Archive for December, 2011


Joyeux Noël et bonne année

After returning Luz to the neighbour’s, Valerie picked me up and I went off to San Raphael with her & three youngsters.

Lunch with Valerie & her family.

Markets are one of my favourite things, from London’s markets, to Germany’s Christmas markets, to the markets here, which range from the overwhelming bounty of the Nice market to the charming, simple, tiny market in Les Adrets on a Wednesday.

Like today. Under instructions from Verity, I have once ordered a ‘demi-poulet fermier,’ or ‘half a roast farm chicken’. Today I went all-out and ordered a whole poulet, complete with roast potatoes. The vendor writes down your order & your name, and tells you when you can pick it up, because it’s there, in the side of the van, roasting, as you order.

Then I had a chat with the lady who sells olives and spices, who gives a poetic litany of what is from where – literally, exotic spices from the Orient, from Arab countries, from all over: cinnamon and ginger, nutmeg and coriander, paprika, white pepper, black pepper (apparently there are five types of pepper) as well as olives marinated in garlic, in chills, in herbs; there is lavender, thyme, sage…

Next is the produce vendor, with fruits and vegetables piled high, and finally (today, at least,) was possibly my favourite – the cheese vendor. I bought €25 worth of French cheeses to make up a plate for my family, who arrive on Friday. Goat’s cheeses, cow cheeses, cheeses with herbs, cheeses wrapped in leaves, cheeses in pots, cheeses in paper…

Hungry yet?

So I shall return in about two hours to collect lunch – the chicken which I shall eat over the next three days – and I shall have to defend from two cats with very good noses.

Breton stripes and, urm...French moustache...

At the market with Valerie and her children, we wandered up and down the stalls, bounded on one side by the beach, and the sea. Look to the left, and the glittering dark blue Mediterranean stretches out in front of you. To the right, and all manner of goodies await: cashmere jumpers from Italy at jaw-droppingly low prices, leather handbags, woven baskets, scarves, donughts, paella pans as large as a dining table, berets and striped Breton jumpers (I bought one,) the honey vendor from Les Adrets, candles, candies, nougats, wine, fruits, home-made sausages, mobile phone covers, blankets, coats…

All of which had to be hastily wrapped up and ferreted into vans, boxes, and bags, when it started to pour with rain.

We dashed to the car, and Valerie made a stop at Intermarche, one of the large supermarkets in San Raphael. Then we drove back up the Roman road and had a wonderfully traditional lunch, which she explained is not from this region but ‘from the mountains, further north.’ She had an electric contraption that went in the middle of the table. Each person gets a little tray with a handle onto which goes a slice of raclette, which is a type of cheese. You stick the tray with the raclette slice beneath the heating element and the cheese melts, getting all bubbly, and, if you wait long enough, toasted brown. The top of the machine is a griddle, and you take slices of various cured meats (all variants of ham,) and roll them out onto the griddle where they sizzle and smoke. Boiled potatoes are the base of this dish: you take some boiled potatoes (either small potatoes or cut up pieces,) then put the sizzling ham on top, then pour the melted cheese all over that. Ramond had a melange of spices which was his own very flavourful blend of the five types of pepper, curry powder, and cumin, which I tried, and went very well with the mix. No one else seemed interested in the spices, and charmingly, it seems he puts them on everything he eats. Despite the meal being exciting to me, it seems that it’s one of those ‘quick and easy’ family meals, because really all you need to do is boil potatoes. As my mom would say, ‘works for me’!

Valerie also treated me to her home-made orange wine, which she makes every year, using white wine, sugar, and a particular type of sweet orange (it may be clementines). This was an aperitif, and amazingly sweet, and of course tasted of oranges: the blossoms and the fruit. All the taste of warm weather right up my nose and down my throat. It was wonderful, and I can imagine in the hot summers it’s even better.

Bûche de Noël

To top off this lovely meal, though she said she wouldn’t normally buy one before Christmas, Valerie treated us to a Bûche de Noël: a traditional Christmas ‘log’ cake, making it my ‘première bûche’. This one was coffee-flavoured; the cakes are traditionally chocolate, coffee or vanilla. However, I’ve ordered a very special cake from Isabel at the bakery which is traditional, as well as more unusual for me & my family: a chestnut bûche (pronounced ‘boosh,’) or bûche aux marrons.

Valerie explained that she thinks the log shape of the cake (the icing is crafted to make it look like a log, and the cake and filling are rolled,) is traditional because a log used to be a real gift, in the middle ages, because of course it contributed to a warm fire. I also asked her about the santon figurines, the ‘little saints,’ sold everywhere and unique to Provence. She thinks those originally were carved out of wood by the shepherds during the winter, when they weren’t out in the fields with their sheep; they became gifts, then they were sold, and the tradition has grown from there.

