Stes Maries de la Mer

A banner of Sara at the festival in Stes Maries de la Mer

One thing that makes Provence so special is its many festivals. They are especially numerous during the summer and I could probably find at least one a week to attend if I wanted. One very interesting festival is the one that takes place over three days in May in the little town on the sea called Saintes Maries de la Mer. According to legend it is here that two Marys landed-Mary Jacobe and Mary Salome, relatives of Jesus and Mary, along with a couple of others, to escape persecution in Palestine. It is even said that Mary Magdelene did the same and lived and died in Provence in the town of Bormes le Momosa. They all of course proceeded to spread Christianity and Sara, the family chief of the gypsies who lived in the region converted. Through the centuries many pilgrimages were made to the little town.
We were hoping to get into the church which is supposed to be very interesting but it was full of people and the entrance was blocked while a mass went on inside. We went down to the beach to wait for the procession to begin which, on this day, was a statue of Sara whom the gypsies especially worship. First come men on horses, the guardians of Sara, then some colorful banners with paintings of Sara who, by the way, is believed to have been from Egypt and is black, then finally the statue of Sara, carried on a little bark arrives surrounded by huge crowds of the faithful, or just the curious. For some reason, she is dressed in a cloak and it is never removed, so the statue can hardly be seen as she is wearing what looks like a layer of 100 cloakes. She is carried to the edge of the sea to symbolize Sara, the gypsies’ patron staint, joyfully awaiting the arrival of the Saints’.
I had hoped to see the procession of the 2 Marys’ on the following day where a priest is in a painted boat and blesses the statues but this was a good one. Very simple, very unorganized, very sweet, it was fun to be a part of the celebration. The whole little town and the surrounding area is full of gypsies who come for the 3 days of celebration. Due to the reputation the gypsies have, I was a little apprehensive about getting something stolen, so I didn’t carry a purse. Some of the town was closed up, including a few shops. It is not an elegant town, by any means, but rather plain with a few cheap souviniers for sale and some unappealing things, to me, offered in a gypsy market.
In retrospect, we realized that, instead of waiting in the sun on the beach for over an hour, we could have spent the day in a bar having a cool drink in the shade, then followed the procession down to the beach where it is most interesting. It was a fun festival-very different-and we are glad we went.

Guardien at the front of the procession. Sara is in the back.

Close-up of Sara’s gown. Her face cannot be seen.

Look at this darling baby dressed up as a sparkly gypsy. Many little girls wore fancy dresses like those flamengo dancers wear in Spain. Didn’t see any little boys in costume for some reason.

A House in Provence chapter 8

This is a chateau near us slowing falling into ruins although part of it is still lived in.

This is from my journal when we returned to Provence in January.

Well, it is a new year. We had planned to spend Christmas at the house but stayed in Paris instead when company arrived. About the middle of January we finally made it. I have really missed our house while in Paris, especially the size of it as we sit in our tiny living room.
The sun was shining when we arrived but the wind was blowing and it eventually clouded up and rained the next day. It was nice to drive from the TGV train station making the now familiar journey to our home. We pass Aix, drive through the urban mess of Pertuis and then, finally, go through la Tour d’Aigues and make it to the little country road that takes us to our home. It is all rather bare and deserted looking this time of year but it is still a pleasure to be home once more.
The big surprise was our property. I usually don’t know what Maurice and the landscaper are talking about so never know what to expect in our yard. We arrived to find many bushes and trees have been planted. The biggest difference was the land down below which has been totally cleared. Our closest neighbor down below us has also cleared their land and it looks entirely different. I noticed that the land to the side of ours got cleared too, in an area that I had spent hours trying to trim and tidy up. We now have a mound of wood to burn and will have to wait for it to dry out a little and the wind to die down before we can burn it. The air in Provence is filled with the odor of wood being burned every where and sometimes, when driving through an area, I think it is foggy only to catch the smell of burning wood drifting from someone’s bonfire and filling a valley with smoke. I would think that someone with asthma would have a difficult time with this.
Maurice received a sort of year’s end newsletter from the little village above us. There are some major water changes being made and streets are being dug up to replace water pipes. The newsletter also said that three couples from the village were married last year and that two people died. No new births, though.

