Bread, bread, bread! But darn good bread. Not like what we have here in the States. And croissants! All baked fresh daily and full of yeasty gusto. The French really do have a leg up on us in the food department. So rich, vibrant and passionately prepared and presented.
Kent and I returned from France and Italy a week ago only to hit the ground running, tending to all the things needing attention here on the homestead. But over there, distanced from our day-to-day schedules, we were able to feel more present with what was right in front of us. To take the time to walk, or sit, drink wine or eat gelato… Even so, we managed to keep up with our exercise routines, more or less.
One morning we ran to the outskirts of the town and up one of the surrounding mountains. We jogged up rabbit trails, alongside fields of tomatoes and through voluptuous vineyards. Lots and lots of vineyards. From the top we enjoyed the absolutely beyond-words beautiful view of the agricultural valleys which lay all around us. Nestled in the center was the village of Alba. This is the region where the slow food movement was born. The area is also known for its white truffles, although not in season until the fall.
In the Languedoc region in France we enjoyed sampling the multitude of local wines while floating down the Canal du Midi on a barge. Bicycling or walking along the tow paths, where horses or oxen used to pull the barges, we spotted flamingoes in a marsh, melons growing in cultivated fields and horses grazing in pastures. We drifted past gypsies fishing from the banks, old barges and boats tied at the shore in disrepair, preoccupied river rats skirmishing around the tree roots at the edges of the water. The canal follows the lay of the land so as the terrain rises or falls the barge must go into a lock where the water is pumped in or out, changing its height to the required level for the next segment of waterway. An adventure in and of itself. Arching bridges covered in moss grace the tree-lined canal every couple of miles or so.
The train strikes made our travel days rather difficult and stressful. For instance, our first day: landing in Milan mid-day, after flying over the Atlantic, there was no easy way (that day) to get down to Cinque Terre. We should have been able to arrive at our destination by 4:00 in the afternoon. But no. “The regular trains are on strike today, Madam.” To make a long story short, we managed to patch together a hodge-podge of bus and short train rides (a lot of just sitting on the tracks) southbound to finally arrive to the little village of Corniglia at 11:00 PM. The last shuttle up the hill was at 6:00 PM so we had no choice but to trudge up the mile-long steep, narrow road dragging our suitcases and shouldering our backpacks. Nothing like being in the moment.
Provence was where we spent the most time. We stayed in a few different Airbnbs so we could check them out (and perhaps get a partial tax write off for our own business). One of the reasons I’d wanted to go to France was because it’s where my ancestors were from. I felt drawn. Ancient villages with narrow cobblestone streets flanked by towering walls hold dark secrets of the Middle Ages. Aromas of tasty sauces and baking bread still waft from those windows and doorways. A secluded, rural monastery survived countless wars by being self-supporting, growing its own food. I was impressed by its massive size. Some monuments date back to BC. Mind boggling.
Kent and I visited the Arena in Nimes. I loved how it’s just part of the city, not off by itself merely a tourist attraction. It’s currently in use for concerts and events. One can walk up and down the huge, precarious steps and around the top corridors which allowed for incredible views of the city’s steeples. I could almost smell the blood of the bull fights and the gladiators battling to the death thousands of years ago. If this amazing historical behemoth was in the U.S. it would most likely be roped off. One would not be allowed in certain areas or to perch on dangerously high and probably structurally unsound precipices. Too many potential lawsuits. But, I guess in France, you’re allowed to take your life in your own hands. To be accountable. This wasn’t the only place like this. We hiked up a steep hill to the crumbling Fort Buoux. The fortification stood atop a craggy ridge with sheer drop offs of hundreds of feet. Again, no restraints. We ducked in and out of sunken rooms and gazed out over the rugged countryside. Breath taking.
These were the things which inspired me. Not the cities. And not racing around from place to place in a tizzy attempting to cram in all the sites. Some yes, but it wasn’t our focus. It was fine with us to just gaze up at the laundry hanging from balconies drying in the breeze. We wanted to allow the time to simply be in the place. To reconnect with each other, which is difficult to do with busy schedules and heavy work loads. We came home to feverishly get the place up to snuff for our own Airbnb rentals. One day, after cleaning all the windows and screens in the house, I was reminded to stop and be present as my friend and I watched a beautiful doe amble down the hill toward the porch and over to the trough/fountain for a drink of water. We sat and talked for over an hour enhanced by the presence of nature. And, lucky for us, a bobcat has been serenading us every evening since we got back.
Chi Varnado is a contributing writer for The San Diego Reader. Her memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on www.amazon.com. Her collection of essays, Quail Mutterings, can be found on www.chivarnado.com.