I’ve bought marrons glacés from Isabel as another special, local, treat for Christmas. I have yet to try one because they are in the pile of ‘special things to share with my family,’ but I love chestnuts and these are sugared chestnuts. Sweets, meats, and cheeses, as well as champagne and oysters, are all major Christmas foods here. I think we’ll have all but the oysters (as far as I know, none of my guests like them, and I’m interested to try one but am in no rush,) and perhaps also some salad. I’ve been eating green salads a lot, because it’s very easy to forget the vegetables amidst this decadence.

Wishing you all a joyeux Noël et bonne année!

Luz

Luz wondering what to do with me (and I with him).

Last night, as I was boiling potatoes and cutting the edges off of raclette for dinner, I heard a jingling. I kept throwing glances at the potatoes knocking around in the pot on the stove. Was the pot somehow making that noise? Cheese knife in hand, I opened the kitchen door and peeked outside. A little silhouette was nosing around the recycling. Too large to be Felix, to small…sanglier? (Wild boar?) I thought in a rush.

But wild boar don’t wear cowbells.

As it stepped towards the light of the kitchen door, I had a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ moment: Oh what a cute little doggie…oh my god what’s wrong with it’s face?

So I met Luz. Or at least, that’s what he’s become in my mind, though I don’t even know if it’s meant to be pronounced ‘Luh-z’ or ‘Louis’ or ‘Loo-ee’ – but he’s just Luh-z to me. Luz. And maybe that’s actually the owner’s name, because there were also two phone numbers on the collar. I phoned them both a number of times last night, but it was already 9pm, I got nothing, nothing, one wrong number (he seemed amused above all as I tried to say, in French ‘Luz? Ton chien? and Luz’s cowbell jangled in the background,) and I finally decided to try again in the morning.

Being the type that is overly sympathetic to animals, I encouraged Luz into the kitchen. He was the ugliest dog I’d ever met. I wasn’t sure if he was a specific breed, but he was very old, with cloudy eyes (much like Gaston’s) – cataracts from old age – and shaky limbs, and some hideous deformity on the side of his little face. He was very gentle, and though not cuddly (and even if he had been, he was very dirty,) he seemed to both like being patted and he seemed not used to it. As I tried the phone numbers on his collar, he scoffed all of the cat food which I usually leave down for Felix. I put down another bowl of Friskies and he gobbled that up, too.

He sniffed his way boisterously through the house before I ushered him back into the kitchen. It’s chilly in there with the door closed, but far warmer than outdoors. I peeked into the bedroom where Gaston was sitting bolt upright, eyes wide as saucers. The poor cat was terrified.

Sniffing out the cats?

I realised that Luz hadn’t been in the recycling – he’d been tearing apart the bucket of shed fur that we discard when we brush Gaston. Luz was a hunting dog. I was very, very glad that Gaston had been up on the bed at the moment Luz had burst in sniffing everywhere (and that Luz was particularly short-legged).

There are plenty of people around here who hunt, not least Verity’s neighbour in the house just below – the one she’d described as ‘uncivilised’ before we decided to settle on the more generous term ‘rustic’. It seemed reasonable that Luz was this guy’s dog, but there was no way I wanted to go knocking on his door at 10pm. So I dragged Gaston’s pouffe into the kitchen, shut the door, and went to bed, my ears pricking to every cowbell ring throughout the night.

There was a minor dilemma in doing this. Gaston was safe and sound, in the warm part of the house with me, with his cat-box and water accessible, and he’d already had his dinner. Unfortunately, poor Felix usually makes his way back into the house at night via the garage door, through the kitchen, and into the house. I’d shut the garage door so that wouldn’t happen, and left Felix’s dinner out in the garage. Then I shut Luz in the kitchen, debating whether I should leave the kitchen door open so he could go in and out. But it was very cold, and also, though there really seems to be no one around, I didn’t want to leave the house so open overnight. I figured if Luz needed to ‘go’ in the night, maybe he’d bark, but also, he was little, and I’ve been cleaning up enough cat stuff lately, it wouldn’t be so bad.

This morning, I opened the kitchen to find little Luz curled up on Gaston’s pouffe.

I also found two cow-pats on the floor, about 1/5 the size of Luz himself.

‘Ok buddy,’ I said as I scrubbed the floor, ‘we’re finding your owner, because you are not spending another night in here.’

Luz at the Hilton.

