Following my passions, people and dreams

Although I am reveling in my new life in France I am actually also working. As part of that I am involved in a great deal of social media engagement for Integratis, finding things of value and interest to share. My motivation and interest is driven by trying to contribute to helping others improve performance…not just from the goodness of my heart, hopefully potential customers will like what we do and pay us to help them achieve their goals!

So why am I even writing this? Well I just posted on our business Twitter and Facebook pages something which I also decided to share on my personal Facebook wall. Why? Because it comes from my heart, it is what I believe, applicable to both work and home, in all we do; it is how I try to live my life and living my life has drawn me to France.

“People might forget what you said or did but they will never forget how you made them feel”. 

I hope that I always make others feel that I care about them, about living a life of peace andjoy, which might well include listening and crying together but also hopefully dancing on the coffee table!

To me, life is all about people, my Daddy taught me that. No matter what we have or strive for, we can’t take ‘things’ with us but the memories we create with others and through the life choices we make, live on in our hearts forever. I then pondered on this irony, why then have I repeatedly chosen to move far away from those I love? Maybe it is that same depth of feeling I have for those I care about that also drives me to follow my passions. Living in France has long been a true passion of mine. To discover whether life here is nothing more than a ‘shutters and sunflowers dream’. I still can’t really define exactly what it is that fills my soul about this beautiful, ancient, mystical part of the world, it just does and maybe that is good enough.

Yesterday, sitting outside having lunch with Chris, under the glorious splendor of the Palais du Papes in Avignon, ‘ancient’ and ‘mystical’ were everywhere.

The might and power of the medieval Catholic Church, the magnificence of the buildings created from the painstaking blood, sweat and toil of others.

The incredible architectural feats, from a time when technology was so little understood, a time riddled with suspicion of science and progress, when all labour was exactly that, labour; excruciating, backbreaking effort. Yet men created buildings that even today, regardless of your religious affiliation, make you gasp with wonder. I must re-read ‘Pillars of the Earth’, Ken Follet’s amazing tribute to such buildings!

Did I say ‘sit  outside’…..yes it is finally warmer. The squares, once deserted, windswept voids, are filling with bistro tables, chairs and enormous market umbrellas…. a sign of even sunnier days to come and I love it!! We ate a long, leisurely lunch of roasted aubergines and artichokes, steak frites, followed by a splendid chocolate covered pear for Chris and the most divine crepe ‘pour mois’…..(well the day before, was pancake day!!), all washed down with an excellent local red vintage, calories, work worry, all temporarily forgotten, we were living our life, living our dream, what could be better?

Special times with special friends

It is wonderful when you spend time with friends whom you met many years ago, before children, mortgages, health care issues and all the messy things called ‘life’ have deposited their debris upon you. Friends, you sadly don’t see enough of, in our case because of a little thing called the Atlantic Ocean, yet when you do the years that have passed and the distance that has separated us just melt away and there is ohh so very much to chat about! I have just spent such a week with my friend, Nadine. Together we have explored the countryside, walked the towns, sampled the local delicacies, soaked up the culture but most of all drunk delicious French wine and just enjoyed being together!

We had a fun rendezvous with some equally dear English friends, Philppa, Kevin and my handsome, quite delightful godson Nicky. We all met in Aix-en-Provence, when finally the biting chill began to recede and we could actually walk with coats undone! Aix is a sophisticated, charming city, 70 miles south of Uzès, energized by hurrying students, elegant shoppers and people like us, wandering aimlessly though its winding streets catching up on our lives, finding ourselves still absorbed in conversation over lunch and coffee, good friends, happy memories…………….

The following day, Valentines Day, it felt like the warmth of the occasion had forbidden anything other than blue skies and a golden glow for young lovers to sit outside and sip their espressos, she pouting and he holding her hand, whispering to her softly and adoringly! No pouting or crooning for us but instead a wonderful, lazy lunch on the terrace basking in the sunshine pouring through Avignon’s ancient splendid buildings. Together we window shopped and ‘pooufed’ at the tiny little sweaters, priced at several hundred euros, wondering how they would ever fit anyone other than members of the ‘impossibly thin club’, certainly not us! We arrived at twilight at the stunning Palais du Papes, (it looked like the back drop of a movie set) having experienced the French vendeurs strutting across their chic, petite boutiques looking like they had just stepped straight from the Rodeo Drive scene in ‘Pretty Woman’, eyeing us up, deciding we were unlikely to purchase and then continuing with their pouting and strutting. So far from the normal, California smiles, welcomes and helpfulness (well apart from Rodeo Drive of course!!)….. Later in the week in Uzès, in an equally chic boutique we were met with a California style warmth and our looking became buying, it never costs anything to be nice to people!!

