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Words

I try to pinpoint words that when strung together, like beads in a necklace, express something with texture and richness; I hope for the occasional sparkle of a well placed gem. I frequently fail miserably. But on a good day, as with a candid photo, I unexpectedly capture a heartbeat, and it feels as if I've successfully seized fog with my hands.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Just One Sheet of Paper

Imagine walking into a factory that’s open to visitors for two hours daily. A sign on the door welcomes you, and says,

              ·       Do Not Smoke
              ·       Do Not Run
              ·       Do Not Shout
              ·       Do Not Touch Machinery
              ·       Do Not Leave Children Unattended
              ·       You May Ask Questions and Employees Will Try to Answer
              ·       Please Respect That People Are Working

These are your only instructions for a do it yourself tour of a working moulin d’huile d'olive, an olive oil mill.

I was stupefied as pallets of olive bins were moved into place, scooped up by heavy equipment, dumped into threshers, conveyed to washers and eventually sent to giant augers. There olives were crushed, mixed, and finally oil was extracted. This entire process was accessible to us, within inches, and we photographed each step. One worker noticed I missed something and opened a door so I could see into a hatch as an auger mixed and mashed olives. By “see” I mean stand over open equipment near enough to stick my hand inside were I mindless enough to do so. We were as close to the milling as one would be to the sink while washing dishes. 
                        
Our experience included an olfactory assault but Joce and I figured an olive mill might have a strong parfum des olivesn’est-ce pas? I don’t like olives so the smell was pungent for me, but Joce loves them. Still suffering la crève (with all requisite nose issues), she hasn’t been able to smell (or breathe, actually) for nearly three weeks. But les olives brought her nose back to life. It was then she, too, needed to escape. 
                                       
While still in the mill we noted the factory was bright with natural light, huge windows enclosing three sides. Employees zipped around on forklifts, some with cleaned olives on board, others with olives awaiting threshing. It was our job to have fun and stay out of the way. At the same time workers worked, visitors explored in an environment any American manufacturing company would describe as nightmarish. The germs. The hazards. The insurance premiums. The accident. The lawsuit. The settlement. Quelle dommage.

I found it wonderful. One small 8.5 X 11 inch sheet of paper, neatly typewritten with instructions for our visit. I was left to follow the rules, act as an adult, take responsibility, and enjoy myself. Are you kidding?

But wait – there’s more! A hallway connected la cave, the winery, to le moulin. We were told by staff in attendance to turn on the lights, bouton de la lumière à gauche, and make ourselves at home. Customers came and went while staff filled various containers brought from home. Red, white, rosé, individual and commercial customers buying wine for a few Euros per liter right at the winery. Ah, c’est bon!

After our DIY tour of the olive mill I couldn’t help but think about how the U.S. handles events and products as though life needs a full-time chaperon. Do we raise perpetual children, who require unending parenting? 

I considered Independence Day fireworks shows we know longer have because small towns can't afford necessary liability insurance. What role does the American legal system play in cultural irresponsibility? The disclaimers and  warnings printed everywhere to fend off attempts at a deep pockets score...

Caution: Contents Hot. That is the point of buying a cup of coffee, isn't it? When I purchase a new iron does someone really think I might iron my clothes while still wearing them? Or dry my hair while bathing? The olive oil mill left a simple note on the door, and we did our part. Nowhere did it say, don’t eat olives while in the thresher.

Dejeuner, le moulin et la cave, Chateau Virant was nearly as much fun as Le Clos des Oliviers. It was the simplicity of both experiences that brought such pleasure and delight. But especially at le moulin I knew I would never have been permitted to use my judgment to follow the rules had I been in the U.S.
                                                                                              
Here, at Chateau Virant, I was encouraged to be an adult while exercising the curiosity of a child. I didn't know how much I'd been missing that.



With thanks to Provence Confidential



Our Town ~ Les Baïsses

Provence Confidential is a locally owned one-woman show. The one woman lives here after having lived in Canada and the U.S. She creates personally guided tours of the region for tourists and ex-pats. She’s also a friend of Jocelyne’s. Bonne chance pour moi, eh? Her recommendations for local sights made their way to Joce and me.

We drove a short distance to Lançon de Provence to a family owned winery and olive mill, Chateau Virant. After glancing at afternoon hours we motored on for a bite of lunch before returning for our visit.

Le Clos des Oliviers ("grove of olive trees") is a neighborhood restaurant in a town that’s a street. Les Baïsses. We followed the street until it became a parking lot with this little gem of an eatery situated at the end. That was it. The entire village.

