Monday, May 31, 2010

Change is good…n’est-ce pas?

My son and his girfriend are here until Wednesday and I just can't take precious time away from them to write a proper post. But as usual (okay, except for the past two weeks), I'm posting a Monday article I wrote almost a year ago today... the beginning of a very interesting story. 

You know you live close to your neighbors when, not only does the smell of their first pot of coffee wake you up, but you can actually hear the espresso pot steaming on their stove. This morning that is what woke me up. That, along with another neighbor's cat meowing insistently and the sound of late night revelers making their way home in the light of day. And, of course, the ever-present guy who washes the street every morning

It's a strange occurance, this washing-the-streets thing. There are actually spigots on each corner and early in the morning, after all the garbage has been picked up (this occurs at least 3 times each day), trucks crawl around the city, and men dressed in yellow and blue hook up their giant red hoses to the spigots and wash all the streets and sidewalks. It's a very curious phenomenon here in France...or at least my corner of the country.

This morning I watched from above as my street was completed. The gentleman was very meticulous about washing away every last bit of garbage and the ever-present dog poop that litters the streets and sidewalks like a minefield. He finished the street, looked at his watch and, perhaps because he thought he didn't spend the appropriate amount of time, did it again. I would think this problem could be solved more effectively by requiring people to pick up their dog’s doo doo and making it illegal to litter, but this is France. Who am I to question the necessity of the men in blue (and yellow)?

All of these new sights and smells are occurring in my new apartment, which I moved into immediately upon my return from The Grand Tour of France with my sister and mom. I have moved 4 times within the last year. And three of those four times my mother has managed to be here to clean up after me. Poor woman. She joined my sister and I halfway through our trip and came back to Aix en Provence to spend a week with me; 2 days were to be in a hotel and the remainder at my new apartment which has two bedrooms.  It turned out to be the week from hell.

The apartment became available at the last minute and, in fact, I’m subleasing from a woman who moved to Paris but wants to keep her apartment in Aix “just in case things don’t work out”. I get a good deal on rent (or at least I thought I did) and she gets to keep her things here. However, now that I have moved in, I understand her real reason for continuing to pay rent here…. she is completely incapable of removing her things.  This woman has never thrown anything away in her entire 9 years here nor has she cleaned. Every single piece of paper, old envelope, moldy box and tissue paper, bill, and magazine was piled high all over the apartment.  Every crevasse and shelf was stuffed with paper and broken items in plastic bags.  The closet doors would not close because of the piles of old and torn clothing spilling from the shelves.  Every movement caused a cloud of dust and the “decorative” items were stuck to the shelves with a paste that had developed from years of dust, grease and neglect. There was neither a place to sit nor a single place to put any of my things. My mother was horrified and immediately rebooked her hotel for the remainder of her stay and began, once again, cleaning bathrooms. Bless her wonderful heart.

And so began 5 days of torture. Alex, (my Swedish friend who continues to live with me for a few more weeks), my mother and I, scrubbed, sorted, packed, swore, moved, piled, scrubbed some more, swore some more, and eventually found the floor and the kitchen countertop. We repaired broken lamps and clogged drains, washed windows and curtains and swore. We swept the walls and the ceiling, washed all the dishes, picked up the beds to check for living creatures…and swore.

We found 5 broken telephones, 4 broken printers, 10 or 12 broken lamps, unopened bills dating from 2001 and beyond, 6 broken tea pots, stacks of cracked dishes, numerous broken kitchen appliances, enough loose change to have a grand party when we’re finished….and not a single corkscrew!  Believe me, after 5 days of this, we NEED a corkscrew.

We walked between my old apartment and the new, pulling suitcases, carrying scrub buckets, mops, rubber gloves and insect spray (we looked decidedly un-posh strutting down the Cour Mirabeau!). We hauled all my belongings up 4 flights of stairs and eventually I was deposited, lock, stock and olive oil, in my new digs.

And here I am, in my new, spacious (for here) apartment in a 17th century building. My ceilings are 14 feet high with giant, ancient beams and the gorgeous Plafond au Française. The stair ceilings are carved stone and absolutely exquisite. The beautiful fireplace is now a bookcase, but its plaster-embellished façade is stunning. I have no terrace but my windowsills are 15 inches deep and I can sit in the sill in the sun like a satisfied cat and watch the world go by below me.

As I write here in the window, and watch the guy in blue and yellow, I can’t help wishing there had been a spigot and a big red hose available up here to hose out this apartment. But no worries, it’s done. We can walk barefoot on the old stone floors. We found a screwdriver and a hammer, which seems to work for opening wine and Alex is cooking something in our clean pans that smells garlicky and delicious. The laundry is drying on the rack, two of our lamps work, and I believe my neighbor is cooking….. bacon.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Cinque Terre

I promised a little photo diary of our trip to Cinque Terre in Italy. If you're not familiar with the area, check it out on the internet. It's beautiful, and though it's been Rick Steve'd over the last decade, it is enchanting, colorful, and well worth the visit.

