Archive for January, 2012


Adieu, Les Adrets

Gaurance, Valerie, and Marceau with the gallette

Walking to the boulangerie yesterday, and saying hello to Isabel and Bebe, and then chatting with the woman at the market who sells olives, made me feel bittersweetly sad. I’ve had an amazing visit in Les Adrets. It’s the sunniest winter I’ve ever enjoyed. I am very excited to go to Florence, and then to London. I’m glad I’ve had such a lovely time here that I’m sad to leave. I hope to return. It’s a melange of feelings which I just have to ride. Verity is on her way home right now, and I’ve arranged for some of the friends I’ve made here to come tomorrow evening, to welcome Verity home and for me to say adieu.

A few last highlights of my stay here: Another sun-drenched lunch with Valerie and her family. I learned about ‘les feves,‘ tiny, ceramic figurines, even smaller than santons, which are baked into the gallete du rois, the ‘cake of the king,’ which is a special cake made only in January for the 12th-night / Jesus coming back from the dead celebrations. The feves can be anything from local figurines like santons (but still not the same as santons, which are larger,) to animals, cartoon characters, Disney characters, and historical figures. Emma, Valerie’s eldest daughter, has a lovely collection of feves, all lined up in a wooden case. She has SpongeBob and she has the Lion King, she has all breeds of dogs, various birds, and my favourite – Galileo! A tiny man holding a globe. The feves are baked into the cake, and whoever gets it in his or her slice has good luck and makes a wish.

I learned another tradition at lunch, when Valerie, Raymond, and I clinked our glasses and said ‘cheers’. In French, you can say the more formal ‘sante,’ or the more casual ‘chin’. I’ve heard my Bulgarian mother-in-law make the comment that one must look the person in the eye with whom they are clinking glasses, but she has never been able to say why – it’s just what one does.

Well, Raymond said the same thing, in great seriousness, making sure we made eye contact. I asked why it was so important.  ‘Seven years…’ he said, searching for the words.

Raymond with one of his many fashionable hats.

‘Bad luck?’ I guessed.

He looked me in the eye.

‘No sex.’

I burst out laughing. ‘So that’s the French version! Very serious!’

On Saturday night, Raymond was out reporting on a breaking news story, and Valerie invited me to stay for dinner with the children. We made croque monsieur, the delicious French version of a grilled cheese sandwich. I learned why they taste different. You put cream on the bread before you smother it with ham and cheese. Of course.

And you know what, just to add to the magic of France: I’ve lost weight since I’ve been here. I don’t understand it, but I’m not questioning the French diet!

Valerie baked me my first gallete du rois on Saturday evening. The youngest child is banished beneath the table. Valerie cuts the cake. If we see the little feve sticking out of a slice (we did,) she spins the cake around so we lose track of the feve. Then Valerie says, ‘first piece!’ Gaurance, her daughter, calls out the name of a person sitting at the table. ‘Second piece!’ A name, and so on, until everyone is served.

That way, Valerie distributes the slices according to the instructions of her little daughter, who can’t see the slice. And so the feve goes to someone without bias.

The Queen and her...uh...jesters? Court?

I got the feve! I asked Valerie if she’d rigged it but she swore she didn’t. The King (or Queen,) gets a golden paper crown that comes with the cake, and then chooses their King (or Queen). Marceau was the only boy present so he got the other crown.

My feve is a little drummer man.

Now the sun is shining, the house is clean, my suitcase is packed, and I’m wondering when Verity will arrive from the airport…

Almost to the top.

Mucking about with Vespa and a general slow start to our day meant we headed out for a hike up Mont Vinaigre in the afternoon. It wasn’t as crystal clear a day as one would hope. There were blue skies, but a haze across the alps, obscuring views to the east and north. Nonetheless, we had a brisk walk up the mountain and a little rest at the top before heading back down, all before sunset.

Though logical, it is still stunning to experience just how cold the air feels in the shadow of the mountain versus the warmth of things on the sunny side. I’ve mentioned before that the name of this village, ‘Les Adrets de l’Esterel,’ means ‘the sunny side of the Esterel,’ and it would feel entirely different to live on the shaded side.

This may also be why I feel like the (technical) back of Verity’s house is the ‘front,’ because the back is the sunny side, the side with the views, the side facing south and west, to the sunset, and even the setting of the moon, which is always clearly visible outside the living room window if I get up by eight am.