We waited for lunch to arrive,  ready to document another meal with photos, when a jovial man in a jogging suit popped by the tables to shake hands with patrons. He had a somewhat proprietary manner about him leading me to believe he may have been the owner. However his casual attire and slightly forward deportment left Joce with the unfavorable impression he instead was a local oddball. He spoke a few words of English thinking her a U.K. visitor which didn't help his cause. After immediately correcting him, she gave him a French cold shoulder to shoo him away.

Joce is an atypical French woman, never missing an opportunity to flash an engaging smile and give an American benefit of the doubt. But. Not. This. Time. Mr. Congeniality was a breathing violation. He approached from behind, surprised her with a touch of her arm, and mistook her for a tourist. Oh-la-la. Yet even with this wanton affront to her French sensibility, that he might be a friendly owner with an informal style niggled at her after I raised the possibility. 

Joce asked our server who he was. The answer, “Le propriétaire.”

Mon Dieu. Très embarrassment. Joce tracked down the man to apologize and explain. How I wished my French adequate to the translation task. The real 4-1-1. I can say it was a lively conversation. My friend offered her regret. The offender easily and happily accepted.

As I approached le bar to handle our check, they continued their exchange, biensûr, now as dear old friends. I understood him to ask if I was British, and her to reply, No, American, from San Francisco.

Heads sprang from drink and conversation to snap in my direction. Le propriétaire needed to reappraise my presence and viewed me with fresh eyes. He demanded of the barkeep a bottle of wine as a gift for me, a souvenir of my visit. 

I understood as never before in my travels, in this village of one street, where a school of a single building was modestly identified by a word carved in the façade above the door, “Ecole”, and a pigeonnier original remained in a front yard as testimony to an earlier time, I was unique. I traveled from a place they’d seen only in books, TV or Internet, to the nearest large town, then wended narrow roads, passed ramparts and hedgerows, vines and olive groves, to find my way to their very spot. As their town was for me, I was their unlikely event.

This is the brilliance of travel. Of course we learn about the rest of the world and see the people, buildings, and history our teachers labored to impart. We also learn a bit about ourselves. What we know, what we thought we knew, and what we might never have known. Having jetted coast to coast as part of a semi-monthly commute, it doesn’t often occur to me that some are unlikely to fly in a plane, or leave their neighborhood; their country is out of the question.

This I had forgotten. As well as my good fortune. Especially in that moment.

The last thing I remember of lunch was their best American impersonation – broad smiles, hands waving, in unison they called to us, “Byeee-byeee.” 

Had we not gone on to the winery and mill it would already have been a perfect day.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about winery and olive mill. A lesson in the simplicity and reward of being treated as a full-fledged adult. 


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Catching A Cold, French Style

French germs. They got me. And now I have un petit cold. Rhume. With a little French cough on the side.

Jocelyne, my host, had it first. She was newly sick when I got here. I resisted a week but then apparently needed to join her for a complete French experience. We’ve spent the last day and a half inside. Raining outdoors. Hacking in.

Joce made vegetable soup to cure us and brought home an assortment of over-the-counter drugs for us both. Prescription drugs for herself. She’s sicker than I and more prone to infection in her lungs. She has zee leetle French habit. She smokes.

My first gigs involved healthcare. There I stayed for 16 years. Though I’ve been away from the profession for quite a while, and it progresses in dog years, I still have a basic grasp on things. Whether right or wrong, I’ve come away from the art of medicine with a healthy (no pun intended) respect and admiration for it, and – a less is more attitude. I try not to need it by practicing rigorous handwashing, especially during flu season (a long distance friend once mentioned that when she misses me she looks for  "Monk" on television), and when I may indeed need a physician or medication, I’m fairly prudent about it. As I mentioned, not saying I'm right or wrong. It’s just me.

Given this is my point of view I did a double-take when I saw as many syrups, sprays, pills, and capsules as I did when Joce came back from her doctor. I think my drugs of choice for a cold are water and juice, chased with a box of Kleenex. If extreme measures are required, there’s ibuprofen and Neosynephrine (she had those, too).

There’s a national healthcare program here. It’s a cooperative that includes government and employer, and I’m the first to say I don’t understand exactly how it works. It includes a baseline of coverage that is very broad. Joce has a bit juicier policy that she and her employer pay for, in case, let’s say, she wanted a private hospital room rather than a shared one.

Last year when she had her hip replaced, her surgery was covered, as was her salary while rehabilitating. Then she was eased back into her job by working half-time, during which she was paid for full-time.

