attention abeilles: hiking the massif de l’esterel

img_1742The best thing about waking up in the morning–or returning to my petit chez moi at any time of day–is the view from my balcony: the brilliant bay outlined by mountains.

I come from the part of Missouri that’s just barely not-Kansas. Deprived of elevation for so long, any hint of it makes me giddy.

Mountains comfort in their grandeur: a constant illustration of perspective. When you can see more than the neighbor’s front lawn, it’s easier to feel loosed from quotidian cares.

These particular mountains sit stoic, wrapped in a fine layer of gauzy fog. They look their best at sunset, as the dying light tinges them a deep purple. When night falls, the streetlights click on and trace a route around the base of the mountains in sparkling orange light.

These are my personal fairytale mountains. But like a shy classmate with a crush, I was content to stay a safe distance away. I didn’t even have a name for the object of my affections. All this time I’ve been here and my description stopped at: “those pretty mountains in the distance. To the right. With the red rocks.”

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It turns out I have a view of the Esterel Massif, a coastal mountain range of volcanic rock tinted brick-red by porphyry. On Sunday I asked Cécile, friend and native Cannoise, what I needed to do to get over there. Whenever I’ve hopped on a train to explore, I’ve always headed direction Ventimiglia, towards Italy. Never towards Marseille. I had developed a mistaken idea that the trains didn’t really run that way. Left unchallenged, this idea kept the mountains mysterious– and inaccessible. I’m glad I asked, because Cécile assured me that they do. She looked at the map of destinations and suggested a few. I wrote them down. I’m well-versed in the string of sparkling towns surrounding Nice, but didn’t even have names for the much more rural areas that neighbor Cannes.

It was a beautiful afternoon and I was itching to go somewhere, but the tiny train station right across the street didn’t offer rides for several hours. Fearing the sunset and the resulting chill (I was ill-dressed for a 15-degree temperature drop), I went to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

The next day, the sun again shone bright and my student canceled. It was as good a sign as any to get on the train. I picked Agay and bought a round-trip ticket for 7 euros. The next thirty minutes I was shuttled through the coast, surrounded by rocky red mountains and the deep blue sea (a preview of the hiking scenery to come).

The train spit me out in front of a tiny station and sputtered away. The station, bright red and boxy like a toy house, was dwarfed by the red rocks in the background. AGAY.

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Because I always like to spend a lot of time in adequate preparation, I picked a direction at random and started walking, googling hiking trails and train times as I did so. I was also wearing Birkenstock slides, which proved their name by causing me to slip all over the mountain. (There’s a reason I do not position myself as the Expert Traveler, source of wisdom for all practical matters).

Within five minutes I was away from the main road and headed down a promising path. It involved wooden and stone stairs and much of it felt like I was cutting through people’s backyards.

acs_0361acs_0351acs_0362acs_0363 Within twenty minutes, I had gained a lot of elevation and a panoramic view of the sea and hills. I hadn’t passed anyone else until I saw a red pickup truck parked in a field near a sign that warned ATTENTION ABEILLES. Watch out for bees. 

acs_0358An old man walked around to the truck.

Bonjour! I called out. Excuse me, but what bees? It seemed wise to inform myself in case there were giant attack bees further down the trail, or something of the sort.

It was nothing so adrenaline-inducing.

The man pointed behind the truck to a collection of beehives. I crept a bit closer and could hear the signature angry hum. Vaut mieux pas s’en approcher ! He warned. Vous risquez de vous faire piquer ! 

acs_0352 Noted. Getting stung a dozen times over wasn’t really on the day’s agenda, so I gave the bees a wide berth. Bees soon became a theme, though, buzzing shrilly about each patch of wildflowers I approached.

Ten minutes later, I came to a bench on an overlook. I stopped and read for about an hour, stopping occasionally just to fling my head back and breathe. I also furiously brainstormed picnics, my mind organizing grocery lists. If ever I found a place to have un pique-nique, this was it. acs_0330 acs_0353 acs_0329 acs_0332 The trail widened into a a red-dirt path big enough for several lanes of traffic. Tiny pebbles lay like scattered marbles on the ground, a sort of Home-Alone-style trap. In my sandals, the footwear of the hopeful and foolish, I was struggling to stay upright (much to the amusement of my fellow hikers). I wound my way up the red rock layers until I came to the point de vue at the very top of this particular mountain. acs_0356acs_0360acs_0359 acs_0350acs_0354acs_0344img_1717acs_0334 Gravity propelled my descent and I arrived where I had started in half the time. I still had 45 minutes before my train came, so I took the opportunity to visit Agay’s stretch of coastline. img_1742acs_0333 I found a rocky beach with clear water and patches of electric-green moss. Next to the bay was a campground complete with RVs, grills, and families having apéro. A man in waders headed out in the water with a bucket and a pole, surely hunting for some kind of snack from the sea.