Our exploring took us 70 km east of Uzès to the Haute Vaulcuse, tiny villages nestled under the shadow of Mount Ventoux, proudly wearing its seasonal mantle of snow. We meandered through the medieval towns of Bedoin, Caromb and Carianne, lunching in Vaison la Romaine. Perched high up over the gorge, we sampled au feu de bois pizzas enjoying our two charming and attentive French waiters, one for each of us!! With ‘Arabella’s’ help, we followed the twisting roads west through fields of vines protruding in rows like ancient, gnarled, bony fingers, impossible to believe the abundance they would produce within a few months. The flat terrain gave way to gentle rolling hills as we wound our way into Chateauneuf du Pape and marveled beneath the windswept ruins of the chateau at the magnificence of the Rhone and Avignon beyond it.

After a final déjeuner, now outside in Uzès, It was with sadness I pulled my faithful Clio from the curbside at Nimes airport and headed back alone. However, radio blaring to keep spirits high, as I turned onto the AutoRoute and saw the signs for Toulouse, Lyon and Avignon my heart warmed as I marveled, how could I be here, in the ‘sud de la France’, this wonderful place. Albeit alone again but only for 24 hours when finally I would return to another arrivals destination, this time the TGV station in Avignon to meet my Chris, safely returned to me from business in Asia, yes, life is good. I thought over my lovely week, a week of laughter and reminiscing over all that has been and all that has yet to come reveling in the thing that matters most in the world, people, love and friendship.

Entertaining and coping with local gourmet delights!

Last night I had my first dinner party in Uzès, une belle soirée avec de nouveaux amis y de la Suède, qui j’ai rencontré dans ma classe de français! (a lovely evening with my new friends from Sweden, whom I met in French class!)

Maybe this evening would have been a better night to entertain following all the shopping opportunities at the Uzès Saturday market. This morning Uzès definitely came alive. Many of the smaller specialty shops & restaurants, which had seemed firmly closed, flung back their shutters, braved the still chilly weather and spilled their goods onto the bustling cobbles. Tables and chairs, complete with blankets and offerings of ‘vin chaud’ appeared and a few hearty locals were seduced! Not me, I was ensconced inside with a frothing cappuccino, surrounded by exotic olive oils, an impressive array of salts, confitures and mustards, most of which I would dearly have loved to sample!!

The Uzès market is not just confined to the infamous Place aux Herbes. It twines itself under archways and around corners, sprawling like a tumbling ball of yarn so as you turn a new corner you find the last few strands, a store selling table cloths, a man with sausages, an unexpected additional baker. How any boulanger competes with the existing permanent competition in the town is hard to tell. I haven’t counted yet, but there must be at least 12 boulangeries, a wonderful one just 10 paces from our front door…all those carbs and hardly a chubby person in sight! Could it be that wine, bread and cheese makes you thin?  Ummm a diet I need to experiment with!

More likely the only way to try to cope with all the gourmet temptation I am surrounded by is to exercise. Steps from ‘la maison’ are charming, if not uneven footpaths, flanked with crumbling stone walls and olive trees.

A mysterious doorway romantically luring me towards an enchanting ‘Mas’, tempting me hurry to a local immobilier and inquire ‘combien?’!

Exploring the local region

We have begun to explore! Kate and I whizzed through several of the local perched villages, guided by ‘Arabella’ through, up and down tiny narrow streets. The type that you find yourself screwing up your eyes and sucking your shoulders in (as if that will somehow make a difference to the width or lack of width of the road!!) Berated by the Mistral and the cold we became very adept and speedy at what Kate called ‘drive by tourism’. Lots to revisit! We have braved the elements in at least three of Provence’s entrancing cities, again we will return to each. The pictures, I hope speak for themselves.

Avignon encased like the ribbon around a cake with a well-preserved city wall built in 1403, was the center of one of the richest courts in Europe in the 14th century. It is still referred to as the ‘city of the Popes’, being home to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Avignon boasts magnificent Papal palaces and ancient buildings from its glorious past. We marveled at it all, one could not fail to be impressed!