I phoned Valerie and explained the situation. For whatever reason, I was not getting through on the numbers on Luz’s collar. She is so wonderful – she said ‘I’ll call you back,’ and ten minutes later (I must be doing something wrong with the phone) she called to say that Luz did indeed belong to Verity’s neighbour, who would be out all day, but I could put Luz back into the cage beside the garage.

I felt like I was walking the poor dog to the gallows. The cage was sheer concrete, with a metal fence around it, and a few bowls (empty,) and a scattering of dog shit everywhere. All I could think of was the barking I’ve heard over the past months, sometimes shrieking, pained yelps, as if a dog is being beaten, and the gunshots in the woods, when they’re hunting, and the way this neighbour of Verity’s tears up and down the driveway in his big truck.

‘I’m sorry, Luz,’ I said, trying to separate my American sentiments about dogs from these ‘rustic’ French ones. Compared to this desolation, Luz had just spent the night at the Hilton. He resisted, silently, as I pushed him through the gate.

I walked back up the driveway and went to Verity’s garage, where I found an old quilt. I brought it back down to Luz, imagining the hunter’s reaction when he returns. I wonder if he’ll come tell me off. Probably not, since he seems disinclined to socialise. (Verity invited him to her going-away drinks and his response was apparently ‘we’ll see’. He didn’t show.) I filled one of his bowls with water from an outside tap. At least, (I’m telling myself,) he won’t be too cold, in the quilt. At least he ate a ton of Friskies before I brought him back.

I didn’t know the sky was blue

Looking out from Antibes: photo by C.W.

‘I didn’t know the sky was blue until I came here,’ said Valerie.

She used to live in Paris. Pregnant with their second child, Valerie had the option to take a break from her career (in PR/marketing) for up to three years with the guarantee that she could return to her job. Such is the French support of new mothers. (Amazing.) She and her husband Raymond, a journalist, decided to move to the Riviera. Valerie became a teacher, and now, ten years later, they wouldn’t dream of going back. They’ve discovered the sky is blue.

Ouvrez les yeux. Les ciel est bleu.

Evidently it even inspires me to write bad rhyming poetry in French. (That phrase worked its way into my head on the way to the post office this morning.)

Colours here have arrested my attention. Today, in fact, the sky is not blue, but grey. I was just taking in the laundry as a few raindrops began to fall. Yet it is a bright grey, unlike that of the northern skies. Grey, blue, and green here all become a silver, like the leaves of the olive trees. Colours are rich, but muted.The oranges and peaches of the buildings compliment the lavender for sale in the markets, and the lavender-coloured shutters on old stone buildings.

Antibes. Photo: C.W.

There is a fecundity here, a bountiful ripeness, that inspires a gluttony of the senses – yes, the food, of course; but also bringing those same scents – lavender, honey, olive oil, milk – into the toilette, with shampoos, lotions, bath salts and body oils. Everything is delicious. I want to absorb this landscape with my pores as well as my mouth, nose, eyes, fingertips.

Caitlin said it was appropriate that I was writing Venus Heart here because the landscape is ‘sexy.’ She described it as ‘rolling and curved; sharp, too, with angles.’ I laughed. It’s hard for me to think of ‘sexy’ when I think of most of the village as consisting of retired people. ‘Not sexy, but sensual,’ I insisted.

Sensual. Curving and rolling, with the bounty of the natural harvests & feasts. It’s delightfully Pagan, rustic; The Esterel, The Riveria, are providing me with opportunities to experience new things, gather a new language, and take the time to closely consider what I encounter – all things that are difficult to do in the city. Though, I must admit I have wanted to write about the sensory abundance of Borough Market in London just as much as I want to write about the sensory abundance of the Market in Old Town Nice. Such wonderful contrasts and comparisons.

Jupiter & Venus

Sketch by Picasso. Venus?

Jupiter is the first bright object visible in the evening sky here. It’s not the first celestial object, because the moon is usually visible from as early as three in the afternoon, and it’s not the first star. It’s bright, and doesn’t twinkle (planets don’t twinkle; stars do,) and it is a constant which, despite it’s composition of mostly hydrogen gas, makes it a comfort. When I lean out the window each evening to close the shutters, I look for Jupiter.

But it’s Venus that I’m thinking of.

Au lit blanc: Venus?

When Caitlin and I were in the Picasso museum in Antibes, I speculated whether any human figure with breasts made a Venus. Picasso’s Nu couché au lit bleu and Nu couché au lit blanc, displayed on facing walls, said ‘Venus’ to me. They are mostly composed of abstract geometrical shapes, yes, but in there is a reclining woman. It’s undoubtedly the breasts that make clear the figure is female (though to be fair, men have pecs & nipples too: yet a ‘u’ shaped curve denotes an undeniable feminine roundness,) and in blanc, I see female hips (or buttocks).

