Flirting with France

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

Chapter two – Flirting with France

Heidelberg and Provence — 1992 to 2010

Once we’d seen Provence, we eagerly gave in to its charms. A two decade-long dance of seduction with the south of France ensued.

When vacation time rolled around during our working years in Germany, Ralph and I couldn’t resist heading south. We reveled in those week-long excursions to Provence. South of Lyon where the Provençal landscape begins to unfold, revealing its majestic cedars and golden-stone hilltop villages, a giddiness would come over us.

On one occasion, we based ourselves in the Venice of Provence, the delightful antiques town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, built around a network of canals. Its Sunday market has a special dimension. In addition to all the stalls overflowing with the typical marché wares—soaps, fabrics, baskets, and scarves—stretched out along the main canal, a vibrant flea market sells everything from tiny teacups of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie fame to massive cherrywood armoires.

From L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, it was easy to explore the hilltop villages of the northern Luberon—Gordes, Roussillon, and Ménèrbes, of Peter Mayle fame. Once after a plat du jour of moules frites (mussels and fries) in the author’s village, we lingered at the hard-packed dirt boules court to watch a few rounds of the game, played with heavy metal balls nearly the size of grapefruit. Of the six mature fellows playing, all wore faded nondesigner jeans and either work boots or faded jogging shoes. Five sported black berets, positioned at a jaunty angle. They stood at the sides of the court focused on the one beret-free man with his knees slightly bent and feet together inside the half-circle drawn in the dirt. The man expertly tossed a ball that came to rest next to the small red target affectionally called le cochonnet, meaning piglet. The talented player bore a striking resemblance to Monsieur Mayle. Maybe it was him. Or perhaps my rose-tinted glasses had seen too many glasses of rosé. Hmm.

In between week-long vacations, we loved popping over the border into France for a delicious déjeuner with friends. In just an hour from our home in Heidelberg, we could be in the tiny town of Lauterbourg. We always ordered the same delicious dish—tarte flambée—TF for short. It’s a thin-crusted rectangular pizza, topped with crème fraîche, shredded onions, and crispy bacon chunks. It was de rigueur to wash the TF down with a dry, spicy, local Alsatian Riesling. Afterward, we’d push our carts up and down every aisle in the enormous supermarket, Cora, picking up lots of Frenchie goodies—crusty baguettes, blocks of butter blended with salt crystals from Guérande, and, of course, bottles of local bubbly, Crémant d’Alsace.

Occasionally we’d spend weekends in Paris. From Heidelberg, reaching the City of Light by train was a snap. Within a few hours we could be strolling through Luxembourg Gardens, trying on berets at Galleries Lafayette, eating seafood choucroute at Bofinger, or visiting Monets at the Musée d’Orsay. One particular hotel made these excursions especially delightful. A perk of our professional association with the US government was permission to stay at the French Officers’ Club with its upscale amenities. Not only did our room come with an Eiffel Tower view, but at the time we designated, breakfast was delivered to the room—crispy, buttery croissants, a big pot of rich coffee, a jug of hot, foamy milk, plump soft-boiled eggs, silky beurre, and an assortment of yummy confitures—all of our favorites. And how did they know? The night before, we’d noted our petit déjeuner preferences on a dainty card with a cord attached, handy for dangling on the doorknob. Getting spoiled, French style, involved no learning curve whatsoever. Apparently, we were naturals.

Aside from quick train trips to Paris, we trekked west to magnificent Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, and south to Beaune in Burgundy. Champagne being my adult beverage of choice, Épernay, the Capital of Bubbly, was a must-see too. After an informative and delicious tour of the Moët & Chandon Champagne estate—it concluded with a generous tasting—I paid tribute with a bow to the ingenious monk who started it all, Dom Pérignon, standing tall and bronzed in the main courtyard.

Farther afield, we traveled to the teensy island of Île de Groix off the Brittany coast. There, for the first time, I experienced a meal served en papillote, a paper bundle, served in a plain restaurant connected to a hostel filled with young oceanographers on a research junket. As I opened the little pouch, a billow of steam escaped, revealing a mound of curried moules topped with thyme twigs—a striking and heavenly combination.

