a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Letters from abroad

Yesterday, a note arrived from Leonel Quesada, who guided me so entertainingly through La Habana, proudly attaching this photo of his niece, Avril Llevara Quesada, performing in Costa Rica.  Avril is a young student star with the world famous Cuban National Ballet School in Havana...I think I may have mentioned in a former post that she had won an international competition earlier this year.

The photograph was so enticing that I wrote her mother, Leysis Quesada vera, whose own photographs are so romantically, spiritually Cuba, to ask if I could share it here.  Leysis agreed, and explained that Avril had been invited by the Ballet Nacional of Costa Rica to dance in Aladdin; she played Jazmin with fellow dancer Yasiel Hodelin Bello, also pictured.

I love hearing from Leonel and Leysis about their lives and work and family, and am delighted that Leonel especially keeps in touch.  I think of all the places I have yet to visit there, and know that our connections are a big part of the draw back.

Coincidentally, I'd also corresponded the same day with Janicke Lemiere, who drove us so cheerfully around Provence last month and to whom I introduced you recently.  In her email, she enumerated all the places in the Luberon and the Rhone area that she hoped we would return to discover with her. I can picture the journey already.

The great benefit of my travel is bringing home not only memories of the short time I have ventured into a country, but also a continuity of lives shared and, always hopeful, return trips.

 It seems a way to know the real world, wider and more open each time, through the people we meet there.

By the way, here's a preview:  my next trip is in fact a return trip, to Scotland in October, where meeting up with old friends (and also family) will be the highlight...I can hardly wait.

Dorothy, Will and I, Glasgow, 2008

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Would I wear this in Paris?

After I was home from France, Paris to be exact, and after the lovely visit with Phil and Anne in Philadelphia, and after the unpacking and washing, I began to return things to my closet, and as I did, Paris still on my mind, I also began to look at said closet occupants in a new way.

I have to admit to being something of a saver of clothes.  I wear them for years if they are favorites (which means if they are easy, comfortable, familiar-feeling, and have little to do with current fashion), and, though I do send a few on trips to the thrift store each season, I am sure to miss one or two when they are gone.  I would have to say that my recurring wardrobe concept is best called whatever works. 

That Friday, though, remembering the wearable choices I pulled out of my small suitcase each day of our trip, it suddenly came over me to look at clothes quite differently.  As I put back the dresses, skirts, slacks, etc., I traveled with, I also looked with a new eye at the ones which had stayed at home (and which usually do).  Taking them out hanger by hanger, I asked myself, Would I wear this in Paris?

If the answer lay in a vision of myself in it on the Boulevard Raspail, I put it back more respectfully.  If I couldn't imagine it, it slipped to a growing pile on the floor, destined to be passed on.  I did make sure each season and occasion was represented among the saved, including hanging out in the park or heading out with no destination in mind. Otherwise, the cast-offs went off with a ruthlessness I have rarely shown.  Equally ruthlessly, I made no plans to replace them.

Don't mistake me:  there was no idea of turning myself into a Chanel model, even if I could.  I just wanted to feel like I was dressing for an ordinary Paris day again.

I mention this because in many other ways, our time in Provence and Paris is still on my mind.  Enjoying the manner in which our days were spent, my sister and I talked quite a few times about what we would keep, if we could, of the pleasant, relaxing, sustaining kinds of things that life there offered...the cafe in the morning, the parks only a few blocks away wherever you were,

the ability to walk everywhere on walkable streets, the clear neighborhoods, the ease of late-night strolls after dinner, the bus at the door, the beauty around us, purposely left from earlier eras.

Utopian dreams, to be sure.  But, as my sister Ann says, dreams are so important.

And there is always the reality of a puzzle left on a busy corner of two boulevards for any passerby to stop and help solve.

So back here, I am still looking for what is possible to transplant to what for most of us comes down to a car culture and the way cities, suburbs and country areas are designed and re-designed to accommodate the car over the village.

