Letters from Paris

Originally posted on Girl in Provence:

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Reflecting four years back and seeing more clearly how pieces of a giant puzzle fit together……..

34, rue Madame

75006 Paris

29 July, 2008

Is there a way to harness all one’s thoughts that are meant to become real writing into one neat and tidy place?  Or is writing supposed to be messy?  I think that is what Anne Lamott says.  It should be messy.

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On that note, I am seated at the desk in our current apartment in Paris, apartment number two that is, on rue Madame, two steps from St. Sulpice, one block from rue Bonaparte and a mere few blocks from blvd. St. Germain.  One piece of luggage contains everything I need, or want, and the rest is packed back up and tucked away, once again, in storage where it is has resided for more time than not since we have been married.  It should feel orderly around…

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Cassis is Calling

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Cassis never fails to brighten the spirits on a crisp February afternoon when the Mistral winds are streaming through Provence at a mighty force.  Somehow even if they are blowing along the coast, the light, the scenery and the Mediterranean Sea are always a sure-fire mood lifter.

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Cassis is a lovely little port, tucked into limestone hills.  The Romans liked it, too, and built villas here, and when Marseille prospered in the 17th century, a number of mansions were erected as seen here up on the hill.

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The sounds of the sailboats swaying on the water always make me feel like I am on holiday.  Inspiring artists such as Derain, Dufy & Matisse felt this too, as this was one of their preferred places for vacations.

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The senses all feel stimulated by the fresh sea air, the crystal clear luminosity of the light and the visual eye candy everywhere.  The Platane trees in this place are still naked; the sunlight streaming through their branches creates whimsical Matisse-like designs on the ground that lead us to le marché.

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We follow other exciting scents and fall upon local goods at a petit marché.  Olives, tapenades, artichoke hearts, tomatoes & marinated garlic.

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And of course chèvre.  Chèvre, chèvre, chèvre.  And more chèvre.  

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A visit to Cassis never feels complete without a walk along Les Calanques.  The best place to hike from is Port Miou.  And with goodies that we procured at le marché, we are all ready for a sea-side picnic.

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A walk down a little path brings us to the port.  The marine scent touches your core if you breathe in deep enough.

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And these sparkling blue and green waters call us to jump in and play.  Tempting as it is, we will wait until the summer for this favorite activity.

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Making our way to these cliffs that Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote about is a must each time we go.  The view of Cap Canaille is sublime.

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And it changes by the minute with the changing light. 

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Everyone seemed to be enjoying the sun too.  Restaurants and cafés along the port abound with  fresh pastas, just-caught seafood, pizzas, salads and of course bouillabaisse.  And the local rosé bien sûr!

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People watching is irresistible.

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One of our favorite ways to end the day is to drive up to the Cap Canaille and look down on the beauty below.

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A final stroll through town on our way home, and an à bientôt to this little gem of a village until she calls us back for another visit.

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Côte d’Azur Dreaming

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Are you as ready for a little vicarious trip to la Côte d’Azur as much as I am?

The new year always feels like a celebratory time of year, but with temperatures in Provence at freezing points this last week, and with a good portion of France under a blanket of snow, I found myself longing for the sultry days of summer along the Mediterranean Sea.

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What better place to be transported to than the Saint Tropez open-air market in the Place des Lices?

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This chic display of panniers is a good place to start, as one of these will surely be used for every market adventure of the season to come!  The bigger the better in this case.

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Tempting hammocks bring visions of lazy afternoons hanging out in the shade of two generous and supportive trees.

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Flavored vinegars ranging from orange to fig to raspberry to name just a few of the samplings here.

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Extra virgin olive oil is a staple, and the fun comes with trying a new one each week.

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Goods for the obligatory aperitif.

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These lemons may not be the prettiest around, but when their fragrance reaches out to you long before you reach their display, you know they will be the best of all.

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What a delight to find flowering artichokes that are still smiling up toward the sunshine.

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Fresh garlic that is pretty enough to hang from the kitchen window.

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There are heirloom tomatoes & sun-dried tomatoes to meet everyone’s wish.

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For those that would like a little snack, the savory paella with ultra-fresh fruits of the sea awaits.  This always reminds me of the paella that my mother used to make.  Hers, of course, was much better, but this is a close second.

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Fresh herbs & spices galore.

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Fresh mint for making a nice infusion.

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The light here seduces in subtle ways.

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Vibrantly colorful linens for the home.

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And never a shortage of objets de déco.

