A passion for Provence, introduction and chapter one


An extract from Gayle Smith Padgett’s book Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie.


Falling for France is as easy as sipping a glass of pale rosé on a sun-dappled terrasse overlooking a shimmering Mediterranean cove. Moving to France is more complicated.

Peter Mayle did it, famously recounting his French adventures in A Year in Provence, published in 1989. I read the memoir over twenty-five years ago while sitting on a Mediterranean beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It was magical to be in luscious Provence on my honeymoon, but enjoying A Year in Provence while in Provence made the special event even more memorable.

In the years that followed, I eagerly awaited each of Mr. Mayle’s delightful publications. In fact, he signed one of them for me at my local bookstore in Virginia. I was charmed by his warmth and wit, as well as his scarlet socks. While I was writing this book, a recollection of those spirited chaussettes prompted me to send him a long-overdue fan letter. As his birthday was imminent, I tucked my note inside a fanciful birthday card. To my delight, he wrote back. Not only was his response a gracious thank-you for a thank-you, but it included sage publishing advice. I framed the letter—it inspires me every day.

For my husband and me, a permanent transition to France was gradual. From our home in Heidelberg, Germany, where we lived and worked for many years, we’d head to Provence as often as possible. After retiring in 2010, we finally moved here—first to Aix-en-Provence and then in 2012 to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

This memoir, Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie, tells the tale of our French adventures—so far.

Chapter one – Bonjour, Provence

The United States to Europe — Fall 1992

Petite question … can I drink wine with these medications?” I asked Dr. Durand, who was kneeling at my side on a hotel room floor in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Even in my dazed state, the physician’s youthful, bronzed face and sandy blond locks registered. Oh là là! I was feeling better already.

“Ah, madame,” he said, his gaze drifting to the sunny window and the dramatic Alpilles peaks beyond.

I held my breath. Don’t you dare say non, I silently begged, locking my eyes on his baby blues. It was the first day of a week-long vacation in Provence, and my hubby and I were looking forward to indulging in all its luscious bounty, particularly some Côtes de Provence wines.

He continued, “Mais seulement … le vin français.”

“Oh, only French wine? Not a problem! Merci beaucoup, docteur,” I grinned, allowing my body to de-clench. What a relief! The doc had given me a terrific gift, a green light to fully savor our Provençal escape. Technically, for us newlyweds, this trip was much more than an ordinary getaway. It was our lune de miel—our honeymoon—and the very beginning of our love affair with France.

The sun was shining that autumn day in 1989 in Arlington, Virginia, the day Cute Guy showed up. My future husband entered the picture at the mammoth brick condominium complex, called Fairlington Villages. With over two thousand units in the north sector alone, the slate-roofed, gabled historic landmark, dating from the 1940s, spread across acres of rolling hills. The vast housing development, graced with majestic oaks, doubled as a huge, leafy park that included multiple swimming pools, as well as basketball and tennis courts.

I was at the main tennis center watching a match, sitting at the base of a shade tree next to the sidewalk that ran along the courts. My position was slightly elevated, so I had a greater field of vision than from the benches below. Good thing I’d moved to higher ground, because some significant action was happening and it was not on the courts.

From my perch, I noticed a guy with a mop of curly brown hair saunter down the sidewalk in a soggy T-shirt and baggy shorts revealing long, muscular legs. Then he did what sweaty guys do—he grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted it to wipe the perspiration off his forehead. If a guy with a “kegger” does this, the exposure of his overextended belly can be downright scary. When this guy did it, however, he exposed a taut, tanned “six-pack” and toned pecs partially covered with a dark shadow of chest hair. I gasped, not out of fright, but with what-a-hunk delight. Cute Guy, whom I judged to be almost six feet tall, made himself comfortable on a bench nearby. A red-alert alarm sounded in my brain, compelling me to mosey on over, drape my arms around his shoulders, and plant a smooch on the delectable curve where neck meets shoulder. Such were my impulses, anyway.

Instead, I regulated my breathing to avoid hyperventilating my way to blackout mode, which would have jeopardized my hastily formulated plan of getting to know him. With all the poise I could muster, I positioned myself at the opposite end of the mystery man’s bench. When a tennis player smashed a powerful overhead, I emitted a loud “Wow!” Cute Guy’s head swiveled my way, and that’s all it took.

As we chatted about the match, my mind and eyes drifted away from the court. My senses were occupied registering every detail about Cute Guy, now known as Ralph. Unfortunately, our tête-à-tête was brief, as he had to drive to a conference in Norfolk, several hours south. We walked together to his bike, where we said goodbye. Then my intriguing new friend rode down the hill toward home—with only my first name and without my number. I had managed to ascertain he was unattached, but I didn’t have any other information. Would I ever see this intelligent, articulate, attractive, easygoing, funny, sporty guy again?

