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Hail to Peter Mayle!

Peter Mayle’s most famous book, A Year in Provence, hit the bookstores in 1989. Subsequently, it became an international bestseller, with sales topping six million, in forty languages.

This book and my first encounter with Mr. Mayle made such lasting impressions on me, I wrote about them in the introduction of my book, Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie. It goes like this:

“I read the memoir over twenty-five years ago while sitting on a Mediterranean beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. It was magical to be in luscious Provence on my honeymoon, but enjoying A Year in Provence while in Provence made the special event even more memorable.

In the years that followed, I eagerly awaited each of Mr. Mayle’s delightful publications. In fact, he signed one of them for me at my local bookstore in Virginia. I was charmed by his warmth and wit, as well as his scarlet socks. While I was writing this book, a recollection of those spirited chausettes prompted me to send him a long-overdue fan letter. As his birthday was imminent, I tucked my note inside a fanciful birthday card. To my delight, he wrote back. Not only was his response a gracious thank-you for a thank-you, but it included sage publishing advice. I framed the letter—it inspires me every day.”

Just a few of Peter Mayle’s impressive list of titles.

When Passion for Provence was published in November 2017, I immediately sent Peter and Jennie Mayle a copy. In early December, it was Jennie Mayle who wrote me to let me my book had arrived, explaining Peter was not well. He passed away in January 2018, just a few months short of his seventy-ninth birthday.

In the spring, his last book, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now, was released. The Boston Globe wrote: “Whether he’s smacking his lips in gustatory contentment or mock exasperation, Mayle’s affection runneth over.” Yes, indeed, Mayle’s genuine, heartfelt affection for France draws you in, instantly transporting you to the Hexagon, and eventually, to a lunch table—set with bottle of rosé.

You can experience this belle vie, written in Mayle’s irresistible, charming style, in all his books on France, to include A Good Year (made into a movie with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard), Chasing Cezanne, and Hotel Pastis. And then there’s his caper series:  The Diamond Caper, The Corsican Caper, The Marseille Caper, and The Vintage Caper.  

A stack of Peter Mayle’s endearing works.

What better way to pay tribute to the inimitable author—in honor of what would have been his eighty-second birthday on 14 June—than to pick up one of his classics for a delectable taste of la belle vie according to Mayle? Enjoy!

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS

The Birdwatcher’s Wife is shaping up. Slower than an escargot, the book appears to be inching toward the finish line. All optimistic thoughts welcome!

Country Comes to Town in St. Rémy de Provence

French TV host Nathalie Simon (jean shorts on right) films during St. Rémy transhumance, June 2019.

Historically, the transhumance is a grand event in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. On Pentecoste Monday—which falls in either in May or June—herders in traditional garb guide thousands of sheep and goats around the ring road—twice. Tourists go nuts snapping close-ups and trying to pet the animals as they trot by.

A young herder guides the sheep during the transhumance 2019.

Sadly, due to Covid-19, the festive event was cancelled in 2020, and with health issues still a concern, it did not happen this year either. So we look fondly back to 2019. This year was especially memorable because a TV film crew from France3-PACA was on hand to capture the event for a segment on St. Rémy for the travel show Chronique Méditerranéenne with host, Nathalie Simon, a former wind-surfing champ. In fact, I actually participated in part of it.

France3 TV crew leads the sheep from the Petit Crau plateau to town, during the transhumance 2019.

During the transhumance of 2019, after the animals trotted down from an elevated plain on the north side of town called the Petit Crau, they ran their course around the village, and then marched back up to their grazing area. (Later, they would be transported to cooler pastures for the summer.) There, a couple of hundred locals gathered for a BBQ—lamb of course! My job was to sit next to Nathalie at a picnic table and join in the toast with our plastic cups of rosé and then pretend to eat while the lovely host sang the praises of St. Rémy. I didn’t have any real lines that day, but I did the next.

Filming at the transhumance BBQ, June 2019. (I’m in the striped shirt, Nathalie to my right.)
The happy France3-PACA TV crew and my wonderful buddies after filming. Host Nathalie (jean shorts/yellow windbreaker) and me (black jacket). The director, Stéphane Stasi, far right.)