Shelley & Iain at the top of Mont Vinaigre

So, we walked. We helped a couple re-connect with their tiny terrier that had fallen behind, and had begun to follow the wrong couple back down the path, when his owners were heading up the mountain. I thought dogs were supposed to be able to smell the difference of these things.

We watched a family with boisterous young children assemble for photos at the top, and then we did the same. We walked back in the sunset, making plans to go to dinner in Cannes.

Back at the house, we all dressed for dinner. For this whole trip, I tried to pack few clothes (having come on the Vespa with my smallest suitcase,) and it has been rather a leap of either wearing jeans and jumpers, and staying in the house, writing, or having guests, going out, and wearing a dress or skirt. So after a shower, I put on my nicest black dress. Shelley lay down for a nap, Dani went on the computer, Iain jumped into the shower. The house was quiet.

Poor little chap probably didn't make it.

I rarely scream, but I did when Felix frolicked into the hallway, mumbling, his mouth full, and deposited a mouse at my feet. A live mouse – which dashed around the hall before scrambling beneath the dresser!

What felt like pandemonium was in fact just me, in my nicest dress, crawling around on my hands and knees moving furniture while Felix desperately hunted for the poor panicked mouse, which had taken up quite a good refuge in the gnarled trunk of Verity’s carved wooden hat stand.

the Old Clock Tower in Cannes.

We finally chased the exhausted creature into the kitchen, where I caught it by its tail and took it outside. It had a few good bite marks in its pelt and I really doubted it would survive the night. I shut Felix inside, but he made a swift exit through the bathroom window.

When we left for dinner, the mouse was gone. But Felix continued to hunt for the mouse under the hat stand into the next day. I thought cats were supposed to be able to smell these things?

We proceeded to have a lovely dinner in Cannes, complete with lobster salad. My guests left the next day, and the house was my own again.

I have taken to shutting the doors and only allowing Felix inside once I’m sure his mouth is empty.

The Junket

I’m delighted to announce my first publication of 2012: a collaboration with the talented Badaude, aka Joanna Walsh.

Cambridge-based literary journal ‘The Junket‘ asked Badaude if she would be interested in making a contribution to their quarterly, and she invited me on a fascinating back-and-forth production which ended up as a calendar-like sestina with mono-print illustrations, all based on themes from the French Republican Calendar.

Read it here.

Scroll down for the full sestina, and click the ‘previous’ and ‘next’ buttons to see the mono-prints.

Badaude and I took turns sending each other pieces every other day, so I would write four lines and send them to her, and she would design a mono print in response, and then my next four lines would try to incorporate her response, as well as my day from the FRC (which is printed below the day’s piece). It was fascinating: I’ve never done, or written, anything like it.

Aftermath of New Year's...

Only the day before my mom & aunt left, I had planned to give my mom ‘un petite tour,’ a little ride, on Vespa.

To my dismay, upon starting Vespa, she sprang a leak! With the fuel tap on, petrol dripped alarmingly from a pair of holes in the frame below what I now know to be the carburettor.

This was on the morning of the last day my mom was visiting, the day we planned to visit Eze and Monaco, so I wheeled Vespa back into the garage, put a pan beneath, and decided I would work it out later.

Dani, ever the curious problem-solver, noticed the pan beneath Vespa when he went into the garage’s extra refrigerator for beers when Iain was with us. After some negotiation (Dani is very, very clever, but has never dealt with a Vespa, or any scooter,) we got out the manual and opened her up on New Year’s morning, when Iain and Shelley were still asleep – though it wasn’t long before Iain arrived with his camera!

Do I look like I know what I'm doing?

My ultimatum was that Dani was not allowed to take apart anything which he didn’t know how to put back together. I had visions of my carburettor in pieces and them leaving on their flight.

We figured out that the fuel hose wasn’t leaking, and I finally felt the leak coming right from a tiny hole below the fuel hose, on a small part of the carburettor. Dani managed to wedge my compact mirror and a torch/flashlight into the space in such a way that he could see the hole was a deliberately drilled hole.

We were stuck as to what to do next..

