sounded fun she quickly drafted me into reading a selection of the American letters.
Thankfully for the audience, the success of the evening didn’t hinge on my performance.
GETTING A LITTLE LOST IS OKAY
It was almost impossible for me to get lost in LA.
But here I often make a detour onto a road that looks interesting, just to see where it might lead. More often than not I’m rewarded with a beautiful vista, stone ruin or hidden little village that I would have never known existed if I hadn’t taken the time to do a little exploring.
I took one such turnoff while on my way to pick the kids up from school, just before sunset, and was rewarded with this lovely view. I set up my camera on the side of the road to take a few photos, and wondered at the fact that I was standing there with this amazing view all to myself.
In California, when we were looking for something to do we went shopping. Old Town Pasadena, The Third Street Promenade and various other urban shopping destinations have become the modern village squares. Even if we didn’t buy anything, strolling along the pedestrian friendly walkways was the closest thing we had to experiencing life on a human scale. Places like The Grove are even designed to look like European towns, complete with fountains and cobbled streets, albeit the Cheesecake Factory and The Gap replace le boulangerie and l’atelier.
We’ve been fortunate to meet some very nice people and find ourselves with a very full social schedule in this otherwise sleepy village. Most of the events seem to revolve around food and the arts, and almost always the two are combined. We've attended a party where folk musicians from Africa performed, and the food and wine was pot-luck style; a short film festival followed by aperitifs and cakes; J.M. Berrie plays by the local English language theater group, with wine and dinner served during and after; an arts festival in St. Remy where the shops handed out complimentary wine and appetizers.
In France, art, wine and food seem to go hand-in-hand.
And so our journey down these bumpy roads continues. It isn't all is sunflowers and lavender, but I never thought it would be. There are challenges to be sure. The biggest is a general feeling of homesickness for friends and familiar traditions. Being in a place where almost nothing is familiar is difficult. Learning everything over is just plain tiring at times. Add to that the cultural differences and our ongoing struggle with the language…well, you get the idea.
But these inconveniences are a small price to pay to learn, struggle and celebrate life together. And so we will navigate the bumps and the fog, get a little lost now and then, and do our best to find our way.
After all, isn't the journey what life is all about anyway?
All Images (unless noted) © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
Foggy mornings, short days, rainy evenings and cold nights. Winter is coming!
Images © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.