It was a notably different crowd than on the Cannes beaches, with the luxury restaurants on the sand offering 20 euro cocktails. This felt normal, rural, a bit like a lake in Missouri. (But give me a Mediterranean bay any day.)acs_0337acs_0349acs_0346 acs_0331acs_0366acs_0365acs_0367acs_0364 It was a day well-worth 7 euros, I’ll say that much. Good things can happen when you jump on a train.

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la culture populaire for the couch potato: lessons in french tv

I can’t stand advertisements. I don’t like being told what to tell my doctor. I roll my eyes at deus ex machina plot lines and groan at laugh tracks. I am a TV cynic.

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It’s nothing noble. It’s just that I would really really really rather read. I am grateful that my parents encouraged the habit. From the age of seven, when I stammered out in-gre-di-ent in a Clifford chapter book I read to my dad, reading has had the power to transport me: away from the stuffy reality of a public bus, the pain of a stomachache, the boredom of a long wait, the torment of a heartbreak. Reading begets pure contentment.

I could write volumes about the virtues of books, which is why (insert irony, that loveliest of literary devices), I decided to start watching a little more TV. Call it cultural research: is there a better way to learn about a country’s values without leaving your couch? Plus, TV is just a little more convivial. Reading at the dinner table can (unfortunately) be perceived as rude. But when everyone is parked together in front of the TV, that’s considered quality time. Apparently.

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After something like a five-year hiatus from any TV besides reruns of Twin Peaks or The Office, I am learning all kinds of things.

Les Reines du Shopping

The Queens of Shopping, my guilty pleasure. In this show, the cheery stylist and trusted fashion expert Cristina Córdula assigns a theme to a week of shopping. Five competitors, all everyday women from age 18 to 70, compete to create the best look. They have two and a half hours to shop a list of Parisian boutiques and twenty minutes to do their own hair and makeup before strutting down a mini-runway, where the competitors judge the success of their outfit and their ability to stay on thème. The women’s shopping is interspersed with comments from Cristina and the other women– do they like those pants? Do they think this dress looks good on Florence (age 43, from Lyon)? Then there’s the finishing touch: the male narrator–invisible–but always full of funny and wryly sarcastic comments to direct the show.

Cristina, who feels like a friend by now, is likable and funny with her trademark hoop earrings, dimples, and especially her penchant for crying oh la la ! and bringing her manicured hands to her mouth in horror when startled by a true fashion faux pas.

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She’s what you want in a French fashion expert (though she’s Brazilian à la base). She’s kind but trenchant, the fairy godmother who says when the look doesn’t work, pas du tout. You trust her. She might point out your flat-chestedness or spotty complexion, but it’s only for your good, to help you figure out how to mets en valeur your best features. I’ve had similar experiences shopping at Sephora or Sinéquanone. As the vendeuse cinches a belt around my waist or runs back with a berry lip color to go with my light green eyes, or even claps as I walk out of the changing room, I feel like I’m in good hands: a little like Cinderella mid-transformation. And it’s fun to see this same trust the expert culture on the screen.

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L’Amour est dans le Pré

The name of this show, Love is in the field, is an allusion to a 1995 French comedy, Le Bonheur est dans le Pré, or, happiness is in the field. In the film, a miserable married man falls in love with a charming foie gras producer in the rural Gers department, finding his happiness chez elle. L’Amour est dans le pré proceeds along the same lines, fostering connections between people from different worlds. It seeks to provide lonely rural people, mainly agriculteurs, with amorous connections elsewhere. It can be hard for a solitary dairy farmer, for example, to get a day off, much less spend time in a city looking for dating possibilities. L’amour est dans le pré seeks to remove some of these obstacles. The host, Karine Le Marchand, interviews the participants and shows viewers their story: how they got to where they are, what their daily life involves, what they’re looking for in love.

The camerawork is stunning. Often, participants live in rural areas like the Auvergne (where I spent last year) that are short on people but big on natural beauty. The film crew captures the region at its best, making it look dreamy: somewhere a tired city person might happily exchange their stilettos for farm boots. There are closeups of farm puppies and cute pigs, aerial views of proud pines or grand dormant volcanoes, screen-filling blue skies.

Interested viewers write the show, requesting to meet the person who caught their fancy on TV. These first meetings are filmed (awkward, much?), and then, the agriculteur chooses the three people who most interested him or her to come stay for a weekend at their place (often a big farm house with plenty of rooms). Unlike The Bachelor, a choice doesn’t have to be made. Often, though, there is a real connection, and the show has led to numerous marriages and new babies.