It would be Scooterworks to the rescue: I told Dani I would call Neil, (whom I would recommend to any Vespa or scooter fan in London in need of repairs, or who wants to purchase a scooter, etc,) when Scooterworks re-opened after the holidays. He would be able to tell me what was wrong; my only hope was that it wouldn’t require major replacing of parts, or the major taking-apart, of much of Vespa.

Do not be broken, Vespa!

Here might be a good chance to explain how, and when, Vespa is returning North with me.

Much to my mother’s relief, I decided immediately upon arriving safely at Verity’s – way back on 11th November 2011 – that I would not be riding Vespa back in January. I’d survived one North-of-France ‘Arctic’ journey, and I was not about to subject myself to another. Verity very kindly said that it was a very good idea for me to leave Vespa in her garage and collect it in the warmer months.

There happens to be twelve days in May between my sister-in-law’s wedding in New York State and the start of my commitment to model at the Flemish Classical Atelier in Bruges, Belgium.

There happens to be ONE luxury auto-and-passenger-train from Alessandria, Italy, to Den Bosch, in the Netherlands, smack in the middle of those twelve days: on 26 May.

My intention is to be on that train, with Vespa. I will ride Vespa along the Cote D’Azur from Nice to Genoa, and then North to Alessandria. Then I will ride from Den Bosch in Holland to Bruges.

None of this was going to work if Vespa was broken!

Greasy hands.

I phoned Neil a few days after Boxing Day, and explained the leak. He told me that there is apparently a pin-hole valve (that small hole where we pinpointed the leak,) which allows in more fuel as needed when accelerating. Sometimes the valve can get stuck open with a tiny bit of grit or debris. One must tap the aluminium pan at the base of the carburettor with the butt of a screwdriver or something similar (on a newer Vespa the pan would be plastic,) in the hopes of loosening the grit. One must also run the engine hard with the fuel tap off until the carburettor runs dry (& the engine stalls) which may also blast out the grit.

If this doesn’t work, the carburettor must be removed and taken apart.

Dani and I had tried the ‘run it dry’ technique, even though we didn’t really know what the problem was, and it hadn’t worked. I mucked around and tapped the carburettor and ran the engine hard a few times, turning the fuel tap off, and marvelling at how long it took to stall after the tap was off.

It worked!

Relief!

I made sure Vespa really wasn’t leaking anymore, and then put her away, ready to ride to l’Eglise on Sunday. Whew!

Kelley, Shelley & Dani in St Paul

We had a day to turn the house over (i.e. prepare for more guests; something I as a hostess and one whose grandmother used to run a B&B care a lot about, but some men don’t at all…) before Dani’s best friend Iain & his lovely wife Shelley arrived for New Year’s festivities. Two trips to Nice airport in two days: no problem.

We picked up Iain & Shelley early Friday afternoon and drove right to St Paul de Vence for some height-of-the-day sight-seeing.

Those pesky Saracens were at it again: St Paul de Vence is a ‘perched village’ with a fortified wall – perched like Eze, fortified like the monastery on St Honorat, all in defence of Saracen attack in the 16th century.

Dani...fleeing the Saracen pirates?

DK guide says of St Paul de Vence: ‘A celebrity village, it was ‘discovered’ by Bonnard, Modigliani, and other artists of the 1920s.

Since that time, many of the rich and famous literati and glitterati have flocked to St-Paul…including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, F Scott Fitzgerald, Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren and the elusive Greta Garbo.’

So of course we fit right in.

In fact, St Paul is now a complete tourist trap, which I fully expected. ‘Trap’ literally, as it is behind fortified walls, with bollards one must pass before driving into the town (only a short way as most of the streets are pedestrian, though we saw a few parked cars on streets where they really didn’t seem they could have fit other than having been air-lifted there). We parked in the car-park and walked into the village.

Like Eze, it is the sort of place that is worth strolling around and taking lots of photographs. The Alps stretch out to the North and East, the sea glitters to the South, Nice winks and frolics before the coastline, and the Esterel massif hunches its back at you from the West.

Literati, glitterati.

We walked south and then around to the sun-drenched south-west side of the village, where we found a perched table in a perched cafe on the perched village. (Very perchy.) I drank Ricard – the most famous type of Pastis – and it glittered like gold in the sun; uncanny to drink such a thing!