The idea of the Venus is visible everywhere, from Picasso’s sketches and paintings to the chocolate shop to the ‘pregnant Mary’ santon figurine we saw for sale. It was accompanied by a proudly-displayed laminated article showing how the figure had caused quite a controversy.

Au lit bleu.

Au lit bleu.

The Anatomical Venus is, crucially, pregnant, so in my play, themes of fecundity, ripeness, and fertility are important, along with the character being loving, maternal, and domestic. These stereotypes of womanhood first are directed towards the lover, and are even more important to the story: the care-giving and needing care, feeding and being fed: animalistic, ‘nesting’ desires. The play is also, greatly, about hunger: cravings both carnal and for carne; the overwhelming desire for flesh – to eat, to love, to work with. To create. How the desire to create something new can engender the greatest destruction.

Markets, Santons & un Hibou

A narrow building in the narrow old streets of Old Town Nice.

My friend Caitlin (who is currently writing her PhD in Cambridge,) a self-proclaimed ‘glad-bag,’ just headed off on the bus from Frejus to Nice this morning. Now she’s on the plane back to London, then she’ll take the train to Cambridge. But this morning started off with an even more exciting form of transportation: the Vespa! Yes, Caitlin was a brave & excited (& slightly nervous) passenger with me over the weekend, and it was a 20-mph (chilly) blast. We had an extraordinarily busy & fun weekend, countered with laid-back lounging around which was equally fun.

Caitlin’s visit started off with a late-night arrival on the bus to Les Adrets. She’s spent the whole day travelling, and the poor thing gamely got herself practically to my doorstep – but once she decided she was ok on the Vespa, we agreed to get her to Frejus so her bus trip wouldn’t be quite so ridiculously long on the journey back.

Valerie and I had made plans to go to Nice & Antibes the next day, and she picked us up on Saturday morning, her 15-year-old daughter Emma along for the ride. It was a delightful ‘girl’s day out,’ with Valerie acting as guide. She took us all over the Old Town in Nice, through the regular market that is there every single morning, through the Christmas Markets, through tiny winding cobblestone streets; past cathedrals and churches, scooters and locals, bars and cafes…The markets were a dream, and excerpts from two poems kept coming to mind which are the only way to describe the bounty:

First, Keats, from ‘The Eve of St Agnes’

Lavender

While he from forth the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr’d
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar’d Lebanon.

These delicates he heap’d with glowing hand
On golden dishes and in baskets bright
Of wreathed silver: sumptuous they stand
In the retired quiet of the night,

    Filling the chilly room with perfume light.
*
*
Next, Rossetti, from ‘Goblin Market,’ though these markets had none of the evil undertones of C.R.’s poem – only the lush ripeness:

Auer chocolaterie, depuis 1820.

Come buy our orchard fruits,

Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries–
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,

Champignons of all shapes and sizes.

Taste them and try:

Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.
*
This is exactly what the markets are like now – imagine what they would be like in the spring and summertime. One Provencal treat we tried were Calissons: gently diamond-shaped, or rather almond-shaped, candies that are like little soft biscuits of almond and orange meringue. They use orange flower as well as orange peel, lots of super-fine sugar, eggs, ground almond, and apparently, at least in this recipe, a liquor. They are as delicious as they sound, and I bought some dusted with gold powder for Christmas.
*
Valerie took us up to the very top of the Modern Art Museum where there is a rooftop walkway and garden, with spectacular views over Nice. Then, with the top down on her little convertible, we drove to Antibes.
*
There were more Christmas Markets, with their hundreds of ‘santons‘ or little saint tableaux for sale. It’s a tradition in Provence, and I can only guess that it’s the kind of thing where you buy one each year and add to it, or these santons get passed down in the family, because they would become very expensive to buy a whole set. Each little ceramic figurine costs from about €3.50 to €15, depending on what they are. You can buy unpainted ones and paint them yourself (Valerie says that’s what she does, and her children paint them,) or you can buy painted ones, all of which have a unique style depending on the artist.
*

Caitlin, Valerie (in the middle) and Emma outside the Picasso Museum in Antibes.

The idea is that it makes a nativity scene, but what is special beyond the familiar nativity is the cast of local Provencal characters: from lavender-sellers to fishermen to hunters to church-bell-ringers. There are local animals, including sanglier (wild boar) and geese, rabbits, and owls, as well as all possible farmyard animals. Donkeys, bulls, goats and horses. Caitlin and I came across an amazing santon market in Frejus this morning, and each artist’s style was very distinctive. I chose a sanglier as a special keepsake for my stay here.

