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snow in the south of france!

Okay, so there wasn’t a ton of snow in Antibes.  But today, all the hills surrounding Antibes have a light dusting of it.   And the alps are a lot whiter.

 

According to the news, the cold weather is due to a Siberian cold front and has caused schools to close and flights to be cancelled.   The  freezing temperatures are expected to continue for another week or so.   The Antibes weather forecast calls for another tablespoon of snow to fall on Saturday.   Maybe I’ll make a really tiny snowman.

the french love me! french mosquitoes, that is.

French mosquitoes clearly find me delicious which is strange because American mosquitoes just never seemed that interested in me.

When I was in Arles being eaten alive while my beautiful friend Christina remained untouched, I was a little thrilled.   At least the mosquitoes find me more attractive than Christina (nyah, nyah, nyah).

Inevitably,  I began to tire of their excessive attention and stimulated the French economy by buying every anti-moustique product I could find, from herbal to ones jam packed with horrifying chemicals.   I’m still not sure which ones work, since out of desperation, I use them all at once.   Hell, I’d wear a Shell No-Pest Strip too if they still had ’em.  I know at least one of them does the trick, I’m just not sure which one(s).   Like a depressed person who goes off their meds when the drugs work and they’re no longer depressed, I stop spraying, igniting, turning on and plugging in when the little suckers stop biting.  The next thing you know, I’m up at 3AM swatting the air with one hand, feverishly scratching like a dog with the other while searching my mind for someone to blame.

I don’t know, maybe after all the gorgeous Provencal food they get, they’re craving something a little less…fresh and healthy?   Perhaps they prefer American food?  I’m like a burger, fries and a coke to them.

Apparently, mosquitoes are a problem down here in the South of France.  There’s even some African dengue fever carrying mosquito which has moved up here seeking a better life.   Some people blame it on a law that prohibits using really dangerous pesticides to eradicate them.   They’re afraid of endangering the people and wildlife, apparently.   Silly, silly French people.   I’ll worry about being slowly poisoned by pesticides later, but now do something about this infernal itching!   I can imagine being slowly driven crazy by the constant sound of a mosquito buzzing around my ear.

Fortunately, about.com has provided hundreds of pages of advice from readers around the globe on how to stop the itching.   I’ve tried the most popular and have added my comments.

1)   Any kind of alcohol.   Yes, it works.   At least when applied in copious amounts internally.

2)  Etching an “x” into the bite with your fingernail.   I find this works if you do it repeatedly for hours on end.

3)   Salt and citrus.   They work very well when used in conjunction with #1.

4) Clear nail polish.  In theory this works.   I tried doing it with Opi Bogota Blackberry since I don’t have clear nail polish and the itching seems less.   Unfortunately, I look like I have some horrible contagious skin disease now.

5) Banana peel.   I’ll try this as soon as I can buy a banana.   But first I have to find my nail polish remover so I can get the Bogota Blackberry off my mosquito bites and go out in public again.

the village where donkeys fly

After spending a day in Cannes, it only seems appropriate that I visit a place known as “the village where donkeys fly”.

The name of the village is Gonfaron.  It’s a stop on the local TER rail line.    I’ve seen it on the train ride between Vidauban and Toulon — a pile of houses piled atop a hill with a small pink chapel at the top and a sprawling church on the bottom.  It’s two train stops from Vidauban (15 minutes).   The village spreads out from the hill, fanning out a around the church at the bottom of the hill, melting into vineyards, hills and green, green countryside.