We can argue the economic feasibility of this and the heavy taxes the French pay for it and other social programs. Indeed the French lost their AAA bond rating today because of debt and turmoil in their budget. But the U.S. lost its as well and we don’t have a comprehensive healthcare plan to show for it. Well, supposedly we do but it’s not in effect yet and it isn’t a root cause for our financial crisis.

We can debate whether the attitude toward medication is more casual here because it’s "free"; we’d no doubt score points on both sides. And all the physicians I’ve known could expound on why the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world, which is probably true, and how it might be affected adversely by universal coverage.

One thing is clear however. When Joce gets sick, she need only concentrate on getting well. She need never concern herself with whether she has enough money to pay for her medicine. She doesn’t worry about financial ruin in case of a catastrophic health event. She doesn’t push herself to go back to work so quickly that she suffers a setback or infects all her colleagues. Well, she does go back too soon, but it’s not about the money. It’s because she doesn’t want to let anyone down. She did it yesterday and they sent her home.

It’s obvious to me (and practically everyone else) that neither mainstream America nor American business like Obamacare. To add to that, some of our unemployment woes are related to uncertainty about associated future healthcare costs.

I’m wondering why two of the central parties affected by the healthcare dilemma weren’t at the table helping to figure out what the new world order would be. Business owners and their employees. Insurance companies and Congress were front and center helping the President fulfill an election promise -- within a timetable. All three of those players, in my not so humble opinion, represent special interest groups.

I don’t want healthcare punted around as part of a political game. Dems win Republicans lose, or vice-versa. I don’t want a deal done, any deal, so the President can say he kept his word. I want it handled as though my life depends on it.

Maybe I needed to hang out in France for a while to become fully conscious to my own worries about U.S. healthcare access. I had to see what it looks like not to worry to understand the grinding burden of constant concern. I’m thinking about how much illness may exist or be exacerbated because of this millstone.

I don’t see a comprehensive healthcare plan changing the way I consume medical care. I’d be heavier on well-care, hesitant with intervention (sometimes resistant), and I’d want the best I could find in time of great need. That’s how I do it now. That won’t change. But I sure would like to remove the stress about whether I can afford what I might need if I need it, even in the restrained way I utilize it. Don’t we all deserve that?

Well, I’m exhausted from the climb up on my soapbox. It’s time to get my juice and water, and go back to bed. In case you were wondering, a-a-a-tchoooo sounds exactly the same in French.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Matin Sans Pluie

After being deluged by rain for days with floods in Genoa and Nice dominating our news, we awakened today to sunshine and blue sky. Though breezes from the south carry ominous clouds that will no doubt douse us again, it was crisp and dry when I went out. I was able to walk the area this morning successfully avoiding puddles and ruts of mud. It was heaven.

At home I have no need to rely on instinct and senses to make decisions about direction and safety. My surroundings are known. Each rock, house, road, sign, and person. On the off chance a place is unfamiliar, well, there's TeleNav on my cell phone. But today I chose one neighborhood for my stroll based on pansies planted at the gate. What did Shop Girl say in “You’ve Got Mail”?  Daisies are the friendliest flower? Nope. Pansies are. I laughed at myself.

I used my very best French for the occasional passing stranger. “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I was the only madame I saw while on my walk. One man’s unleashed dog stopped to be petted and I took the wagging tail as a message that the dog spoke English. Another canine guard scared the pants off me as he jumped, growled and barked from behind a gate. Hazard of walking in a new place. Wasn’t expecting that dog. Loved that gate.                             

My hostess, Joce, has experienced burglary and is strict with her ritual for locking down the house. I follow it as a good guest should but I don’t know whether her protocol is a reaction to a “once burnt” event unlikely to happen again, or if I’m situated where it may. I know what she would say so I stay alert sometimes feeling foolish at being such a 'fraidy cat, jumping at the whistle of the wind, or the rattle of a shutter.  
      
                                                                                        
We’ve reached a truce about my doing a few chores. I fancy myself a good roommate but she sees me as her guest. We had to wrestle for dishwashing rights and she lets me win from time to time. I feel better for it.

I’ve made many trips to France and one fascination that hasn’t diminished is the ever present graceful coexistence of modern usage and regional antiquities. A Roman arena in which children play soccer. A 19th century aqueduct with a paved road running below. A hotel abutting a second century rock wall. Occupied apartments and homes originally built a few hundred years ago, each with a television glowing through a tiny open window.

The U.S. isn’t old enough to offer this. We get a taste at the North Bridge in Massachusetts or the missions of California, but historic sites are preserved in a manner that precludes day-to-day interaction. It’s the French assimilation of old into new, and new into old that delights.