Two weeks later Ralph was back at the courts, and so was I. Not such a coincidence, really. I had scarcely abandoned my post since that first meeting. (Begrudgingly, I had taken breaks for work and some ZZZs.) When I caught a glimpse of him, he was about fifty feet away, standing by the drinking fountain next to the clubhouse. Much to my dismay, there was a young woman next to him, and they were chatting. She looked to be in her early thirties, several years my junior. Long golden legs and hair to match. Voluptuous. As more of a shrimp at five foot four inches—if I rounded up—with shoulder-length brown hair and less robust dimensions, I might have felt intimidated. Strangely, I wasn’t.

A jolt of confidence exploded in my head and energized my feet. I didn’t know this gal, but I did know she was history. As I started walking toward Ralph, my pace quickened, along with my heartbeat. Closing in on thirty feet, I shouted his name, startling myself, because I hardly ever remembered names. I waved, clamping my eyes on his. We exchanged smiles. When I reached him, the girl had disappeared. Well, I didn’t see her. I may have squeezed in between the two of them and pivoted around to face Ralph. That way she could easily read the message on the back of my shirt that read, “He’s mine. Byeee!”

During our eighteen-month courtship, Ralph learned I was a Washington state native and a Spanish and Latin American Studies major who had studied in Mexico and Colombia. Though originally my sights had been set south of the Rio Grande, I’d headed to Germany to work before settling in Virginia. For my part, I discovered that in addition to shooting hoops and playing tennis and the piano, my North Carolinian beau was a mathematician who harvested backyard vegetables and baked delicious sourdough bread from a family recipe. He also could waltz and rumba me ’round the dance floor, as well as entertain me with his quirky, wry wit.

A case in point was his theory of guys’ names, comprised of four categories. Category One names belonged to the leading man and were crisp and commanding like Rick, Rhett, or Dirk. Category Two names were for the leading man’s best friend—solid and reliable names like Jimmy, Roger, or Bob. Category Three names were assigned to the jerk neighbor—Harvey, Dwayne, and Chester. Category Four names were cartoon characters like Rollo, Bubba, and Spike. Ralph was convinced his was a Category Three name. There was more bad news, he lamented. He was doubly burdened with a pair of Category Three names, his middle name being Henry.

Another unique dimension of Ralph’s personality was his passion for birdwatching. I’d known people who watched birds at a feeder through their kitchen window, but I’d never met anyone who ventured into the wild looking for birds. Ralph even had a bird list. All serious birders have one, as I came to know. Whenever he spotted a new bird, he made a note in his trusty bird book bible, Peterson’s Guide to Birds of North America. He regularly visited his favorite local haunt, Huntley Meadows, and frequently headed to notable birding areas farther afield like Chincoteague, Virginia, and Cape May, New Jersey. Though I hadn’t been bitten by the birding bug, it was exciting for me to see my guy so excited when he spotted a new winged creature or got a good look at a rare one. But the more new birds he identified, the fewer there were to find. What to do?

Though I’d often raved about the few years I’d worked in Europe—all the exceptional cultural and travel opportunities to be had—I was taken by surprise when Ralph announced one night he had received a US government offer for a position as a cost analyst in Heidelberg, Germany, and felt inclined to accept. Now my convincing tales about the glories of a European lifestyle were proving damaging to my case. Crestfallen, I realized my beau was bound for distant shores—alone. Softly I asked, “What about—uh—me?”

He gave me a quizzical look and said matter-of-factly, “We’re getting married, of course.”

“What did you say?” I asked, not believing I’d correctly heard him pronounce the M-word.

Shortly thereafter, Ralph delivered a more romantic proposal—on the bench at the tennis courts where we’d met. I didn’t say yes immediately. First, I took a deep breath. I wanted to revel in the dreamy moment and ensure a composed response. Before my exhale was complete, I gushed, “Oh-yes-oh-yes-oh—YES!”

After getting legal in Old Town Alexandria at the historic Old Presbyterian Meeting House, we started our own history, one to be filled with plenty of foreign adventures. Soon after taking a leave of absence from my job teaching English to international students and renting out the condo, we were winging it over the Atlantic to Heidelberg. The beguiling city of the famous operetta The Student Prince was conveniently located an hour from the French border and just eight hours’ drive from Provence.

More than a year passed in Heidelberg before our delayed honeymoon in the south of France. Ralph was keen to press his binoculars into action in the Camargue where the Rhône River fans into a wide delta before spilling into the Mediterranean Sea. I, on the other hand, was eager to experience the landscapes that inspired some of my favorite painters, especially Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso. My anticipation of our trip was further enhanced by the publication of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence; the tale of a British couple trading hectic jobs in London for retirement in Provence had captured my imagination. To be free to roam around sunny, southern France with all the outdoor markets, quaint villages, and charming bistros—that was more than a good life. That qualified as a life par excellence, one we’d try to emulate on our week’s vacation. The book, however, wasn’t a practical travel guide with lists of places to stay and eat. For that we relied on a friend’s trip report, which included loads of insider tips on hotels and restaurants. Because it was off-season, we didn’t feel the need to book anything. Armed with some Michelin maps, we headed south.

