Meet Provence Artist Christian Detaux

Christian Detaux always wanted to be an artist. For as long as he can remember, he’s been drawing and painting and shaping forms.

At the age of 16, Detaux applied to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, ready to embark on a career as an artist. But then he read a biography of the great Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, who lived a life of poverty.

It made Detaux realize that most artists, and even some famous ones, have a hard time making a living. So, wanting to someday support a family, he reluctantly set aside his brushes and pens and embarked on a new path.

Read the rest of the article here

Book Review: My Good Life in France by Janine Marsh

On a cold, wet day about ten years ago, Londoner Janine Marsh went with her husband and father on a day trip to France. They didn’t have big plans – it was just a quick jaunt to have lunch and buy some wine.

But sometimes life has other plans, and she ended up not only buying wine but also…a house. How that happened is the beginning of Marsh’s charming and funny memoir.

Nestled in a tiny town in France’s Seven Valleys area, near Calais, the house was a bit of a fixer-upper. No, it was more than that – it was a total wreck. And as you can imagine. everything went wrong, including an overflowing septic tank that earned Marsh the nickname Madame Merde. As she says, you have to be “a bit mad” to buy a house like this.

For the next few years, Marsh and her husband visited the house on weekends, beginning the monumental task of making it livable. But this split life proved unsatisfactory and eventually the big question had to be faced: do we move to France? Marsh, who had worked for years to rise from secretary to bank vice president – with another promotion imminent – agonized over the decision.

The couple decided to seize the day, and off to France they went. The more they repaired the house, the more they discovered problems, but their energy and optimism eventually carried them through.

Not only do they build a comfortable home, they build a wonderful new life for themselves in France. Marsh does a brilliant job of sharing with us what makes life in the Seven Valleys so charming. This isn’t Paris or Provence, but la France profonde, an area that tourists seldom visit.

We learn how neighbors help one another, like the time the Marshes nearly ran out of firewood in the middle of winter. With disaster looming, a neighbor showed up with his tractor, carrying several tons of firewood – and no payment expected.

We learn about the nearby town that is normally silent as a tomb, but that comes to life when Madame Magniez decides to bake some of her famous bread to sell. People see smoke coming out of her chimney, word spreads, and soon there is a traffic jam in the tiny downtown.

Marsh shares with us the local legends and the local celebrations. She describes the ins and outs of the French bureaucracy, French driving customs, and the proper way to kiss a person in greeting.   And she tells us about the food, one of the glories of France.

My favorite line in the book is when Marsh writes about the huge meals to celebrate Christmas and New Years. As she says, “At this time of year in France, you can quite easily eat yourself to a standstill.”

If you’ve ever dreamed of discovering “the real France,” you won’t want to miss this delightful book.

Janine Marsh is the creator of The Good Life France, an excellent website with information on all things French.

You can buy the book at Amazon:

Women of the French Resistance

Simone Segouin

There was a very interesting talk in St.-Rémy-de-Provence the other night, about women in the French Resistance. It focused particular attention on St.-Rémy, where I live part of the year.

The talk was organized by the local historical society and featured two historians who specialize in the subject. The event was held at the town’s movie theater and was surprisingly full.

Interest may be strong here because the great Resistance leader Jean Moulin had a home in nearby St.-Andiol.   He was a member of Charles de Gaulle’s government-in-exile in London. In 1942 he parachuted into the nearby Alpilles mountains, in the dead of night, to organize competing factions into what we now call the Resistance.

Read the rest of this article on Perfectly Provence, a great site with information on all things Provençal:  http://tinyurl.com/lzlsjf5

Hold on to Your Hat!

There’s a mistral raging here right now, that powerful wind that blows from the north. How strong is it? Let’s put it this way – if Julius Caesar had invaded France during a mistral, a lot of centurions would have ended up in the Mediterranean Sea.

A mistral usually blows for several days, getting stronger and stronger. Today is the third day and it’s fierce. We weren’t sure we wanted to go outside, but there were chores to be done so off we went.

We went to the phone store in Cavaillon and decided to have lunch in town. A favorite restaurant of ours looked like it was closed because the heavy outdoor furniture was all pushed together. But when we got closer we saw people eating inside and went in. We were lucky to get a table by the window.

As we ate, I watched a big plastic garbage can across the street. First the wind blew the lid off, then a few minutes later it knocked the can over. Then a big gust blew it into the middle of the street, where it disrupted traffic for a while. Finally another gust blew it back across the street and into an alley.

As we were finishing our meal I saw one of the heavy chairs from our restaurant’s terrace go skittering down the street. The two waitresses dropped what they were doing and ran out the door. After all, it just wouldn’t do to have the restaurant’s furniture injure one of the good citizens of Cavaillon. That would be a tragedy. And bad for business.

After a long chase, the waitresses captured the wayward chair and wrestled it back onto the terrace. As they came back into the restaurant, I happened to catch the eye of one. I raised my eyebrows as if to say, “Wow, that was something!”