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Fragrant natural soaps in aromas such as violette, rose, jasmine, orange, citron, vanilla, plum, apple, peach, lime, anis to name just a few.

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More colorful panniers that capture the marvelous light.

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Pannier nicely filled.

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Gorgeous little streets to discover.

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The sounds of water falling from the fountains always soothes.

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And breathing in the Mediterranean Sea does wonders too.

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Waterfront cafés are always animated. 

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And yet one can always find quiet places away from the glitz by just walking a few short minutes away from the sea.

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The reward is falling upon this monumental sculpture, or a gallery displaying this painting that I would have liked to have taken home with me.  Next time! 

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A garden display up the coast towards Cap Nègre is a must.

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Wrapping the day up with our skin still warm from the sun, with this view, and with the sounds of the sea kissing the seashore is enough to fill me up, and help carry me through what might be a cold winter to come.    

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Letters from Paris

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Reflecting four years back and seeing more clearly how pieces of a giant puzzle fit together……..

34, rue Madame

75006 Paris

29 July, 2008

Is there a way to harness all one’s thoughts that are meant to become real writing into one neat and tidy place?  Or is writing supposed to be messy?  I think that is what Anne Lamott says.  It should be messy.

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On that note, I am seated at the desk in our current apartment in Paris, apartment number two that is, on rue Madame, two steps from St. Sulpice, one block from rue Bonaparte and a mere few blocks from blvd. St. Germain.  One piece of luggage contains everything I need, or want, and the rest is packed back up and tucked away, once again, in storage where it is has resided for more time than not since we have been married.  It should feel orderly around here, but in my head it is anything but that.  We’ve made fourteen moves since 1999 and four of those were on an international level.  We’d be considered professionals at this by some.  A move on any level requires intense organization combined with an ability to start all over.  From scratch.  Particularly when it is in a new city or new country.  Or a new city within a new country.

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We are here on rue Madame for now.  But even this is a temporary home base while I am on a mission is to find the next “home” in Paris, since this is where my honey will now be working.  It feels like we have been in constant movement, although it has all been by choice, so I would never complain.  I am just overly aware of how much energy it takes to create home so many times over.

The stuff, there is little attachment to all of it.  Without a doubt we feel most alive when we are slightly out of our comfort zone, are discovering new places, new people, new countries, new customs, new cities, and new arrondisements in this case.

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My deep belief is that small is beautiful and less is more.  Paris apartments, and namely this one at this time falls into that category.  But when Paris is your playground, the size of one’s home diminishes greatly.  To name the streets that surround us now brings me back to the familiar routes I used to take as a student at the Sorbonne Paris IV and l’Institute Catholique on rue d’Assas.  Rue Bonaparte, rue Vaugirard, rue Cassette, rue de Mézières, rue H. Chevalier, rue d’Assas, rue de Vieux Colombier, Rue Saint Sulpice, rue de Sèvres, rue du Dragon, rue du Quatre Vents, rue du Cherche Midi, Blvd St. Germain, and rue de Tournon to name just a few.

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These specific streets are all part of a dream. A dream whose seeds were planted some twenty odd years ago.  Actually, it would have been in the 1970s when my mother, a Eurasian beauty, went to Europe to contemplate her life at the time.  Europe.  That was it.  There was something so elegant and refined about the mere word Europe.

It remained a part of my mental and visual world ever since.  It was the source of the dream, but I did not know it at the time.  All of the details make so much more sense now.  My mother used to tell me just keep doing what was interesting and feels right, and even if it does not all make sense, or fit together, because it eventually it will.

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In the more recent past, after moving back to the Bay Area from Italy in 2005, I could not resist working with the 20,000 photographs that I’d taken while living in Italy and France.  After having tasted life in these two countries, and as more than just travelers, it was in me.  Europe had become our world for close to two years and I needed to keep it alive.  Visually.  Daily.  When you’ve had a taste of something so delicious, so satisfying, so soul-stirring, it’s hard to let it go.

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So while we were back in the San Francisco Bay Area, I kept the dream alive by doing what my mother suggested, even if it did not make sense.  When I was not working, I cataloged, organized, filed & rated those photos the best I could.  And while doing so, I was transported back to each memory that was imprinted both in my mind  from each experience.  Each one was illuminated as if it had just happened.  Whatever the photo was, I could feel the air on my skin, I could smell the aroma, I could feel the emotion, I could taste the sweetness and I could breath in the season, the energy and the place.  Everything came back to life in a mere image.