That dish wasn’t the only surprising juxtaposition. We discovered that our youthful, mustached bike rental guy doubled as a philosopher. There were numerous bicycle rental shops on the island, but not one advertised bicyclettes, ordinary bicycles. They all rented vélos, which looked exactly like ordinary bikes to us. After tooling around the island and turning in our rented two-wheelers, I asked the shop owner to explain the difference between the two bicycle terms. I expected a one- or two-word answer like “fatter tires.” Instead, his smile vanished and his eyes narrowed. As he leaned forward on the counter, he stroked his mustache and said, “La différence entre la bicyclette et le vélo … ah, c’est très, très subtil.” He had obviously given the topic substantial thought and appeared primed to launch into the deeper recesses of a complex issue, which was probably tied to French national identity or the meaning of life. Or maybe they were one and the same, a concept he would also try to explain. Since we had a ferry to catch, we convinced the philosophizing proprietor we were satisfied with his subtil insight and hightailed it to the dock. Since then, whenever something culturally perplexing surfaces, instead of digging for the definitive answer, which would most likely prove futile, we relegate the issue to our très-très-subtil list. Voilà, harmony is restored.

On a subsequent visit to Provence, we stayed near Carpentras, but drove an hour over to Saint-Rémy for its Wednesday market—that I couldn’t miss. Unsurprisingly, I found it as vibrant as I had the first time. While I happily lost myself wandering among the stalls, Ralph hiked up into Les Alpilles looking for bird rarities like the Egyptian vulture and Bonelli’s eagle. His search was to no avail, but any day birding is a good day for Ralph. We were both happy campers. By the end of the week, we’d clocked some vélo saddle time riding to the glider field near Eygalières to watch the sleek planes lift off and float above the craggy Alpilles, played boules, ate our weight in goat cheese, and drank double that in rosé. What a life! We began to get just a hint of an inkling that we might like to retire here.

As the years rolled along, the French retirement idea stubbornly refused to go away. We’d been seriously dating France for a long time and the relationship had deepened. Every additional trip to Saint-Rémy reinforced our fantasy. We marched around Les Alpilles and the outdoor markets, visited our favorite olive oil producer in Maussane, and enjoyed a dégustation at Domaine de Valdition near Eygalières. We observed flamingos sifting mud through their beaks—that’s what they’re busy doing out there in the Camargue marshes, Ralph told me.

And of course, we enjoyed our favorite bistros. Excessive as it may have been, on one visit, we squeezed in two lunches in five days at Bistrot de Paradou, in the town by the same name. After the first meal early in the week, we couldn’t resist reserving for Friday to experience the renowned aioli, a simple Provençal dish of steamed white fish, potatoes, and veggies. The star of the show, garlic mayonnaise, also called aioli, wasn’t on the plate but was presented in a separate little tub—for safety reasons, we realized later. Since the aioli was contained in its own vessel, there was no pretending it could slide onto your fork by mistake. You had to knowingly go after it, and we did with abandon, recklessly. The seemingly innocuous mayo concoction was so lusciously decadent, it was easy for newbies like us to gobble it all up, rendering the small bowls shiny clean. Though a huge boon to our immune systems, the downside was that the powerful, garlicky punch the aioli packed didn’t much lend itself to romance. Even blowing kisses was ill-advised. If we had both blown simultaneously and at close range, we would have risked singed eyebrows. Lesson learned; when it comes to reckless abandon, save it for the boudoir.

During our Provençal getaways, we soaked up the dreamy ambience like industrial-strength solar panels to keep us powered up while we were elsewhere. Retirement was on the horizon now, so the choice of where to homestead was soon to be ours. Why not choose France, so we could enjoy its joie de vivre every day? If we were so attached to the country, why not stop dating France and move in together? Granted, there would be some significant legal hurdles to jump—France’s reputation for bureaucracy was legendary. Still, we absolutely loved the idea. But did France? Did France want to cohabitate with us? To find out, there was wooing to do—in La La Land.

Brace for bureaucracy.

Much won’t make sense to you, but it does to somebody, and that somebody is stamping your visa.

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.