My participation in the show had come out of the blue. In the spring, a producer for the network had found my book, Passion for Provence: 22 Keys to La Belle Vie, and asked me to be on the program as the expat author. My part was filmed on the beautifully leafed-out Place Favier in front of the cute crêperie Lou Planet and was aired on 22 September 2019, Journée de la Patrimoine, France’s Heritage Day. The day I spoke some French on French TV was certainly a piece of my own history I won’t forget!

The lunch crowd on Place Plessier, bordered by the stately Hôtel de Ville, enjoy terrace dining.
Puppy comes to market in style!
Though the transhumance 2021 was cancelled, cafes and shops were open.
Café de la Place is back in business!

Though no sheepies or goaties came to town this year, tourists have returned—café terrace dining opened on 19 May. And there is plenty of countryside for them and resident townies to explore, too. Just a short walk from centre ville, near Chateau les Alpilles, sheep often can be seen munching grass tranquilly. And at Lac de Peiroou, peace and serenity reign.

Serene Lake Peiroou can be reached by foot in about 25 minutes from the center of St. Rémy.
Poisson pour déjeuner!

And there you can even catch lunch!

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS

Trees around St. Rémy now sport colorful wraps called “Yarn Bombing,” a type of “gorilla” knitting.

PPS The Birdwatcher’s Wife is proving to be a book that doesn’t want to be done. But–in filming terms–this author is ready to call it a wrap. Please stay tuned!

Countdown to Flying the Coop in Saint-Remy-de-Provence

A basket of blooms greets patrons at the popular Boulangerie Hache.

Here we are in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, heading into the fourth (and last!) week of the third major lockdown in France’s battle to conquer Covid. As of 3 May, the ten-kilometer limit on travel will be lifted. Time will tell when restaurants and cafes will be able to open, but indicators suggest that may happen around mid-May.

The ancient Roman city of Glanum showing off its colors.

In the meantime, Mother Nature waits for no official announcement. She’s marching full on into le printemps. Trees are leafing out, and blossoms are blooming–in the fields and in town, lifting spirits with their splashes of color.

Hoopoe By Zeynel Cebeci – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47589088\\

Plants aren’t the only color delivery system at work. Striking birds like the fabulous hoopoe (above) with its stunning topknot have arrived—we saw one in the Alpilles a week ago. (It was too fast for a photo —this one is from Wikimedia.) Swifts, too, are here, wheeling around high up, squeaking as they go. Rollers and bee-eaters have been reported in the area too, but we haven’t seen them yet. We’re prepared, though, with our eyes peeled and binoculars at the ready. To see their swooshes of vibrant blue and cinnamon will be a joy.

Bee-eater: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

And so will returning to some sort of normalcy. And that includes going to the movies and enjoying cultural events. Along those lines, the marquee of our neighborhood cinema, the Ciné Palace, reflects these optimistic sentiments: “Looking forward to seeing you again! See you soon in our hall! So that culture lives!”

Our local cinema, the Ciné Palace, offers hopeful reminders of resilience.

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS

Completing The Birdwatcher’s Wife is proving more difficult than anticipated. But I’m making progress–I think!–and hopeful the changes I’ve made in the last month are meaningful. Some days, it feels like two steps forward and one and three-quarters back, but the search for the finish line continues. Watch this space!

A bursting redbud tree in all its hot pink glory!

Spring Sprouts in Saint-Rémy-de Provence

Our two camellia bushes are going crazy!

Winter’s subdued veil is lifting to reveal a kaleidoscope of color in every direction. A crimson camellia here, a purple iris there, and almond trees bursting with delicate pink blossoms seemingly everywhere. Ah, spring is on its way, bringing with it reminders of resilience and hope.

Dew-tipped almond blossoms, pretty in pink…

With all the little buds popping open, one sunny day I felt compelled to take a spin around St. Rémy with a close eye on nature’s progress, as well as the town’s. My jumelles–the term for binoculars in French—came along, too, in case a friendly robin or jay should pop by to deliver a chirpy hello. Come walk with me. And, by the way, the binoculars are tucked into six photos. Can you spot them?

When cafés open again, what a delight it will be to sip a coffee on this inviting terrace.
Spring pastels brighten up this terrific déco shop on Place Plessier.
Sometimes a bright blue kingfisher makes an appearance along the canals that crisscross St. Rémy.
Browsing the bright and bountiful St. Rémy Presse is a delight in all seasons.
Wooden posts and metal barriers protect the newly planted young trees–they replace the diseased plane trees that, sadly, had to be removed.
A lush green scene at the base of Les Alpilles, a favorite hangout for jays…
An earth mover prepares the site for a car park and residences near centre ville.
Vibrant irises are a welcome treat in late winter.
The Roman ruins of Les Antiques shimmer in the pre-spring sun.
Like many eateries in Saint-Rémy, this charming bistro offers take-out.
One sniff of these fragrant hyacinth blossoms will wake you from winter’s slumber.