L'Aqueduc Roquefavour
When I think of the difference between American and French sensibilities I’m reminded of my mother’s saving the good china for special occasions instead of enjoying it. Do we save our good buildings for tourists, our nation's company? At home one of my great pleasures is crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. We use that historic site. I like that.

Joce lives in the red rocks of Provence. I’ve seen red rocks and bauxite but not with flower fields and evergreen trees at their feet. Newly wetted crimson hills provided a beautiful backdrop for rows of active greenhouses during today’s promenade.

As I wrap this note clouds gather and the temperature drops. Time to close the kitchen window and begin preparing lunch. A first trip to the French Alps is in my near future. And there will be photos.

C'est tout, pour maintenant. Merci pour venir. A bientôt. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

La Cousine de Ma Cousine Est Ma Soeur

Jocelyne, a French woman in love with the United States, put an ad on the internet. “Looking to chat with someone from the western U.S. with French roots,” so she could improve her English, learn more about the west and create American relationships.

Such was her passion for America that she made an annual pilgrimage there and though she had traveled the states extensively it was the song of the west and southwest she found irresistible. Sizzling desert sand, expansive redwood forests, soaring mountains, and the vast Pacific Ocean contrasted with the bustling, fog-shrouded City by the Bay, and combined for an exhibition of extremes that captured her imagination, and her heart.

A Nevada man responded to Jocelyne stating his parents were French born. He signed on as her modern day pen pal. Early in their emails they discovered Jocelyne and George’s father were both born in the same small French alpine town of Gap, so tiny that it rarely rates a mark on a map unless the Tour de France cycles through.

George was delighted to meet someone who not only knew of his father’s village but also was intimately familiar with it. Joce’s father searched the village archives and was able to supply George with family information going back for generations. 

Nevada George immediately called his California cousin, Paula, to tell her the news. Their mothers were sisters and with their parents deceased Paula was also excited at the possibility of creating ties to the country of their ancestry.

All three took to Facebook where they could exchange questions, photos, language, and anecdotes. Their internet relationship flourished and on her next trip to the United States, Joce and her family visited with George and his wife in Nevada. They all began to call each other cousin.

I’m not French. I am related to Paula, my first cousin on my Italian mother’s side. And all this French excitement tumbled my way as Paula told the tale about her cousin, George, answering Jocelyne’s ad and the coincidence about Gap.

I was the next one added to Joce’s Facebook friend list where she practiced her English with me and I made attempts (mostly caving to the Apple translator) to use my French. In October of 2009, Paula and I met Jocelyne face-to-face for the first time in front of San Francisco’s Ferry Building. I became the cousin of my cousin’s cousin by declaration.

Funny thing, of all the parties mentioned, I’m the Francophile who’s been to France multiple times, studied the language and routinely schemed to make “just one more trip.” As Joce loves the U.S., I have loved France.

Why am I telling you this story? Two years after this meeting?

I’m now in Provençe, staying with Jocelyne. I’m here for the month of November. I work when she works, I play when she plays. She still speaks more English than I speak French, but I’m learning. We’re no longer cousins of other cousins for now we’re sisters, each one longing for that something special we find in the other’s country. 

I’ll be making petite French posts while here. So far I’ve seen Provençal rain, tasted homemade fig, plum and orange jams, and eaten the best ratatouille ever. We’ve taken a walk along a stony path from the tiny harbor in Mejean, winding above cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean to an outcropping from which we could peer across glistening water to see the teeming city of Marseille.

It’s been a living hell. Drinking café au lait every morning, eating croissant, pain chocolat and baguette. But I’m getting along without my shredded wheat, and grapefruit juice.

Sadly, with internet I’m still Keeping Up With the Kardashians whether I want to or not.

Ah, la belle France. The country Americans perceive as prickly and perhaps it is. Our two countries with their tightly bound histories. The press is Americans are pushy and French are rude. 

I find it fascinating that while we dine in French restaurants, wear French make-up, perfume and fashion, and feast upon French fries, I came across the pond to find Starbucks and accompany my French sister to her local cell provider to get an iPhone. And by the way, the only time the French use the English diphthong “i” is when describing a much desired Apple product. Familiar?

Quibbling siblings, will we forever be when we have so much in common?

So, for another day — last night’s dinner conversation trying to explain to Joce why the country of her heart can’t figure out how to put an acceptable, working healthcare package together. As good as her English is, she can’t understand it. But then, neither can I.

Pour maintenant a bientôt, mes amis.


 Provençal Sky