We spent a few hours there like good faux-locals before ambling back to the car, driving the ‘scenic route’ (poor Iain felt very carsick) back to Les Adrets for some pasta, a roaring fire, and games of Dominoes.

The following day, New Year’s Eve Day, we decided to drive to St Tropez. It was the last major, close stop on our tour of the Cote D’Azur, and none of us had ever been. It, too, sounds like a tourist trap, and hell in summertime.

How 80,000 tourists can fit into such a small space, I can’t imagine, and never wish to experience. There were maybe 100 when we went that day, and all of them seemed congregated along the port, which for the most part was the only place open.

We had an exciting experience finding, and securing a parking space – I kept urging Dani not to hesitate or someone was going to nab the spot he was cautiously reversing into; finally, I leapt from the car to shoo a girl out of the way who was blithely trying to ‘hold’ the spot for someone behind us, despite the fact that Dani had his indicator on and was reversing. I don’t know if it was my American accent, but I had barely said, ‘I’m sorry, but we’re parking here,’ and she’d disappeared.

Gaston considers a lunge for the prawns.

Parking crisis averted, we wandered around the port, along the beach, and through some small streets to a creperie, where we enjoyed sugar-and-lemon covered crepes. Heaven.

Shelley and I then ducked into a shop which was trying to clear its stock in preparation for the new season. I never would have thought I’d buy shoes in St Tropez, but I did – for €10! (Red flats, with a little flower on the front, if you’re wondering.)

More wandering along the seashore, more gawping at beautiful, pastel-coloured houses, more amazement that this place could – would – be heaving at its hinges in the high season.

Then, we drove home, stopping to snap photos of the unbelievable sunset.

The sprawling sky.

Provence and the Cote D’Azur have a kind of mythical quality, with fields full of lavender, with artists and writers, pastel colours, gentle landscapes, and that famous ‘light’.

It’s the kind of calendar-and-poster beauty which has, alas, become a cliche. One is hard-pressed to believe it’s really like that.

It’s really like that.

 

St Tropez and some 'small pleasure craft'

The very sky has a bedroom quality; it stretches and rolls out above you. Caitlin was right: it is sexy. It is romantic. It is voluptuous.

Untouched photograph courtesy of Iain Bapty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, Saturday, I spent all morning sitting in the sunshine, drinking tea and reading Ulysses. It’s 7 January and I spent most of the day in the sun, reading. Outside.

Gunshots rang through the forest in the valley, the donkeys bawled and yodelled, the cats sneezed, bees checked out my stripy Breton sweater, and the birds laid a blanket of chorus through the shrubs, wondering when the hell I was going inside so they could get at the birdseed.

All together now: 'Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to miiiiind...'

Upon returning to Les Adrets from St Tropez, we lit a roaring log fire and embarked on games of Dominoes, champagne-drinking, and general New Year’s revelry. This consisted, as the night wore on, of a sing-along on my ukulele, many phone calls and texts and skypes to friends and family, far too many renditions of ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ and a delicious dinner of raclette, melted in Verity’s raclette-warmer, with prosciutto, various cured meats, and boiled potatoes. We toasted the New Year in France, and then, an hour later, toasted it again on UK time.

Monaco, Eze & Theoule

Almost in Monaco.

The day trip Dani & I had taken with his parents to Monaco and the perched village of Eze were so stunning, unique, and worth telling other people about (‘bragging rights,’) that we decided to repeat the tour for my mom & aunt.

We drove again to the Monte Carlo Casino, again did not pay to go inside, again goggled at the expensive cars being valet-parked out front, and again walked down to the harbour in the sunshine.

This time, there was a bustling Christmas market, complete with ferris wheel, mini roller-coaster, and many other games for kids. One was a kind of track where kids were rolling around in huge blow-up hamster balls. Those seem like a good thing to do with kids. They can crash around all they like and no one gets hurt (though it was amusing watching two try to pass one another on the track and get stuck).

We ate far too many Nutella crepes and gawped at the boats which are easily worth more than my grandparent’s house.

For something a little different, we walked up the steep and winding steps to the Palace, which dates from the 16th-17th centuries.

Monte Carlo.

Monte Carlo.

The Grimaldis have ruled Monaco since the 14th century; not a bad run. Of course, Americans are most familiar with the story of film star – turned – Princess, Grace Kelly, & her tragic end. Driving around these steep, winding roads gives one a very good idea of how easy it would be to make a fatal mistake in a car.