After countless times passing the village and wondering about it, I finally Googled it.   The population of Gonfaron is around 4,000.  It’s been a village for at least, 1100 years.    It’s nestled at the foot of the Maures mountain range (you know, the mountain range where Johnny Depp lives).   Its main “industry” is cork (probably not a great business now with wine in boxes and screw tops and technology replacing bulletin boards).    It has the world’s only reserve for the endangered Herman Tortoise but also houses other tortoises as well.    Its patron saint is St. Quinis, who as far as I can tell didn’t do anything amazing, except he was a really nice guy and took a special interest in children (which these days sounds like grounds for imprisonment rather than Sainthood, but maybe that’s just me.)   The pink Chapel at the top of the hill is named after him.     But what really makes me want to finally get off the train in Gonfaron and pay the village a visit is the town legend.As lore has it, back in 1645 the community was instructed to clean up their yards for the annual Gonfaron festival to honor St. Quinis, .   One lazy, ill-tempered Gonfaronnois refused.   Years later, St. Quinis exacted his revenge.   The Gonfaronnois of “mauvais caractiere” was out riding his donkey and the donkey (l’ane) stumbled.   The donkey “glissant” (slid) down the hill with the errant Gonfaronois tumbling after.   That’s it.   It seems pretty vague.   Did they survive?   That’s a pretty long tumble.

It might be my translation, but it sounds like the donkey didn’t fly as much as it fell.   And you can read the legend several different ways.   Maybe the flying/falling donkey (ass) they’re referring to is  the Gonfaronnois who didn’t clean his yard for the festival?   Maybe the legend is really “the village where asses fall”?   Of course there are two interpretations for that too.  It could mean where human asses (I’m thinking Donald Trump here, but chose your own ass) inevitably plunge to a humiliating and painful destruction. Or maybe it’s more literal…it’s a village where my ass will actually fall…sag, drop, whatever (good, now I can blame it on the village).   Whatever, I like the flying donkey version, because it’s magical and gives me the feeling that anything is possible.

I get off at the train station and the first thing I see is a cave cooperative — a big old shed where they they sell local wines, preserves, products.    I decide not to go in because I’m saving myself for the little shops that will surely be in the village.   I walk through the “suburbs” of Gonfaron, towards the village (a two minute walk).

Downtown Gonfaron consists of an astonishingly beautiful square.   It’s huge for such a little town, with the Church at one end.    The trees make a perfect ceiling over the entire square.   It’s blistering hot today, which makes the leafy canopy that much more appealing (and the square that much more difficult to photograph).

There are really no shops to speak of…a bakery that’s closed.   A butcher that’s closed.   There’s a tiny grocery store that’s closed.   A tiny real estate office that’s closed.   Sure, there are three cafes, but woman doesn’t live on food alone.     I check the train schedule for the next train back to Vidauban.   Three and a half hours.   How on earth will I pass the time?    Dear Lord, I’m trapped in a village with no shops!   Maybe if I climb to the top to the hill and bray like a donkey, I can fly home?

I tour the village, which is lovely.   I climb to St. Quinis to admire the view, which is also really lovely.  Which leaves me another 3 hours and 27 minutes to kill.   I’ll definitely have lunch in the square, but that’s good for 2 hours tops, and only if I drink waaaaay too much coffee.

I decide to visit the tortoises and follow the signs that lead me out of the village and into the aforementioned vineyards and green rolling hills.   Have I mentioned it’s hot?   Or that I don’t have a hat?   J’ai besoin de chapeau.   Without one, I’ll dehydrate and die.   And get a headache!   In order to preserve my health, I turn back to the village, wishing desperately a little shop will have opened in the village where I can buy a hat.   And some macarons.   And maybe a nice pair of shoes.No such luck.   But I do manage to kill a half hour trying to decide between the three cafes.   One looks a little sandwichy.   One has a curry special, which doesn’t seem very french or cafe-like.   So I pick the other one and spend another half hour anguishing over what to order.   I decide on the grilled entrecote (pas trop rouge s’il vous plait) fries and a salad.   It’s pretty damn good.

I linger over a cafe creme and watch the people having lunch here.   I’m the only English speaking person here, so I make up what they’re saying and little stories about their relationships.   A very young French couple have brought their dog, who is clearly a substitute for the baby they’re unable to conceive.  He eats a bowl of kibble by their table while they dine.   She practically burps him when he’s finished (the dog, not her significant other).   A German family is trying to reconnect, but the teenaged daughter is having none of it.    A pack of bike riders all decked out in spandex and helmets, thankfully decide to lunch elsewhere.   I spend a good 15 minutes hating them from across the square.

