When I recently returned from Provence, a friend of mine asked, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” I was among a group of half a dozen women who regularly meet for coffee after our yoga class. Everyone turned to me and with just a hint of sarcasm I deadpanned, “Napping.” There was a split second of silence followed by a twitter of laughter. I could almost see the thought bubbles floating over their heads: “Why would you travel all the way to the South of France just to nap?”
Well, it wasn’t really napping I was talking about. Napping was just shorthand for saying that I went to France to unwind and relax. While some go on vacation to do things, I go on vacation to not do things. My husband and I have been to Provence several times. By now it is a place we know relatively well and we go there to absorb the place rather than see the place.
We rent a house so that we are free to set our own schedule and make some of our own meals. Our rhythm there is completely different than the one we follow in the States. It is a natural transition that settles in almost as soon as our plane lands in Marseille. We wake up later, have a leisurely breakfast of sweet, juicy melon (of the Cavaillon variety that is better than any melon I have ever eaten in the States), followed by slices of Comte cheese on hunks of baguette slathered with good French butter.
After breakfast we might take an hour-long walk up the hill to the tiny village of Joucas where this year we found some walking trails up behind the chateau at the top. Afterwards, if it is really hot (which it was for a few days) we take a dip in the pool to cool off before our showers. And then we talk about where we would like to go for lunch later and do we need to do any provisioning for dinner and where will we go to buy bread today (since the boulangeries alternate closing days). That just about sums up the most pressing part of the day.
After lunch with wine in some charming village or another, we repair back to the house, read a few pages in our books and then doze off in our lounge chairs in the shade by the pool. In the late afternoon, when the pool is completely shaded, we might take another dip to cool off and refresh after napping. Then we read our books and begin to think about apperitifs followed by a simple dinner on the terrace around 8 pm or so. Our heads hit the pillows at 11 pm and after reading a few more pages, we go to sleep and begin again the next day.
We had planned this year’s trip to Provence a few months after my mother died in 2017. We booked the house for three weeks thinking that by 2018 my father would either be gone by then as well or his dementia would be so advanced that he wouldn’t know that we were away for so long. When my beloved father left this world in March, just two weeks shy of the first anniversary of my mother’s death, it was both expected and sudden.
All of the experts had warned me that following my mother’s death, I should expect to see a rapid decline in my father. For couples married as long as my parents, the remaining spouse often dies within a year. It’s called the broken heart syndrome. After sixty-three years of marriage, my father was completely lost without my mother. He warned me over and over in the final year of his life that he wouldn’t be around much longer. I quietly nodded and said I understood, but really, I wondered how it would happen. Apart from dementia, my father had no life-threatening chronic disease. His mother lived to be one hundred years old, with advanced dementia and I thought my father was on the same trajectory. When he made it through the winter without contracting pneumonia (his respiratory system was his Achilles heel) I was sure he was going to be with us for the long haul, despite his advancing senility.
And then he began to have a series of falls. The first one came towards the end of January. He dislocated his shoulder. It was uncomfortable for him and because it was hard for him to use his walker, we were all worried he would fall again. But by the beginning of March he seemed to be back on track and we felt we had managed to get by without another fall. But my father had other ideas. He fell again on Sunday, March 11 and this time it resulted in a hairline fracture of his pelvis. Forgetting that he was injured, he tried to get out of bed by himself a few days later and fell again. That was on Wednesday. By the following Sunday, just one week after his first fall, he was gone. I often told my dad after my mother died, that we would stick together through thick and thin and I kept my promise to him. I sat next to him, holding his hand as he took his last breath.
In the end, his death took me by surprise and grief grabbed hold of me hard. When we left for France at the end of June, I was still withdrawn and not myself. I wanted Provence to be the reset I was looking for. It didn’t play out the way I thought it would.
For one thing, I saw my parents everywhere. As I said, I have had the great good fortune to spend time in Provence six times over the past twenty years. On two of those occasions my parents were with me. This year my husband and I would go to some little village and I would see a spot where my parents once sat and remark, “Remember when my parents sat over there eating ice cream?” Or on the Fourth of July when we unexpectedly ate very good hamburgers at the neighborhood bistro it reminded me of our trip to Provence in 2006 when my dad cooked hamburgers on the grill and we ate bad corn on the cob to celebrate Independence Day. “Remember that?”, I asked my husband.
Or the restaurant in Bonnieux (Le Fournil) where we had lunch one day and I saw the ghosts of my family happily eating dinner at a table on the other side of the fountain from where we were sitting. It was such a happy vacation and the last family vacation we took that included my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew. We flew home from Provence just two months before the towers came down on 9/11 and I will forever associate that trip with the last time the world seemed free and innocent.
Seeing them everywhere made me wistful and melancholy. It’s a process of mourning called decathexis. I began to wonder if Provence was no longer what it once was.