A House in Provence Chapter 7

This was written last summer.


As is usual for Provence, it has been a dry summer. It hasn’t been that hot especially compared to the summer we experienced last year. In fact, it has been rather cool. Every morning we get up to very nice cool weather and by the afternoon it is is very warm, usually in the 80’s. It has been unusually windy according to our neighbors. It seems like every afternoon we get gusty winds, sometimes very strong.
I have only been in our swimming pool one time. I like the water pretty toasty, close to 90 actually. I don’t want it to be a shock when I get in the water. I got in once up to my waist and that is where I stayed. With the wind blowing there was a real evaporative cooling effect and I am just a chicken when it comes to getting too cool. Maurice is really upset that I haven’t joined him every afternoon. I used to be a real pool person, in it all the time, but between sunburn, my hair and the temperature, I have become a pool side person.
So, with the dry summer has come fire danger. One day I spotted smoke quite near to our house and the next day when we drove by the area, there was a black circle about 30 feet in circumference. I never found out the source of the fire. It isn’t unusual to see smoke in the area and we often see helicopters and planes flying over our house on the outlook for fires or on their way to dump water somewhere. I’m hoping we never have to evacuate our house when a fire comes too close.
I spent some days wishing for rain as the grass we planted is really looking sick. I hate grass. I hate watering it, weeding it, and mowing it. It seems to be really high maintenance to me and I hate to see it in areas such as here in Provence where it isn’t suited in my opinion. Anyway, I got over-ruled as it was felt that we needed a little variety from just gravel. At some point down the road most of the grass will get covered with paving stones but we have to wait at least one year for the soil to settle possibly two or three.
Finally, I got what I wished for. I was awakened one night about one in the morning by very heavy rain and hail. I even got up to check the windows as I thought one might get broken. It didn’t last long but the next morning I walked outside and there was a lake outside our house in an area which still hasn’t been filled in due to the August vacation thing, and two really nice rectangular pots I have filled with pink periwinkles were left without one flower. The rain/wind/hail took off every single one. Around the pool several sections of land had sunk quite a bit making me glad that we hadn’t done more than the grass.
Our neighbor had it much worse. I could hear him shoveling up above us in his yard and we went up to help and what a huge mess it was. There is something wrong with the drain above him which is right below our little village and all of the water from the village came down into his yard. His pool was black with mud, things were floating everywhere, mud covered every surface in his yard.. We helped shovel mud for several hours. It will take them days to get it looking even half way decent. Throughout the day neighbors came to help. Their filter was in this little underground plastic unit and was totally filled with mud and water. The dirt here, when it gets wet, becomes like cement so I know if they don’t get it out quickly, it will be filled with hard mud.
I went with trepidation to go and look at my steps expecting the rocks to be everywhere but it held. Only one rock had moved and dirt had been washed away in one place and that was it. I’m very proud of myself.

Street market in Aix

A House in Provence Chapter 6

Today I will once again be outside pulling weeds.

One of the many religious statues in Niches all over Provence.

