Five Days in Provence: How It All Began…

Of course we all dream of relaxing and creative holidays in beautiful landscapes, so it won’t come as a surprise to hear that the 5 1/2 days I spent in Provence were simply fabulous! The weather was mostly cloudy, there was even some rain, so I only had 1.5 days of sunshine, but I didn’t care. This was paradise.

The Hameau Les Reys, near Roussillon, in Luberon.
The Hameau Les Reys, near Roussillon, in Luberon.

You won’t fully appreciate just how much those days away from family and work meant to me, until you hear of the weeks preceding it. Of course, the usual insomnia, anxieties great and small, travelling for work with tiring, woefully unprepared workshops (not only on my part), tense moments with my parents who had come to look after the children while I was away, meticulous forward planning but still not enough time to do all the laundry. It all culminated on 21/22, when I had the following timetable:

  • 06:00 CET: get up extra early to get to the training venue to change some slides and check in online (as the friend I was staying with was having some internet issues)
  • 09:00 – 16:30 CET – ‘stand and deliver’ all day
  • 16:30 – 17:00 CET – polite small talk and feedback with client
  • 17:00-17:30 CET- rush to the airport
  • 17:30 – 20:30 CET – discover the flight is delayed and there are additional security checks in force for UK destinations, while the 90 minutes free Wifi at Geneva airport expires and doesn’t allow me to access my mobile boarding pass at the gate
  • 23:00-01:30 GMT – unpack one suitcase and pack two (for myself and the children), leave the house reasonably tidy for some friends who would be staying there over the holiday week, print out boarding passes for everybody, make sure my parents have packed everything, driving instructions to the Provence, telephone numbers for all of my children’s friends, confirmation for rental car, save chapters of my novel on a USB stick etc. etc. etc.
  • 01:30-05:15 GMT – disturbed sleep on armchair-bed in study, with a restless cat trying to rest on my legs and waking up with a wonky shoulder
  • 5:15-7:15 GMT – make sure everyone eats, gets dressed, leaves behind keys they don’t need, takes with them medicines and keys they do need, don’t forget their mobiles or cuddly toys, take everybody to the airport, leave car at long-term car park, make sure my parents find the way to Terminal 4 while we get through security in time at our terminal
  • 7:15 GMT – 12:00 CET – another flight, another delay, but arrived safely in Geneva, where I hand the boys over to their Dad, and get my rental vehicle
  • 13:30 – 19:30 CET – drive down to Provence, but have to avoid the Swiss motorway (no vignette, you see), then take a wrong turn and end up going the long way round, adding at least an hour to my journey
  • 19:30 – 20:30 CET – the final portion of the journey was in complete darkness, along narrow country lanes with ditches on either side, trying to find a tiny ‘hameau’ while avoiding the beguiling road signs for Roussillon
  • FINALLY make it to my friends’ house and have a glass of wine to celebrate before collapsing in bed and sleeping for 12 hours straight

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My friends, Jack and Karen McDermott, are American, but used to live in Geneva. They retired to the south of France four years ago and bought an amazing farmhouse in the Luberon, which they have lovingly renovated.Karen is an artist (painter, ceramicist, photographer), as well as a poet, so you can imagine all the lovely little touches that have gone into both interior and exterior decoration.

The kitchen, where Karen prepares breakfast for her guests.
The kitchen, where Karen prepares the most delicious meals for her guests.

Three years ago, Karen and Jack opened up their wonderfully cosy, welcoming house to writers and artists who need some quiet time to rest, refocus and create. So far, all their guests have come through personal recommendations, so you can be sure that you will feel very much at home. Prices vary according to room size and season, but each room has its own quirky décor and, more importantly, all contain a desk for writing and good reading lights. A family after my own heart, who knows just what a bookworm needs. Oh, and did I mention that the house is full of books?

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Outdoors is just as enticing, pure balm to the wounded or exhausted spirit.

The swimming pool was just being prepared for its winter cover.
The swimming pool was just being prepared for its winter cover.
Plenty of inviting spots to read and write.
Plenty of inviting spots to read and write.

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Of course, the vineyards of Provence are all around (and Karen and Jack have the perfect wine cellar for it), as are lavender fields and olive trees. The delightful ochre cliffs of Roussillon, the picture-perfect hilltop village of Gordes and Menerbes of Peter Mayle fame are a short drive away, while Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Chateauneuf du Pape and Manosque (home of Occitane en Provence cosmetics) all make for perfect day-trips.

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But I was there to work, not gallivant about. There was a small amount of gallivanting involved though, as you shall discover in another post. But, for now…

My little corner of paradise, a studio with a separate entrance.
My little corner of paradise, a room of one’s own, with a separate entrance.

Combining Business with Literary Delights

Who said you cannot combine your work with your secret passion? During my recent business trip, I’ve taken advantage of my location to indulge in some literary pleasures.

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In Quebec, I discovered local authors and McGill University alumni:
1) Heather O’Neill with her story of twelve-year-old Baby living a precarious existence with her junkie father fleeing from one short-term furnished let to the next, Lullabies for Little Criminals.
2) Alain Farah’s Ravenscrag (translated from French), described as an original blend of retro science fiction and autobiography about resilience, literature as remedy and survival through storytelling.