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There was a need to keep this all alive, for if its pulse weakened, then the dream would die.  And if the dream died, then what would happen to the dreamer?  But that was out of the question, and having faith eventually led to the door.  There is always a door, and they invariably open.  The important thing is to recognize them when they open and not to have fear in walking right through them.  We were always willing to go into the unknown, and it seemed that in doing so the prize was feeling truly conscious and experiencing pure joy.

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It’s a curious thing to ask oneself why they might be so pulled in one direction in life.  Sometimes it is to a person.  Sometimes to the wrong person.  If we are lucky, to the right person.  Sometimes it is to a place.  A familiar place.  Sometimes it is back home, to the place we grew up and spent our childhood.  Sometime it is to nature and the calm of the country.  Sometimes it is to the energy, culture and vibration of the city.  And sometimes it is a pull overseas to a foreign country.

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What things, people, places, words, images created this thing, this thing that makes us become, who we are, and make us become what we create?   This is so difficult to answer.

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But when there is a draw, a pull, a tugging, one can only resist for so long.  If we get to experience many lives, then tant mieux, or all the better, but as far as I know, we get to live in this one body once around, and it feels better to make the best of it, than to settle for safe.  So, the draw.  Yes.  It is when you feel like your body is in one place, but your heart is in another.  And that place where your heart is?  It is probably going to be a good place to spend your life, because it feels better to have one’s heart and body connected, and in the end, this is not a dress rehearsal.

To be continued…

If you enjoyed this piece, please hop over to Le Reve…The Dream

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A Moment of Calm

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Winter is officially here, and after experiencing the holidays in busy cities such as Paris, Rome, Milan, San Francisco, Boston and New York, it is with immense joy that we do it this year in the calm of the countryside of the Luberon.  IMG_3166

Nature reveals her beauty in every direction.  The light has become soft and the color palette throughout our region is a reflection of soft ochre, muted orange, faint yellow, pale green, linen, grey, beige and a myriad of mauve.  These will change tomorrow and remind us that if we do not stop, we could miss out.

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The sounds of birds chirping, leaves landing softly on the ground or a gentle breeze kissing your ears sooth the soul like a mother’s caress or warm embrace.

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A walk through the countryside provides us with living tableaux of art fit for the world’s best museums, and is the gift that not only has no price, but is there for all who seek it out.

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It seems like only yesterday these were almond trees in blossom.  Their ephemeral nature now reveal their life-force that stands strong long after their delicate pink and white petals have fallen.
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From this standpoint, we get a better view of the stream that lulls us to sleep every night.  What a contrast from the symphony of a Parisienne soirée.

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The still sounds of these passages are always here to comfort a busy mind, but only when we slow down enough to appreciate them.

May the light, the tranquility and the softness of a walk through the countryside here bring calm to you wherever you are.  May you breath in the scents of the fresh air and experience a moment of peace.  May it fill your heart with joy and bring a smile to your face.

I hope you will share your smile with someone who might not be as lucky as you are, if only to bring a moment of harmony to their day.

Warmest holiday wishes to you wherever you are in the world!

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Holiday Time in Aix-en-Provence

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We were smitten within the first five minutes of stepping into Aix-en-Provence on the 16th of September, 2004.  Enough for it to turn into love and to make her home a mere two years later.

She seems to become more elegant, charming and overflowing with abundant beauty with each visit, but particularly during the holiday season.  She is a living history book that warmly invites us to travel in time on each occasion that we are lucky enough to enter through her walls.

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Her name alone travels in time. Aix in a few words…Aquas Sextias, Aix en Provençou, Aix-en-Provence. She was born in 122 BC, and founded by the Romans.

IMG_9891The Romans abandoned the nearby site of Entremont, which was the political capital of the Celto-Ligurian Confederation, a city open to trade, and in 122 BC settled on a site with spring of water, and so Aquae Sextiae, Sextius Waters, or Aix-en-Provence, was born.

As a Roman colony, the town was a stepping stone between Italy and Spain.  She is a town of water and a town of art, and is well-known for this dual identity.

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The town is also a blend of different eras and cultures.  Although Aix did not embrace him or his immense talent during his life, this was the home to Cézanne who painted the majestic Mont Sainte Victoire some-odd 44 times in oil, 43 in watercolor, and countless studies in other mediums.