Swimming Pool and Landscaping

As might be expected, building a pool in Provence is right up there in stress and disappointment as we experienced in building our house. I’ve met an American lady living in Aix who says she will never, never (she said repeated this twice) have anything built in Provence. She did need some work done in her house and had a man come out to look at what was needed and now she is waiting for the estimate of the work and has no plans to hear from him any time soon. If you have expectations and want something down right away you will end up with a stress ulcer and have periods of time when you think that your head is going to explode. I should add that even Maurice, being French and all, has the same reactions and can’t believe how hard it is to get something done here.
My American friend thinks it is just different in Provence. According to her, people in Provence always put their families first in their lives. This is one reason why shops close for lunch with those long breaks because this is a family time for getting together over a meal. Friends come next and in France this means that these friends are ones you have had since childhood. They might have other acquaintances, different levels of friends, but never one they value more than the ones made first. Down near the bottom of the list is work and this certainly appears true to me. I often see shops closed for lunch around the various villages in Provence, as well as the rest of France, and think that if this were done in the States, everyone would stop shopping there; Americans would take their business elsewhere. Customer service, as we in America think of it, will probably slowly make its way into France mainly because customers will start demanding it and, most probably, because the shops will discover that they make more money this way. I could be wrong but there are more and more shops in Paris doing this. Can it be far behind in the country?
Back to the swimming pool. Maurice picked out a local builder who, in fact, lives three houses down from us. He first talked with us in October and told us they could start sometime in January. January came and went with Maurice calling and leaving messages several times. Finally we were told they would start our pool at the beginning of February. They didn’t start digging until the end of the month. They decided that we needed two support poles under the end of the pool nearest where the land dropped off so two deep holes about ten feet deep were dug. Maurice and both the pool builder and landscaper all thought that the pool needed to be very near the end of the land so it would be in the sun more time. To me this wasn’t an important factor as once summer sets in and the temperatures start soaring, it isn’t that necessary to be in the sun. You aren’t going to get a serious chill sitting in a tepid swimming pool in the shade if it is in the 90’s or more. I put up a little protest but let Maurice put the pool where he wanted.
When they started digging it looked like the pool was going to be way too close to the house, like we could jump into it from our porch with very little effort but that didin’t turn out to be the case. The pool, because the land was so low in realtion to our house, was built as a cement square sitting above the ground at first. To get to it for a look we had to climb down from the porch or consider putting a plank across from our porch to the pool but never did. Eventually the landscaper came and filled in two porches with dirt right by our house which helped to get around out back.
Progress on the pool was in fits and starts. Sometimes there were workers everyday doing something but we went most of April with not much of anything being done. We had been told, and had started hoping, that the pool would be finished by early May. This didn’t happen. We were planning a trip to the States at the end of May and Maurice didn’t want to leave without the pool being finished. He had learned to be around as much as possible when work was being done or something was done wrong. One day our neighbor across the street came roaring over as we came home from a trip to the grocery store because a huge truck bringing equipment had torn off a branch of one of their trees trying to turn off the very narrow road into the even narrower entry way to our house. Their house was the first one built on our street and the wall surrounding their land was built much too close to the road-we were required to have about 6 feet between a fence and the road-and some of the braches of their trees and bushes hung out into the road. I didn’t understand what the big deal was. It was an oak tree that grows all over the place and I’m sure they didn’t plant it, and they couldn’t even see the damaged part of the tree from their house or land, they had to walk out onto the road to see it. I think they were mad that the truck driver didn’t come tell them and just threw the branch over the wall into their yard. They thought Maurice should have been there to supervise. I don’t know how this could have been done when we never knew when anyone was going to show up and I doubt that Maurice would have been out on the road to watch the truck in any case. Half the time we didn’t know anyone was at our house until we looked out a window and saw a truck pulling up near the pool. I learned not to open the shutters to the bedroom until I was fully dressed as I sometimes was surprised when a workman or two strolled past on their way to work.
Our landscaper couldn’t do much of her work until they put the soil around the pool. Maurice had the name of the man who was supposed to do this and called him one day to see when he was coming as the swimming pool supervisor had told him the dirt mover man was due on a certain date. The digger knew nothing about it. The supervisor of the pool was doing the same thing the supervisor of our house did, telling us what we wanted to hear while, at the same time, collecting money. Maurice was able to get the digging guy to come out-he had his own earth moving machine-and finally fill in the area around the pool. It made such a difference and gave us an idea of what the yard would finally look like when we, some day in the distant future, got it finished.
The landscaper put some nice gravel on one of the porches and planted lavender and rosemary on the hill below the pool. She said it was really a little too late to plant them as it would be a little too warm so we had to water them every day or so. I wasn’t in Provence at the time and Maurice bought the flat hoses that spray out thin misty little jets of water. I had hoped for the hoses I used to use, soaking hoses, as I think they do a better job while saving water. I think Maurice didn’t want to bother with burying them or pay the higher price so now we are commited to this type of watering system The hill where the new plants are is huge and it will be an enormous job. It turned out we only had to water these plants for the summer. By the next summer we were told no watering was required and they all seem to be thriving.
We have huge expanses of land behind the pool that will require landscaping and I would like to, at one point, build a little pool house/covered area or cabana to put chairs under. This will be a year or two down the road when we aren’t putting out masses of money for other things needed for the house and yard.