Writing this, I am remembering an evening we were planning in Paris with a young woman, a friend of Mary Ellen's who lives and works there.  As we discussed  restaurants Dina could conveniently get to from her office,  I realized suddenly that Mary Ellen kept mentioning Dina's "drive" to get here or there.  She's not going to drive, I told her.  She doesn't drive to work in Paris...there's no need.  She'll likely just walk across the park to wherever we will be.  And so she did, and after a wonderful long dinner and conversation (she's a fascinating genetic scientist), she picked up a bike on the street to ride home.  There are bikes around every corner; an app on her phone found one half a block away.  We walked the block and a half back to our hotel, taking our time and wandering a bit, because it was Paris, at night, and why not.

Paris, even more than other major cities, is expensive.  Green spaces, though numerous and large, are common more than private.  Bureaucratic complications are notorious.  Politically it has its problems, as we all do, some of us more unimaginably horrendous than others.  All around us on the streets were signs that multi-culturalism flourished, still the city seems to struggle with crossed social lines (not exactly something we are strangers to, either).  I recognize all that and more.

But back here, that car culture we are used to is making me wonder about the isolation (not to mention the pollution) it causes.  I resent getting in the car for what are basically short drives to shop or do errands.  For one thing, traffic is unnecessarily complicated in this relatively small place, and I'm not sure how much time I'm saving by the time I have parked and run in and run out again, only to be affronted by more traffic.  Indeed, I wonder whether it's important to save time at all.  There are sidewalks to walk on in many but not all streets, but the busier the street the more unpleasant the walk.  I eye the bus going by and think, why am I not taking it uptown or to the library or the Tuesday/Saturday market at the mall? (Our buses are free, to boot.)  And how come Alexander's school isn't in the neighborhood where it belongs?

A lot of that is a matter of habit, I know.  I do walk, actually.  I stop for coffee at the cafe across the street after my morning walk and sit for a while planning my day.  There is a not very good chain grocery there and a better one up about half a mile with shops, the bank, and restaurants nearby I don't need the car for.  Medical offices, the few times I need them, are barely a mile in the other direction, and goodness knows Mary Ellen and I walked 10 times that distance each day in France.  If it rains, I have a raincoat and umbrella, several in fact.  In winter, there's that bus.

For all our exhilarating adventures, beautiful sights, delicious food, wine, coffee...all the ones that come through in photographs like this...

...I'm going to confess that one of my favorite moments was a late afternoon on which I took my shopping bag out to find us some picnic things.  Discovering a small street I hadn't before noticed, lined with small fresh markets and boulangeries, I happily spent time gathering provisions and talking with the shopkeepers a bit.  At one small place, no bigger than a walk-in closet but displaying amazingly bright and fresh fruit under its front awning, its owner stopped my hand from picking up a basket of figs and indicated that I should let him help.

First, he pointed out the difference between the three types he had...black, red, sunset-orange...and then noted which were ripest.  Next, he asked when I planned on eating them.  An odd question?  Not at all.  If today, this batch, ripest of all.  If tomorrow, then he and I would choose from that basket, which needed a day (no more) to be perfect.  While he wrapped them carefully, I reached for some cashews and crackers from his back shelves.  I left happy, nodding to other shoppers, and then, feeling so much part of the scene, wound my way back up another small street, this one lined with more creperies than I would ever think supportable in one block, and there between them was a narrow gallery window with a poster for a small but fascinating textile exhibit we would visit later that night. 

That walk was an ordinary, every day kind of thing to do, and so satisfying that I am still smiling about it.  It was journeying at its best.

It's that kind of moment I guess that I am trying to bring home, a more lasting souvenir than one that merely collects dust on the shelf or in the mind, one that becomes part of you as you go on.

Is it just the wishful thinking of vacation fantasies?  Or is it a lesson in how seeing alternatives in other parts of the world makes it possible to live a little better than one can imagine if one simply stays at home?