I’m intrigued by the concept: old-fashioned in that it hearkens back to mail-order farm brides, almost, the tradition of a hopeful farmer who writes for a wife. Yet it’s modern, too. The problem is a little bit new: loneliness and isolation present in modern society like never before. Western cultures are getting further and further away from our food and the people who produce it, and it seems that these people often get left behind. I think it’s pretty neat that this show is working to change that, in some small way.

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Nouveau Look pour une Nouvelle Vie

A New Look for a New Life is your classic extreme-makeover show, hosted by Cristina Córdula. Each episode starts with Cristina sitting on a couch and watching the plea for help of her latest client (or more commonly, their family or friends). Cristina, please help us, they implore. C’est pas possible. You see footage of the poor fashion victim, twirling in one of their favorite outfits, showing off their closet, all ignorance and bliss, while friends and coworkers and spouses discuss the person’s neglect, colorblindness, or poodle haircut. Aïe aïe aïe ! Cristina cries, hands flying to her mouth. Oh but that, ça n’est pas. Po-ssible. What are you thinking mon chéri ?! 

Over the course of the weeklong relooking, Cristina dramatically transforms the hopeless fashion victim into someone who stands up straight, who likes looking in the mirror. Looks certainly aren’t everything, but they can transform how we feel about ourselves. I think Nouveau look pour une nouvelle vie does a good job urging people to upgrade without mocking or humiliating them. This show has moved me to tears a few times.

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Un Souper Presque Parfait

Souper is an obscure, Québecois word that means “supper.” An almost-perfect supper is a reality show where five strangers are brought together to take turns entertaining the others. Who can throw the best dinner party? To that, I say: who cares? Still, I was amused to learn of the existence of this most-French of shows, which asks: did the host choose appropriate apéro snacks? Was the décor classy and on-theme? In the episode I watched, a woman made osso bucco and then had the guests entertain themselves with photobooth props while she prepared dessert. The final entertainment was to go outside and shoot Nerf guns. Between good friends, this could be fun. But five strangers on camera? It was painful to watch.

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I’ll keep suffering through grocery store cheese advertisements, all in the name of cultural research.

But I won’t give up books just yet.

Photos are from a trip to Paris and a Cy Twombly exhibit at the Pompidou. Read more about Paris: Shoebox in Paris. Gypsy Jazz

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sixteen-mile walk: marseille in a day

acs_0044It’s always a bit wild for me to confront the glaring misbeliefs I have carried around, innocent and ignorant and unsuspecting. Why did nobody tell me? I wonder. How was I getting along in this world?

I’m particularly prone to misunderstandings in the areas of pronunciation and geography.

I read like a fiend, which means that my written vocabulary grows much too quickly for my pronunciation knowledge to keep up. There just aren’t enough appropriate opportunities to test out “chimera” or “stygian” in my everyday life. When I do toss out a brave new word, there’s a good chance it doesn’t quite translate.

In the realm of geography, I like to blame my first-grade teacher for my obscene misinterpretation of the compass rose. Somehow I came to believe that “North” was whichever direction I happened to be facing at the time. The embarrassing part is how long I carried this idea around, far past the point of cuteness.

Just a few months ago I thought that Corsica, our island neighbor to the south, was a separate country, and one that I could effectively tour in a day. My AirBnb hosts had a good laugh before advising me to allow two weeks to see this area (definitely a region of France, by the way).

Another misconception: I thought I had seen Marseille. acs_0046

I spent less than a day there on a rushed study abroad weekend trip four years ago, and I checked it off my list. A mistake! Marseille is more than paella and the Palais Longchamp.

I had the chance to visit last Sunday when my friend Rémi invited me along to the Bordeaux-Marseille football match. We made a day of it, leaving early in the morning from Cannes. Judging by the map, the two cities seemed a considerable distance apart, but I had forgotten how smushed together are all the cities on the coast. It took us less than two hours until we were parking near the formidable Cathédrale de la Major, one of the largest cathedrals in France. Before we could get out and gaze at it, though, Rémi took special care to back his car into a corner in the parking garage, doing his best to obscure the huge “Girondins de Bordeaux” sticker on his back window. He was worried about vandalism–even a little paranoid, it seemed to me–but it’s true that things can get ugly, as the two teams have quite the rivalry. acs_0068

Plus, Marseille has a high crime rate and a bad reputation. As you’ll see if you google it, this is no Cannes or St. Tropez. And I was kind of glad about that. I’m not advocating crime, but the string of sweet little towns from St. Tropez to Menton is so sleepy that the most excitement I see on the street is two leashed poodles having a disagreement.

The oldest city in France feels alive, bright and vibrant even on a Sunday (of no small importance in a country that likes its weekends). Upon exciting the garage I saw a wall depicting King Kong terrorizing Marseille: recognizable by Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, largely considered the symbol of the city. The gorilla roared and clenched the Virgin Mary in his fist. img_7657

This was the first street art of the day, but I would see loads more: everything from mosaic trees to colorful fish to phallic symbols (but surprisingly artsy ones).

