A Garden in Provence


Oh, my aching back!

A Garden in Provence

To tell you the truth, I thought I was through with gardening. I had done it all of my former life with a huge vegetable garden in Arizona and massive landscaping in Texas. I was out there every Autumn and Spring either planting tulip bulbs and pansies or red and white begonias in the flower beds. When I had a house of my own eventually, I had a small garden of flowers but mainly low maintenance bushes, 10 very prolific pecan trees planted by the previous owner, and a lawn I thought too large as I had to mow and water it. Every Autumn I was raking what seemed like tons of leaves and bagging them, gathering pecans, although many neighbors came by to help themselves, and pulling up fledgling pecan trees in the grass.
When I moved to Paris with Maurice, I gave a little sigh of relief. I love gardening, especially the results, but the labor was getting to me. In Paris all I had was two pots of geraniums to water on holders outside two windows. When we started building in Provence, I thought I would keep it all really low maintenance, with lavender plants, maybe a pot or two of flowers, lots of gravel and- a wish of mine- a “tunnel” with wisteria growing up the side to spread over the top giving us shade and a sweet fragrance in the Spring.
Well, life being life-and being married-nothing turned out like I thought it would. I do have quite a bit of gravel but we had to add unexpected plots of elevated and walled areas and some terracing, as the land drops off from our house. Maurice planted grass-sigh- around our pool and we have trees and bushes planted to help block views from neighbors into our yard or just to help the look of our yard. On a hill steeply going down to a further yard, we planted many santalina, rosemary and lavender plants to help hold the dirt in place. What I thought would be low maintenance has not turned out to be the case. The first year we had to water them once a week which did pay off as we now have really luxurious santalina and lavender growing. The rosemary was a little disappointing. I am used to it loving the heat and really doing well in the Southwest, but, so far, it is being outpaced by its neighboring plants.
Mrs. M., our landscaper in the beginning stages of our yard, told Maurice that not only do the lavender need to be trimmed of its flowers at the end of the flowering season, something I did last year-a wonderfully fragrant job-but so do the santalina. I haven’t counted the number of santalina plants as I don’t want to get too depressed, but I’m guessing there are about fifty of them. They have stopped blooming and are now all covered by what were once bright yellow flowers, now darkening into brownish yellow shades. I didn’t trim them last year and they did alright although they did get “holes” in the foliage where I guess the plant got too heavy.
So, every morning, trying to beat the heat, I am out there cutting off the flowers of four or five bushes a day so it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. I try to do most of it sitting down to save my back. I am using ordinary scissors to do the job with no problem. I sit next to the lavender which still attracks many bees hoping they don’t mind me sharing their territory. At the closeup proximity in this little microcosm, I see spiders-I don’t think Provence has any poisonous varieties-grasshoppers-some realy large-and a praying mantis or two. Lots of fuzzy, velvety bees, and, of course, my butterflies come to join me. There aren’t as many as there were when the santalina was covered with fresh flowers, but they still come for the lavender.
So, here I am, back at gardening, which is really a full time job but, other than a sore back and fingers at the end of the day, I have to admit that I am enjoying it.