If this post seems a strange version of a travelogue, I apologize.  But it is, besides our great pleasure in being there (and being there together), the strongest image from my latest foray into another country.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A little of this and that...a day in the Luberon

Last Sunday, my friend Jim Elder, having recently moved home to Chapel Hill after a long career in D.C. and the persistent urging of his sweet nieces, suggested we drive out to brunch in Saxapahaw.  It's barely a town, but much visited by people who like food, music and being away from the loud noises of its neighbors to the east and west. We took the Greensboro Road, which pleased me since it is one of my favorite roads; unlike the interstate, the Greensboro Road is as calm, green, and airy as it has been for years, and generally avoids pile-ups and freight carriers,which makes it just as quick a trip.  Jim was a school-day friend of my husband Jake, and throughout college, graduate school and far into grownup life kept up their academic and libational connection.  I'm as glad as his nieces to have him a neighbor.

At the corner of Eli Whitney, we turned north onto 87, and in a small bit came to the place Jim had promised was a destination to remember.  Ahead of the stone parking lot was a large, colorful metal chicken, sign and cosign of the Reverence Farm Cafe, named for the virtue by which its young owner and her family run it and their farm of the same name.  Its beginnings were an interesting story that Jim told on our way in, one I could appreciate:  a sudden impulse...not a whim but a gut feeling that there is something more to life than the old rag one is holding onto...came over a young visitor one day.  After a lot of hard work by now three generations, she found herself eventually expanding from a few acres to hundreds.  On their website, I found out later, is their admirable mission:

 We want to show you that it’s possible to raise and prepare real food from a real farm — our own poultry, meat and eggs, and produce and dairy from our friends and neighbors. Come join us.

We were there not only to eat what were about the best eggs I have ever had (mine was an oyster mushroom, kale and goat cheese omelet...Jim's was a plateful of everything the NC country calls breakfast), but also to show Jim the fruits of his generous advice about traveling in the Provence and the coast. He'd  made our visit there days of discovery.

A few days before I left for France, Jim had sat me down with his well-traveled maps  (over 30 years traveling and hosting people there, he has detailed it village to village), and I made quick notes of his advice which I then transferred to my own map. In between grateful bites at the Reverence, we talked about that wonderful day and a half my sister and I spent following the routes he suggested, first in the Luberon and then in Cassis.  He had lit not a few bright spots we might have missed otherwise, even with a French guide driving us (more about the marvelous Janicke in a minute). As good a travel advisor as Jim is, he's also a great listener, genuinely interested in what we saw and did.  We traded notes for future trips.

As I mentioned, we had another good guide to the Luberon...Janicke Lemiere, who came highly recommended by an Aixoise.  When I first contacted Janicke, I laid out a pretty busy driving tour through Jim's maps, but she answered enthusiastically and gave me some ideas about what we could accomplish.  St. Remy, alas, was out, as it would send us in another direction.  Janicke didn't think we would want to rush around.  True.

Janicke, it turned out, was a treasure...a Norwegian by birth who has been happily married into the region for 30 years and who lives near Lourmarin, she knew the region personally, historically and socially, and was companionable as well as efficient.  Mary Ellen and I had remarked even early on in our trip that we missed having our two sisters with us, and by our second trip with her, a morning in Cassis, it felt as if Janicke were another sister along for the ride. (We still missed our own two, though...take note, E and A.)

On the first morning, we met her in front of the Hotel Roi Rene, a short walk past the Rotunde in Aix, she smiling and waving from her Renault window.  As we drove out of town, she chatted about our plans and kept us up on where we were.  Lourmarin was one of the villages I had marked to have lunch and walk in, so Janicke began our tour on the highway west, so that we could take smaller roads through the villages, giving us time to walk around and get a feel for each, until we reached Lourmarin in time for a reservation she had made there.  We began with Oppede le Vieux, cutting off the highway and up into the hills, the grasses and ground brown with the summer's heat.