As I’m paying the bill and noting I have another hour until the train arrives, I hear the clattering of steel shutter doors..   It’s the tiny grocery store opening!!!!   I practically skip across the square.   I spend the next 45 minutes really studying the different kind of cookies that are available in France.  Even in a tiny grocery store like this, you get a good representative sample.    I’ll save my conclusions for another blog.

All in all, I’ve had a lovely afternoon even without the benefit of one shop (tiny grocery stores don’t count and I didn’t even buy the Bon Maman Citron Tartes I wanted).   There were no miraculous donkey flights, nothing amazing happened.

When I get to the train station at the correct time and the little monitor tells me “train retarde 20 minutes” I don’t even get mad.   Not even when it’s retarde another 15 minutes after that.  While you may not consider that a miracle on the order of a donkey taking flight, I’d say it’s pretty darn close.

the flock next door

I’ve mentioned the birds that swoop and circle the sky around here in some sort of formation, like the Blue Angels only not as loud or fossil fuel-consuming.

When they fly overhead, the sound is a soft fluttery, almost purring sound that practically engulfs you — you can feel it.   It’s soothing.   So soothing, I even forget to worry that they might poop on me.   These birds have  fascinated and frustrated me for weeks now (have you ever tried to get a flock of birds to pose for the camera?).

So, I’m waiting for them to perform their daily show and mention them to Gilli (my landlord) who is gardening nearby.

Turns out they’re some sort of wood doves who belong to a neighbor with a “dove court.”   Every day these doves go out and fly around the neighborhood, catching flies in the air (to me, that doesn’t sound like an optimum fly catching plan, but who am I to argue with a wood dove?).   When it starts to get dark, they all fly back to this house across the ravine that’s about 100 meters away from my terrace (as the dove flies). I don’t know why, but this is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.

Gilli directs me to the dove’s house and I’m off with my video camera to investigate.

I climb the hill and inspect a few houses that seem dove-free.   But then I hear a low humming sound which I realize is a bunch of birds cooing.   I follow the sound.   Please join me…

Very cool.   Now the only problem is convincing myself that “dove” isn’t just a glorified name for “pigeon”.

a brave journey into the unknown


In the last couple of days, I’ve been contemplating a feat of extraordinary mental and physical capacity, but I’ve lacked the strength to execute it.

This morning, I wake up to a semi-clear head and totally clear, blue skies.   I  know this is the day.   I’m going to Les Arcs.

Les Arcs is about 6 kilometers from Vidauban.   Now, if you bother to do the math, you may be scoffing at me right now.   That’s like 3 miles!!!   You could walk that!   Yeah, right.   I don’t think there are a lot of little shops from here to there, and there might even be hills.  And lets not forget I don’t even know which way is up.   Or north.   And these people don’t speak English!   So don’t mock me, you with your fancy cars, streets lined with little shops, subways, mother tongue and sense of direction!   It’s frightening, I tell ya!

While I don’t know much about Les Arcs, I do know it’s very important to go there ASAP, because that’s the home of this part of the Var region’s (they call it the Dracenie) major SCNF/TGV train station.   You can get anywhere from Les Arcs, with super-fast trains to Nice, Marseille, Cannes, Aix, Avignon, Paris,  Bordeaux, Grenoble, Strasbourg, Amsterdam, Brussels…you get the picture.  It’s kind of like a transportation hub, where all bus and train lines intersect.

So, how do I get to this mystical place, Les Arcs?   Unfortunately, the Vidauban train station isn’t exactly what you’d call bustling, which is kind of too bad because the station itself is a nice little building.   Not a lot of trains stop here.    And most of them are at an ungodly hour of the morning.   But there are a few every day.   There’s also the #9 “Tedbus” that runs a little more frequently.

I opt for the bus, which leaves at 12:47.   Now I just have to figure out from where.   I know it’s somewhere in the Place de Clemenceau.   Fortunately,  a sign on the sidewalk makes it pretty clear.   The bus arrives, I pay my Euro to the bus driver, who is friendly and helpful and doesn’t drive like she’s pissed off, which seems like a refreshing change to someone who has only ridden on NYC and SF buses.  It’s one of those tour bus type buses with reclining seats, so it’s pretty cushy.     Ten minutes later,  after some rolling hills and vineyards I’m at the Gare de Les Arcs/Draguignan.