Carless in France Chapter 10

Chapter Ten
Car-Less In France

Paris is one city where you do not need a car.
My husband and I have one but it stays parked in a garage unless we are going out of town. The public transportation system is so great in Paris that getting around is a breeze. Plus, no one in their right mind would want to drive here. I tried it once and it was so foreign to me – what else? The French don’t get in an orderly line to turn left – they sort of pile into the middle of the road, squeezing as close as they can to each other in order to go screeching across the intersection the moment they get the chance. It was a couple of years before I realized that there weren’t any left turn signals as there are in the States which explains a lot of these driving patterns.
People walk in Paris. You wouldn’t believe how much you walk here. I have finally gotten used to it and often out walk visitors, even young ones. I had a girl in her twenties come to visit me and we walked everywhere. We went to the Eiffel Tower, the Arch de Triumph, down the Champs-Elysées, to the Marais, up the hill to Sacre Coeur, through the Louvre and the Musée D’Orsay. At the end of each day she would collapse on the couch, rising only to drag herself to bed at 9 p.m. What are these young people coming to? It made me realize how much I walked in Paris without a second thought. Even my grandsons, ages three and five, couldn’t do it. We had to purchase umbrella strollers, not an inexpensive thing to get here, so they could go everywhere we wanted to go. They were used to walking from the house to the car, the car to school, and then the opposite at the end of the day. My husband’s grandchildren walk from their home to their school, five or six blocks, every day. They never have any trouble keeping up with the adults.
Needless to say, I am always on the metro or a bus. The metro goes anywhere you want in a very short time. It took me awhile to figure out the system, but I’ve mastered it and find it fast and reasonable. Occasionally, I start reading to pass the time and have looked up as the train pulls away from my station. When this happens it is simply a case of getting off at the next stop, going to the other side and returning to the stop I wanted.
Since being in Paris a short time, especially down in the metro stops, I have been subjected to a wide variety of music, some of it very good, some of it unbelievably horrible. I am on the metro just about every day and have started to see the same people either sitting in one of the connecting halls with their box in front of them for donations, or boarding a train just before the door closes not giving anyone a chance to change cars. The musicians around various metro stops and tunnels actually have to try out to get their places and receive badges making them official. I read that over a thousand people try out for just a little over three hundred places. I am sure the ones boarding the trains haven’t gone through the audition. Apparently, the money is pretty good and you can pick your hours, too.
In the connecting tunnel between metro lines 1 and 4 I usually hear a little band from Peru with some background music playing from a speaker and several native flutes of wood tooting. There is often a large crowd standing around to listen, applauding when they finish a song, then stooping to look at their offering of CD’s. Is it just me, or are these Peruvian musicians in every city? I have heard the same live music in many cities, just recently in San Antonio and not long ago in Prague.
One day I was walking down a tunnel and I heard music that sounded like it was coming from an organ in a church. It echoed majestically through the subway tunnels. The tune was from the Phantom of the Opera and I was surprised when I rounded the corner and the musician turned out to be playing the accordion. It was really rather religious sounding. I wondered if the acoustics of the tunnels added to the sound as when I sing in the shower and think I sound like Celine Dion.
A friend of mine said he was sitting on the metro one day when a man boarded with what is often the instrument of choice, an accordion. He swears that the man must have taken his music lessons by mail, and had only completed the first lesson. It was excruciating to sit there while the “musician” went through the three songs he knew. I often hear the same songs time after time, usually including the quickly recognizable “Besame Mucho,” in Spanish. I assume they think these are the songs people riding the trains want to hear. I have sometimes wondered that if I offered a musician a Euro NOT to play, would I would be successful? This is usually at the end of a hot day sitting on a crowded car with the accordion playing in my ear as I have picked a seat near the door where they enter to play. Sometimes it is entertaining and enjoyable. Sometimes, I can’t wait to get off at the next stop and hurry to slip onto another car.
One day my sister was with me and a man entered without any instrument at all. He stood there with a hand cupped over one ear and began to sing, “It Had To Be You” in English, with only a slight French accent. It was like he was singing to himself as he kept his eyes to the ground, never looking up. My sister, who is a good vocalist herself said, “This guy is really great!” He did sing well. I was really surprised, and I am sure he was as well, when she pulled out a five Euro note and gave it to him. “You have a really great voice,” she told him. He profusely thanked her and stepped out of our car and on to the next one. When the train stopped again, he came back in and stood in front of us and sang another song. I don’t know if he wanted more money or was just happy to be appreciated.