Sonya and I drove from Aix en Provence and stopped at a gas station north of Antibes for our first fill-up. Check out the view from the service station.

We had pretty much decided that was The Most Beautiful Gas Station In The World, until we had to stop at another one for a cup of coffee...just before the Italian border. You decide...we couldn't!

The Cinque Terre consists of 5 old fishing and wine production villages along the Italian coast. It is now a protected area and cars are not allowed into the villages but there are hiking paths and a train line that run between all of them. We left our car in Levanto and took the train to our final destination in Vernazza.

We had been lucky enough to get a room with Giuliano and Michelle at Camere Giuliano, only because of a cancelation. Our instructions were to "go down the stairs from the train station, go into the first wine store on the left in the village and ask the owners to call Giuliano who would come to get us". He arrived pronto and helped us carry our bags up the 67 steps (these villages are all terraced)...

along the old pathway lined with ancient buildings (Michelle thinks they're an eyesore...I think they make for great photos)

to our final destination...a lovely 4 room bed-without-breakfast built by Guiliano, a local stone mason. I really thought the towels must have been added just for photos but, in fact, it had been raining (and continued) for almost a month and they couldn't get them dry!

When I turned around to look at the view, it felt like the eye of the universe was looking down upon us.

We spent the rest of the evening wandering the little town of Vernazza, which has everything you need. A bar, a pizzeria, a couple of restaurants...but with all the internet and frequent electricity blackouts.

And in spite of all the tourists and hikers, this ain't Disney World! These two have no camera, no guidebooks and wouldn't be caught dead in hiking boots!

The next day and a half we explored the villages, walked between Riomaggiore and Manorola (the saturated soil made the terracing unstable and all the trails were closed except for this one, which is really just a paved stroll)...

hopped the train between the other villages...

 explored, shopped, ate, drank the excellent local wine and celebrated Sonya's birthday

I was fascinated by the way boats are "parked" up and down the streets or in front of people's houses...and of course, as usual, by the color of it all..

Sonya loved the gates and doors...I swear she took a thousand photos of just that! I have to say this particular door and it's color and texture sends me.. I gotta learn to paint!

and I will someday have a secret garden like this...

Corniglia is the only village without sea access, the most remote and the least visited. Perhaps that's because you have to climb 33 flights (377 stairs) to get there!

Yes, those are the railroad tracks far below. There is a bus to get up to the village but we had eaten a lot of pizza and climbing stairs beats lunges all to hell!

Our last evening in Vernazza involved dinner, a few more photos...

a bottle of local wine on the terrace..

And this incredible scene as the sun disappeared.


oh and one last note...perhaps all the stereotypes of Italian men are true. We ducked into a teeny, tiny bar in Vernazza to get out of the rain. The baker came out for a little break...with his latest creation!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

And They're Off!

It has been just over two weeks since I have written…anything. I haven’t written my newspaper column, I haven’t written for this blog…I’ve barely even written a list (and believe me, I’m a champion list writer)! I’ve been out of touch with fellow bloggers and friends…and none of this is good.

When I don’t get to the gym for a long period of time I start to feel all hinky, particularly if there’s a lot of stress in my life. But during these past two weeks I’ve discovered that when I don’t write (and don’t go to the gym), I get all hinky times 10!  Today I’m going to try to do both. And get back on track. But recently, I just haven't had the time to do either.

Because Visitor Season is in full swing. I’ve had company since the 11th and apart from a few stressful moments, most of which involved getting lost, it has been so much fun.

My friend Sonya arrived 2 weeks ago and we picked up her rental car at the airport in Marseille. It’s cheaper to rent a car from the U.S. than it is for me to do so but the idea was to add me as a driver since I’m more accustomed to driving here. However, when I showed the Hertz people my temporary French driver’s license they wouldn’t accept it because “it doesn’t have any numbers on it”.

“The man at the Office of Driver’s Licenses told me this would be good for 2 months until my official license comes. And he’s got my U.S. license as well!”

“Yes, we understand”. But we still can’t accept it”.

Okay back to this sort of bureaucratic BS again! This means Sonya’s driving back to my house in Aix. Okie Dokie. It went something like this….

“You need to go faster…. stay out of the left lane unless you’re prepared to go fast…NO…never slow down or stop in a roundabout…. speed up…keep going around and around the roundabout until you figure out where you’re going to turn…. they’re just need to ignore them…. don’t worry, that’s just a typical French driving gesture which means you're going too slow in the left lane.... don’t look at the other drivers…. go faster….”

She did a splendid job and as we finally drove through the narrow, winding streets of Aix she started to giggle. Then to outright laugh. I was sure it was a case of nerves but she assured me that although her knuckles looked as if she was in the throes of frostbite, she was laughing because she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Like I said before, it’s pure joy to see my world through the new eyes of a visitor.

“Turn left here…this is my street”.

“I can’t turn here. That’s not a street…it’s a sidewalk”.