The first night we spent in striking Annecy, the Pearl of the French Alps, set on the northern tip of breathtaking Lake Annecy. Ralph, however, barely caught a glimpse of its stunning beauty, as he was fully occupied with food poisoning, probably caused by a chunk of way-past-due cheese I’d dug out of the fridge and tossed in our picnic lunch. What was I thinking? I don’t know who felt worse. Since he was still feeling a tad poorly the next morning, I did all the driving. We hit a few bouchons or traffic jams, so it was five hours later by the time we made it to Arles, the gateway to the Camargue. By then, my clutch leg and back were screaming for a break from my standard transmission Honda CRX. But the squeals from those body parts went unheeded, as I needed to respond to an urgent nature call. I creatively squeezed the little car into half a normal parking space in front of a café, where I made a mad dash for les toilettes. A few minutes later I was feeling significantly better, when the proprietress began railing at me for using her facilities without first buying something. “This isn’t a rest stop on the autoroute!” she scolded.

The owner was easily appeased with an order of two espressos, after which we went in search of our digs. The recommended accommodation wasn’t the charming enclave we had imagined. Unless charmant meant peeling paint, a creaky bed, a concave mattress, threadbare towels, rusted faucets, and no doubt, a starving family of fleas. We moved on as quickly as possible—before anything could bite us. In a small village east of Arles, we found a stylish chambre d’hôte holiday complex run by one Monsieur Oiseaux, recently transplanted from Paris. Perhaps he’d had a tough move, because he was in a grumpy funk despite the gorgeous weather. If Mr. Birds had been a bird, I’d have pegged him as a vulture who’d arrived late at the carcass feast. Since he was having a cranky day, I did not attempt to describe the droll irony of his name and a major motivation for our trip. No matter, though, because he had what we’d come for—an attractive room—not to mention inviting lounge chairs positioned around an expansive pool surrounded by olive trees, shimmering under French blue skies.

Unfortunately, Mr. Oiseaux’s property was full that night, but he did have availability the next night and for the rest of the week. We reserved the room and continued east, ending up in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There, we stumbled upon the most conveniently located hotel, a stone’s throw from centre ville, as well as a docteur and a pharmacie, which we would soon need. Exhausted after a three-flight trudge up the stairs, I’d heaved my overly laden suitcase onto the bed with one grandiose effort and promptly passed out, falling over backward. Ralph later told me I wasn’t frothing at the mouth, but my eyes had rolled back and my jaw locked. Frantic, he’d raced downstairs and screamed in English at the desk clerk until she realized he meant doctor, now! and soon Dr. Durand was hovering over me. He determined the episode had resulted from hyperventilation triggered by the pain that had shot through my leg.

The episode was entirely my fault. In a last-ditch effort to get in shape for our honeymoon, I had gone into overdrive at the gym. During a rushed session, I’d neglected to properly adjust the weights on a machine, causing an overstretched, if not torn, back muscle. After the long clutch workout on the Autoroute de Soleil, my tormented muscle, agitated further by the suitcase-heaving, was compelled to vehemently object. Dr. Durand prescribed some muscle relaxants and painkillers, assuring me I’d be fine for the week.

Our agenda now needed to be reworked since pampering my back was a priority. Slow-mo became our motto.

For hours we meandered by car through the expansive Camargue. We made frequent stops to marvel at the masses of fuchsia flamingos feeding peacefully, oblivious to the clippity-clop of horses trekking back to the noontime feedbag and the herds of bulls milling around in yonder pasture.   In the whitewashed seaside village of Saintes-Maries-de-Mer, we stopped at a brasserie for a simple lunch of salade de chèvre chaud, goat cheese melted on toasted baguette rounds placed on salad greens, and a carafe of pale rosé. Afterward, Ralph roamed the marshes behind the sandy shoreline, spotting legions of herons, egrets, gulls, and oystercatchers. I relaxed on my beach towel, content with my A Year in Provence, watching demure waves tiptoe up and slip back out to sea.

Another day, we passed through the quaint village of Maussane. On the outskirts, eagle-eyed Ralph spotted a sign for Mas de Mistral, an olive oil producer. Olive oil being a local specialty, we both agreed it merited investigation, so we followed the red arrows. Our detour wound us through the countryside, past vast olive groves and grazing sheep. At the end of a rutted-out dirt track, we pulled up in front of an old farmhouse. Inside, we found the young owner filling bottles with golden liquid from a dispenser like a beer tap and sticking on the labels—all by hand. We sampled the pure, fresh concoction—no comparison to the supermarket versions—and bought a couple of tall liter bottles.

