We take turns. Yesterday was my day to feel homesick, to crave Brooklyn pizza and wonder why the iphone gods had scorned me so. I couldn’t sleep and spent the hours between three and five AM reading The Times on line. Back in the old days, those were my prime hours for lying awake and worrying about my job. Now, I could be awake and worry about not having a job.
Today, however, was Grace’s day. She was at odds with the whole world while I pulled myself together and got back to reveling in everything. I found the lost black bathing suit, then discovered there were plenty of bars on the iphone once I drove into town. By the time I ordered Reine pizza at lunch, (I am pretty sure this means Queen Pizza) I was again a reasonable human being open to the many pleasures of this world. By then Grace was staring into space, hating her entreé, and worrying about why French sounds to her like “Blah blah blah blah.”
We gave her as much slack and as many favors as we had available. When she didn’t like her lunch, we all fed her ours. (She couldn’t like ours either.) When she got overwhelmed and exhausted after a few hours in the sun, we let her decide what to do next. She led us almost like magic, to an Italian Gelato store where the shopgirl giggled adorably at Bill’s French and gave me une boulle of life-altering rhubarb sorbet. What is it with this trip and delicious things made out of rhubarb? The ice cream perked everyone up. On the way home, we realized what was going on with Grace – she was simply learning way too much way too fast. Her mind takes everything in and just gets overloaded sorting it all through. She was so busy thinking that she got worn down and needed our TLC, plus a good solid crying jag once she got home.
This has been our family’s pattern essentially forever. At our best, the four of us are like the wheels of our old Subaru; while one of us starts to slip, the other three take up the slack. At our worst, we’re that hateful shopping cart with the wonky wheel; the whole enterprise gets dragged off course and we pull in opposite directions. Perhaps in our heart of hearts we would love to be a race car family, all wheels working in synch, out there beating the other families. But having all four of us move smoothly and in synch would require all four of us to be people we aren’t. It might also require us to hire an entire pit crew to take care of the refueling and constant repairs. Most days we’re happy to settle for the Subaru and tool along safely, and plenty fast enough.
We got up early and took a beautiful winding drive past Aups to Lac St. Croix, a stunning manmade azure lake in the middle of a huge bowl of mountains. Neither Bill nor I had idea how gorgeous or how close to our house in Aups this enormous mountain-lake combination was. We settled into the car for a nice long drive, and 25 minutes later were staring, mouths agape, at a gorgeous natural landscape. We swam for awhile in the lake, then drove up to a picture-perfect town, Moustiers Sainte Marie, for lunch. A little stream ran through a deep ravine in the middle of town, with a bridge high above, covered in red flowers. The buildings were painted in those beautiful colors everybody loves. I felt very much like a queen eating my pizza avec jambon and champignons, next to an open window looking over the valley below. Rhubarb sorbet. Public art. Herbes de Provence. Dumb, dumb luck everywhere we turned.
At a friend’s birthday party just before I left, another friend’s mother was quizzing me on where exactly in France we were going and why. She was dumbfounded (and quite obviously not in a good way) when I could not answer either question with any specificity whatsoever. She had never heard of Aups, and wanted to know what it was near. I gave her my stock answer (between Aix and Nice), which had always worked in the past, but was not working for her. She had travelled all over Provence, and kept throwing out the names of other little towns, hoping that one might remind me of something I had forgotten – perhaps we chose our town because we love truffles, or have friends in Niçe, or spent time traveling here and couldn’t wait to go back.
The real truth shocks most people who don’t already know us well. We picked Provence because we both took French in high school, but we all thought Paris was too cold in the winter. We picked the town based on the house we found on the internet to rent, which looked sort of cute, had lots of bedrooms for visitors, and which wasn’t very expensive. Other than the week I spent at a Club Med knockoff in St. Tropez with my French host family in 1985, I have never been to Southern France before now. Bill toured through the coast on his European backpack trip in 1992, but neither of us has any real reason to be here. We have come here through a series of decisions made months ago on the basis of hearsay, digital images, and the real estate ads on ownersdirect.com.
Yet here we are. We had no idea it would be so warm, so dry. Sure, the websites and guidebooks said 320 days of sun a year, but we didn’t think that could possibly be really true. I read a nice coffee table book once about the colors of Provence. But seeing them in person is a revelation. There really is a winery every two kilometers, and the olive trees sit in splendid rows along the roadsides. Their green leaves look so soft you might like to pet them.
It is realistic to expect that at some point in this trip, we will likely be sorely punished for our ignorance. But right now, we’re kids on Christmas morning. While last night I thought we were completely daft, today it feels like we’re just stupidly lucky. Bill somehow managed to hit hiking-and-swimming-hole paydirt, and I got way more quaint charm than I had bargained for.