A House in Provence Chapter 5

Beginning Building

Chapter 5

Months later the walls went up on our house, and finally, the roof. Now the building could really start to pick up speed since the weather wouldn’t be a factor. I hadn’t seen any of the progress on the house since the foundation and was looking forward to seeing what it looked like. It turned out that it looked smaller that I thought it would be at first. And it was all cinder block- the stuco plaster finish would be one of the last things done. When I walked around the back of the house I noticed that there was a four foot drop off out of our back door and back porch. The house had been built up on a foundation due to heavy rains experienced in the area. There had to be, by law, an area under the house for water run off. Due to my lack of understanding of the technical French, I didn’t comprehend a lot of what was said to Maurice during many meetings that went on between him and our supervisor. I could pick up quite a bit if the conversation was about general things but once it entered the technical stage my comprehension plummeted to zero. I wasn’t expecting our back door to be floating almost at my eye level. I could see right away that we would have to have some extensive work done to make the back of our house accessible.
We made a special trip with family to show them the house. It was locked up tighter than a drum. There were no workers there and Stephane wasn’t answering his cell phone. So we all got a good look at the outside. I asked Maurice if there was someway to get a key to the house so we could get in when no one was there. He told me that it wasn’t allowed-if we had the key then the building company couldn’t guarantee the work or items in the house. I couldn’t believe it. I found out that we wouldn’t get the key at all until the house was completely finished and we had what they called a reception and a walk through was done of the house.
One visit we actually were able to get into the house. We were looking at the kitchen area talking about counters and cabinets when we realized that the kitchen counter would stick out about 6 inches or so into the doorway. The door had been placed over too far. At first we were told that it couldn’t be fixed but in the end they did move it over. Then we were called one day and asked if we had to have a sink in the little room holding the toilet. (Most homes here have a separate room for the toilet with the bathtub and/or shower being in another room.) Maurice told me what they asked. I thought for a minute and said, “You know what? I’m not budging. I want the sink. What are they, a bunch of amateurs?” We would get the sink, or so I thought. When the house was finished, it wasn’t there.
The work did go more quickly and it was looking like the house would be finished before September. We got our hopes up forgetting about August in France. It seems that almost everyone takes off for vacation for the whole of that month. Work starts to taper off in July and it is well into September before everything is back to normal again.
It was then that Stephane started demanding 95% of the money owed on the house when only 75% or so was done. He was offended that we didn’t trust the company to finish everything as it was supposed to be done. The compressor for the air conditioner hadn’t been installed, nor had the plumbing fixtures. We were told that this was because there was a possibility they would be stolen. At this point Maurice and Stephane got into horrible arguments. I was afraid blows would be exchanged. The French often do this. You will hear two French people really arguing sounding extremely angry. Later, when you ask what the problem was, they are puzzled. Nothing was wrong, they were just having a discussion. This was a little different. I know Maurice was very angry and I was guessing Stephane was too.
We were at the house about 3 weeks before our so called reception when I noticed there was no light fixtures and I realized that this was something we had never picked out. We had only selected the location of light fixtures. There were bare wires hanging from the ceilings where, at least, we could screw in light bulbs so we wouldn’t be sitting in the dark. I noticed that there wasn’t a light of any kind in the entry way. I asked Stephane where it was and was told there wasn’t one. He pointed to the electical outlet on the wall. This was where we would plug in our lamp. I blew up and said it was ridiculous. How can you have a dark entry way without any light? Both he and Maurice looked at me like I was crazy and over reacting-this after their many arguments.
I found other things to be missing: no heating vents into the “water closets” holding the toilets so in the winter the toilet seats will be freezing. I assume they think that because you won’t (hopefully) be in the room for very long that no heating or cooling are required. There is a little window in these rooms which makes it even colder in the winter. The bathrooms with the shower and bathtubs only had wall heaters as well. They work effectively just taking a short time to warm up the room. The laundry room didn’t have a vent, either, but I was to find that the dryer made it a very warm room. The closets were empty of any shelves or poles to hang clothes on. The cabinets under the sink weren’t really cabinets. They were just door fronts,made of the cheapest wood possible, and the inside was empty with no shelves and old cement left on the floor from the tile installation. There was also no kick board under the bathroom cabinent, just an empty space which Stephane informed me was so there was a place for your feet to go when you were at the sink. There were no mirrors on the wall, medicine cabinets or drawers.
I wasn’t a happy camper and I wasn’t even in the house yet.