"Nope, I can assure you, this is a street. Wait until you see where we’re going to park!”

More giggles but I’m sure these were from nerves. And then I taught her the most important thing to know when driving in France. How to make a parking spot. This is an important skill because there are so few REAL parking spots.

People will park anywhere so all the towns have bittes (or posts…be careful with this one. It also means cock or prick), set in cement along the edge of all the sidewalks. But if you can find an opening…anywhere…the sidewalk is fair game. There are no parking fees when you make your own spot and nobody seems to ticket.  One of these cherished spaces sits directly in front of my building and the man who discovered it works during the day. This was our chance to steal his spot!

So I talked her through driving in front of it, backing up through the tiny opening somebody forgot to block, up over the curb, just far enough away from the door so that whoever lives there can partially open it and most importantly, ignoring the honking from all the cars we’re blocking during the process. In the end, she lost her nerve so I had to do it but, I repeat, this is an extremely important lesson.

Then came the stairs. I live on the 3rd floor. The stairs are narrow and circular which makes for tough going with several big bags accompanied by two big women of Scandinavian extraction. And actually, just the door to my apartment is on the 3rd floor. Once you open it, there’s another set of stairs. Slippery metal stairs, half the depth of the size 10 feet of 2 big women of Scandinavian extraction. And when you finally arrive in my apartment, breathless, there is another set of narrow wooden stairs that lead to the bedroom.

At this point, it was time for a shot of the Patron tequila that Sonya bought in duty-free!

And fortified with tequila, we were out the door within 20 minutes, Sonya (a photographer) with camera in hand. I lead her and through the streets of Aix as she stuffed her camera with endless photos of all the wonders of her new surroundings. She was like a kid in a candy store and just when I was sure her pockets must be full, I would lose her again to a beautiful door, a narrow street, or a colorful....candy store!

Tomorrow, I’ll share some of her photos because we took off for Italy the next day. And (screw the French driver’s license nonsense) I drove!


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

'Tis the Season

Visitor season begins today with my first arrival. In fact, I have to get myself to the airport in about an hour to retrieve my debut guest. And, of course, like usual, I’m not ready.  I went and did something really brilliant Sunday…I adopted a cat!  Don’t get me wrong, I love this cat…and he loves me. And now my apartment feels like a home. But I probably could have planned this better (back to that planning issue) because rather than grocery shopping, cleaning and doing the laundry and ironing, and getting all my maps in order, I spent Sunday cuddling my new kitty, Arthur (pronounced Archoor), and waiting for him to figure out that the litter box was not a place to roll around and act silly. Finally at 1 a.m., just at the point that I was sure he would just explode, he calmly marched into his litter box and used it…properly. And as you can see, he is now well settled.

BUT....that left Monday to do all that needed to be done. And of course, Monday was the ONLY nice day we’ve had in weeks. I tried to ignore it and in the end the heat and the sunshine dried the 3 loads of laundry quickly and finally gave me an opportunity to clean the terrace. And now, time has run out and I’m as close to ready as I’m going to get.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


 We’ve had rain for 3 days and though it has stopped for a few hours, we’re now being treated to a mean mistral wind and I can hear things being blown off of terraces and clattering down the streets.

Weather like this makes me long to take the couch for a little television and a warm blanket. I’ve had a TV now for almost 4 months and I always forget to watch it. It’s really a good learning tool and I keep vowing to remember to watch it. Last night I really meant it…this was it! And I had even purchased a TV guidebook for the occasion.  I got all settled in nicely under my soft polar fleece blanket, remote control(s) in hand and turned it on…but it wouldn’t stay on. No matter how much I messed with each button (and television remotes and the sheer number of them one needs to actually watch TV have always been a mystery to me), I just couldn’t manage to keep the screen on more than 30 seconds.  One of my very few plans and I couldn’t even carry it through.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

More Earth Shattering, Mind Blowing, World Changing Questions About France

1. Why are there so many male hairdressers and why do they all look like they just got out of bed? And often like they could really use a meal...or vitamins?

2. Why is there a word for husband but no real word for wife. Husband is "mari" but wife is "femme" which also means woman. I wouldn't like being called someone's woman.

3. Also, why is there no word for "date"? As in "I have a date with Maurice" or "I dated him for several months until he called me his woman"?

4. Do the French people understand how heavenly their mustard is? Even their bad mustard?

5. Why do French children always seem to have such adorable shoes?

6.  Why are French people so willing to stand in lines? If I had to wait in a grocery store line at home like the ones I stand in here, people would be expressing their discontent with gestures and loud sighs as the young-manager-of-the-store-who-can't-even-grow-a-beard-yet scurries around trying find a stockboy who can run a register and when he can't he will eventually open and work the register himself.

7. Why do French people say oui, oui, oui (3 plus) to say yes? I do the same in French but I rarely, if ever, respond to a question with yes, yes, yes.

8. Why is there a prevalence of woman over 40 with a really weird red hair color?

As usual, I await your responses! And more questions.