Wild flowers like this lovely offer a cheerful surprise at every turn.

A Provençal field of dreams stars dandy dandelions.

Hopefully, mes amis, these snapshots of life marching on in Saint-Rémy will boost your spirits.

Stay safe, well, and hopeful!

Bises, Gayle

PS: The Birdwatcher’s Wife has been through two editors–one an experienced birdwatcher! When I’m finished tweaking the last bits, off it goes for review by a publishing veteran. Deep breath!

Tip-toeing Around Tulips in Saint-Rémy

Blooming tulips brighten any February day.

Les roses are always a fabulous idea, the month of Saint Valentine or not. But oh là là, vibrant tulips like these can’t but melt hearts too. In Provence, les tulipes are an especially welcome spirit booster in February when gloom and gray can reign for days, with the temperature sometimes dipping below freezing at night, creating an ice sheet on the piscine. But then, there are days when the sky opens up blue and the sun shines.

A forty-minute walk from the car park brings you to this deserted beach in the eastern Camargue.

On one of these joyful, sunny occasions, Ralph and I popped down to the Camargue. On the eastern side, there was hardly a soul—just a couple of sanderlings skittering around the hard-packed sand. We ate our picnic leaning against a solitary log on the beach, mesmerized by the azure sky and succession of low waves rushing to shore.

Calm waters, azure skies in the eastern Camargue.

Until the vaccine is widely available, allowing us to safely venture farther afield, we’re especially grateful for the variety of outdoor spaces within reach of Saint-Rémy. And sometimes, snooping around our “neighborhood” reveals something new. Well, the Abbey of Saint-Michel de Frigolet isn’t exactly new—it was founded in 960.

An overview of the Abbaye de Saint-Michel.

Reachable in twenty minutes from Saint-Rémy, the abbey is nestled into a pine forest on top of a small mountain range called the Montagnette. We’ve passed by many times but never stopped to wander around until the other day. We walked the trails winding through the fôret de pins, took in the vast views from the highest peak, and visited the elaborate church. It was lunchtime and no one was around—even the boutique was closed. So there was no chance of a dégustation of the monks’ legendary Frigolet liqueur.

When we got home, I checked the abbey’s website. The monastery is known for a special beer and offering accommodation (in non-pandemic times) to pilgrims seeking a peaceful place of contemplation. I also discovered that over the years the abbey housed various religious orders and in the nineteenth century, it became a boarding school. The famous Provençal poet, Frédéric Mistral stayed there for a time.

The ornate interior of the main church at the Abbaye de Saint-Michel.

And this part I already knew–Mistral went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1904. His most important work was his lengthy poem, Mireille, the basis for the opera (of the same name) by his friend Charles Gounod. And, mes amis, guess where this opera was written in 1863? Yep, Saint-Rémy, in a modest inn that now is a posh hotel named after its famous guest.

A mimosa tree contrasts brilliantly with the bright blue sky.

So, despite these troubled times, a little historical discovery close to home makes our world a little richer. And the tulips–not to mention the brilliant mimosa–make our world a little more beautiful.

Stay safe, well, and hopeful!

Grosses bises, Gayle

A playful Camargue visitor writes a meaningful message in stone, punctuated with a heart.

PS

The Birdwatcher’s Wife is now with the second editor for another go-round—progress!

Bonne Année 2021 from Snowy Saint-Rémy

A very Happy New Year 2021 to you all!

A “sugar-coated” Petit Hotel.

Snowflakes fell on St. Rémy the first week of the year—an unusual event for this patch of Provence. So we were compelled to don our ski attire and head out for a stomp about town to see what we could see.

The Roman ruins of Les Antiques on the outskirts of town.
The war memorial on the Place de la République.

The sun was in hiding, but the pristine dusting showed off our small city in a new light, refreshing our perspective and lifting spirits.

Vines slumber under a coating of snow, at the base of the Alpilles.

Closing the door on a tumultuous year, we welcome 2021, a New Year filled with promise.

