‘Looking for a kind, sunshine-loving and very especially, cat-loving person to look after my house and two cats from 15th November to 15th Jan. This offer would suit someone looking for calm in which to paint (beautiful light in winter,) write or just read and meditate. The house is located on the edge of a small Provençal village not far from Cannes…’
This message came through one of the poetry groups for which I’m on the email list. I responded, detailing my flexible schedule as a freelancer and poet, and my experience working for Cats Protection UK in 2007-2008. I was chosen to go.
And so this message has already significantly changed my life…
Some comments from friends include:
‘How Somerset Maugham of you!’
‘This could be the set-up for something really awesome. Can’t you see it? A young writer, disappointed by the vagaries of the London artistic establishment, leaves everything behind for a few months in a tiny village in Southern France. Looking for time away, and some inspiration, she meets the great, great, great grand-whatever of Jacques Cousteau…’
‘I’m picturing the opening scent to the film – based on Chocolat – a cloud of dust, a winding road leading into the mountains: pan in, and it’s you, on your Vespa, going to cause trouble and stir passions in the hearts of everyone in this dusty French village…’
I have wonderful friends.
Once the arrangement was confirmed, the owner of the house and cats, Verity, invited Dani and me to the village for a weekend to meet her, meet the cats, and see the neighbourhood. My first, extremely jet-lagged notes after arriving, were: ‘This is unreal. It is gorgeous.’ Not the start to the next Great Novel.
The village is called les Adrets de l’Esterel, which translates as ‘the sunny side of the Esterel’. Good start! Verity had bought us fresh croissants from the (apparently) better of the two bakeries in the village for breakfast. Pain au chocolate, pain au raisin, pain au almond – with some kind of almond cream inside… Note: Kelley must walk to the bakery for her daily baguette, or Kelley will become fat.
Over the course of two and a half days, Verity introduced me to half the village. I met the baker of said preferred bakery, an adorable woman who sounds like a straight-up stereotype to describe: plump, smiling, rosy-cheeked, flour-dusted, and very good at saying prices in English as well as French. She didn’t bat an eye when Dani asked to order 30 mini-croissants (of the above described) to bring back (ostensibly) for his work colleagues.
Les Adrets has a town hall, which also holds the Cinema, which shows one film per week. One of the people Verity introduced me to, a young woman named Florence (say it with a French accent!) invited me to join her and her family (her two little boys were bashing each other playfully with what looked like conkers, but were, I was told, from plane trees,) at the cinema when I come to stay. Verity has given Florence some English language lessons, and given one of the boys piano lessons.
The village also has a butcher, a deli/charcuterie, two different pizza restaurants (one, like the bakery, recommended, and one not,) a cafe/bar, a shop that sells only local honey and honey-products, a small grocery store with an astonishing selection of local Provençal wines (with an average price of about 5 euros per bottle: Note: Kelley must walk to the grocer for her groceries, or Kelley will become fat,) and, down a winding road, another bar/cafe and a 16th (or maybe 15th) century church.
Perhaps the most important inhabitants of the village to meet were Verity’s cats: Gaston and Felix. Gaston is the star of the show: he is 19 years old, long-haired, solid black. Felix is much younger (a ‘teenager;’ I’d guess maybe 2 or 3 years old,) short-hair, solid black. Both are extraordinarily friendly, much to my relief, and by the second night, both were sleeping on our guest bed with us. I’m very pleased that my companions for the upcoming stay and I are certainly going to get along well.
Verity fed us barbequed lamb for lunch, with champagne cocktails (‘kir’) and local rosé. For dinner we had Provençal fish soup – a smooth and salty soup – with rouille, a mayonnaise sort of sauce which goes on little bits of toasted bread with lots of garlic. In fact, there is a lot of garlic in everything. I love garlic! YUM. For some of our meals, we sat outside at the back of the house, which overlooks the Esterel massif, and listened to donkeys braying (more like honking) at sunset.
Verity plays the organ at the village church, and invited us to come sit at the cafe opposite while she played for a wedding taking place on Saturday afternoon. The wedding party all came from Paris.