The views stretched across the Mediterranean; we soaked in the sun and watched a helicopter land on some private pad by the water’s edge. My mother also noticed (as did Dani’s mother) how impeccably clean it is in Monaco. It feels like a movie set. It’s not the sort of place I’d choose to go, to be honest, but it has been fun and somewhat dazzling to walk around there twice in one month – and to reinforce that the cheapest lunch anywhere on the Cote D’Azur is a €3.50 crepe!

We arrived in Eze earlier than we had last time, and agreed to simply meet at the car if we got separated, as it’s such a tiny place.

We did variously go our separate ways, along the stone passages and arched byways that give one a dramatic feeling that this was a place for pirates and smugglers in days gone by.

Perhaps she's Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry, or Clio, the Muse of History...

I made sure mom & Robin saw the Golden Goat – the statue you can only see if perched on a certain set of steps, which is the emblem of the Chateau of the Golden Goat. Later, Valerie told me that it’s famous for the food, and also outrageously expensive. It was closed for the season but I think we would have ended up with crepes again anyway, so it didn’t matter – though it’s the private places, the restaurants, and the hotels that command the best views.

There is an exotic garden perched at the very top of Eze, but both times we arrived too late in the day to enter. It’s only a €3 fee and must not be very big, but surely has the spectacular views. However, Dani and I discovered that if you climb the steep steps to the perched cemetery in Eze and walk all the way to the fence at the end, you can see the same views over the coast, out to Antibes and beyond.

I was able to get a better photo of one of my favourite statues on this trip, which stands outside of the church square in Eze. Ever since researching my play ‘Venus Heart,’ about the anatomical wax Venus, I’ve been tuned in to statues of the female form.

Perhaps it’s her short, spiky hair, or her hands in pockets, her attitude, her casual stance, her off-the-shoulder, busty dress, her smile, her texture – the way she is both part of the surrounding rock, and apart from it – I love this statue, which is taller than I am. She’s joyous, spritely, organic. She seems to emerge from her surroundings with a burst of energy; a juxtaposition to the hard-and-fast, ‘set’ nature of her medium.

Intriguing St Rita.

My mom, aunt and I visited the church, and I snapped a photo of a painting of St Rita that hung in a darkened alcove. I took the photo because she looked oddly sexy and I wanted to know who she was. It was too dark to see the painting within the church (I wonder if she’s purposely hung in the darkest alcove because she looks sexy).

St Rita was an Italian lady married to a brutally abusive husband. He was later murdered, and she became a nun.

A further explanation (Wikipedia) tells the graphic story of her forehead wound: One day at prayer, she asked to suffer as Jesus had, and a thorn fell from a statue of Christ and struck her on the forehead.

The wound never healed and caused her suffering for the rest of her life. It also apparently stank, which kept the other nuns away. When Rita died, the scent supposedly turned to a wonderful smell of roses. I’m not used to Biblical stories, but these are up there with the Grimm brothers.

As the sun set, we made a detour back to Les Adrets so my mom & aunt could pack their suitcases for their early morning flight home.

Views of Eze from the cemetery.

Then, we went to dinner at Marco Polo, one of Verity’s favoured restaurants. It’s closed for most of the winter, but open for the Christmas period. There wasn’t anything else open in Theoule this time of year, but they do seem to have the most Christmas lights of any village I’ve seen yet!

Though it was dark, we had a seaside view through the windows, and could see the glitter of the bay of Cannes stretched out across from us.

My mom had the largest prawns we’ve ever seen, Dani & I enjoyed local fish soup (not bouillabaisse, but a smooth and very fishy broth, served with garlic, croutons, cheese, and rouille – a sort of mustard-mayonnaise,) and Robin & Dani had steaks. I had ‘St Jacques,’ or scallops. I. Love. Seafood.

Biggest prawns/crevettes we've encountered.

On the ferry.

On Tuesday, we took a ferry to St Honorat, the smaller of the two îles de Lérins only fifteen minutes across the sea from Cannes. ‘The two islands, separated only by a narrow strait, were once the most powerful religious centres in the south of France,’ according to my DK Eyewitness Guide.