It wasn’t just my grief that made me question my feelings about Provence. My husband and I felt a shift almost as soon as we arrived. I keep a trip journal when I travel so that I can more easily identify photos and keep a record of favorite restaurants or walks—or in this case cross some off the list. And on our first full day, this is what I recorded:
Trip to the grower’s market at Coustellet for poulet rôti and produce. We both felt it was too crowded and were eager to leave despite having bought some lovely little plums and cherries.
Went to Goult for lunch—our favorite little village—and went directly to Le Carrillon where we have eaten before. The food was utterly without interest—almost bland despite the pretty presentation, lovely décor and very friendly service. What also left the lunch wanting was that we were flanked by two groups of vapid, ostentatiously wealthy Americans—the kind one might find in the environs of Mar-a-Lago, not to put too fine a point on it. We came home wondering if Provence was losing its edge.
The feeling was hard to shake. Not only did we find the restaurants to be more ordinary and less inventive than we had remembered, but the bread was lacking as well. It seemed we spent half our time in search of a good baguette and always came up empty. (It pains me to say it, but we can get a better baguette in Philadelphia these days than we could in Provence.)
And then there were the crowds. In just the three years since we had last visited (at the same time of year), Provence seemed quantifiably more crowded. There were a couple of villages that we avoided altogether because of the surfeit of tourists.
Still, the beauty of Provence never gets old. The mountains, the colors, the light, the quiet, the smell of lavender, good olive oil and herbes de Provence. Those are the enduring charms of Provence. Those and the intense flavors of the produce that is grown there. Those little plums and cherries I bought the first day were the very essence of plum-ness and cherry-ness. Ditto the little potatoes and arugula I bought. (Not to mention the olive oil I purchased from the olive grower himself). Everything just tastes more of itself in Provence.
One Wednesday evening we went to the smaller version of the sprawling Coustellet grower’s market that is held on Sunday mornings. Wednesday’s market is a quieter, more contained affair that I appreciate for its more manageable scale. I was there to buy some good tomatoes to make a Caprese salad for our dinner after a heavy lunch. I chatted with the farmer telling her what I planned to make, and she happily explained the different varieties of heirloom tomatoes she grew. I asked her to help me choose tomatoes that were at their peak of ripeness to be eaten that evening. She seemed so pleased to be asked. I thanked her for her help and just as I was about to leave she stopped me, and said, “Wait. You will need some basil to serve with your tomatoes.” And then she reached down to a bucket by her feet and handed me a small bunch of basil with tiny leaves—a variety I hadn’t seen before. She smiled and wished us a good evening. No charge for the basil.
We went back to our house and I opened a bottle of rosé, sliced up the tomatoes, adorned them with some Burrata cheese, drizzled them with the good Provençal olive oil and then sprinkled the basil over them with a sprinkling of fleur de sel and a grind of black pepper and voilà, it was the most remarkable meal of our trip.
But while the Caprese salad shook some of the cobwebs loose, what truly pulled me out of my grief and into the present, was a little boy named Maurice. Maurice is the three year-old boy of our Belgian friends who stopped off for a few days on their way to a family vacation home further south in France. We hadn’t seen them since the last time we were in Provence three years ago. In the meantime, Maurice grew from an infant to a full-fledged little human being and his older sister, who is now five has blossomed into girlhood. And then there was the latest addition, a little girl who is eighteen months old and trying her hardest to be like her big brother and sister.
The friendship we have with our Belgian friends (from our time living in Brussels) is one of those beautiful mysteries in life. There is no evident reason for us to have the relationship we do. We live far apart, seldom see one another and struggle to communicate frequently during our time apart. My husband and I are also a generation older than they are and yet, there is something that draws us all together. We enjoy our time together enormously and seem to delight in the gift of our friendship.
When they arrived this year, the kids spilled out of their car, their parents unpacked a few things and we immediately sat down for a lunch of soupe au pistou that I had made in advance. It was as if we had all been together already for weeks.
But it was Maurice who had my full attention. He has big eyes with a smile to match and an adorable cowlick. He exudes joy and childhood delight in the world. And he is very, very cuddly. In short, I fell in love with him, and before long I started calling him Love Bug.
One evening, after the kids had gone to bed, the adults engaged in the age-old parlor game of guessing how each of the three children would turn out. The eldest will have to be in charge of something, the youngest (who is quite big for her age) will be a soccer star and Maurice—well, he has something different to offer the world. I’m going to call it love.
By the time our friends packed up their car, along with their children three days later I felt like my old self again. Healing comes in fits and starts and often in ways that are completely unexpected. Years from now, when I look back on our trip to Provence during the summer of 2018 I will remember it as a transitional holiday. A time when the magical gift of friendship, a few good tomatoes and a little boy named Maurice breathed life back into my broken heart.