Today, sunbeams bounce off the hyacinths, a sign of spring and hope.

Stay safe, well, and hopeful.

Amitiés, Gayle

PS

Update on The Birdwatcher’s Wife: I’m working on the edits from the first editor. It’s long process, but I’m making progress, word by word—stay tuned! And don’t forget to feed our feathered friends flitting about your jardin or windowsill this winter:)

Let There Be Lumière…in St. Rémy de Provence


The Hôtel de Ville is all dolled up for the holidays.

Holiday lights are ablaze in St. Rémy de Provence. These spirit-boosting salutes to the festive season are most welcome, especially during this very different December in Provence.

This festive boutique glows with holiday cheer.

Celebrating traditions is a special challenge now in the time of covid. Most public events have been cancelled, including one of our favorites, the convivial Fête de Lumière, which typically takes place the first Saturday in December. Shopkeepers stay open late and offer a tempting array of beverages from vin chaud to bubbly. There are also yummy treats like tangy olive tapenade on tiny toast rounds and mini quiches Lorraine. It’s a popular community affair, so throngs fill the town center, despite the weather. Usually, our only concerns are how to best beat the crowds and how many layers to put on to withstand the chilly temps.

Irresistible treats are aplenty at this famous cookie shop, Le Petit Duc.

But this year, with the lethal coronavirus in our midst, the Saint-Rémois will not mingle as usual, shoulder to shoulder, in the historic center but stay safely home. This is not to say we’re skipping the season. Mais non! Creating our own holiday cheer chez nous is de rigueur with a pint-sized tree, twinkly lights, and homemade vin chaud.

A huge Santa greets customers at St. Rémy’s smallest book shop.

While we think festive thoughts, we also reflect on this difficult year, saluting those who successfully fought the virus and paying tribute to those who were less fortunate, like our charismatic neighbor. We miss him every day and will always treasure his friendship.

Shiny bulbs and fresh greenery adorn a pretty fountain on St. Remy’s circle road.

Speaking of treasures, there’s my dear mom who saved quotes like this one, (possibly attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt), which seems particularly relevant right now: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

Decked out in snuggly après-ski attire, Santa looks ready to get cozy.

And you, dear readers, are gifts to me. I thank you with all my heart for your support this year. Every message, whether about the blog or Passion for Provence, means so much. Mille fois merci!


Colorful, shining bulbs decorate the monumental sapin de Noël next to L’Église Saint-Martin.

Wishing you and your families a happy, healthy and hopeful holiday season and New Year 2021.

A neighborhood wreath shimmers in the Provençal morning sun.

Grosses bises, Gayle

PS The Birdwatcher’s Wife is with the editor right now. There are more revisions on the horizon, but progress is in the works–pas à pas–step by step!

Sigh of Relief in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Les Baux from Domaine Ste. Berthe
The hilltop village of Les Baux overlooks the fall vines at Domaine Ste. Berthe.

Grateful we are for President Macron’s message last night: Overall, it appears the number of new confirmed Covid cases is going down in France. This is encouraging news as it means this second lockdown we’re in—le confinement redeux—is working.

A farm we pass on our one-kilometer walk.

Restrictions will be eased in three stages. Beginning on Saturday, it will be possible to engage in physical activity up to 20 km from home and for 3 hours. (For the past month, the limit has been one km for one hour; the official form called an attestation will still be required.) Starting 15 December, folks will be able to navigate between regions for the holidays. (The 9 pm to 7 am curfew will remain in force except on 24 and 31 December.) If, by 20 January, the new infections are under 5,000 per day, restaurants and bars will be able to reopen. Masks are obligatory in town, and with very rare exceptions, everyone I’ve seen complies.

A Camargue cowboy leads a pony trek through the marshes.

The day before the latest lockdown, which started on Friday, 30 October, we took advantage of our freedom and the sunny weather to go to the Camargue. To be at the Med and feel the fresh sea air was exhilarating. Not surprisingly, we weren’t alone. But in the vast open spaces around Saintes-Maires-de-Mer, there was plenty of space for plenty of folks who were taking pony rides, strolling, windsurfing, bike-riding, picnicking and birdwatching, of course.

Fabulous flamingos feast at a large pond near the beach.
Kite surfers fly high at Saintes-Maries-de-Mer.