The fort on the larger island, Ile St Marguerite, is famous for imprisoning the 17th century Man in the Iron Mask, who spent 11 years there before being transferred to the Bastille, where he died in 1703. It is unbearably sad to think of this anonymous man being chained in the dark, only metres from the joy of such a stunning, sunny, lively paradise.

St Honorat is the home of a working monastery, where 25 Cistercian monks spend their time praying – we read a description of their day, and it’s mostly praying, and precious little eating – and making products including wine, lotions, and honey & beeswax products from their apiaries.

The wine was ridiculously expensive (and I later heard from Raymond that it’s not that great,) but I did buy some rose lotion.

Atop a ruined chapel.

St Honorat holds the remains or reconstructions of various chapels, including St Cyprien, Trinity, and St Sauveur, but the crowning piece is the Fortified Monastery, a substantial ruin ‘built in 1073 by Abbot Aldebert, to protect the monks from Saracen pirates’ (DK guide). My Rough Guide to Provence states that St Honorat has belonged to monks ‘almost continually since Honoratus, a former Roman noble seeking peace and isolation, founded a monastery here in 410 AD,’ but other sources explain that it did pass through a number of secular hands for awhile before returning to its monastic ways.

Though it must be fairly obnoxious to have the island full of visitors at all times of year (it’s the off season and our ferry was still full,) the monastery must also make a useful income from selling their products, an income they otherwise might not earn.

One clever catch for tourists is that though there are ferries to and from both islands, for a rather steep fee of €13 return, there is no boat connecting the two across their very narrow channel. We only planned to go to St Honorat, so it didn’t bother us.

I would recommend spending a whole day on one or the other; we packed a lunch of pizzas from Isabel. There is one restaurant on the island, open all year. I didn’t look at the prices, but talk about a captive audience!

Within the remains of the fortified monastery.

The ferry doesn’t even tie up, but a salty, seaworthy-looking man grabs you by the arm and helps you on and off; for children, he bodily lifted them up and onto the dock. The captain was outrageously attractive and Italian-looking, with a long black ponytail, sunglasses, and well-fitting jeans. We saw both men sipping espresso from little china cups on the ride back. C’est la vie!

We walked east or clockwise around the island upon debarking at the tiny dock. We took photos of the sea and the chapels, the ruins and the rocks. The sun bore down on the south side of the island, and Dani and I became inexplicably separated from mom & Robin.

A monk in a robe and sandals with thick socks walked past. I saw a sign asking visitors to please respect the silence of the monastery. I wasn’t sure if there was something about monks taking vows of silence, and we wondered if that was part of the monk’s conventions.

We found mom & Robin clambering around the Fortified Monastery, a gorgeous tower with white stones soaking up the warmth of the afternoon sun. We lounged in the sun, eating our pizzas and reading from the guidebook.

After lunch, we saw a fashion shoot taking place outside of the  monastery gates, and debated the height of the model based on her precarious wedge heels.

Views from the fortifications.

Entrance to the church, where one should respect the silence.

A couple of tourists walked through the monastery compound laughing and shouting, and we all cringed, thinking of the extremely obvious signs asking for silence – particularly right where we were, looking at the church, near the cloisters. It was embarrassing and rude: I can understand why tourists get a bad reputation. I’m not sure whether the two girls were speaking Italian or French, but we all shied away from them.

The shop opened after lunch, and our curiosity about whether it would be staffed by a silent monk was immediately answered when we entered to a loud, chatty woman on the phone. She was very nice, helpful, and definitely not a monk with a vow of silence. We looked at the wine, most of which cost over €100 a bottle, and bought a few postcards and the lotion. Then we continued our leisurely circumnavigation of the island.

We stopped at a picnic table in the sun, and I read a little history of the island that my mom had bought in the shop. Dani fell asleep as I read about the monks rising at 4am for hours and hours of prayer, both individual and collective.

The functioning Abbey.

There were photos of monks at wood-cutting machines, picking lavender, and holding a meeting in a circle on the rocky seashore. We wondered how many there were, and when I got home I found in my other guidebook the mention that 25 monks live there, which strikes me as quite small indeed. I suppose, tourists aside, this is a paradisiacal place to live. I wonder if the ‘challenge’ of the tourists provides an extra spiritual dimension – thou shalt not loathe the plebs. Something like that.