   

   

   Arles, often referred to as southern France’s loveliest cities, sun kissed and golden, despite the Mistral, has a welcoming small town atmosphere. Like Avignon, 25 miles to the north, it is splendidly situated on the banks of the Rhone, nestled by the Camargue, infamous for its majestic white horses and bulls. It is a region and a city much painted by Van Gogh, who lived here for a year. The tragic brilliance of this great artist is well-celebrated aswell as the many that resided here centuries before. Originally a Celtic settlement and then capital to the Roman Empire of Gaul, Britain and Spain, the jewel in its center is Les Arénes, one of the oldest and most well preserved Roman amphitheatres in existence. We loved it here and might even look for the next rental in this spot!

Marseilles, after Paris and Lyons, Marseilles is France’s 3rd largest city; it has been a major trading center and port since ancient times. Greeks from Phocaea, the first outsiders to arrive in Provence, originally settled Marseilles. It has both prospered and been ransacked over the ages. It has strong military connections, home of the French air force’s flying school and the French Foreign Legion. So many revolutionaries marched from here to Paris in 1792, that the Hymn of that army became the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. Although predominantly an industrial city it sits within deserted mountainous countryside and boasts a shoreline of mostly untouched jagged inlets and sandy shores. Recently it has undergone many improvements to draw visitors to its heart, we were surprised and delighted by the ‘Vieux Port’, both it vibrancy and attractiveness, we will be sure to return!

What I have been up to in the last few days

Well the wonderful, ‘Love Actually Moment’ happened on arrival but was not nearly so wonderful yesterday back at the Terminal in Marseille Airport! However both the house and Uzès were met with a great deal more enthusiasm than just smiles and grins despite the 20-hour journey to get here, quite a result!!

More perched villages and Roman cities have been visited in the meantime, (see my following blog). My intrepid travelling partner, daughter is safely
returned to Bristol, my first French lesson has been completed; the gentle French professeur could not be more patient or encouraging! As a result I have a dinner rendezvous with one of my classmates tonight. An American lady who went to UCLA, is the world shrinking by the day?!!

So now I am here alone and wondering how did this come about? I have no words to define my love of this area. The ancient cobbled streets, the worn stone buildings, the faded shutters, the vineyards and olive groves, the azure sky, things that reach out to my soul but why am I here, miles from all I love and alone and freezing!!! This total uncharacteristic chill is like nothing I have ever experienced.  The Mistral, blowing at 80 miles an hour is fierce, unrelenting and angry. Fountains and rivers are  frozen, animals shudder in the fields and no one goes outside unless they have to. That said ‘le soleil brille’ and determined market stallholders are not dissuaded from delivering their abundance in the Uzès Saturday Market.

Much diminished than in summer, but still overflowing with local produce and the tempting smells of roasting chickens, cheeses and my favourite, wine from the local convent, made by the nuns who smile benevolently at all who pass, their habits whipping around their legs as they proudly see to all

their very many clientele! The best goat cheese is to be found from a virtually toothless, smiling man with hairy ears (a name bestowed by our house manager!) who grins and nods and wraps his delicacies carefully in white paper before reaching out with worn ‘Fagin hands’ for his 5 euros!

Today I had a little break through as I walked determinedly and briskly through town. In the 3 shops I visited no one replied to me in English and although on at least one occasion I received a response which was completely incomprehensible to me, I nodded and smiled “Ahh Oui’ and if they thought I was a nutter they actually made me feel like a local! Not that I looked like one, with 2 North Face fleeces, a bright fuchsia pink headband, Oakley sunglasses and a pashmina wound tightly about me!!! I also experienced the delights of parallel parking on a busy street. I guess I am rubbish at it. It seems that unless you can maneuver into space on a sixpence ‘tres rapidement’ then you are toast! Not too much of ‘la patience’ in evidence, but at least it gets me warmed up…well hot and bothered anyway!!

So here I am alone but not lost with much to contemplate upon and work to keep me occupied. As my friends in California just begin to wake up I am joining my family and friends in England for a nice restoring, not to mention warming cup of tea..a bientôt mes amis!!

