Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Contrasts in Provence - Whose Provence are you coming to see?



I saw a comment this morning on a friend's blog that angered me deeply and I definitely feel that it merits discussion. The gist of what was written was by someone who professes to "love love love Provence" but yet expressed disappointment after her most recent visit (she has made 12 to France in the past 20 years so is no neophyte) "to see that the country is becoming more middle eastern than french" (sic) due to the prevalance of an Arabic population, including at the local markets where certain stalls sold Arabic goods such as "hiqabs" (um, I guess that would be a cross between a hijab and a niqab?). She claims to be "not a racist but" (and don't you love a modifier? As in "I am not homophobic but" or "I am not anti-Semitic but") that when she visits a country she visits it "for its culture" and that she feels that France "has progressively gotten less French," something that she finds "so sad."

Right. Extreme right, actually. Marine le Pen couldn't have said it better herself.

These are dangerous, divisive and yes, extremely racist comments. Can you imagine how it would fly if someone declared that they were terribly sorry but they could no longer visit the States because there were far too many Latinos? You would think them insane. I had to take the dogs for a brisk walk in order to calm down enough to respond properly. For while I am a foreigner, after ten years of living in Provence I have come to love it dearly and if there is one thing that I am fairly certain of: Provence is nobody's bitch.
 
 

Let's back up quite a bit, historically speaking. As the territory of Provence is stretched across the northern shores of the Mediterranean Basin, it has been a melting pot pretty much since civilization arrived in the form of the Greeks establishing trading posts in the 500s BC (earlier in more eastern areas such as Marseille). Then came the Romans (Italian), the Visigoths (German), the Franks (French-Roman-German), the Moors or Saracens (African via Spain)...this is all in pretty rapid succession. And with these conquerors, also came explorers from near and far. Remi has even floated an idea by that the Phoenicians were the first to start trade on the Rhone River. The Phoenicians! As what was then known as Gaul turned into France, the flow of immigration continued. 

Now, let's fast-forward to after World War II and Les Trente Glorieuses, the thirty years of rapid economic and industrial expansion, when recruiters from powerhouses such as Renault and Peugeot went deep into the North African countries on the other side of the Mediterranean Basin to find inexpensive labor to work in France. The consequences of both that action and what followed merits a very long discussion* - so I will just stick to my main point and say that the "Arabic" population - who are of mainly, as I mentioned, North African descent and so there is nothing Middle-Eastern about them - living in France have been here for quite some time (often three to four generations or as long as my paternal ancestors have been in the United States). Born and raised in the hexagone, this is "their" France as much as it is anybody's and "their" culture is part of France's as well. Of course, they aren't always treated that way, nor were the Italian and Spanish immigrants who arrived in that same wave either. But they are here, this is their home. It is why when someone from the area speaks of being of pur race or pure blood, not only does it infuriate me but perplexes me as to their limited knowledge of their own region as there has always been a mixité sociale. Let alone "a perfect vision" of any culture reminds me of the Nazis that patrolled the streets outside my door not so long ago at all.

Can we return to the comment that started this discussion? I am wondering...which Provence do we think that this woman was referring to? Olive groves under blue skies certainly but what else? It is wonderful that so many people want to come and visit this amazing region from all over the world but...Provence does not belong to those tourists any more than it does to those of us who live here, really. We are just tiny pieces of the puzzle, quick blips in time that is always evolving, moving swiftly on. It is amazing that we have things of great beauty that stay - such incredible remnants of the past in our Roman masterpieces and Romanesque churches as well as such proud landscapes and traditions. But Provence is alive far beyond what one reads in guidebooks or in the tales of Peter Mayle. Even "his" Luberon doesn't really exist in the same way as when he started writing the series in the 80s...already...Do you see what I mean?  Are visitors coming with the hopes of seeing his Provence? Or Patricia Wells' or Rick Steeve's' or Lawrence Durrell's or Pagnol's? Or are you coming with open eyes to find your own...to enjoy what is here...now?**

Remi and I had a good conversation with someone who was in the region for a week on business concerning the end of an excellent art exhibition in Arles. He had gone to Avignon on a day off and yet did not make it to the Centre Historique because he had become so fascinated by the North African community by the train station that he had explored that instead - the tea shops, the hair salons, the interactions of Mom's picking their kids up from school. Granted, he is an artist himself but it was wonderful to see his finding the richness of diversity as worthy of being appreciated in its own right.

All of this doesn't mean that certain happy clichés about Provence have disappeared or aren't worth enjoying...on the contrary, the quality of living here remains as important as ever. On a gorgeous sunny day like today - even in winter - you can while away the hours at a terrace café with your face upturned while snacking on briny olives and sipping on a too sweet wine...there just might be someone whose skin isn't white sitting next to you...and unless it is sported with irony, I highly doubt that they will be wearing a beret. I know that we all love Provence for its dreams - I write about them all the time - but let's not forget that the realities can be, can be, just as promising too.