She replied with one of those classic Gallic shrugs. “C’est le mistral, monsieur,” she said. “C’est normal.”

Biking in Provence: Maussane-les-Alpilles to Eygalières

Val and I are back in France for the spring, in St-Rémy-de-Provence.

One of the things we enjoy most about this area is the biking. St-Rémy is right next to the Alpilles, a low mountain range with rocky outcroppings. Well, to call the Alpilles “mountains” is a bit of a stretch, they are more like big hills. But they rise up dramatically and look taller than they actually are, kind of like the Scottish Highlands.

There are lots of quiet roads over and through the Alpilles that are perfect for biking. One of our favorite routes is from Maussane-les-Alpilles to Eygalières and back, a 20-mile round trip that takes us over the Alpilles twice.

The ascents are gentle, nothing that low gears can’t handle. Or occasionally walking the bike. And there are always electric bikes for those who aren’t feeling too energetic.

It’s a beautiful ride that takes us past olive groves and vineyards and the occasional flock of sheep. We usually stop partway through the ride for a nice lunch because, well, why not? One has to restore one’s strength, after all.   And what is more delicious than lunch in Provence?

Directions: If you are starting in Maussane, take the D17 a short ways out of town towards Mouriès, and then take a left turn onto the D5. You’ll pass some stone barns (hard to miss the smell). If you continue straight, the D5 turns into the D78. You follow this until it intersects the D24, which is about the halfway point between Maussane and Eygalières. Turn left here, towards Eygalières, and follow the signs for Eygalières.

Yesterday we did half the ride, from Maussane out to the halfway point and back. This winter has been so rainy in California that we didn’t ride as much as usual and aren’t in good biking shape. Or at least that’s our excuse.

Here are some more pictures from the ride. We’ll go the rest of the way next time!

Silicon Valley vs France: Corporate Culture

Photo by davidpwhelan at morguefile.com

“Don’t be evil” or “Wine with lunch”?

My wife Val and I were living in France and got a call from our friend Viviane, a teacher at a local high school. She sounded desperate.

Viviane explained that she and a group of fellow business teachers would be working in England during the summer. This would allow them to learn how companies there operate. But first they wanted to have some idea of what they were getting into.

Viviane had arranged to have one of her neighbors, a Brit working in France, come and talk to the teachers about what it was like to work for an English company. But he had dropped out at the last minute. The meeting was in three days and Viviane needed us to substitute.

We gently explained that while we shared a common language, we had never worked in England. No matter, she said, you know about Anglo-Saxon companies and that’s what’s important.

Anglo-Saxon?

It turns out that the French use this term to describe American-style business practices. It is shorthand for what we might call free-market capitalism. In France, this is definitely not a compliment.

It is true that Val and I understand American capitalism. Coming from the wild west of the Silicon Valley, we understand it in one of its more extreme forms.

So we agreed to make a presentation, explaining some of the differences between working for a French company and an American one. Luckily, all of the teachers taught at International Baccalaureate schools so we would be able to do it in English.

Then we did what anyone does to become an expert on short notice – we used Google. And we called some French friends in California who gave us a quick tutorial. Then we boiled our research down to a few key points.

Most were not surprising. For example, French companies are more formal than American ones, especially in terms of dress code and hierarchy. Business suits may be fading away on our side of the Atlantic (I can’t remember the last time I wore one) but they are still common in France. And while you might greet the president of an American company with a casual, “Hi, Bob,” that would be shocking in France. No, in France it is always, “Bonjour, Monsieur le President.”

We learned that Americans are generally more risk-taking. We change jobs more often and it is not a scary thing to join a startup company (well, not too scary). By contrast, it would be a major risk to join one in France. If it failed, as startups often do, it would be a black mark that could follow you for the rest of your career.

Similarly, American companies are more risk-taking. If a company sees an attractive business opportunity, it is more likely to invest and hire and go for it. If things work out, the company grows and new jobs are created. And if things don’t work out, the company can cut its losses by downsizing, as painful as that is.

In France, by contrast, it is extremely difficult and expensive to downsize. So companies are less likely to hire in the first place.

The most surprising thing we learned was that there is much more mixing of professional and personal lives in France. In the US, we might have lunch with our colleagues or the occasional drink after work, but that would be about it. Mostly we keep our home and work lives separate.

By contrast, when you arrive at work in France you shake hands and say hello to each person in the office. You spend a half hour chatting at the coffee machine before starting your workday. You see your colleagues socially on the weekends and even go on vacation together!

When I think about some of the people I’ve worked with, then imagine us vacationing together, my head hurts.

The big day arrived and we met Viviane in a conference room at her school. She introduced us to her colleagues, who seemed nervous at the prospect of taking a trip all the way across the English Channel.

We began by giving some background on ourselves and our careers. We talked about having worked in different companies, in a variety of industries. We described our jobs in areas like finance, marketing, and human resources.

This turned out to be a showstopper. Apparently, it is uncommon in France to move around as much as we have. This led to a long discussion of why and how we had done this and whether it would even be possible in France.