A ‘Love Actually’ moment at Marseille Airport

Tomorrow there will be, what our family calls, a ‘Love Actually moment’. Kate and I will brave the snow and the biting cold to journey to Marseilles Airport to collect someone very special. He will only be able to be here for a few days before work schedules demand his presence elsewhere but at least we will have him with us for a while. I hope he is as enchanted with Uzès and the house as I …. Well of course he won’t be, but I will know by the degree of his grin and smile whether he at least likes it……

Airports are strange places, where you say good-bye with sadness (or sometimes relief!) and meet people with excited expectation. When I stand in an arrivals terminal, wherever it maybe in the world, (normally at SFO) in my mind I am always at LHR, the place where all my travels started. I always wonder at the marvel as you stand there surrounded by complete strangers, all waiting for complete strangers but each one of those strangers is special to someone. Somehow, for a few seconds, you share in each others anticipation. It never fails to evoke emotion as tears get fiercely blinked away. Watching as a small child gets scooped up into the arms of a parent or as a traveling student suddenly reverts to being a five year old in the joyful embrace of his mother or a grandma comes round ‘the corner’, her anxious face lighting up with joy once a familiar face is recognized. As the Richard Curtis movie told us, ‘Love, actually, is all around’ and nowhere is it more evident, as it will be tomorrow once more for us, than at an airport arrivals lounge.

On just another Wednesday morning, well not quite!

Things are different here, as you would expect. However, in terms of my daily routine, doing what I need to do, it is similar, well sort of. Most mornings at home I run or walk under a cornflower coloured sky, (well for the most part!) along what was an old railway line and what is now is a well maintained trail, flanked either side with trees and shrubs, a place that I am inordinately fond of. Here, still trying to exercise, I see the same blue sky but to one side of me is a stunning thousand-year-old castle, a place where people have lived for centuries, before the trees at home had even begun to grow. I am running on a somewhat chaotic gravel path (doing my best to avoid the evidence of ‘les chiens’) and am filled with wonder, thinking of all the secrets those stone walls must hold, of all the people it has wrapped in its fold. As I do my loop and return to jog back through the sleepy town I realize in 40 minutes I have seen no one else exercising, just people scurrying about. Teenagers off to school, mothers dragging reluctant tired, small children, people hurrying to work and others rushing home with their baguettes for breakfast. Despite the biting chill there are people sitting at the street cafes all bundled up sipping their espressos. There is also a seemingly abundance of elderly men shuffling along, alone and sad, looking quite cross and barely grunting when I, vision of unloveliness, bounce past them with my enthusiastic ‘bonjour monsieur’. What I would do if any of them tried to engage with me in rapid French I am not quite sure!! As I turn down my beautiful street I think how lucky I am to be here. I turn the key and know that my day will continue much as at home, several hours working at my lap top, except that here, to find my lap top, I will be treading up a winding Rapunzel stair case, twisting inside this delightful house which has already enfolded me in its embrace making me feel happy and at home.

Our Journey to Uzès

On Friday 27th January 2012, we left England in our newly acquired, left-hand drive, Renault Clio (not much bigger than an American golf cart!) with some degree of anxiety. Would this fourteen year old, so far unknown, fairly well used (100 000 miles on the clock!) prove to be reliable? Visions of standing on a french autoroute with a broken, steaming engine, trying to ask for help in my stumbling french, whirled in my mind….. However the first challenge had been met with Kate’s superb packing of 6 months luggage, our faithful ‘Arabella’ (Kate’s name for her GPS) was programed, even the weather was cheering us on, we had been blessed with a beautiful, bright, crisp morning. It felt as if nothing could impede our journey and nothing did.

We arrived at the ‘Chunnel’ 50 minutes ahead of schedule and caught and earlier crossing, so before I knew it I was gingerly steering us aboard, we were really doing this!

On the ‘other side’ our little Clio sped through the wintry, french countryside and 300 km later we were pulling up at our ‘très chic et moderne’, now highly recommended, Accor hotel! Like 2 excited children we continued on the next morning, slightly less anxious about ‘Clio’, who had to battle driving rain and fog, never mention all the french cars who obviously thought she had a cute ‘postérieure’ as a never ending stream of them insisted on getting as close as they could to get a good look!!

At the first sign for Marseilles I gasped and when Avignon was sign posted, I tightly squeezed Kate’s hand. 40 mins later when we saw a sign for our destination, Uzès, we both laughed and yelled, it was an ‘ahhhh’ moment!! On leaving the autoroute behind, the winding country road, flanked on both sides with vines and olive groves, left us both speechless and near to tears. However emotions had to be held in check as practical matters still needed to be attended to in the form of a lightening visit to ‘Carrefour’!

Clio, then even more loaded up with wine, cheese and baguettes, gently took us on our last 6 km to Uzès. Everything seemed to be bathed in a honey glow welcoming us, the sun setting on the warm sandstone coloured buildings, the remenants of the flower market, Kate gasping with wonder and delight, me trying to see through my tears, we had arrived, it felt like coming home……….