My love affair with France began in 1957 with a visit to Villefranche-sur-Mer with Cary Grant. I was 8 years old at the time and the “visit” actually took place in a small movie theatre in Yonkers, New York. I had just seen the movie “An Affair to Remember” with my father and was awestruck by the beauty of that little village by the sea.
Although I was way too young to fantasize about marrying Cary Grant (that would come much later), the images of that scene had a tremendous effect on the young girl in the theatre. It would be years later, upon reflection, that I would realize it was that day, during that movie, that my romantic nature was born.
It is no wonder then, that in April 1994, having just finished reading an article about the chambre d’hote experience in Gourmet Magazine, a still very impressionable woman “d’un certain age” would romanticize about following in the author’s footsteps. As the words popped off the page, the images formed in my mind: walking up steep, narrow staircases to my oh-so-Frenchly decorated room, waking up to pink geraniums on the windowsill, smelling the freshly brewed morning coffee, then lingering on the sun-kissed terrace while the guests and I shared our favorite “D” Roads.
Three years later, I took my first dream vacation and I have been living the dream ever since, adding layer upon layer to my French memory book. Le Balcon de Rosine in Merindol-les-Oliviers was my first (ad)venture into this romantic notion of travel in France. I chose it because of one paragraph in the listing in Karen Brown’s France B&B Guide. Besides being located on a property where all the buildings dated back to the 19th and 18th centuries, my choice was independent and had its own private balcony-like terrace “beneath which Provence is spread before you – a panorama of vineyards and distant hill downs and beyond, row upon row of mountains.” The price was within my budget too at the daily rate of $25.00 per day. Without hesitation, I booked it for a month in July 1997. A month may seem like a long time to stay in one place, but I yearned to feel at home in France.
What started as an inexpensive option turned out to be the richest of experiences.
That feeling of being at home began every morning with copious breakfasts, stimulating conversation, homemade jams and specialty cheeses and breads. Before too long, Madame and Monsieur considered me part of the family and the specialty cheeses were soon replaced with my personal favorites. (I ate so much of this cheese that, when I left, they gave me a photo of my “La Vache.”) As the days went by and we grew closer as acquaintances, my experiences took on a new meaning. There was a connection – not only to Jean and Jacqueline, but to all they love about France, and to their Provençal lifestyle. When Bastille Day arrived and they were preparing a fete, they planned a special fete for me when they knew my birthday was the same day. Among the guests were their son Oliver and his wife, Lillie and while I will always cherish the book on Provence they gave me for my birthday, the best gift was Lillie sharing her insights and love of the village in which she was born, Dieulifit which means “God made it.” Artists flock to Dieulifit for inspiration and to rekindle their creativity. I love visiting that village – but it would have been overlooked had it not been for Lillie.
Madame Bouchet faithfully visited the Tuesday morning market in Vaision-la-Romaine and eventually I became her co-pilot. Shopping with Madame proved to be several new art forms: how to buy the choicest chevre, the ripest of tomatoes, the sweetest plums and peaches and the freshest bread. She introduced me to her favorite proprietors who encouraged me to share in the excitement of seeing, feeling, and then tasting “quelque chose très delicieux”. I once again felt that the connection to the people, the culture and the integration into the French lifestyle. Those Tuesdays with Madame Bouchet changed me forever and I am grateful to her for opening up that part of her life to me. Oh yes, she also let me in on her little secret for ALWAYS finding a parking place every Tuesday morning which shall remain a secret since I hope to return there.
Monsieur Jean Bouchet is a very accomplished artist who chose this location to call home because of the light. His studio was on the property so he very generously included me in his creative process. Knowing I was a novice in art forms and history, he took me under his wing, introducing me to new concepts and ideas. The pièce de résistance was when he and Madame asked me to join them for a private showing of a Picasso exhibit in Vaison-la-Romaine.
There were so many highlights to that trip, space prohibits my sharing them all. My favorite one? Perhaps it was going to see Mikail Barishynkov and his “White Oak Project” the night before my birthday in the medieval theatre as part of the Festival de Vaison. It was a beautiful moon kissed night, we were sitting outside, and he was dressed in white against a black backdrop. And then there was the dance – a solo with a trio playing Bach.
Or was it the next week when I went to a small village called Sablet and happened upon their annual Book Festival. I walked around for a bit, and as I turned a corner, I found myself in front of my favorite food author, Patricia Wells, who has a house in Vaison. Her personally inscribed “Ma Cuisine en Provence” book is proudly displayed on my étagère to this day.
Or was it teaching Monsieur some Yiddish expressions and American slang. Every day, during breakfast, I gave him his lesson. Innocent enough – yes. But imagine my horror when one day, he welcomed unsuspecting guests by offering to “schlep” their luggage, stating that he was there to make their stay as comfortable as possible so there would be no need to “kvetch.” Since they were tired and probably needed to “crash for the night,” he’d look forward to seeing them at breakfast where they would “schmooze” with the other guests. He also cautioned them to be careful with the stones on the property as he didn’t want them to fall and think of themselves as “klutzes.” They were British…enough said.
Subsequent years of staying in chambre d’hotes have spawned their own entries into my romance with France travelog. Normandy recalls images of illegal Calvados, Mont St. Michel cow-milking by yours truly and Coeur de Lion Camembert (the last two are closely linked). Brittany is where Richard and Nicki conceived Harry. Champagne was my first horse experience. And in the Auvergne, I stayed in a chambre d’hote and had dinner with Parisian actors on their way to the Avignon Festival. But more about that in future columns.
Till then, I hope you will venture out of the comforts of the familiar to follow your own sense of adventure and romance. Every chambre d’hotes has something different to offer. But you will know the right choice as you will find your mind beckoning you to book a room. Then just do it. Your heart, soul and spirit will thank you for it.
(Dedicated to Madame and Monsieur Bouchet with gratitude for opening their hearts and lives to me the summer of 1997).