*Ok, so yes, we will need to have a long talk about the North African immigration, being Muslim (or not) in France, integration and racism as well as how much this is an issue in current French society. It is a big discussion and one that is hard to reduce down to a post size form. I also wanted to ask permission from Remi to tell his part of the story. He granted me that today over lunch so it will be a subject that I will need to work upon. But in the mean time, if you have not already seen Indigènes or Days of Glory in English, I would highly recommend it. You can find more information here.

**I do think that this post applies to more subjects than what is local to Provence. I have written a good bit here about expectations and certainly they pay a great part of our experience when we travel. It is worth thinking about what they are based upon. I will admit my part in ignorance - my Mom and I went alone to Egypt in 1992 and for my part I was looking for the glamour of "Murder on the Nile"! The truth of it is that we live in a global world now and that cultures are not frozen. So unless you are going to a very curated Club Med type beach vacation (for which I do not judge you in the least, please pass the umbrella drinks) or are taking a tour through Walt Disney World's "It's a Small World after All" be warned for chasing after a land that no longer exists or you very well may be disappointed. Nostalgia can do that to a person.

 

The other posts in the Contrasts in Provence series can be found: here, herehere and here.

Thank you for reading.


Friday, January 29, 2016

Salutations to the sun



Hello there. I hope that you have a good week, yes? 

I am going into my annual quiet time, where the words start to slip under the covers...


...those of you who have been reading for a while now (merci infiniment!) know that I tend to shift towards the visual as the verbal crosses itself out.



And today was no exception, save for a happy surprise...


...when I opened the shutters with a clank this morning, the sun was bobbing merrily in front of my eyes...


...inviting me out to nose around...


...look deep...


...and let go a little bit.
   


This has been one of the more gloomy winters I have experienced during my ten in Provence...


...and I certainly was not about to let this budding opportunity to give my salutations to this sun slip beyond my breathy grasp.


Of course there were a few "technical difficulties" as I shifted buttons on my camera to switch from dusky greys to sapphire brights...



...but nothing to keep me from remembering this beauty, one that is immortelle...


...enough to make me dance, to make me dizzy, under a sweeping sky.


Have a great weekend everyone.

****

Pour mes lecteurs francophones en Provence:
My lovely friend and talented artist Christine Millerin is about to launch a very special workshop on the subject of "Création textile en méditation" in partnership with Isabelle Nyssen at Ms. Nyssen's Zen Atelier in Arles. Through the use of shiatsu and meditation, one will be able to untie some of the issues from the past all while using textiles to weave together a "relique" fabricated through thoughts and sensations to move forward in harmony. It sounds phenomenal. There are several dates for each three-day workshop:
February 5, 6 and 7th
March 18, 19 and 20
April 15, 16 and 17
Each workshop costs 180 Euros.
For further information, including times and location, please contact Christine at 06 70 76 80 16
or at chrismill@free.fr

*In no way is this sponsored, as always, I am just passing along something that I think might be of interest.  

****

PS. I am having some difficulties with Blogger as of late and mysteriously lost a sizeable amount of members on Google Friend Connect overnight (a number that is more than a possible stampede towards the exit!). Of those of you that are still on Blogger, are any of you also having problems? And for those of you that have made the jump to Wordpress or your own domain do you like it? Was it hard to make the switch? Thanks for your thoughts...

Friday, January 22, 2016

Climbing the staircase - chez Anthony




 Living in France can warp your sense of time and what that does to a person.

Now,  I don't consider myself particularly ageist - I think I have said that before, perhaps recently even. But lately life has been kind to me by inviting friendships into my life with several women who are older than I am, at times considerably so. And I have to say that it has been eye-opening to say the least.

 I see where their knowledge has been accumulated and how perspectives have eventually been sharpened with patience and not bitterness. There is none of that competing elbowing that has driven me towards the more stable companionships of men in the past (well, dogs too but they don't quite merit nosing in here). Phenomenally, these women willingly share their wisdom without weight or preaching or directing. I haven't figured out how that magic trick is pulled off yet but that is just one more secret to look forward to unravelling, one day.

They are utterly themselves and can care openly, benevolently, without second guessing.

Each one is truly beautiful and none of them remotely look their age, although that seems to be more of a bonus of being true than a goal. Inside they are lit with personal cocktails stirred with undimmed curiosity. Imagine a glowing silk thread spinning outwards from the heart in several, specifically cast directions with a calm economy of action. Like that. And that form of willingness has been extended towards me in a way that doesn't judge what I know already or don't know. My experiences are not discarded but taken in, hopefully adding and not subtracting, another step to climb, moving onwards.