*
In Antibes, Emma, Valerie, Caitlin and I went to the Picasso Museum, which I rather unexpectedly fell in love with. It’s perched on the tip of Antibes, in a castle, Château Grimaldi. I wasn’t very familiar with Picasso’s works, and I loved the colours, textures, and lines, the themes and movement, the angles and curves. Blue seemed to prevail, as well as a theme of an owl, or un hibou, also known as a chouette.  Of course the Provencal landscape and colours – the dusky blues and purples – influenced Picasso hugely. The museum is also sensitively done: a clean, white space showcasing these precious paintings, but with ancient stone and arched ceilings peeking out in the right places so one never forgets they are in an ancient, once-fortified castle. We walked out into the sculpture garden at sunset, which overlooks the sea, and enjoyed the sculptures of Miro as well as more of Picasso’s work.
*
The bounty from the sea is also evident throughout these markets: oysters & champagne are a Christmas specialty, and there are booths / market stalls as well as more permanent restaurant/cafes set up, catering to exactly that treat. Urchins are popular to eat, and we watched as a couple bought a bag full of sea urchins, which the purveyor cut open – as he cut out a circle from the bottom of the urchin, lots of water came out, and I can’t help thinking these taste like saltwater just like many other shellfish…though I admit I’m a huge fan of moules (mussels,) Saint Jacques (scallops) and various sizes of crevettes – shrimp, crayfish, prawns, etc.
*
We walked around the markets until dusk before returning home.
*

Caitlin posing on Vespa after lunch.

On Sunday, Caitlin wanted to join me for Messe (Mass,) to see all of these wonderful characters she’s been reading about. She bravely acted as passenger on my Vespa, and it went so well that after Mass (whereupon I introduced her to pretty much all of the people I’ve mentioned previously,) we rode across Lac St. Cassien, all the way up to Tourettes and Fayence, and back to Les Esclapiers for lunch. What a gorgeous day; what an amazing lunch! And I’m so very impressed that Vespa made it up the extremely steep hill to Tourettes with a passenger to boot. We had to go in first gear and went at about 5 miles per hour, but we made it.
*
After lunch, we rode back to the house and I lit a log fire, and Caitlin kindly acted as my first ever reader for Venus Heart, the poetry play I’m writing whilst here. She gave me excellent feedback and I know exactly where I want to write more poems to complete the storyline. It’s going so well that I’m beginning to think about what I might work on after the excitement of Christmas and New Year, in that space of time when I’ll once more be by myself and be able to focus on writing. I’m hopeful and excited that I’ll have a full draft of VH before Christmas, and I rather wonder if my family will be up for being roped into a Victorian-style performed reading…hmm…
*

At the movies!

Quite possibly the most goofy and fun thing we did was to go to the movies last night. Les Adrets shows one film every Monday evening at 8:30pm, on a projector screen in a medium-sized room which has the feeling (and odd smell) of a high-school gymnasium. So, for €5 each, we bought tickets (amazed that they even gave out tickets,) and pulled up a folding chair to watch the latest Twighlight movie clacked out on a rackety projector in dubbed French. It was most certainly a unique experience, and we both loved it. It was only made better by this film being absolutely ridiculous, and me having refused to read any of the books or see any of the movies, whilst Caitlin has read all of the books and seen all of the movies. She talked me through it, but for the most part, it’s a simple & predictable enough plot that we didn’t have much trouble. Also, I have to admit that the ghastly scene where Bella has a Vampire-led c-section was right up there with my ‘Venus Heart’ material, but in an awful Hollywood way, so I really rather enjoyed it.

*
Today (Tuesday morning) Caitlin and I strapped her bag to the luggage rack of my Vespa, rode to the boulangerie where we got fresh croissants (au aumonde for her, and an apple tarte for me,) before riding down the winding Roman Road to Frejus. We walked around the Cathedral and markets before having pots of tea, and then Caitlin caught her bus, and I waved her on her way.
*

Picasso's 'hibou' (one of many)

What a wonderful visit! Happy travels, Caitlin! Now, time to turn the house around (ah, domesticity: washing laundry, cleaning cat-boxes, changing bedsheets,) and to settle back to writing, before Noel.

Venus & a Heart

Venus in chocolate?

Well, blow me down. This morning was oddly quiet, and when I opened the shutters, it was as if a cosmic switch had flipped during the night. The wind was gone. All was still. The sky was a perfect, hazy, cloudless blue. The sun shone. It felt like August in England (on a dry day).