There are many professional sounding musicians in the subways. Along with the accordion sounding like an organ is a lady who plays classical music on a harpsichord that I always enjoy. Sometimes, usually on a weekend night, there is an exotic looking woman singing really great jazz. A father often boards trains carrying a tambourine to accompany his little son who plays the violin. Recently there has been an eight member group of young people playing classical music with violins and cellos. They really sound fabulous. All of this music in the metro really does add to the experience of being in Paris. You might get a man with hand puppets giving a little show behind a curtain that he attaches to the poles in a car, a group of three singing (what else?) “Bessa Me Mucho” with guitar, accordion and trumpet, or just one person with a small sound system playing background and amplifying their singing or clarinet. It is more enjoyable than the men who get on and shout at the top of their lungs over the sound of the metro the story of their lives, usually that they were “just released from prison,” and ask for a little monetary help. I don’t often give money as it would really add up being on the metro daily, but there are moments when the music brings a smile to my face and my foot beats in time to a happy song being played. That’s when I will dig in my wallet and see if I have any spare change.
Sometimes riding the metro can be a challenge. When the temperature soars over ninety degrees, it is akin to being inside an iron box set in the sun. The only relief is the open windows blowing hot air into the car as the metro moves along. A long stop between stations for various reasons can be brutal. And you never know if you are going to sit down on a seat that was recently occupied by someone with a really wet sweaty bottom or grab a handle still moist from the previous metro rider. My sister once kept one hand cupped in the other until she could get to a sink and scrub her hands after this experience.
A crowded train can be really difficult. I’ve been on cars where it was so packed with commuters that I couldn’t lift my hand to scratch my nose. A metro strike or slowdown can add to this experience happening more often. I have stepped into a crowded car and taken my place right by the door thinking no one else can get in but someone always manages to squeeze in just as the doors close and push you back behind them. This can be difficult as it is hard to find a bar or strap to hang on to then and you start hoping the train won’t make any sudden stops sending you into the lap of a total stranger, or causing your foot to mash the foot of the unfortunate person next to you. I’ve had both things happen to me. There is also often some woman getting on the metro with a little shopping cart on wheels. As she boards the crowded train she runs over your foot with her cart. Does she say excuse me? No. She looks at you like you have some nerve putting your foot in the path of her cart.
The bus system is great, too, and you get wonderful views of Paris as the bus rolls along. One day I had just returned from a trip to the Marais and had a poster of an artist I liked rolled up in my hand. I got on the bus at Nation, four stops away from our apartment building. There were only four other people on the bus. As we pulled away I noticed a man standing in the aisle next to me. I wondered why he was standing when almost all of the seats were empty. Then I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Was he doing what I thought he was doing? I refused to look and kept my gaze fixed firmly outside the bus window. The bus stopped and someone else got on. The man in the aisle moved back to a little standing area. I could tell he had continued his “activity” and was wondering what to do if, when I came to my stop, he was still doing it, and would actually have his “member” out for all to see.
The bus came to my stop. I stood up and turned around and there it was. All of a sudden I was really angry and without even thinking about it, I started bashing him on the head with my rolled-up poster. It made a loud sound rather like a gun shot. I said, “You sicko! You pervert!” like he could understand me. I think I startled him (do the French just pretend nothing has happened?) and he quickly zipped up his pants and turned his back to me. Good thing, too, as kneeing him had entered my mind. Interestingly, the other passengers were looking at ME as if I were the weird one. I looked at the bus driver to see if he was going to do something, but he just sat there. Should I go up and tell him what the pervert was doing? Would he care? And how would I do it without any French? The thought of pantomiming what the man had done kept me from trying.
So I got off the bus and the man got off, too. There was the neighborhood prostitute standing right there and I said, “Why don’t you use a prostitute?” He kept looking at me over his shoulder, maybe expecting another attack and I actually looked around for a rock to throw. As I was walking back to my apartment I realized that I wasn’t upset, I was feeling empowered, a sort of “I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” feeling. I hadn’t been a victim, I had been an activist. I thought maybe that pervert would think twice before trying that on a bus again. Who knew where another English-speaking Avenger might lurk?
I told my husband about what happened that night on the phone as he was out of town. “Why didn’t you call me?” he asked. What could he have done? Ask me to hand the pervert my cell phone so he could tell him off? I handled it but every time I board a bus I do look around and see who’s on board with me. Today I have the poster framed and hanging on my wall. You have to stand close to see the creases. Only I know they are there.