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Aix is full of rich colors, textures and sensations: a striking blue sky, golden stone walls, transparent green fountains, majestic shady plane trees and light that changes so often that you feel as if you are rediscovering her with each passing minute during the day, and then get to experience the enchantment of her elegance as she lights up at night.

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She has a way of seducing most people the minute they step foot in, breath in her charm, and hear the sounds of water falling in one of her many fountains.

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Les Deux Garçons is one of the most famous brasseries in all of Aix, and was M.F.K. Fisher’s favorite place to go when she lived just around the corner on rue Cardinale.  Emile Zola and Ernest Hemingway were loyal patrons as well.

One can always count on a warm welcome and a delicious plate of coquillages or any other traditional brasserie fare.

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IMG_6571 And there are always familiar sing-song voices emanating from Bar le Grillon, another safe bet for something to warm and sooth the body & soul.  IMG_6573Popping into Aix for a mere errand or to spend an entire afternoon and evening traipsing through her charming streets is a marvel in itself.  But to take in the holiday festivities is something I hope everybody gets to do at least once in their lifetime.

In her subtle ways, she does something quite magical.  She casts a spell & wins a little part of everyone’s heart.  Enough for some of us to abandon what was once home, so that we are not just visitors passing through, but become inhabitants of this beautiful city of light and “one thousand fountains.”

Bonnes fêtes à tous!

Last Moments of Autumn

IMG_3913The cigalles have long since stopped filling the air with their song.  The air is getting progressively cooler and the light is softer.

IMG_9772The sun tries her best to climb up high in our sky, but she doesn’t really see the purpose, for her baby, mother nature, is getting quiet and her needs are less.

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IMG_9766So as the sun rests, we take pleasure in the seemingly final moments of autumn.

IMG_4003We breathe in her cool air before it becomes cold.

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IMG_5677We bid farewell to the olives on the trees that will soon be pressed into this season’s new offerings.

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Rainy Day Trip to the Louvre…or is it?

Hearing the sounds of rain fall for two days in Provence has been romantic, if you do not count having to deal with a big leak in the roof of the farmhouse that goats and sheep roamed through a mere few years ago before it was turned into a livable, and very cute, home.  And if you do not count the additional challenge involved in getting the maçon in the south of France to commit to coming to do the necessary repairs.  But there is a price to pay to live in the in what feels like paradise, and this is one that I am more than happy to pay.

I won’t deny that this former Paris-girl isn’t missing the option to have culture and the world’s greatest collections of art at her fingertips.  To be able to just pop out of her apartment on the Place de l’Odéon, walk down rue Condé to Boulevard Saint Germain, cross the street and take rue de Seine down to the Pont des Arts where she got to cross the prettiest foot bridge in all of Paris with the Eiffel Tower to the left and Notre Dame to the right, cross rue Rivoli and suddenly find herself in front of one of man’s greatest architectural achievements, le Louvre, was a delight that she relished in often.  To have this wonderland of art and history to escape into was enough to make her feel like the richest girl in the world.

She’d go in through the Richlieu wing entrance with her Amis du Louvre membership card and avoid the hoards of tourists waiting in line to enter through I.M. Pei’s pyramid.  She’d simply take that in afterwards in all its splendor as it lit up during the magic hour, from dusk to nightfall, when Paris puts on her sparkliest outfits for all to admire.

Once she entered into the sacred space, she’d be transported into other worlds, eras, and lifetimes.  To be in the presence Greek, Etruscan & Roman sculptures, Egyptian & Near Eastern antiquities, and works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Delacroix, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Poussin, Boucher, Ingres, Velaquez, Veronese and Botticelli just to name a few could be overwhelming.   It actually was enough to make any girl feel humble and simultaneously regal just to be able to breath in this much creativity, and to feel so much beauty and expression envelope her & caress her entire being.

She’d forget all about a rainy day and take great pleasure in just being alive, and being a part of this ride of life.  And although at this very moment she is a girl in Provence listening to the sounds of rain hitting the ground outside and trying to deal with the huge leak in the farmhouse, her mind takes her to another world, to a world that is a mere train ride or just a thought away.

Please join me by clicking on the first photo below and then proceed by clicking the right arrow.  I hope you will tell me what your favorite part of this journey was!  And if you are enjoying my blog, please feel free to follow me so that my posts will go directly into your email. You can do this by adding your email address in the upper right hand corner.

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A bientôt!

Le Reve…The Dream

“It is a funny thing about life; if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.”  – Somerset Maugham

“I think we should live here one day.”