Rémi and I didn’t have a programme, but I had some tips on what to see from a blogging friend. It was sunny out and we were both wearing sneakers so we walked. And we walked. And we walked. We ate octopus and squid, climbed stairs, peered into dark crypts that smelled of candle wax, listened to the creak of boats in the port, and watched a purple sunset. By midnight (the time we collapsed in the car post-match), my phone pedometer read 15.9 miles. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following in our (often retraced) footsteps, but I had a great day. Marseille won a new fan, and not just in soccer.

Have you been to Marseille? What were your impressions?

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shades of blue: falling for gorges du verdon

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A stranger in the kitchen. That was my first impression of Rémi. I didn’t know how to politely phrase the question ‘who are you and what are you doing here,’ so I assumed he was related to my AirBnb hosts, a cousin or something. We had a whole conversation before I realized he was just a guest like me. In Cannes for a week from Bordeaux, he would complete a weeklong stage for his new job, the training period required before he begins in January and moves here for the year.

Both in our early twenties and new in town, we struck up an easy rapport, making our respective dinners at the same time and walking around Cannes together. In the middle of the week was le Toussaint–all Saint’s Day–and Rémi had the day off. He asked if I wanted to go somewhere.

Yes.

I thought of places Erika and I had visited that he might like. “No,” he said, “let’s go somewhere new for you too!”

Kind soul. I thought out loud about where we could go by train.

“I have a car!” He laughed.

La classe! Clearly I had been “roughing it” for too long. En voiture, the possibilities were endless.

We met early the next morning. Rémi hooked up the GPS, while I sat in the passenger seat thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide for Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur.

I fell on a page about the Gorges du Verdon: “Europe’s Grand Canyon.”

“Have you heard of this?” I read him the description, then typed the address into my phone. It was only thirty miles away, but the drive we’d need to make, winding around mountain roads, was predicted to take over two hours.

“Is that okay? What do you think…” I really wanted to go, enchanted by those turquoise waters, but I tried to hide it. If he didn’t want to, I understood. It would be a lot of driving time for a last-minute day trip, and we wouldn’t be able to trade off. (I thought of my one disastrous manual driving lesson the year before).

Rémi responded with that most French expression of enthusiasm: a shrug. “What’s the address?”

We were off.

img_3113It was a proper road trip: windows down, blue skies above, and the radio cut by static. In the space of an hour, our setting evolved from beach town to classic autumnal landscape to the ear-popping heights of the mountains.

We passed pastures of goats and sheep and plenty of warnings to watch out for wandering members of the flock.

Civilization became more and more scarce, but no matter the elevation, one thing was sure: even in the boonies, there would be no shortage of festivals.

Signs alerted us to the existence of fêtes celebrating everything from chestnuts to…donkeys. As you might expect from a country that loves champagne and celebration, France has a festival for everything. Some seem a bit…unnecessary (yay garlic. Yay orchids), but even the small ones are excuses to get together, eat, drink, and buy things you don’t need. And what’s not to love about that.

We were almost there, and I was more than ready, my stomach pleading with me to find solid ground. The comically tight, twisting roads were nauseating, as was the view (in a beautiful way, of course).

There were bikers (there are always bikers, tough as nails), and I would’ve stayed in the car all day before trading places. Their uphill plight looked like one of the circles of hell.

We passed crêperies and tiny pizza shacks squeezed onto the side of the road. Some had outdoor seating: the chairs lined up near the edge of the cliff, nothing between the casual diner and the abyss but a weak fence. One pizza margarita and a side of dread, s’il vous plaît.

We stopped to breathe and stare over the edge for awhile. Ultimately though, we wanted to get to Lac de Sainte-Croix. More driving.

It was worth it. I had never seen fresh water this shade of blue: from deep-teal to turquoise to swimming-pool-acqua depending on the light and on the depth.

We watched people set out in kayaks and paddleboats.

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Signs on the bridge warned swimmers from jumping. I was interested to see that the biggest danger cited was not the chance of landing wrong, or hitting a rock. No, jumping was a really bad idea, apparently, because of the high chance of getting stuck in the clay at the bottom of the lake. And drowning. To further dissuade, the signs listed a death toll. img_3109

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After driving, walking, and sufficiently appreciating the natural beauty, we were ready to find something to eat.

We drove away from the gorges and the lake and through a number of tiny villages perchés. They were postcard-charming…and postcard-still. Everything was closed for le Toussaint. img_3117 It was a hungry trip home to Cannes, which may have influenced my opinion of the pizza we eventually procured: absolutely delicious.