 Almost to the town, I spotted an artist's sign on the left and had her stop.  It was yet another good omen for the rest of the day,,,Pierre Giroux opened his door to us and led us around his charming studio, a white-walled series of small cool rooms of the sort one dreams about in Provence (I wouldn't mind having it here, either).  His paintings covered the walls and stood against the baseboards, fascinating me with their textures, which looked as if sand had been added to the paint.  When I asked him about it, he pointed to the jars along the top of his workroom...he mixed earth from the ground outside with pigment to layer his board, and then put a sort of sheen over it (I wasn't sure what that material was, my French being only slightly better than my Spanish...).

It was exciting, too, when I discovered he also worked with rust and old wood on small art pieces hung on doors and in the yard.  I loved an ancient window, partly stained glass, which he had salvaged from somewhere and turned into something I would have loved to take home with me.  Alas, the painting I admired and could have fit into my suitcase was already sold...

Almost reluctantly, I followed Janicke and Mary Ellen to the car for the rest of the way into Oppede.  Each village presents its own problems for parking, for they were not settled with an eye to the far future when cars would trample their narrow stone embankments.


But we didn't mind the walk uphill to the small center, nor even farther uphill, round stone-and root-clogged paths to the church at the top, where, to our pleasure, a small group practiced vocals and accompaniments for an opera later that evening.  The voices were charming, the church quiet and dear.

We walked down back into our next stop, Gordes...only a stop as it is a crowded place to navigate, and quite touristy.  We did take in its best advantage, however, a curve above the town where below the towns in the valley lay before us, putting the Luberon into perspective.

As we drove, Janicke talked about village life in the Luberon, her family, her lavender and her trees, and before that life in Norway before settling in France as a student.  She speaks four languages fluently, belongs to a reading group of real readers, and knows she lives where she belongs.

We went on to Menerbe and Apt, both of which I would like to get back to one day.  When finally we arrived in Lourmarin, pretty hungry by then, we found ourselves winding around a narrow street of shops to an outdoor table at the busy Numero Neuf, a really good family-owned restaurant that could easily be a Michelin star, friendly and offering a small three-course menu of delectable choices.  Jim-in-the-know again.

We wandered in and out a few of the stores, and then headed up for another wonderful view, and on the way the most charming scenes among the houses.


I can't remember right now whether we also did Bonnieux (we must have, mustn't we?), because the day seemed so full of discoveries, including a winery, Val Joanis where we walked through not only vines hanging with fruit but also a garden of vegetables and flowers I could have stayed in all afternoon, writing, photographing and picking its abundance of produce. 

We found in one small corner of the Luberon a santonnier, a master of the art of the small painted clay figures of town (santon d'arguiles), admiring the intricacy of his art.

Our last stop was Cucuron.  At its tiny but perfectly adequate village center is a stone pool called a bassin, where on the corner hid the patio of a perfectly charming restaurant.  "I could live here, too," I told the others, who looked at me politely (J) and sceptically (M.E.).  "Look."  I told them.  "There is the restaurant and cafe, there is the bassin to center me, there is a post office and market and a mysterious large empty half-palace to explore and wonder about.  I'd be perfectly happy."

Suddenly, it seemed just my size.

Just so I don't leave you hanging, here are some photos of Cassis from our time there a few days later.  They hardly need introduction, except to say that Joseph, when asked what he wanted me to bring him from France, requested a wine from Cassis.  "I had it in New York once, but it's hard to get here.  It's a blend, with a grape called ugne in it."  It became a mission we accomplished at the end of our Cassis day.

First, here is Cassis, from land and water...the town, the cliffs called calanques, blue, blue Mediterranean...and, of course, our lunch there, thanks to Janicke, where we tasted the wine, approved it, and then knew where to find it to bring home, just a few miles outside town.

A votre sante'!

It was a tiring day, so once more in Aix, we unwound a while and then headed out into the night for our passeggiata, as the Italians call it.  It's a lovely custom.