“OK” he said.  “Maybe when we retire”

“No, darling, I mean now, or soon.  When we are young.  Let’s dream.  Let’s make it happen.  Life is too precious not to.”

It seems that the last few times that I have been under-the-weather for no apparent reason, major epiphanies have occurred.  Is it that the body, or mind, are so pushed to the limit that the spirit becomes very clear?  Is it that the mind, which is usually so willing to take over on everything actually gets quieted down as a result of the body’s going into its healing mending mode?  Is it that there is a continued source of pearls of wisdom, or intuitions, that glow within us, and try to lead us to where we are supposed to be, but they are less active on being involved in our day-to-day activities, and prefer to guide us towards major life changes?  And so when we are thrown off of our normal patterns or behaviors, these gems that guide us towards the truth, or our truth, are suddenly very apparent & help us see the direction we should be heading?

Let me back-up.  We had a dream.  Humbly nowhere near a certain someone’s, but it was our dream.  Our dream to live in France.  No, wait.  It actually started with Italy, but that is another story.  Or is it?  They are actually quite inter-related, woven together as such.  As most events in life are.   More difficult to see when these events are trying to weave themselves together in the present; but in retrospect, they always marry, as if pre-arranged, and fall together in harmony, as if utterly meant to be.

So is it the dream, or the being under-the-weather-and-seeing-things-clearly that is the subject here?  Definitely the dream.

Trying to pin-point where and when it actually formed would be an impossibility because it started somewhere early in youth, as a feeling, a draw to a country that was not the one I was born into.  But as for the dream that was created with the one I love, that would be Italy.  Como.  1999, the year we got engaged.  It would also be our first trip to Europe together.  We were so green.  So young.  But to see now what we were able to visualize and articulate back then, considering where we were at that point in our lives, I realize that perhaps we were able to see things more clearly than I give us credit for.  Either that, or a powerful message was resonating at the core of our hearts and made it very clear what we envisioned for ourselves, and our life.  And it was not to live the rest of our lives in America and that was pre-9-11.

It was our sabbatical holiday.  Three weeks in Europe.  Start September 1st in Paris, the city where I had studied abroad during my university years, and where I’d had a coup-de-coeur, love at first sight, from the very first time I stepped foot into he country.  And that was at the airport before even making it into Paris.  We’d start the trip in the city of light where we would try to get into the time zone, and take in cette merveille d’une ville, la plus belle ville dans le monde.

Together. We walked along the Seine in the Indian summer light and warmth and feel her softened air was kissing our skin.  The myriad of fragrances were muted, but still pronounced.

We walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg, the garden that I traversed on a daily basis on my way from La Sorbonne Paris IV to L’Insitute Catholique on rue d’Assas.  The leaves on the trees were perfuming all of Paris in a smooth delicate musk that filled one’s entire being.

We walked by fountains and immense flowerbeds.  Their beauty and grace were enough to make our hearts swell.  We admired classic and contemporary sculptures scattered throughout.  Some of the very modern pieces seemed quite out-of-place, but we stood there anyway and observed, trying to find the reason a curator had decided to put that very piece there.  Often we could not find one.  But it did not really matter, and we enjoyed the wild contrasts, the yin-yang-ness of it all.  That was life, right?  There will be moments of light & dark, ups & downs, beauty & less beauty.  There will not always be a reason for everything, but it does seem to fit all together.  At some point.  Sometimes while it is happening.  And quite often, to me anyway, in retrospect.

We stood in front of La Fontaine Medici and embraced.  The shaded draping garlands of lière, or ivy, was the darkest of greens and offered a sort of cooling effect and respite.

We traversed the big fountain in front of Le Senat and went up one set of the majestic stairs that are crowned with voluptuous Greek-shaped urns with geranium spilling out.  There were flocks of people practicing their martial arts, Qi Gong, Aikido, Tai-Chi and some I did not recognize.

We saw a cloud of dust and went to see what it was.  Ponies and donkeys with petite and stylish children perched on top.

We sat on two of the legendary aniseed green metal chairs under the shade of a tree and listened to all the sounds.  Pétanque balls hitting the wooden perimeters of the playing area, sing-song voices conversing, birds chirping, tennis balls being hit back and forth, and the joyous sounds of children playing.  And even the murmurs of these chairs created in 1923 in the Paris parks department workshops.  These chairs had so many tales to tell, if only one would listen.  Tales of proposals.  Tales of make-ups and break-ups.  Tales of sadness and tales of joy.  Tales of comings and goings.  Tales of this magical & wondrous thing called life.