Scene: Dani and Kelley, extraordinarily jet-lagged, sitting at a cafe in a tiny cobblestoned square. A fountain to our right, and across the cobblestoned ‘road’ (about 2 metres wide,) the wide-open wooden doors of the 16th (or 15th) century stone church. We stir our noisettes (espressos with milk) and blink behind our sunglasses. The church bell is ringing, and we are surrounded by the wedding party of maybe 100 Parisians: stilletto heels, faux tans, perfect coiffs, sharp suits, designer handbags…I stand in the doorway to listen in on Verity play, and her friend sing, the Ave Maria. It is stunning. I slink back to my espresso, and the next thing we hear is everyone singing ‘All you need is Love…’ Then there is a flood of people, photographs, and the bride and groom driving off in a slick convertable. We order another espresso. Verity meets us and gives me a bouquet of lavender and eucalyptis from the church pew.
That afternoon, we discover the swimming pool. It’s not Verity’s, but the neighbours. The neighbour’s house is up for sale, and empty, and Verity looks after the pool. So Dani had an excellent time cleaning it – all the while, I was baffled at how much he enjoyed it, but here is a kid who grew up with computers, in cities, so when he gets the chance to shovel snow, use a snow-blower, or, apparently, clean a swimming pool, all chores I grew up with in one way or another, he leaps at the chance. I rescued a frog from the filter and let him go, but I’m sure he’ll return. On Sunday I went for a swim, and did about 10 laps before deciding I really was too chilly…but for a little while, I was swimming around a private pool overlooking the rolling hills of Provence, surrounded by olive trees. To hell with the cold!
At one point, Verity and I sat down and made a list of things I need to know for my pending visit. Two things of importance were that Verity wanted me to meet Gilles, her neighbour who smokes his own salmon, so I could order some for the holidays, and that I should know how to order the roasted free-range chicken from the man who sells chickens at the market on Wednesdays. ‘You realise food is a religion here, don’t you?’ Verity asked. Now, this is a religion I can accept! (Note: Kelley must walk to the market on Wednesdays, or Kelley will become fat.)
On Sunday, I decided to join Verity at mass so I could experience a real French mass in this tiny 16th (or 15th) c church. Verity encouraged me to sit up front so I could hear the priest well, though the church is so tiny I think any seat is a good one. At the last moment, before settling at the organ, Verity introduced me to another friend of hers so the lady could lead me through the service. So it was that I found myself kneeling in the front of a Provençal church, in a red silk dress (because Verity had thought my blue one looked like a nightgown and I shouldn’t wear it to church!) speaking prayers in French. And singing prayers in French. At one point, I was kneeling beside Verity’s friend, and I realised no one else was kneeling…but by that time, it was too late, so I stayed down until she stood again. Later, Verity said, ‘my friend…she’s a little, over-religious, but never mind!’ Aha. Well, it was a cultural experience! And the music was beautiful, and I actually understood a bit of it. After mass, Verity introduced me to three or four more people, including the priest, who invited me to join the village at their picnic later, but Verity had other plans.
We drove down the winding ‘Roman Road’ to Théoule-sur-Mer and Mandelieu-la-Napoule, to the Mediterranean Sea, and had lunch: pastis (the very strong aniseed aperitif which Verity taught us to water down!) scallops, caryfish, and a fillet of fresh sea bream, all with cream sauce. And, of course, more rosé.
On Monday, our flight was early evening, so Verity drove us all through Cannes, Nice, and to see glassblowing at Biot. We stopped and gaped at the Riveria and the million-euro yachts moored in the harbours. We passed every possible designer shop you can dream of. There were many extremely small dogs, and more than one woman with definite plastic – on her face as well, I’m sure, as in her designer wallet.
And, there were lots, and lots, of scooters! Which entirely justifies my wild decision to buy a vintage 1967 small-frame V90; 3-gear, 2-stroke engine, baby-blue.
Which, yesterday, I drove to and from Euston, on the A roads, successfully, without stalling once. Oh yes. I’m going to be driving a Vespa around Provence. And I’m going to write, write, write!
There are conflicting arguments that on one hand it is necessary to take a break from one’s writing in order to ‘get some distance,’ ‘come back fresh,’ ‘see the forest for the trees,’ etc., and on the other, we are never not working. We are always thinking about writing, consciously or not, because living gives us the material for our work.
Yesterday I heard John Banville discussing his work (more on that in another post,) and he told an amusing anecdote. When he was newly married, he was having a massive row with his wife, and in the middle of her rant, he stopped her to say, ‘can I use that in a book?’ – You can imagine how that went down…
So it was with great pleasure that I took a day trip to Bath, the city which has so much to do with the Herschels, and spent the day almost entirely not thinking about the Herschels.
Thus early on Wednesday morning, three bleary artistic-types found themselves on the platform of Paddington Station, and were swept off through the smog of London out to the green expanse of the Chilterns, towards Bath.