Then we gave our presentation and the teachers asked questions. The discussion got heated on the subject of companies pursuing growth but taking the risk of having to downsize. No one likes layoffs and the French have a history of violent action opposing them.

One teacher asked us, pointedly, how the Anglo-Saxon system could possibly be superior to the French one. We didn’t think it was a good idea to start an international incident so we fell back on our experience of living in Switzerland. In other words, we stayed neutral. We pointed out that each system has its advantages and disadvantages and then quickly moved on to another subject.

In the end, the teachers appreciated our presentation and felt better prepared for their summer abroad. And we felt like we had gained a little insight into the role of work in French people’s lives.

Best of all, after the meeting Viviane rewarded us with lunch at a restaurant that had a nice long wine list.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Many of us have heard of Lascaux, the cave in France with its prehistoric paintings of pot-bellied horses and other strange animals.  But did you know that even older prehistoric paintings were discovered in 1994, in a cave just north of Avignon?

The Grotte Chauvet was made famous by Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and has recently been opened to the public.  Well, not the real one, but an almost perfect re-creation.  Like Lascaux, the real cave is closed to the public to prevent damage to its delicate artwork.

I recently wrote an article about it for the excellent website The Good Life France and you can find it here.

 

Provence Starter Kit

Thinking of visiting Provence, the land of glorious lavender fields and charming hilltop villages?  Good for you!

But planning a trip to a new destination can be challenging. Where do you begin?

What you need is a Provence Starter Kit!  And here it is.

A Week in Provence

Provence has so much to see and do that you can be overwhelmed with choices. I’ve put together a one-week itinerary that hits many of the top spots. It allows you to stay in one town the entire time, rather than moving from place to place. You can savor Provençal life in lovely St.-Rémy-de-Provence while taking short trips to enjoy the wide range of what Provence has to offer. Here’s the link.

 

Favorite Restaurants

Want to try traditional Provençal dishes? Or maybe have a big, delicious salad for lunch? Perhaps you’d like something exotic, like Moroccan food. Peruse my list of favorite restaurants and pick whatever strikes your fancy. Here’s the link.

 

 

Informative Blogs

There are a number of excellent bloggers who cover all aspects of life in Provence – things to see, places to eat, special events that are going on, and more. These blogs give you a way to find out what’s going on in Provence from people who are in the know. I’ve put together a list of my favorites. Here’s the link.

 

Parlez-Vous Français ?

Even a little French can help you get around and connect with the locals. I’ve put together some of my favorite language websites. Here’s the link.  At a minimum, you should definitely put the Larousse dictionary app on your phone!

Book Review – But you are in France, Madame

Catherine Berry has a dream, to live in France with her family. And it is no small endeavor, as this family of 5 start out half way around the world, in Australia.

It is inspiring to share their story as she and her husband put work on hold and organize the family move. We feel part of the adventure and of overcoming many obstacles, such as finding a place to live, getting proper driving permits, and dealing with the French school system for the 3 children. And, somehow, the one-year stay turns into four.

Berry provides a realistic view of the ups and downs of daily life and trying to navigate in a foreign culture. And while sharing these difficulties, she does so with a healthy perspective and an eye for appreciating cultural differences.

Berry and her family exude a joy for life and for trying new things. They hike many trails in mountains of the Haute-Savoie region where they live. They learn to water ski on the lake and become good friends with the instructor. They come to appreciate the joy of cooking and eating local specialties, and they use the school holidays to explore the many, diverse regions of France.

From participating in local festivals and shopping in nearby “garage” sales, the family demonstrates how one can have meaningful experiences without them being expensive.

They come to appreciate their lifestyle in France and are enriched by it. And so are we, by reading this book.

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A Great Way to Travel

Why the big hurry?

Photo by lauramusikanski at Morguefile.com

When I first started traveling, it was rush, rush, rush to see all the sights. I wouldn’t stay more than a couple of days in any city before I was off to the next. So much to see! Go go go!

But while I saw a lot, I didn’t fully enjoy it. Over time, I figured out what many people do – slower is better. It isn’t just about the sights; it’s about savoring the place. Sometimes less really is more.

Now my wife and I try to stay in a place for about a week. We rent an apartment if we can, so that we can shop at the local markets and eat some of our meals at home. It’s fun to go to the bakery every morning for fresh bread, eventually being recognized by the baker when you walk in.

We linger in the cafés, people watch, and get a sense of the rhythm of a place. We chat with the locals and get their perspective on life. We do less but experience our destination more fully.

Of course, we still like to see things. So we try to stay in a town with some interesting sights, and from which we can take short day trips. That way we only have to unpack and pack our suitcases once – heaven!

A favorite destination is Provence, where we now live part of the year. For those of you thinking of spending a week there, I’ve written a short article on how to experience Provence in seven days. It’s centered on the lovely town of St.-Rémy-de-Provence, with plenty of beautiful and interesting things to see and do within an hour’s drive.

Here’s the link.

Bon voyage !

Photo by lauramusikanski at Morguefile.com