In London, I could not resist the lure of Waterstone’s Piccadilly (I had no time to go further afield, but spent a happy hour or so in there):
1) Penelope Fitzgerald’s short story collection The Means of Escape – I’ve never read any of her short stories
2) Pascal Garnier: Moon in a Dead Eye because I have difficulty finding his books in France, and it has been mentioned as a favourite among his works by so many fellow bloggers
3) Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart – one of my favourite authors, or at least she used to be when I last read her twenty years ago – high time to reread!
4) Javier Marias: A Heart So White – high time I explored this author – plus he was translated by Margaret Jull Costa, whom I got to see in my second extravagance on this trip. See below.

Literary Conference

The London Lit Weekend, a little-known and not very widely publicised event (at least not online), took place on the 3rd and 4th of October at King’s Place in London. I attended a fascinating discussion on literary translation with Margaret Jull Costa (prize-winning translator from Portuguese and Spanish) and Ann Goldstein (translator from Italian, including the recent Elena Ferrante tetralogy), chaired by Boris Dralyuk, himself a translator from Russian. I’ll write a separate post about this event, as it was full of quotable insights. But I was too shy to take any pictures.

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Well, what is London without a visit to the theatre? I couldn’t resist the adaptation of Mark Haddon’s  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which my older son and I both read and enjoyed recently. And yes, he is very envious that I get to see it and he doesn’t!

Travel Poetry: The Secret Gardens of Vaulx

20140830_154618An assault on the senses: so much to catch the eye.

We wander in a daze, through minarets of clay,

alabaster arches of thousand one more dreams.

We get lost in mazes, guided only by

children’s laughter and gasps of enchantment.

Round-mopped flowerheads beckon us to stroke them.

Birdsong fills the cool shade under the chestnut tree.

Water in every form bustles, trickles, dribbles, laps –

Each fountain a family member,

each square of cement path a pebble-enscribed love-letter.

20140830_154332It shouldn’t work: it’s madness,

disparate elements reclaimed from Morocco, Java, Spain,

brought together with nothing but bare hands and humour.

It started out as child’s play and became a family’s history,

hands in soil for decades, shared sighs, always a surprise,

glimmer of a pool around the corner, where

copper filigree meets bulbous earthen pumpkins.

Day after day they built one more terrace,

seeded another flowerbed,

unhurried, unforced,

mosaics of azure tinged with moss, gold shredded with scarlet.

 

20140830_154442We walked in smarting with petty quarrels.

Thirst quenched, a little silenced,

we leave here hand in hand.

 

These magnificent gardens that I discovered earlier this year  just outside Annecy in France – a source of inspiration and delight. For Gabriella’s brilliant initial hosting prompt about travel writing over at dVerse Poets Pub.

Falling Behind on Reviews…

Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.
Manchester, Piccadilly Gardens.

I’ve been travelling and working (for money rather than love) for the past three weeks. Which, as always, means I get a lot of reading done (dinners for one at hotel restaurants and lonely hotel rooms are conducive to that sort of thing), but my reviewing falls by the wayside. Too tired mentally to string two words together (except perhaps ‘not now’).

I was aiming for entertaining rather than gruelling books, books to divert rather than ravage me. Some have been better than others, some have been slightly disappointing. I will try to do them all justice with longer reviews over the next few days, so this is what you have to look forward to!

Town Hall, Sheffield.
Town Hall, Sheffield.

Better than or as good as expected:

Linwood Barclay: Trust Your Eyes – ‘Rear Window’ suspense with a modern twist

Miriam Toews: All My Puny Sorrows – depression and suicide, not a light read

M.J. McGrath: The Bone Seeker – another fascinating insight into Inuit life

Tamar Cohen: The Broken – captivating if uncomfortable story of marital and friendship breakdown

 

Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.
Manchester, up-and-coming urban area.

Slightly disappointing (perhaps because of the hype):

Sam Alexander: Carnal Acts – too tough and graphic for my taste

Domingo Villar: Water-Blue Eyes – the abrupt ending spoilt an otherwise rather promising book set in Galicia, Spain

Edward Wilson: The Whitehall Mandarin – ambitious and thoughtful spy thriller, but gets a bit silly towards the end

 

More than slightly disappointing:

Lauren Owen: The Quick – an interesting writer stylistically, but stories about vampires are just not, not, NOT my thing (and I really need to read blurbs more attentively in future)

 

Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.
Tour de France preparations, Sheffield.

Charming and quirky reads:

D. S. Nelson: Blake Hetherington Mysteries – middle-aged, finicky hat-maker is an adorable detective, but felt the novella format was too short for the mystery to fully develop and breathe

Lena Divani: Seven Lives and One Great Love – autobiography of a cat – with great observations about life, humans and love – funny but also poignant

And, speaking of places I’ve travelled to, I found that Sheffield surpassed my expectations, while Manchester was a disappointment. I am sure weather, circumstances, time,  having an insider show you around etc. makes all the difference and I am sure that both cities have plenty to offer, but I know which of the two is my favourite. Still, both of them would make good backdrops to crime novels…

Manchester, former fish market.
Manchester, former fish market.
Sheffield, Winter Gardens.
Sheffield, Winter Gardens.