We traversed the chic 6ème to the more discreet 7ème to another place of quiet beauty, le musée Rodin.  Here we took in the passionate sculptures of Rodin in the most delightful of gardens.  It seemed to breathe with life, and was so very soothing to revisit this place that had touched me so eleven years earlier.  It was a perfect place to relax after a few days of being in the heart of Paris with her pulsing energy & stimulation.

But aside from the highlight of this musée and jardin, there was an undeniable thrill & comforting familiarity about getting out feet back into le 6ème, or sixth arrondisement.  For this was the area I remembered most vividly from being a student, and the place that I envisioned to be dreamy to be able to live in.  One day, but preferably as an adult and certainly not on a school loan.

The twenty-year old that I was at the time could have envisioned my entire life from there on out, in Paris, the place where I felt more “me” than anywhere else in the world.  There were options, or possibilities let’s just say. Ones that could have been very luxuriant.

I’d always been told I was a strong girl.  A little soldier as Dr. Brown used to say.  But one thing I knew was that I was  not strong enough to endure feigned love or settling for a false sense of security in marrying someone who was not the one.  Just to not be alone.  Because in the end, with of all the ones who were not “the one,” I’d felt more lonely with them than when I was alone.  And there was that sense of not feeling épanouie, as the French like to say.  To be épanouie is to be radiant, beaming, blooming or full-blown.  And if I never got to bloom, I’d be selling myself out essentially because of lack of faith. And that, that would have meant death.  So “the ones,” “the options,” they were not the right ones, and there were other things that had to come first, as if a need to follow each step on the path of a labyrinth.

The Petite Parisienne-abroad knew that there was a need to go back to America, to be patient, to have faith, and go through all of the hoops and hurdles until the right door opened up and presented itself.  There was a sense of knowing that it existed, and that I would recognize it when I was standing before it.  And that I would find The One that I was to go on the journey with.

Stephen.  And back to Paris in the sixième we are.  We passed leisure moments in the bistros and cafés talking about what it would be like to live here one day.  What would we do?  How would we spend our moments?  It seemed like a fantasy, and yet one that was not out of our reach, even though at the time we were both in full-blown careers in the high-tech field with our future plans set on buying our first home, getting married, building our future, and doing what young couples do.

But there was this spark, this compulsory thing about what being in Europe did to us.  Taking a good look at how it made us feel was undeniable.

After a satiating séjour in Paris, we got on with our three-week journey.  There was still so much in our plans.  We would take the high-speed TGV to Avignon.  From there we would rent a car and go explore the small villages of Provence that I had gotten a taste of at the end of the Paris chapter, and had the chance to see with a young woman so eloquently named France.  She was the daughter of the French couple I lived with at 86 Blvd Flandrin, 75016 Paris, the address would remain forever imprinted in my mind.  Although it was only eleven years later, it felt like a lifetime, or many chapters anyway.

Stephen and I had studied our travel books for almost six months prior to the trip, which conveniently turned a three-week trip into six months and three-week trip with all the envisioning of ourselves already there. We’d put trust in the Cadogan Guide, the good old faithful Michelin Guide, and the more photographically visual Insight Guide.  I’d also marked up Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” pretty thoroughly.  We chose each place on our itinerary for specific reasons:  Bonnieux, Lacoste, Menèrbes, Avignon, Arles, Les Baux, Gordes, Fontaine des Vaucluse and Egalières.

We intentionally would skip Aix-en-Provence.  A curious decision considering my former art history teacher, who became a dear friend and altered the course of my path in life, had lectured passionately about Aix-en-Provence.  But we had thought “University town, too busy, let’s skip it.” After Paris, we’d had small villages in mind.  Funny how Aix-en-Provence would come into play later on, and send another jolt, another life-changing “let’s live here moment” through our world later on.  But for now, back to the villages, none of them disappointed.  Each one was quintessentially Provençal, more charming and picturesque than I could have remembered, as well as welcoming and relaxing after a busy culture-filled few days in Paris.

After a week in Provence, we’d catch a train in Nice.  Exhaustion was setting in and we busily searched out an épicerie or restaurant where we could lighten our pockets of the remaining French francs and get provision for the overnight trip to Italy.  Venice.  It was a slow train and a long ride with countless stops in what seemed like every village along the way.  It would be a lie to say that we got any real sleep in our little bunk beds, but we laughed a lot as we mocked the books that we were reading, and talked about the myriad of experiences that we’d had thus far, and were only half way through our trip.  By the time the train made its bumpy & jerky way along its tracks and finally slid into its destination, Venice, it felt like we’d pulled an all-nighter.  I guess because we had.  Just minus the things that we used to consume when doing so.