Turns out, the actual village of Les Arcs is about a quarter of a mile down the road from the gare.   At first, it’s positively residential, a little girl scolds her doll on the front lawn, another family works in the garden.   Then it starts resembling a cute little French village/town, with little shops and cafes (phew!).

The main square is tucked in at the bottom of a hill with a ancient looking church, monastary or fortress (I’ll have to look it up later) looking over it.   I wander all the little streets leading off the square, assiduously avoiding anything resembling a hill.      Until I see a sign reading “medieval village” with an arrow that points up a tiny street that can only lead uphill.   I’m a sucker for a medieval village, so I enter the maze, knowing full well, once I enter, there’s no turning back.

OMG, it’s so cute.   All these cobbley stone buildings with colorful shutters and doors are stacked on top of each other, connected by little spiraling alleyways festooned with greenery,  stone arches, steps and bits of serendipitous art.

The further up I go, the more I want to live here.   I see people sunning on quaint tree lined terraces and covet their lives.  It gets quieter and cooler (counter-intuitively) as I near the top.   All I can hear are birds and trickling waterfalls.

At the top, I stop to pant for a few minutes, looking out at the amazing view.   An elderly French man (meaning he’s about my age) lights a cigarette and tells me about … something.   I assume he’s giving me a tip about a beautiful spot nearby, because I hear the word “arbes” and l’eau.   I oooo and ahhhh at his description and thank him for his advice, even though for all I know, he’s describing his hernia operation.

As I admire the magnificent view I start to wonder.   How much would an apartment up here cost?   How annoying would carrying groceries up the hill become?   How do you get a couch up here?   Hell, how do you get a bag of cat litter up here?   And do I really care?   It’s heaven.   I’m sure the groceries, couch and cat litter would float up.   I must live here!

After surveying my domain for about a half hour, I reluctantly head back down to civilization.   I consider eating a light repast at one of the cafes on the square, but am not emotionally prepared for conversations, or trying to figure out what “tete au veau”or onglet de bavette is.   Instead, I hungrily eye the pictures in the real estate office windows, which make me realize I may have to give up food completely if I want to live here (which would eliminate the problem of lugging grocery bags up the hill, I suppose).

I catch the 15:25 bus back to Vidauban and make it home without a hitch.   Fortuitously, I’m greeted to dinner delivered on my doorstep –   escargot!    Maybe I won’t have to starve after all.

Escargot on terrace lantern

 

observations from a cloudy mind

I’ve been sick.   Which was fine at first as it gave me an excuse to sleep off the jet lag.   I went out for brief trips to the village and grocery store, but mostly I’ve laid low, drank a lot of tea, read, watch House reruns and moan to myself (sometimes even in French!).

Now that I’m starting to feel a little better, it’s storming like crazy out there.    As a result,  I’m still staying pretty close to home and I still don’t have much to say about life in a French village.   Or what it’s like trying to open a French bank account.   Or look for real estate.  Or go to the weekly market.  Or ride the train to another village.  Or climb the hill and look over the valleys and mountains.   I still have all that ahead of me.   But I am caught up on House.

That said, I thought I’d write down some of my observations based on my experiences so far.   It’s either that or download and watch The Bachelor, After the Final Rose. This seems preferable.

1) A shop in Vidauban makes a world-famous lavender honey.   While good, it doesn’t cure the common cold.

2) The trees here seem lean into each other as if  huddling together.

3) Every afternoon a flock of birds come out and fly in formation, dipping and swooping like The Blue Angels.

4) The pharmacies have condom machines out front in case someone needs protection after hours (which now that I think about it, seems like a probable time to need it).

5) This soup is really delicious.

 

6) Daylight savings time starts on March 27 here.

 

6PM 3/16/11, Vidauban

7) Hugh Laurie is hot.

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