We finished our circumnavigation of the island in more than enough time to take the second-to-last ferry back to Cannes, where we walked around the old town. The small, pedestrian streets are full of restaurants, though at five o’clock, it was still too early for dinner.

We walked up the steps to the old Cannes castle, which was built by the Lérins monks in the 11th and 12th centuries (DK guide), and enjoyed views across Cannes as it lit up for the night.

Noël, Soleil, et Capon

In the sun on Christmas day; Robin on the phone with family.

Christmas was bound to be different this year.

In 2011, both of my grandparents passed away, and now the family home, which was built by my ancestors, the Perry family (Some folk from the Mayflower, Commodore Matthew Perry, Rebecca Nurse of Salem Mass, and Eli Whitney of the cotton gin amongst them,) is up for sale. (Anyone looking for a $1.8m ‘family home’? Get in touch.)

Christmas used to mean a gathering of the Kelley clan (I’m named after my grandfather’s last name) at Number 4 Margin St., and last year was the last time for it.

My reaction was to make this year as different as possible.

Robin & mom in charge of the capon.

This is the only Christmas I’ve ever sat outside in the sunshine during the middle of the day, eating French petit fours, cheeses, and drinking homemade Vin d’Orange from a friend (Valerie). It’s the only Christmas where, when the sun was down and it was chilly again, we had a big log fire in a stone fireplace, and it’s the only Christmas where my mom, aunt, and I baked a Capon – an unexpectedly enormous chicken – turkey-sized – stuffing olive oil and herbes de Provence beneath the skin, and baked mashed potatoes with black truffles.

It’s the only Christmas where I went to Christmas Eve Mass (particularly in French, though I don’t recall ever going to a Christmas Eve Mass at all,) and it’s the only Christmas where we played Dominoes, ate sugared chestnuts, macarons, and a chestnut buche. It’s the only Christmas I’ve Skyped in with my brother and his family in Rhode Island. That, and phone calls with Dani’s family,  meant we really did feel connected, despite our far-flung abode. I think that’s what an international lifestyle is all about – not letting the distance stop you, but also enjoying the exile as you wish.

Cathedral in Fayence

The day after Christmas was a Monday, so with the anticipation that everything would be closed, both because many things are closed on Mondays, and because it was the day after Christmas, we made the now-obligatory trip to the beautiful perched villages of Tourettes and Fayence, not a far drive from Les Adrets. It was a lovely sunny day, and this time, knowing how close beside each other the two villages are, we parked in the carpark at Tourettes and walked all over it and Fayence. We watched gliders soaring across the fields and hills; silent, white, long-winged.

We saw more of Fayence, including a gorgeous church. I’m aware of how many churches I’ve visited on this trip, of going to church. I have always loved ecclesiastical architecture and London is full of it, too, but it feels like here there is more of it – perhaps because each little village has its own church (though England has the same thing). I’m not sure if I’m in a more religious country (Roman Catholic – yes, I suppose,) or I’m just more aware of it. Also, it being Christmas, it means the santons in crèches are everywhere. We even saw a chocolate crèche in a chocolaterie! Best crèche ever.

Stray olive trees bent ripe with unplucked olives, persimmon trees dropped their gloopy orangey-red fruits to the ground, and pine cones clustered thickly in the branches of tall, thin pines. We read the history of Christmas on a sign-board outside of a closed cafe, which began with the pagan origins of the holiday and ended with the adoption of Father Christmas by an American advertising exec who changed Pere Noel’s clothes from green to red so he could sell Coca-Cola – echoing exactly Raymond’s own explanation of the commercialisation of Christmas.

Chocolate creche!

We drove to the coast, wandering around the Christmas market in Frejus, which, to my delight, was open. We ate freshly baked macarons and debated the distinction: to an American, a ‘macaroon’ is a coconut (and sometimes chocolate) squishy cookie thing. In France, it’s like a tiny hamburger-sugar-sweet, which can be chocolate, vanilla, raspberry, pistachio, etc – many, many flavours.

But to confuse us, the macarons we ate at the Frejus market were both the shape & consistency of the American version – but came in many flavours, including ‘natural’ (which was coconutty,) and chocolate, raspberry and pistachio. I was trying to assert that ‘macaROON’ was American (coconut) and ‘macaRON’ was French (sugar-burger) but failed.