We arrived at l’aube de la journée – dawn, daybreak, sunrise.  It was magnificent!  The sky presiding over Venice ranged from a soft powdery blue to pink to yellow to orange.  It resembled every shade of sherbet in it’s more glorified purity all melding into the other.  We got off the train and settled into one of the nicer hotels that we would stay at during the trip.  It felt regal and very Venetian with its light blue velvet and gold décor.  The bed looked fit for a king & queen, the walls were padded with opulent satiny fabric, and there were tassels everywhere to secure the drapery. One could almost sense the frolicking that took place here over the last few hundreds of years.  If I closed my eyes I could almost hear a delicate harpsichord and the sounds of young women of a time passed giggling and smell the pheromones of the men flirting with them in the confines of these walls.

We stepped out into the fresh morning air and started walking.  The remarkable thing about Venice is that you can not get lost, although from the miraculous ways one can avoid the hoards of tourists, one could feel as good as lost.  The small intimate alleys and walkways off of big piazzas and squares are usually empty and make you feel like you are on a theater stage.  The beauty was intoxicating and we were high off a blend seeing such artistry and exquisiteness combined with a lack of sleep.

A line that came up just about every hour or two was: “What time is it? I think it is cappuccino, espresso or gelato time.”  At that point we were too naive to know that any self-respecting Italian would not dream of a cappuccino after 11 am.  A beverage with milk for a grown adult may as well be considered sacrilege.  But here was no reason to hold back.  Italian café, with milk or no milk, gelato, and crunchy not-too-sweet biscotti must be relished in when one can.  And we did.

The rest of the trip unfolded with ease and adventure.   A few days in Venice provided us with a good fill of romance, beauty and history.  To balance this out, we’d joke about using the Shriek Alarm, a 138 decibel gas-powered self-defense product in the shape & size of a breath freshener spray.  Ideal place would have been in Piazza Saint Marco for the mere shock value of seeing thousands of tourists simultaneously jump out of their sock-clad Teva or Birkenstock sandals.  The ones that Rick Steves would have recommended for their comfort when traveling, and would conveniently “blend in” with the locals if bought in a neutral shade of beige.  Of course it would have been fascinating to see millions of pigeons all take flight simultaneously.

We’d traversed one hundred and one foot bridges, visited almost as many churches, and thankfully succeeded in finding restaurants, or cantines, where the locals dined.  We’d spotted out two worker-types in their paint-stained overalls and followed them.  They led us to the typical Italian lunch spot which was simple, straight forward and a delight to fall upon among the countless tourist restaurants with their menus posted outside in English in big bold font, then German, and then finally Italian.  We took a fond appreciation of one restaurant in particular.  We were welcomed with a “Buongiorno Signor, Signorina” and then immediately arrived at a counter with colorful family style dishes behind the glass counter.  A tall rugged chef with a blue bandana covering his handsome forehead and shaved head took our orders from over the counter.  Their selections of the day were all seasonal, and prepared elegantly as the Italians do it so well.  A few primi to choose from, then pasta that would be perfectly al dente and not too saucy.  A simple meat or fish would follow, along with a healthy assortment of bright seasonal veggies.  This would all be followed by a fresh fruit salad or pineapple, their favorite to aid in digestion, or a nice almond or fruit tort.  And finally, a thimble of café prepared with utter perfection.  We sat among the Italians and did not hear a word of English.  Jackpot.

The Peggy Guggenheim museum was a highlight, both in 1988 and as much on this trip with Stephen.  Perhaps even more because I was in love which made everything more colorful and fragrant.  The art collection was so exciting when juxtaposed with so much religious and medieval art.  It all felt very fresh.  We made our way to the terrace and sat by two majestic marble lions and watched gondolas cross the Grand Canal.  We let the salty air moisten our skin and talked about whether this was, as the New York Times described it “The most beautiful city built by man,” or not.  Beautiful, yes.  But Paris had already stolen Stephen’s heart, as she had mine long ago.