Butterflies and Bees

To retain the soil and keep it all from sliding down the hill, we planted a lot of lavender, rosemary and Santalina-which, at first, I thought was going to be thyme. The first year they were all rather puny although the lavender attracted many butterflies. This year everything has really taken off, especially the Santalina which, when held close to your nose, has a pleasant, metallic sort of smell. From a distance, to my nose, not Maurice’s, it smells like dog poop to me. I don’t know what it smells like to all of the flying insects we now attract, but we now have quite an eco-system. I’ve counted 3 different types of bees, a few wasps, the usual flies, and probably 15 or so flying insects that I’m not familiar with. When I stand near the plants, I hear active buzzing going on in that secret little world. I especially love seeing the butterflies, in their short time on the earth, flit from flower to flower, sometimes dancing in the air in circles with a friend. There are small butterflies with lavender wings-could be a moth, not sure-small dark orange butterflies, ones with black wings striped like a hot rod with a white stripe, and there are the usual yellow and orange varieties, but the most common is white with a tiny black dot of the upper part of each wing. One I have just seen this year one that flies in what looks like an upside down manner to me, with its wings larger at the bottom edge. It looks like the shape of a tulip cut in two, and when it lands on a flower, it assumes a flower shape as well, it white wings with black stripes making a pretty sight.
I am especially atuned to butterflies this summer because before my favorite aunt died, she told me she would come again to me in the afterlife in some way having to do with butterflies. I don’t know if it is true or if she has but, every time I sit outside watching our extravaganza of butterflies, I think of my Aunt Lois.
A friend of mine slept in our upstairs bedroom and left the window open at night. She told us that lightning bugs flew in and gave her a light show performance up by her ceiling every night. I haven’t seen any myself here at night. Probably because I am in bed every night before it gets truly dark.
The lavender is just now starting to bloom and it attracts more butterflies than the Santalina-a plant with silvery foliage and yellow flowers. There is a lovely fragrance in the air in the morning with the flowering yellow bushes everywhere, growing wild all over Provence. I have the standard red geraniums doing well. The heat is really settling in now, getting up near 100 in the afternoons.
For the first day of summer, we went into Lourmarin to listen to music, the tradition now in France, and 100 other countries, where music is played all over, late into the night. It is called Fete de la Musique, and it is a great way to welcome in summer.

Transhumance in Provence


The beginning of the transhumance festival.

Transhumance Festival

Once a year various animals in France are moved from one area to another, usually in the late spring or early summer. It is called a transhumance which means moving animals from one field to another but it often means moving herds from a lower area to the French Alps. In the case of sheep-there are also transhumance for goats and cattle- this is so they can earn a special label saying they were raised in an area well known for great tasting sheep, rather like Bordeaux wine. You know when you drink it, it has been specially controlled with specific rules and that there is nothing else to compare to it in the world.
In centuries of tradition, sheep, goats and cows have been moved in large herds to the special fields high in the Alps with sweet green grass. Per tradition, the herds are moved along mainly country roads which often happen to pass through villages. A transhumance festival often occurs with people lining up along the side of a village street to watch a herd of sheep moving by like a living, bah-ing river.
One especially fun transhumance to observe is the one taking place in the village of Riez on the edge of the famous lavender country. It is worth visiting Riez just for their fun market set up every weekend selling no vegetables or fruit but Provencal products such as garlic, honey, olive oil and table clothes. At 10:30 the bells of the village church start ringing and then a small procession starts with villagers in native costumes holding arches of flowers over their heads. Drums are beat and small flutes are played. When they reach the end of the street there is a moment of quiet followed by the unmistakable sound of sheep approaching. At the head of the herd is the shepard, the berger, with his dog followed by thousands of sheep each with a painted symbol on their backs of the owner. They move along down the street, not moving into the sidewalks, probably due to their fear of people. At one point, they balked being scared in typical sheep fashion, and the front of the heard circles around on the street for a while until sorted out by two men and several dogs before they moved on to their first field of grass and some water by four Roman columns left from centuries past when Rome had a little village here.
A little glimpse into times past and another fun way to visit little villages in France and experience their festivals.

Meanwhile, back in Provence…

I am now back in Provence with sunshine, blue skies, warm temperatures and lavender. I arrived via:

The TGV

If I were to drive each time from Paris to Provence, from the door of ou apartment in Paris to the door of our home in Provence, it would take over 7 hours. I am lucky enough to be able to take the TGV, a high speed train, back and forth and the ride only takes three hours. The train goes all the way down to Marseilles with occasional stops in Avignon and has turned out to be so wildly popular that the French are now planning to do the same thing from Paris to Alsace up by Germany. And, of course, there is the Eurostar as well going from Paris to London via the chunnel.
I have been going back and forth and now that the newness has worn off it seems to take every single minute of the three hours to reach my destination. Luckily I love to read and pass many happy hours occupied by books. I usually have my laptop with me and do a little writing and wish there were some way to get online-wouldn’t that be a great way to pass the time. Occasionally, I will make my way to the dining car which is really more like a snack stand with very few stools screwed to the floor and it is often necessary to stand at a bar, much like in French cafes, and eat my sandwich or drink my diet coke. It isn’t a bar so you can’t while away the time sipping drinks although, this being France, you can have beer or wine.
There have been a few bad trips where there is a whining or screaming child in the car and there is usually an adult or two who talk very loudly. Once, during a very hot summer, the car I was in had a nonfunctioning air conditioner and it was like an iron box used for touture by evil Japanese army personnel in some POW camp. I really wanted to get a refund for my ticket as I spent most of the time in the dining car or sitting on the stairs out in the luggage area. Usually, the trains come with cars that are two levels, or duplex as they call it, and they are the newer ones, so there are stairs to sit on if you wish, which I did when my car was so oven-like. With the newer cars there is alot more space to store luggage, between cars, in an area in the middle of the car, and some can be squeezed behind most seats-this is where I usually store my cat in his carrier when he is with me. Although he howls and complains at first, by the time I get on the train he has become “catatonic”, pardon the pun, and is quiet for the whole trip.
On my last trip, the train was packed, this being June. There wasn’t a spare seat to be had and, to my dismay, as I neared my seat I got a look at my companion. She was a nice enough girl but she had a huge bag at her feet and an even larger golden retrever. I was supposed to take an aisle seat and she tried to squeeze her dog and her huge bag over in the one seat area. The bag and the dog both were well onto my side. For a brief moment I hoped to get another seat, and had even sat there, but someone came to claim it and I trudged back to my original place. She gave me the window seat which was much better and the dog sat in the aisle blocking access to anyone trying to get to the bathroom or dining car. Except for a few dirty looks, no one said anything, just tried to squeeze by or take a giant step over him. I love dogs but I wondered at this. The lady who checked our tickets didn’t say a word, so I guess it is standard although I thought all animals had to be in some sort of holder.
For some reason the clerks selling the tickets for the TGV can never tell you what kind of seat you will have. I assume they must change the train cars at will, adding more if there are many bookings. All I know is, no matter how I beg, I almost always end up in a family seat of four with a table in the middle and touching knees with a stranger. Sometimes I am also facing backwards to the direction the train is heading which really bothers me at first but after a while I forget about it. I always seem to get a window seat which is fine except when the sun comes pouring in and I have to pull down the shade in spite of the dirty looks my neighbors give me. The last time I was in a family seating, the lady directly across from me had a huge bag that she kept between her feet. It intruded into my space and it was an uncomfortable 3 hours. I don’t know why she didn’t put it with the luggage as there was plenty of room. I was by the window and a man was next to me who promptly fell asleep so I didn’t feel comfortable waking him up to get into the aisle to make a trip to the bathroom. My legs started aching and I longed to just stand up to stretch them but didn’t. It is great when I get on the train, walk down the aisle and find I am in a seat for two, unless the other occupant has a huge bag and dog. I used to always want a seat by the window, whether train or plane, but, unless I am with Maurice, I now want the aisle so I don’t have to bother my neighbor getting up and down.
The trains heading south in France from Paris originate at the Gare de Lyon Station, one of five huge train stations in Paris open to the air on one side with the trains waiting in rows to take their turn leaving. There is a fabulous restaurant here called le Train Bleu, full of painted walls and ceilings, wood and brass, and arched windows soaring to the ceiling with lovely lace curtains. It gives you a taste of what travel must have been like at the time when women wore hats and gloves and traveled with trunks and maids.
As the train leaves the station, we pass through the suburbs of Paris and are quickly into green countryside and are soon passing small villages and fields with herds of white cattle and an occasional castle. I always know when we are getting into Provence as the vegetation starts changing with parosol pines grouped on the horizon, the dirt taking on a yellow ochre tinge and vineyards everywhere. The stations newly built for the TGVs in Provence are new and modern with fantastic archetectural details and are mostly made of glass. Although the windows are tinted, it can be very bright inside the station and hot in the summer. The winter can be horrible as they have these little convection like ovens that put out a very small amount of hot air that does nothing to heat up the room, even if you are standing immediately next to it. The stations in Paris, because they are wide open at one side for access of the trains, are the same without any heaters that I can see to warm it up.
Despite all of my complaints, the TGV is the way to travel. There are no long security lines to go through, no sitting and waiting in some lounge in an airport. You just show up where you might have to wait a few minutes to see on a screen up above which quai the train is leaving from and go find your car. The worst part can be lugging your luggage down the quai looking for the car usually, as in Murphy’s law, being at the very end, and then struggling to get your luggage up the stairs and into the storage area-if it isn’t full. I am lucky enough that I now have everything I need duplicated on each end and only have to carry my computer case and, occasionally depending on the length of my stay, Elliot, my cat. What a great life I have dividing my time between Paris and Provence, and having a rapid way to get between them.