Archive for the ‘South of France’ Category
Sundays are the hardest days for expatriates, even in Provence.
Old Cannes — Le Suquet — from Old Port
It was on Sunday that I most missed family, when I languished without familiar people, views and rituals.
Typical View as I’d Set Out for St. Tropez on Any Day But Sunday
Any other day, I’d be off on a jaunt, –through the Esterel Forest to St. Tropez; up to Nice for real Provencal foods at Lou NIssarda (where even my neighbors in the villa had never been!); over to the Picasso Castle, then the Musee Napoleon in Antibes; a walk out the back way, away from the sea, toward Vallauris; Roman days in Frejus. But Sundays, no. On Sundays, the French were likely to be out on their roadways, with their own unique responses to traffic, signals, signs and laws. On Sundays, I didn’t want to learn new things. I needed something familiar. Hard to come by in a strange land, even one I’d chosen with my entire being.
View From My Cannes Balcony - though I was closer to hotels
In my Cannes life, I quickly learned the only antidote for the homesickness of the expatriate - a very early visit to the Marche Forville in the steep and stony Old Town. The part of Cannes nobody knows - on rue Meynardier in Le Suquet, where I would attend Midnight Mass given in Latin, French and Provencal with dear new neighbors in a matter of months.
What would be somewhat familiar, of course, was food shopping.
What was anything but familiar was the sight of all those farmers, at 8 a.m., literally belly up to bars strung all alongside the old market, downing the local red wine from glasses more like tumblers than ‘ballons’. They’d had long hard drives into ‘the city’ from the country. They had a long day of sales ahead of them, followed by another drive back to their carefully tilled fields. One must be fortified.
Open-Air-Sided Marche Forville, Rue Meynardier, Cannes
It was fortification enough for me to stroll those echoing (open-air-sided) lanes. What always surprised was that the weather followed us IN there. Yes, certain rains - during my first days there, Nice Matin headlines blared, “The Rains of One Month in One Week-End” That was more urgent news than the dire stock-market plunge back home, October of 87. Pompiers - Firemen - were called and called, to pump out wine cellars… I was definitely not in Kansas.
Probably the only truly familiar food was olive oil. The charming man (all the Cannes stall people were charming - real, hearty, hardy, in peasant garb, proud of hands most often in the soil, and eager to share and to teach) asked me what kind of olive oil I preferred. I didn’t know there there was more than one kind. “Well, what kinds are there?,” I managed to ask. He answered at length, and I chose the one with the most beautiful name – ”fruitier”. He absolutely beamed: “C’est mon favorite!”, and gave me the bottle. As in, refused my francs. He had grown and harvested and pressed all the olives that rendered these varying hues and flavors of oil. His full life and pride were in every bottle. Needless to say, I went to him every time I needed olive oil thereafter! Which happened a whole lot more frequently than it had in my American life.
Tomatoes look this ripe in Provence all year round
I knew chevre (goat cheese) - so I went to the chevre lady. “Which chevre to you prefer?,” she inquired, glowing like the parent of a newborn. “What kinds are there?,” I asked anew. This belle dame offered me the chevre of the morning, the chevre of the week, the chevre of last month, or aged. These came four to a squat canning jar; submerged, of course, in olive oil the color of the sun. It was divine. In later weeks, I would try each ‘vintage’, savoring major and surprising differences. What really amazed were “crottins”, which the no-nonsense Provencals loved to offer to foreigners, because “crottins” are goat droppings - in other words, smaller rounds of chevre.
Next came the honey lady. “I would like to buy some honey, s’il vous plait,” I began. You KNOW what she asked. You know my response. This savvy apicultrice took me on a tour of the products of her very mobile bees. Acacia, I remember, and wild flowers (des fleurs sauvages), orange blossom of course. Absolutely new to me, and irresistible forever was lavender honey. Milky in color, slightly granular and yet so smooth - I who never put honey or sugar in tea or coffee, who don’t even LIKE sweets that much, could not sip tea at home from that morning on, without lavender honey.
You would think shopping for chicken for Sunday dinner would be normal (same word in French), familiar. Wrong! I had to wait for the chicken lady to finish her previous transaction (actually, I really wanted to buy her eggs.) A man bought a chicken. It was alive. She tied its legs together. After weighing it and the exchange of francs, she handed it to the man who walked out of the market, chicken flapping like an upside-down angel, until he faded from sight in the increasing crowd.
Very obvious foreigners were rare in the Marche, except for the date sellers. Childhood’s had come in long gold packages from my California aunt, the only good cook in that (former Ohio) family. Her dates had a kind of skin that was papery, a little unpleasant to little girls’ tongues. We usually chopped Aunt Helen’s dates into ‘her’ cookies or ‘her’ date/nut bread. The dates of the datesellers of Cannes came on a long gold stem, fresh from the tree! I had to have a golden string of dates- even though it looked like a life supply. When I sampled the first one, back home on l’Observatoire hill, the fruit was stunningly moist - as though the honey of my new apicultrice had somehow been infiltrated into these strange brown things.
Lavender Crop at Abbey of Senanque - which I did visit, but not in Lavender Time
(all pix from internet - not easy to come by old Provence nor La France Profonde…)
Fish - o.k. — Cannes is a working fishing port. I love fishing villages. This should be familiar. No, indeed! The small fishing boats of my new town, –brightly colored, very Van Gogh–, were only out for a handful of hours. The men would arrange their catch upon oilcloth, UNDER which was ice. The fish came from salt water, you see; Provencals insisted it dies in fresh water - loses all flavor, than which there is no greater crime in France. Each fisherman’s table was right out of Cezanne’s The Card Players – rickety dark legs, the top small and square.
A slendr tuyau, tube, drained meltwater from invisible ice into a bucket that had seen better days. Each fish table looked like a relief map of the mountainous region between Cannes and St. Tropez, without the cork oaks and the stunted pines. Lying on the mountains and slanting down into the valleys were fish. Only they didn’t lie. They actually leapt! into air, flipping bright tails, arching supple necks. Sometimes launching themselves right off that cold oilcloth and onto the Marche floor.
The Old Port, the hill of Le Suquet
There was absolutely not one whiff of what my daughters had called, wrinkling their pretty noses, “eau de fishmarket.” On the contrary, a hint of sea breeze was the present at best, ever enticing. No fish fresher. Living bouillabaisse.
By this time, my string bags were cutting into my fingers. If there were a wind, let alone a mistral, it would be whipping around my ankles, chilling feet and legs despite serious walking shoes and thick socks. Time to return to the car. (that tiny little, tinny little, expensive Renault, then Peugeot which passed for a car…)
First, however, to read with my Sunday meal - a new copy of Nice Matin. In the kiosk outside the Marche, I stopped to buy the paper (they don’t have Sunday papers on Sunday in Provence.) The venerable woman behind the cashregister, also waved away my francs. “Mais, pourquoi?”, I protested.
“Vous etes Americaine. Vous avez sauvez nous,” was her heartfelt answer.
“You are American. You saved us.”
I wasn’t homesick any more.