Enjoying train travel as much as we did, it seemed a good way for us to get to Florence, where we would rent a car and make our way into the Tuscan countryside.  Little mishap.  The rental car office was closed.  Improvise.  Find a hotel and do a spontaneous night there. Get the car the next morning, look at the map and make our way to somewhere near San Gimignano.  It seemed safe to leave this part of the trip open to spontaneity as long as we had the opening of the voyage all reserved in Paris, and the closing few days along the sparkling waters of Lake Como securely locked in.  Finding and going to check out small hotels, B & Bs and agroturismos in the countryside ended up taking practically a full day, but we are masters of optimism and most often take the most pleasure in the journey, so it all worked out.

We decided finally on a tiny house that was recently built on a beautiful vineyard that also had an  olive farm. There was a simple swimming pool, but it looked absolutely luxuriant to us nestled on a plateau among the olive trees.  The owner did not speak English, and at the time, I did not speak Italian, but as we humans can, we communicated what needed to be, and all were in accord.  Cicadas, soft Tuscan air, warm sun, and a place to just be for a few days after feeling like our bodies had been through so much movement on planes, trains & in automobiles.

What a treat to have a kitchen for the first time in about ten days.  To be able to make our tea and café when we felt like it and not during a hotel’s designated breakfast hours, and most of all, to not have to put oneself together first thing in the morning.  We would get to see all of the places that we had chosen from our books: San Gimignano, Sienna, Cortona with time and space to  drive in the countryside with complete serendipity.  Rain was said to be on the way so we relished in laying in the shade of those olive trees and jumping in the pool while we could at the end of each day.  We were the only ones there and it felt like some sort of paradise that had been carved out for us.  Our breath were deep.

The weather people were right.  The rain started falling on that last night.  We had planned to stay in, make dinner with goods procured at a local outdoor market, pack, play scrabble and read anyway.  By morning, it was coming down in buckets.  Sheets.  Il pleuvait des cords as they say en Français.  Stephen put the bags in the trunk, I closed up the apartment and we made our way to the Autostrada.  I did not mind driving as I usually welcome a challenge.  But this!  A two-lane highway with people racing past at 180 kilometers an hour, including 18 wheelers.  Waves of water hit the windshield every time they whooshed by, and our vehicle was hydroplaning at 160 kilometers per hour.  Intense, but not scary.  Somehow it felt like we were being guided.  I think sometimes we like to believe in angels as they have a way of making us feel better about things. Protected in a way.  But this day?  It felt as if something much bigger than ourselves was orchestrating the whole thing.

It took a bit longer than we had planned, but we arrived in Bellagio, in tact, just as the rain was letting up.  Bellagio was the place that I had only read about up until this trip.  But it had captivated my curiosity.  Famous writers had made it sound even better than sublime with descriptions of lake-side villas and gardens with their flowers over-flowing into the sparkling lake.  I was drawn to the beauty, and It seemed like the perfect place to culminate three weeks of exploring a dizzying number of cities & villages.

Getting there proved to be yet another unexpected challenge.  Anyone who knows Bellagio knows that it is at the part of a “Y” where the “V” part meets the descending tail of the “Y.”  This was pre-GPS days, and we were going by the map in the Cadogan book.  Not ideal, but it had worked thus far.  However, in this case, if you start heading up the lake on one side of that V-part of the Y, but are not on the right side, you need to turn around, go back, and get to the right side.  Hours later, we made it, tired and hungry, but still in good humor, all things considered.

We arrived at the very moment that the torrential rains stopped.  The lake glimmered with tranquility.  The sky was opened up into a bright blue and set off the grandeur of the Alps cradling this body of sparkling water.

We could see flowers spilling out of great big urns and jars on the palazzi that lined the border of lake.  Colors were magnified in this light, and all of our senses felt heightened after the journey just to get there.  It was soothing to feel the earth under our feet, and to hear the water just a few feet away splashing on the shore.  Our entire beings were soothed and yet overwhelmed in the presence of such beauty.

A feeling came over me.  Then and there.  Something extraordinary and powerful.  Something I recognized, but not entirely familiar.  There was a sense that something was, or was to be, without it being that yet.  But a knowing.  A definite knowing.  The words came tumbling out.  I could not hold them back.  I do not even know where they came from.  What I mean is I did not think about them and then say them.

“I think we should live here one day.”

“OK” Stephen said.  “Maybe when we retire.”

“No, darling, I mean now, or soon.  When we are young.  Let’s dream.  Let’s make it happen.  Life is too precious not to.”

Spring 2003

“Joe asked if I wanted to run the Milan office.  We could live in Como.  It is less than an hour away.”

To be continued…

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy Letters from Paris