I turned off the heating, left the unburnt logs stacked beside the fireplace, and opened up the house. I spent the morning working on my poetry play, writing new poems and editing recent ones. The play, working title ‘Venus Heart,’ is largely based on the idea of the Venus as created by a craftsman – Pygmalion, Frankenstein, etc, set in the wax-making workshop of La Specola in Florence – and I saw two things over the weekend which particularly spoke to themes in my play.

One, which I mentioned last time, was a glorious female bust made out of chocolate. Beside it sat the cast of a face lined with gold leaf (presumably edible, as it, too, was made of chocolate). Both objects chimed with what I’ve been writing about: the ‘negative’ (a cast of the face or other body part) which is then filled with wax (0r chocolate) so that the final piece is ‘a negative of the negative,’ or a ghost of the original.

A heart between a tongue and I don't know what.

A heart between tongues and I don't know what.

The other thing which particularly grabbed my attention was a triperie: a butcher’s shop with glass cases outside (refrigerated,) full of bits and pieces of animals that I don’t usually see. All for sale, for dining pleasure. There was a queue spilling out the entrance to the shop. Tongue, heads, hooves, were on display, as well as the more predictable pieces. Entire birds with the feathers still on the heads, so just the body was trussed, bare, and bound: pink, raw and fleshy, the squinted eyes surrounded by the usual plumage. Feet; suckling pigs. A heart.

The heart (cow’s, I think,) particularly interested me because the theme of my play is based not around the literal heart, but the idea of the heart – both love and lust, pure and impure desires; and the centre, or omphalos, which is actually a foetus. Today I worked on some of the more ghastly end pieces to this tragedy. It was disturbing and rewarding. Seeing bits of animals the other day surely helped.

I spent all afternoon, until sunset, sitting outside in the sunshine. Gaston decided to join me for much of it. I decided a bottle of Cotes du Rhone and Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction should join me for all of it.

Thus far, ‘A Society’ is my favourite piece, but here is a quote from ‘The Evening Party’ which I particularly liked:

Itsy-bitsy spider upon the Cotes-du-Rhone...

‘When I look at my hand upon the window sill and think what pleasure I’ve had in it, how it’s touched silk  and pottery and hot walls, laid itself flat upon wet grass or sun-baked, let the Atlantic spurt through its fingers, snapped blue bells and daffodils, plucked ripe plums, never for a second since I was born ceased to tell me of hot or cold, damp or dryness, I’m amazed that I should use this wonderful composition of flesh and nerve to write the abuse of life. Yet that’s what we do. Come to think of it, literature is the record of our discontent.’ 

This is exactly what I’m doing. Whilst in this paradisiacal place, which I hope to also record, accurately, somehow, I’m writing a verse play about death. And sex. But that’s life, really: sex and death. And good food. So, if I succeed, this will be a lush play – about sex, death, and consuming. (I won’t say ‘consumption’ or I’ll start getting confused about the Victorians…there is no TB in my play.)

As I read, a gunshot echoed through the woods in the valley, and a pack of dogs barked madly. I wondered what was being hunted. Wild boar: Sanglier?

Dignified? 19-year-old Gaston.

Neighbours clearing brush started up a fire, and woodsmoke crackled through the air, casting a filmy haze through the beams of sunlight.On the other side of the valley, donkeys wailed, honked, and hooted (they make a helluva lot more noise than ‘hee-haw’).

Meanwhile, I was silently cocooned in near-invisible whisper-fine threads cast by tiny little spiders who had decided that my table, wine bottle, and me would make a good framework for their ghostly parachute spider-threads.

*

*

*

A final, not-so-serious thought: As Gaston sat on my lap, he had his tongue sticking out. I don’t know if he was hot or what, because cat’s don’t pant to relieve heat like dogs do; they sweat through the pads of their paws. And it was warm but not hot. (Though Gaston is a long-furred black cat.) But it was hilarious.

Mistral

Parfumerie Fragonard. Delicious scents!

Everything changed on Friday: the weather, and my daily rhythm.

On Friday, I cleaned the house & waited for my husband and his parents to arrive for a long-weekend visit. And on Friday, it poured poured poured with rain; buckets of rain. The first real rain we’ve had since I arrived. Oh dear! Not that one can really worry about the weather, but this wasn’t what my guests were expecting.

On waking Saturday morning, I threw open the shutters, eager to show off the views I’d been writing about. A thick, heavy fog sat in the valley. There were no views. C’est la vie. Tant pis. 

I’m pretty sure that the petites croissants, pain au raisin, pain au chocolate, and pain au aumône which we ate for breakfast made up for it.

The weather did clear, and we had a gorgeous weekend, full of touring.

We went to Grasse, to the Fragonard parfumerie, and to Cannes, where I shared the most expensive lobster I’ve ever eaten.