Knowing that in a few days some important libertés will be increased, we’ll have one more thing to be thankful for tomorrow, Thanksgiving, for Americans. It’s not a holiday here, and turkeys aren’t readily available until closer to Christmas, but we’ll roast a fat chicken and pretend it’s a gobbler.

It may look like a water treatment unit, but to little egrets, it’s a buffet.

But we won’t need to fake gratitude for many things–most importantly our health and well-being. Holding tight to optimism, we look forward to a brighter future across the globe.

Mr. Ed, who lives around the corner, licks his lips as I relate our Thanksgiving menu.

Happy “giving thanks” to all, wherever you are.

Stay safe, well and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS The Birdwatcher’s Wife is with the editor now. She’ll work her magic over the next month, and then it’s back to me. I’ll do the same for another month and then back to her. I don’t know when it will see the light of day, but it’s getting there!

A vibrant berry bush with morning glories mixed in reminds us to be hopeful.

Heartfelt Condolences

Sunflower

This shimmering sunflower offers hope, and we need it.

Recently, some vicious crimes have rocked France. One was the brutal murder of a middle school teacher in Paris, and the others were worshipers at a church in Nice.

The tragic deaths of these citizens remind us of the destructive power of hate, bringing much grief and despair. Our hearts go out to the victim’s families, and also to France, and all who value freedom around the world.

At the same time, the corona virus infections have surged. Hospital beds are filling up. The French government has declared another severe, month-long lockdown. There are few allowable reasons to leave home and when we do, we must have an official document. For physical exercise, we are limited to one hour-long outing per day, one kilometer from home. (The fine for non-compliance is 135 euros.) Schools remain open, but restaurants, bars and cinemas are closed.

The virus and hate are both enemies of a healthy, thriving society. Let us do our best to conquer them, propelled by respect and understanding. We look to a brighter future where peace and harmony may flourish.

Stay safe, well and hopeful.

Wheelin’ ‘Round St. Rémy de Provence

The carousel is quiet but not so the snazzy choppers–one with a fringed footrest!

The curtains may be closed around the carousel for the season, but other things keep going round and round here in St. Rémy de Provence—as long as the sun shines.

A classy roadster on a lunch break before taking the curves in les Alpilles.

Though the temperatures have dropped, there are many days when the wind is calm and the soleil is warm. This inviting weather brings out post-summer tourists for adventures on wheels, including electric bicycles, motorcycles, and vintage cars.

Vintage Citroën delivery trucks on display.

During July and August, the height of the summer season, Europeans couldn’t fly to sunny destinations, due to Covid restrictions. So instead of winging off to Spain and Greece, they drove–to the south of France—and we saw many of them here.

St. Rémy is a popular summer destination any year, so it’s typical to see cars from neighboring countries. But things were different during l’été 2020. On our daily walks around town and into les Alpilles, Ralph and I noticed car tags from an inordinate number of the 101 French departments, including a few from the overseas departments. (License plates list the individual department of car registration, but this will soon change, we understand.)

A smiley face baby carriage cheers up passersby.

Instead of counting birds, like he did last year, Ralph decided to count off the French departments by car tags. By summer’s end he’d found autos from 98 departments. Only Department 90, Belfort, plus Mayotte and French Guyana were outstanding. He also saw vehicles from the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Belguim, UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Monaco, Romania, and Luxemburg. Our town was a place to see and be seen, albeit in a masque. 

A quad barrels down a shady lane.
Spandex-clad cyclist buzzes around a corner.

The coronavirus situation remains a challenge here. Folks must wear masks in downtown St. Rémy (except when seated at a table). Restaurants and bars in both Marseille and Aix-en-Provence are closed this week, and a second week of closures may follow, depending on how the government assesses the risk.

Covered wagon takes passengers deep into the Camargue where flamingos can be spotted. Bring your binoculars!

So life in St. Rémy is more quiet than usual as we move into autumn. But nature marches on. The grapevines have been picked, and the olive trees are heavy with fruit. Birds are busy, flying and chirping, and they brighten our day. Birdlife also cheers us up at night. Many evenings around 10 p.m., owls hoot from the ancient plane trees that line the field to the west. They’re like a sweet, soothing bedtime story.

Stay well, safe and hopeful.

Bises, Gayle

PS

In place of traveling, I’m using the time to focus on The Birdwatcher’s Wife. I’m now working on revisions based on the insightful perspectives of my wonderful first readers. Progress is in the works, but much remains to be done. On y va!