A House In Provence Chapter 4

Selecting A Builder

Chapter 4

We went to a huge development near Aix-en-Provence where over fifty model homes had been built so prospective clients could see the finished products of many French home builders. We finally settled on a well known builder in Provence, thinking this would keep us safe from a possible bankruptcy, which seems to be par for the course with any building project I have ever been involved in. We liked the model we had seen-it seemed to be good quality and wasn’t at an excessive price.
A few weeks later we met with an architect and he made changes to a standard plan that they already had. I had pictured a home with a wide long porch over-looking the great view we had. I pictured big wide sliding glass doors leading out to the porch making the porch a part of the living room. I found out that this wasn’t a possibility in the Luberon, the section of Provence where we would be living. Our house had to look like the typical bastide there with small shuttered windows, stucco exterior and tile roof (and no rain gutters). We were able to have some sliding glass doors but we learned that the heat can be so oppressive and the mistral winds so strong that small windows with shutters are a way of life here, a proven way to deal with mother nature. We would be able to have a small porch and Maurice and I decided we could extend it after the house was built with a patio. I even thought of screening in the porch but was told that the mistral would blow the screen right out. I wanted to spend time on the porch eating meals and enjoying the view but knew that something would have to be done for fly protection. Of course, this being France, no screens would be provided for any windows. They hadn’t had them for centuries, why start now? There is a small company starting to make screens for windows and doors and I think once people here find out how great it is not to have flies and mosquitoes invade their homes, that the business will take off.
We made a special trip to Provence to meet with the man who would be our building supervisor, Stephane. In one day we had to decide where we wanted every electrical plug, light fixture, placement of windows, bath tub, and much more. Then, at the end of this exhausting day, we had to pick out our bathroom tiles, floor tiles and exterior color. This was when I found out that the kitchen counters and cabinets were not included. I think this is fairly standard in France because when we moved into our apartment in Paris, the owner had us buy the kitchen cabinets and appliances separately. If we hadn’t, she would have taken them with her. We were to find out that a lot of other things wouldn’t be included in the price of our house, but this wouldn’t happen until months later.
Finally the time came for the ground to be broken. Again, we made a special trip down to Provence and drove out to our land. Indeed, there was a hole dug in the shape of the house but as we stood there looking at it Maurice said, “ Do you remember the house being this close to the road?” He was right. There was a ten foot difference between what we saw on our house plan and what, I guess, the man doing the digging had on his plan. This did not inspire confidence in our builder. The very first thing they do, and it is wrong? I was a little worried. A few days later a team came out and remeasured everything and we were told that it would be redug in the correct place.
Then we got a call from Stephane saying that they had found many more rocks than they had anticipated and we would have to pay extra. We figured this was something, being builders for years in the area of Provence, they should have anticipated and refused to pay extra for this.
With the problems we were seeing in just the beginning stages of building our house, Maurice thought maybe he should rent a room at a gite so he could be on site as work was being done. This might have been a really good idea if the area hadn’t had the wettest autumn in years. It poured everyday and they were unable to to start building the foundation. Of course, if the digging had been started in the correct place, the foundation would have been done well before the rain had started.
Before we ever started buiding, I had told my optimistic husband that building a house had never been a fun experience for me. People who tell you that their building experience was wonderful are the same as those married couples who tell you that they have never had an argument. And the fun was just starting.