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.
We often travel the same roads, over and over, following the familiar route until we can literally make the trip in our sleep. I remember doing just that more than a few times, arriving at home and barely recalling the details of the journey. Now that I am in a new country, with new roads to explore, I am making a concerted effort to literally take the road less traveled.
Today I went out to shoot some time-lapse at a location I found a few days ago while out with the family. It was a nice view looking over the valley and I was pretty happy with the images. The light was fading, and a bit of rain began to fall, so I packed up my camera bag and headed off to pick the kids up from school.
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On the way, a small side-road caught my eye. The road headed towards the west, and I was running a bit early, so I thought I would check it out and maybe find someplace interesting to take a couple of shots before the light was gone.
Driving up the narrow road I passed a lovely farmhouse, rounded a bend and came across a huge abbey. Photographing the abbey was more of a project than I was prepared to tackle, so I continued up the road to find a place to turn the car around.
Which is when I came upon the most magical vista, bathed in golden light. I jumped out of the car and had time to shoot about half a dozen shots before the sun dipped behind the hills and the light was gone.
At the risk of stating a rather obvious metaphor, experiences like these remind me to always be open to taking the unexplored road. Sometimes there is a brief window of opportunity, that if missed is gone forever.
Video and Images © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
Last night, a thunder and lightning storm cracked and rumbled throughout most of the night, knocking out power to the house in the wee hours of the morning. The rain came down with the intensity of machine-gun fire, scaring our sleeping dog out of his crate and into our bedroom.
According to the neighbors, ce ne pas normal for this time of year.
We woke to un matin brumeux tranquille, reset the circuit breaker, and fired up the espresso maker for a hot café au lait. After un petit déjeuner, my son and I ventured out to la boulangerie for our daily bread, stopping to snap a few photos of the wet and foggy countryside along the way.
While the warm days and blue skies of l'été may be over, these cooler days of le vent, la pluie et le brouillard are no less belle.
Photo © 2014 Ken Wallace Films. All rights reserved.
ce ne pas normal = this is not normal
un matin brumeux tranquille = a tranquil foggy morning
café au lait = coffee with milk
un petit déjeuner = breakfast
la boulangerie = the bakery
l'été = the summer
le vent, la pluie et le brouillard = the wind, the rain and the fog
belle = beautiful
One of the first memories I have of Provence is taking our daughter Paige on the beautiful "Belle Époque" carousel in Avignon when she was just a little girl. The carousel is in the city center, just a few steps from the Place du Palais.
The era known as la belle époque started in 1871 and ran up until the First World War. It was a golden age of technology, art, literature, music and especially peace; a peace that was shattered by World War 1.
La Belle Époque brought us the design style known as art nouveau, the iconic work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh (who died in 1890, but whose paintings gained recognition afterwards), Henri Matisse, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin, and the early work of a new young artist named Pablo Picasso.
And of course, perhaps that most famous of all French icons, La Tour Eiffel.
Photographic Images © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
Today, our local shepherd led his flock through the village to graze in an empty lot. There is always something interesting to discover at the foot of Mont Ventoux!
And here is a little video of our shepherd in action...
Images and Video © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.
Bonjour Tout le Monde,
As we approach the end of our second month in France the theme for this update has to be “settling in.” Our shipments from the US have arrived, boxes have been unpacked, the kids are enjoying their autumn school break, and we have gotten our first French speeding ticket.
Having our things from the US has certainly helped to give us the feeling that we are “at home” and less like we are camping out in a furnished vacation rental. The arrival of our 20-foot container from the US was reportedly quite the event in town. The big yellow container rumbled through the center of the village and certainly didn’t go un-noticed. Several people commented to us that they saw it come through town, and I’m told a few even took photos.
Getting the monstrous truck up our narrow little road was truly a feat of master roadsmanship (yes, I made that word up). Unfortunately, the container and piano movers arrived before the rest of the furniture movers, and the driver had no idea how to open the sealed door. Luckily he had tools on hand: a big metal bar, a hammer and an old screwdriver, and proceeded to beat the hell out of the lock. After being hit in the face a few times with flying lock debris, it occurred to me that this was most likely not the way the lock designers intended it to be opened, and we must be missing some crucial piece of equipment, like a key or a bolt cutter. I asked the driver to pause the battering, and took a closer look. There was a small wire retaining-clip, that when removed with some pliers allowed what was left of the bent up locking pin to be pulled out by hand. Several "ahhhhs" later and the doors were open.
At the successful opening of the container, the piano movers, who had been waiting impatiently for the lock to be opened, rushed to the open doors to offload the piano. This would have been a perfect plan if the piano hadn’t been the first thing loaded into the container and therefore was now buried behind 144 other boxes. The piano movers explained to our driver that they only had 30 minutes and couldn’t wait any more on the tardy moving crew. With a shrug of their shoulders and a ”très désolé” they climbed into their van and sped away, never to be seen again. The moving people showed up about thirty minutes later, and luckily were able to move all 144 boxes and the piano without the help of the piano moving specialists. Miraculously, every box that was packed in Los Angeles traversed half the globe by ocean and made it unscathed to France. Not a single wine glass was broken, a testament to the excellent work of our shipping company, and the power of mankind’s greatest scientific achievement: bubble wrap.