I feel incredibly fortunate and am listening. Ok and admittedly am often talking entirely too much. One of my friends reminded me that I am still young at 46; I tend to forget that.

Speaking of a curious nature and an appetite for progression, let's go back to Anthony and his partners wonderful renovation project. After a considerable amount of thought - let's say that of a child from days gone by having to select just one piece from an array of penny candy - I have decided that my very favorite feature of this mid-18th century property is its staircase. Unlike me (or the current me), it is ambitious. 

Well, the family who built it certainly was. For it was not enough that they had one of the grandest hôtel particuliers in this small but then still important village, they absolutely had to have the tallest one too. And so, an additional ceiling was built, raising the roof to a double height in the stairwell, one lined with open windows to catch the Provençal winds and topped with a delicately shaped plafond à la française. You can see very well what shape it is in now...we will have to wait together to see what it will become and the scaffolding is already in place. 

Can you see why this makes me dream? Come with me, let's start from the beginning. At the base of the stairs, I start in near darkness, my hand on the cool iron railing. I tilt my head up and place on foot above the other, drawn by the light, the space and wondering if following my will is endless and painless as well. Up I go, climbing the staircase, until I reach the last floor, then I shakily climb the wooden ladder, nearly vertical, to that extra space, the secret alcove where families inscribed their names after world wars and unforeseen triumphs (or trials, who knows). Turning at last, the world falls from just beyond my feet and I feel the sway of vertigo. There is nothing there and everything and so very much still to learn. I have gone as high as I can go for now...chaque choses en son temps...all in good time. 
















Let's keep going on...


Have a great weekend everyone and thank you for being here...





Monday, January 18, 2016

The optimists garden




I walked out to the garden the other day, just because I missed it so. As I rounded the corner, I was surprised to find it empty. No Francis 1 (who is seriously the spitting image of the late French actor Fernandel) grinning at me crookedly or Francis 2 herding his Irish setter away from the fallen apples, no Olivier hammering away to enforce his raised beds or Clément adjusting his round glasses on his nose while giving me a quick nod.

Rather it was just the plants and the earth; all were sleeping. I felt as if I should tiptoe across the spongy grass for fear of disturbing all that lay still and quiet. The lowering clouds overhead further dulled the sound until it felt as if I were wading into a sea lined in feutre. When I arrived at our plot, I immediately noticed that our gate, which had already been barely hanging together, had given up trying and had sighed its slats down to the ground. No weeds perked up peskily through the layers of compost covered earth. I checked our new plot as well and it too was a blanket swept clean yet devoid of color. I could not even hear the birds sing - they always do, it is a joyful cacophony - and I wondered if I had somehow slipped into a ghostly dimension of someone else's garden.

But here is where I write: "And then the sun came out."

And then the sun came out, sneaking behind the gray, pushing it aside and spilling down all around me. I shook my head, giggling for no one, because there it was again that message that has been chasing me around ceaselessly*: "perspective, perspective, perspective."

For that self-same garden (yes, I realize that for most people there is not really a self there but just ask the Balinese and see what they say) was instantly transformed into the realm of the beautiful. The tiniest details started fighting for my attention, "Over here," "Look at me!" You know how they do. And I noticed that quite a lot of preparation for what was to come had taken place since my last visit. Save for the plot across from ours (whose young owners had their first baby at the end of the summer and so have other things on their minds), each garden had been cleared and primed. Some - notably those of the gents mentioned above - were still producing carefully chosen winter produce that the sun's rays would light up with a spotlight ta-dah.

Unlike our sloppy pile of boards, several new gates had been built - one to resemble the door of a village house with a mail slot and a note asking "No ads please", so eco-friendly, and another - well, this one stopped me in my tracks - that labelled what was inside as Le Jardin de L'Optimiste or...The Optimists Garden.

I looked back to our plot with its sprigs of garlic tops and fanned leeks waiting for their harvest and I realized that each garden could be called the same. For what we are all growing, along with what should be a fair amount of vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, is nothing short of the blue-winged miracle of hope. At that moment, the birds raced overhead and began to sing.
















Thank you all so very much for your many, many kind comments and emails after my previous post about our recent car accident. I was incredibly moved by them and am truly grateful (and proud) to have such an amazing community here. Merci...

...et gros bisous from Provence,
Heather


*Just a curious little aside: my first instinct was to write that it was a message that "had been chasing me around flaglessly" until spell-check raised a suspicious eyebrow and informed me that it wasn't a word. Perhaps it is all those years of reading Shakespeare (and those of you who have been here for a while know that I don't hesitate to make a word up from time to time) but I am convinced that it is indeed one. Thoughts?