In the end, we decided it didn’t matter and ate a bunch of chocolate macaro(o)ns. I had mulled wine and we bought Florentines (orange glazed and dipped in chocolate on one side to make a delightfully chewy orange cookie) and ate little fried things – almost like raviolis – filled with cheese & spinach.

Lovely fountain in Frejus.

We looked at the crèche in the town hall and the crèche in the ancient cathedral.

There were little tableaux set up with life-sized puppets, electronic, which moved & played music, acting out popular fairy tales, and little kids watched, wide-eyed, as the Prince bent to kiss Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent looked on; Hansel & Gretel were tempted by the wicked witch, and Peter Pan flew away from Captain Hook with Tinkerbell.

I’m afraid I don’t have photos of these, so I’ll post one of a fabulously sexy water fountain instead.

We’ve done so much over the holidays that I feel compelled to tidy events into trios. This is the first.

New specs & fresh petite croissants.

My mother, aunt, and husband arrived on the afternoon of the 23rd December, and we started their visit with a lovely dinner at a local (THE local) restaurant, Les Esclapieres. My mother tried foie gras and loved it, I accidentally ordered two bottles of wine rather than two carafes, a translation error resulted in Dani ordering kidneys (which he enjoyed,) and we confirmed that though portion sizes might be smaller in Europe, the overwhelming use of cream in French cooking leaves one feeling very, very full.

The following day we continued in the gastronomic vein by enjoying fresh pastries from the boulangerie before heading out to a drive along the coast of Nice, a walk along the rocky shore, and a very late lunch in Antibes, near the Picasso Museum.

The markets that had been bustling when I went with Caitlin, Emma, and Valerie, were almost nonexistent, answering my question about whether the markets are busy on Christmas eve and day. I guess that’s a no, then.

However, an unexpected highlight was a rather noisy drive-through rally of Vespas! The local Vespa Club had gathered, dressed in Santa hats, and was driving around Antibes, beeping their horns and handing out candy. It was adorable. I must look up London-based Vespa groups.

Aunt Robin & me in Antibes. Note waiter in background with Santa hat.

There was a stressful incident where we parked in the port and had to pay our ticket before exiting, but no one seemed to know where to pay (including other people wandering around with unpaid-for tickets)…Attempting to put my bank card into the machine at the exit made the machine swallow our parking ticket, my bank card, and made the actual screen on the machine crash. Fortunately, a ‘help’ button yielded a real person answering (to my shock, so late on Christmas Eve,) and they returned both my bank card & the ticket, and the barrier miraculously opened. Dani hesitated as if we should still figure out how to pay, and I yelled, ‘Go, just GO!’ We went.

Dani, mom & Robin in the church. Let's play 'spot the skeptic...'

It was already Christmas Eve!

Dani humoured us by joining us for the 11pm ‘Messe’ (Mass) and my mom & aunt were able to experience the local church. It was a rather unusual evening: children were dressed up in Nativity outfits, but there was no Nativity play (unless we’d missed it, but it didn’t seem so: the kids just sat in their usual places in the benches to the right of the altar, tugging at their rope-belted robes and scratching at the metallic cloth wrapped in turbans around their heads,) – and I didn’t recognise too many of the attendees, so perhaps ‘the usuals’ go on Sunday at 10am.

Marius & Rene really  had to run the show; Gabrielle, who was filling in for Verity, was on holiday, so there was no one to play piano. All of the music was on CD and people didn’t seem to know when to sing along, or what words to say.

It was definitely a rockier ‘performance’ in all, but I’m still glad we went. The highlight was that one of the ladies (or perhaps the only lady) who sings for weddings there performed two solo, a cappella songs, including the Ave Maria, and that was truly glorious. She has an amazing voice and the acoustics of the domed church make it ring.

The church creche with local santon ('little saint') figures.

The church had a big lovely santon creche set up, too – all the churches have them, as well as many shops, and it’s nice to look at all of the local Provencal characters. They usually have running water features like a mill or stream, and often have little lights, too. We got to say hi to Ilona, who has a charming way of speaking at length in French no matter whether the people she’s speaking to know French or not, so I did my best to translate.

All of this in the two days before Christmas, and so much more to come…

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