At last the frenetic weeks of arrival are behind us and it is beginning to feel less like being on vacation and more like being at home. There are small signs that we may one day be a part of this community: the lady at la boulangerie knows what bread we buy each day without us asking. It’s nice to walk in and be greeted with “Bonjour Monsieur Wallace, un rustique?” Le Rustique being the rustic loaf of bread we prefer for lunch sandwiches.
At €1 for a loaf of excellent bread we find that it just makes sense to buy (and eat) a fresh loaf every day. For a small shop in a small village, our bakery of choice does a bang up business. There is often a line of 5-10 people waiting to purchase bread, and they are normally sold out by mid-day. Now that we are in the know, we put our name on their reservation book each day. We definitely feel like locals when there is no bread left on the shelves, but our rustique is tucked aside waiting for us!
Being in the countryside has also turned us into conservationists. We eat local produce, walk and bike ride much more, and even turn off the shower while soaping up and shampooing, though this is more a function of having a small water heater that runs out of hot water quickly.
We reuse plastic containers over and over. The paella-maker is pleasantly surprised when we return each week with the same plastic container for him to refill, though he has yet to discount the price of our paella to account for the savings. The fancy glass yogurt jars make excellent juice glasses, and plastic shopping bags make good dog poo sacks (judging by the amount of dog poo on the sidewalk I think we are the only people in town familiar with the "poo sack" concept). Even honey containers can be recycled, though after a questionable batch of salad dressing had to be tossed out we no longer put extra hair shampoo in the empty honey squeeze bottle.
I think one of the greatest pleasures is being able to buy food at the local market. Finding an interesting recipe in a French cookbook, then buying the ingredients from a local farmer, makes cooking and eating feel like something that is connected to the community around us. The food choices here can be a bit overwhelming at times. Forget having only to choose between whipping and heavy cream--here there are about a dozen different levels of cream, each with a very specific use. France has over 400 kinds of cheese, and there are two full aisles in the supermarket devoted to yogurt. When we asked a french friend about the choices of cream she just shrugged and informed us that most of the people she knows make their own.
Life in a small French village is full of little surprises. A couple of nights ago we saw a flyer for a music performance by a pianist and violinist. We didn’t recognize the venue (and there aren’t many, given that our village has one rue principale), so we didn’t really give much thought to attending what was obviously an amateur event. But that evening we found we had some extra time and thought it might make a fun adventure, so we decided to check it out. We drove about 10 minutes away to a small road with nothing but vineyards and the occasional farmhouse. At the noted address we found cars wedged into any available spot along the roadside. We found a place to park, and walked down a dark driveway and discovered we had arrived at a beautiful old mas where a crowd of fifty people were seated in a large barn-turned-studio. We were welcomed by the owner and we took seats at the back of the room.
The performers were announced, and for the next sixty minutes we were treated to a classical concert that rivaled anything we have ever seen. The female musicians (a pianist originally from Japan and a violinist from Texas) were highly talented professionals (both performed in Paris for noted orchestras) and seeing them perform in such an intimate venue was truly a special experience. The audience gathered for un apéritif avec les artistes in the garden afterward where we met the home owner and many of her friends, one of which it turns out lives just up the road from us. One of the ladies gushed on and on en française to Felicia about what an enchanting evening it had been and thanked her so much for being there. It was only after a couple of minutes of blank stares that we realized she had mistaken Felicia for the Japanese pianist.
Speaking of la langue française, our lack of French language skills is certainly the single biggest obstacle we have to overcome. Felicia and I started French lessons from a local teacher, and of course the kids have eight hours a day of French in school. We get by day-to-day with a few words here and there, some memorized phrases, and lots of hand gestures, grunts, and wild gesticulation, and somehow we make ourselves understood. It helps that most people here speak better English than they let on, even if, as one self-depreciating seller of delicious pesto claimed, “I speak English like a Spanish cow.” Considering that his english was about 100 times better than my french, I must speak French like an Italian pig.
So as we settle in to our expat lives we raise a glass of wine (being careful to look you in the eyes and not cross glasses!) and toast "à votre santé."
Bonne journée et merci for following our French adventure.
Ken, Felicia, Paige and Ryan Wallace
Bonjour Tout le Monde = hi everyone
très désolé = very sorry
la boulangerie = the bakery
un croissant, un pain chocolat, un pain aux amandes, et un pain aux raisins = various pastries
rue principale = main street
mas = farmhouse
un apéritif avec les artistes = a drink with the artists
en française = in french
la langue française = the french language
à votre santé = to your health
bonne journée = have a good day
Photos © 2014 Ken Wallace Films LLC. All rights reserved.