After leaving the olive oil domaine, this time I was the one who spotted a tempting sign, one that spoke not to my taste buds but to my heart—poterie. The outside area by the store’s parking lot was loaded with gigantic garden pots, each the size of a pied-à-terre. Inside the shop, we found an extensive variety of glazed forms in blaring primary colors but also some subdued, rustic models with discreet medallion bas-reliefs. The style I fell for was urn-shaped with a blotchy glaze, produced by an artisan named Monsieur Briand from Anduze, a town a couple of hours northwest. Unbeknownst to Mr. B., that was the day I began contributing to his retirement fund.

During the week, we strolled the plane-tree-lined périphérique that circled Saint-Rémy’s historic center, crammed with dozens of cafés buzzing with patrons leisurely sipping espressos from tiny cups, wine from squat verres, or cloudy, licorice-flavored pastis from tall glasses. Inside the medieval centre historique, we discovered a maze of winding alleyways filled with chic clothing shops, home design boutiques, and contemporary art galleries. But the most impressive revelation was the Wednesday weekly market. It enveloped the entire town from the main square, Place de la République, to the Place Pelissier, dominated by the stately Hôtel de Ville, the town hall. On Place Favier, by the graceful fountain with a curved bench base, a young entrepreneur wove slender satin ribbons into a bouquet of lavender, forming a wand. She picked up an elongated work of art that resembled a skinny maraca and gently squeezed the bulb, explaining to her customer that the lavender scent would last years. I had to have at least one of those delicate beauties, but I rationalized three before moving on to the other artisans.

I found an astounding variety of stalls displaying exquisitely crafted leather goods, fringed foutahs in a thousand vibrant hues for use as beach or pool towels, iconic straw shopping baskets, inventive jewelry, olive wood platters, chapeaux, soaps in dozens of scents and hues, original watercolors of Les Alpilles mountains, two-meter-long rolls of fine linen fabric, plus piles of quilted covers called boutis—a shopping paradise.

Not being much of a market man, my hubby had been people watching from the church steps while I completed my reconnaissance of the artisan section, but he joined me to admire the edibles on Place Pelissier. The stunning array of fruits et légumes was just the beginning. There were chubby poulets rôtis, thigh to thigh, on a trio of spits. Fresh slabs of glowing pink salmon. Massive bowls mounded with glistening black and green olives stuffed with anchovies, almonds, or red peppers, or spiced up with herbs de Provence. Stacks of crusty rounds of bread studded with figs, walnuts, or olives. Saucissons—made from not only cochon but also boar, deer, and taureau (bull)laced with hazelnuts, pistachios, or mushrooms. With all the stalls cramming the square, a weathered stone fountain with four graceful, water-spewing dolphins was barely visible.

Leaving the chaos of the market, we drove five minutes up the hill to Van Gogh’s peaceful clinic, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. It was during the artist’s time here that he painted The Starry Night, one of his most famous works. From the painter’s bedroom window, we could see, just as the master himself had, the rows of lavender in the garden and the twisted cypress landscapes in the distance.

Another day, we admired the elaborate Roman arch at Les Antiques, flipped through international magazines at the presse, selected goat cheese cloaked in peppercorns at a quaint cheese shop, and chatted with the tourist office staff. They raved about time-honored village events, such as the annual transhumance. Thousands of sheep and goats, guided by their masters in traditional dress, lap the town before heading to higher pastures for the summer. Not to be missed, they said. We marked our calendar for the following spring. How effortless it was to ease into the languid Provençal pace, stopping to smell the roses and sip the rosé.

Saint-Rémy offered so much in such a compact space, just steps away from Les Alpilles. Clearly, we realized, this Provençal enclave of only ten thousand citizens punched far above its weight in terms of natural setting, amenities, and ambience. And only an hour’s drive away was the Camargue with all its amazing wildlife—the icing on the gâteau. With a Roman antiquity here, a Van Gogh scene there, outdoor markets, walks in Les Alpilles, vibrant Mediterranean cuisine, and vineyards to eternity and beyond, we were smitten.

Despite my brush with the medical community, our trip assessment was unanimous—long live the joie de vivre of Provence. Though retirement was a long way off, the Provençal spell had been cast.

Untether your inner joie de vivre.

Oh, the adventures you’ll have, the memories you’ll make. Giddyup.

You can buy Gayle’s book from Amazon, or Lebookshop in Montpellier is stocking it.  Watch this space about how to win a signed copy of the book.  Gayle’s website is www.gaylesmithpadgett.com.