We brought home beautiful, sculptural, delicious desserts from Cannes. The chocolaterie from which we bought them had an entire bust made of chocolate, which made me think of the Venus and my play – though she is in wax, not chocolate.

Art - and dessert!

We had coffee in the sunshine in Monaco. We wandered around the port and ogled the super-yachts. We ate lunch by the port. I had the most expensive scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten – because we were in Monaco, probably. Because they were with truffles, definitely. They were delicious. We took photos in front of the famous Casino, not interested in paying for the privilege of just going inside.

We drove to Èze, a perched village on a rugged cliff overlooking the Mediterranean sea, with winding, narrow passages (all footpaths,) cobblestones, and peeks out to spectacular views, which are monopolised by the houses and one hotel, The Golden Goat. This place is probably hell in the summer with tourists, but there were only a few other people around when we went at sunset (4-5pm) on a Sunday.

We drove all the way along the coast at sunset from Èze through Nice & Cannes to Theoule and San Raphael to Frejus and up the Roman Road back to Les Adrets.

We went inland to the little perched villages (probably much more liveable and much less touristy) of Tourettes and Fayence. We cooked pork chops on Verity’s grill and enjoyed a lovely lunch at the house. The cats got their share of cuddles (though not pork chops).

Pretending to be a movie star in Monaco.

Dani & I tested the Vespa with two people, and it was as I’d thought – she’s just fine, as she was before, as long as it’s within her limits. Which is mostly 20mph, especially if there is any kind of incline. There are a lot of inclines here. We did get up to almost 40 going downhill on the Roman Road towards Mont Viniagre – woo-hoo, pedal to the metal (or throttle fully open, as it were)!

Since my guests left on Monday evening, the Mistral – that famous wind – has been howling, banging the shutters (until I latch them) and huffing up and down the chimney. It’s bright and sunny outside and the wind isn’t very cold, but it is strong. Yesterday I lit a log fire and curled up for the day, with the very happy cats, to read. I think ‘autumn’ is definitely over and ‘winter’ is here.

I feel like I’m battening down the hatches in the mornings, fighting the shutters open and latching them securely, and in the evenings, doing the same but struggling to close the shutters without slamming them. The wind is working its fingers into everything and it’s like a rip-tide outside. The sunlight is flickering like the end of an old film because the trees are being forced to dance and bend every which way.

I’m hunkered down in my little house on the mountain side whilst a (sunny) gale howls outside. I’m very grateful to be in this cozy home, with an overstocked fridge. I am going to have to survive without bread (shock, horror) until tomorrow because the boulangerie is closed on Wednesdays. I think I’ll make it.

Unreal Monaco.

Rythme quotidien.

My day-to-day life in Les Adrets has found a rhythm. (Of course there is some humour in the fact that the rhythm is going to be disrupted throughout much of December with friends and family visiting, but it will be a happy disruption.)

My alarm chirps (crickets!) at 7:10am. I get out of bed by 7:30 or 8am: hemmed in by a cat on either side, I often reach for my iPhone and check my email while still half-asleep. Once the cats know I’m awake, it’s all over: Gaston, who is 19 years old and pretty deaf, yowls (LOUDLY) for his breakfast. Felix is a tiny cat with a very small, sweet, kittenish mew which hides a bit of a devil inside. He’s a hunter and can bite, but he’s overwhelmingly sweet when he wants attention. There is no choice but to allow him to sit directly on your chest, stomach or lap (depending on whether you’re sitting or lying down) and he will settle onto you with the most immediate and ungraceful snores.

Sunset, Thursday 1 December.

The first thing I do is open the house. I love this ritual. All of the houses here have wooden shutters, for doors and windows, which are very effective in keeping out the nighttime cold, and are also tres jolie. Verity’s shutters are a pretty blue-green colour against the pinky-peach of the stucco house. Every morning I open all of the shutters and let the light in.

I’m a big fan of rooibos tea and have brought some with me (need to re-stock soon, though) and I’ll have a cup of tea (with milk – English style!) two pieces of toasted michette with sunflower-spread and local lavender honey, and a glass of fruit juice. I check emails, do admin, and then settle down to write.

I’ve had the pleasure of an invitation from my friend, the illustrator/writer Badaude, to collaborate on a piece for Cambridge-based literary journal The Junket. It’s quite a time-bound (and exciting!) project: I’ll say more about it once it’s up. But I’ve been working on that in the mornings.