We were going to Bath specifically to visit The American Museum in Britain. Patricia had discovered it, and so off went one Canadian, one Brit, and one American, to find this most unusual place: the only Museum about America that is not in America.
We arrived so early the Museum wasn’t yet open, so we ambled around the grounds and gardens, admiring the stunning views over the Somerset valleys. The Manor is at the southern end of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and yes, it deserves the name. To lounge outside in the sunshine beside the Georgian warmth of Claverton Manor was glorious.
It was the first, and quite possibly only, time in my life where I found myself a source of interest simply because I am from Rhode Island. The museum was fairly quiet on a Wednesday morning/midday, and we chatted with a number of the museum assistants. I’m used to thinking of American Anglophiles, but to see British…America-philes? …English people who were such fans of American history was very, very interesting.
Much of the museum was surreal to walk through, because they have recreated a house and a tavern from New England, and it was very much like being in a time capsule and going to particular places at home, in Rhode Island, like the DPI: ‘The Captain Daniel Packer Inne Restaurant and Pub.‘ When I’m in town, I tend to go to the pub, because the atmosphere is proper old New England with a touch of Old(e) England. And they have amazing clam chowder. The ‘tavern’ bit of the museum reminded me of the DPI.
So much of the furniture was like that of my grandparent’s house, which is now up for sale, that the experience was very unsettling. It wasn’t quite like being at home, but it was close enough to make me feel homesick, and sad in a way that was difficult to put into words. I don’t know if the house will still be in the family the next time I go to RI, and I don’t think I’ll ever stay in the house again. I grew up there, as did generations of my family for the past 200 years, and losing it is something I would frankly prefer not to face. I would rather focus on England, and Europe, than New England – the New World feels like my old one.
We toured the museum, which exhibited displays ranging from historic American quilts – including one from Westerly, RI – to the Shaker lifestyle, furniture, and clothing styles. We decided Richard was best suited to Shaker attire, with a long coat & waistcoat. We decided Patricia and I were not particularly suited to bonnets and wool cloaks.
Another room contained a stunning, red-wallpapered boudoir from New Orleans with a massive four-poster, crowned mahogany (or walnut) bed, mirrored dressing table and mirrored armoire, and another was full of musical instruments, including a piano, a harp, and a parlour guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
We took lunch on the terrace in the sunshine, and had ‘gumbo’ which was, to my experience, half-American and half-British in influence. Have you ever eaten gumbo on top of a baked (what the English call ‘jacket’) potato? I introduced R & P to ‘snickerdoodles’ – sugar cookies with cinnamon. Yum!
And we celebrated P’s birthday, which was the following day, with a ‘Tussy Mussy,’ or nosegay of flowers.
The Museum’s special exhibition on Marilyn Monroe was well-put together; it showcased a number of her famous dresses, and we were especially amazed at how, without her in them, the dresses were, for the most part, fairly normal. But just add Marilyn and bam! they become amazing. Hers is a glamorous and tragic story indeed.
After exhausting the museum, I was delighted to show my companions the ‘secret’ route down Bathwick Hill into town. The views over Bath from this field are heart-wrenching, and I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy the walk more than once during my previous trips to Bath.
We ambled into town, where I introduced P to my favourite little boutique. ‘Not Cartier’s’ is in the Covered Market. A girl would be hard-pressed to find an Aladdin’s cave of baubles and costume jewellery better priced.
We restored ourselves with tea and some of Sally Lunn’s famous buns. Clotted cream, jam, lemon curd, oh my!
After Sally’s, we walked to New King Street, where I showed R & P the Herschel Museum of Astronomy, in the house where they used to live. It was closed so late in the day, but I explained a bit about William’s discovery of Uranus, the sibling’s move from Bath to Windsor, and Caroline’s subsequent successes – particularly her daring ride on horseback from Windsor to Greenwich, which plays a part in the novel.
We wandered uphill to the Royal Crescent, where students lounged, listening to bad 80s music. Once upon a time, a person would have looked for a radio or ‘boom box’ in such a scene, but we couldn’t see the source of noise at all, probably because it was such a small bit of technology. A far cry from Caroline and William Herschel singing their concertos in the Octagon Chapel.
Well-dressed, white-haired folk walked their terriers and whippets. As we sat upon a bench all in a row, P devised a theme song to a particularly portly dog which half-skipped, half-waddled along.
Much as we didn’t want to, we finally made our way back to the station, back to Paddington, and back to London.