The big project I brought with me is the anatomical waxworks-inspired verse play. And, as I’d hoped, I’m writing. A lot. As much as I adore London, I do allow myself to get distracted by all of the fabulous opportunities going on there. While this hasn’t been bad for my experience and exposure in the writing world, I feel like hiding away right now and writing a full piece is exactly what I need. The novel I’ve been working on for the past few years needs a breather and this retreat has meant I’ve been writing four or five poems on a productive day, two or three if I’m otherwise engaged. I haven’t been this productive with poetry since 2006-7, my final year of uni, when I wrote the manuscript of Shadows in Chalk, which went on to become Darwin’s Microscope.

In the morning, I write, maintaining a mild buzz and level of intense focus with a great deal of green tea.

I’ll break for lunch and watch the BBC World News. In the afternoon, I may wander to the village for a little walk and a visit to the boulangerie (which almost certainly negates any positive affects of the walk). I tend to buy ‘une michette’ which will last me for two or three days: toast in the mornings and fresh bread with dinner. I’ll buy treats once in awhile, but I’m trying to save those for when I have guests and I know we will all have treats. That said, this afternoon I bought a brownie each for myself and Ilona. We’d just gone for a lovely walk and the brownies just looked irresistible – and Ilona had brought me some lovely homemade mini-croissonts stuffed with figs.

Sunset, Thursday 1 December.

After lunch, if it’s a Wednesday, I’ve been going on little hikes around Mont Viniagre with Gabrielle, Jean, and their friends. Yesterday I went with Francoise, her husband Jean, and their friends (the husband in that couple is Jean-Pierre – seriously, all of the men are named Jean or some variant thereof).

On Fridays, in the morning (10-12-ish) I’ve been going to the swimming pool in Frejus with Gabrielle and some other friends of theirs (including another Jean). (Alas, Gabrielle just phoned me to say she has a little cold and won’t be making it to the swimming pool this Friday (now today,) which is a shame.)

On Sundays, I go to church from 10-11.

Ilona and I seem to have struck up a date for a walk once a week. We went this afternoon and it was just lovely, even though the poor girl is recovering from a cold. We also seem fantastically bad at actually setting a precise time for the walk, but it’s worked out twice and I’m sure we’ll manage again. Last week we went on Friday, and this week we went on Thursday.

The rest of the time, I’m reading, writing, blogging, and sending emails – mostly planning our next event for the Whipple Museum. It’s simple, peaceful, and exactly what I intended to do. I’m reading Ulysses and will be quite pleased if I can finish it before I have to leave. I’m loving it but I can’t imagine being required to read it in school – I would never have managed it at the age of 16 or even 20, and I was always a top lit student.

This afternoon, after I said bon soir to Ilona and walked back to the house, I got to enjoy a spectacular sunset. By 5:15pm it was over, only a silvery-grey light remaining in the darkening sky. I shut the house, closing the shutters, and poured myself an aperitif of lemoncello.

This is as lovely as it sounds, but if you’re envious, then I’d like to add the grounding reality of dealing with these two cats (anyone who has pets will appreciate this, though if you have a weak stomach, stop reading here).

In the past two days I have cleaned up:

One’I-missed-the-litterbox’ poo (Gaston is 19 so you really can’t blame him).

Two very big, wet-hairball-pukes.

Three ‘I-didn’t-miss-the-litterbox’ poos.

And the crowning event:

Felix can get in and out of the house via the garage (there’s some kind of crawlspace). He tends to go out through the front door after dinner and then he’ll come back in via the garage a few hours later. Last night, I was in bed reading, with Gaston curled up beside me. My bedroom door was cracked open because I knew Felix would come in eventually. I heard some crashing (he’s not the most graceful cat,) and then an urgent mewling. It wasn’t his usual ‘hello, give me attention,’ mew, and he didn’t come into the room. I thought, oh no, that’s the ‘I’ve caught something / I’ve brought you a present’ mew – when they sound like their mouth is full, because it is full. I put on my sandals and peeked out into the hallway. Nothing. Felix was there, looking innocent. (Ha. Right.) I went back to bed. A few minutes later I heard garbled crunching sounds. Bracing myself, I put my sandals on again (not interested in stepping in whatever it was,) and found Felix, in the bathroom. With a mouse. He’d eaten the head off. There was blood smeared all over the bathroom tiles. This morning I found more blood spattered up the side of the bath. I picked him up, saying, ‘go on, grab it!’ (Most cat’s won’t let go of their prey when they’re in the middle of eating it.) He didn’t pick it up but mewed in protest. All the while I was thinking THIS IS SO GROSS. So I grabbed some loo roll and plucked up the decapitated mouse by it’s tail, scooped Felix up in my other hand, and deposited them both outside. He happily followed the mouse. I scrubbed the bathroom floor with Ajax (and the bathtub, this morning). I’m so glad the house is tiled.

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