Wood Smoke and Fog

This morning I looked out the window to see the last nine golden leaves quiver atop the small poplar growing from below the stone wall at the river bank.  A brief ray of gold lit up the delicate tips of the micocoulier trees on the far shore.  Only branches remain.  Beyond the bridge I see a sparse number of kaki or persimmons oddly orange suspended in space clinging for color’s sake in a muted palette of winter.

It is the 6 Decembre and I catch myself trying to assimilate the last couple of weeks.  It is the moment to reflect and to cherish and wonder when nature removes her clothes, revealing sa forme, and her bones.  No embellishments, pas de decoration, only a hard grey armature…beautiful and intricate like the thousands of stones in my house.  There are few distractions in winter.  En hiver, we create our own diversions.  The darkness invites the lights and the starkness asks for color.  It was Un Dimanche á Sauve two days ago.  “A Sunday in Sauve” is an seasonal event which happens four times a year on a sunday.  All the ateliers and galleries were open to share the beauty and color created by tellement des artistes who live and work in Sauve.  I strolled about connecting and meeting those I had not met, weaving more threads in the fabric of life here.  The quantity, quality and diversity of work created here is amazing.  As I continue to paint here, I can visualize my participation in this event in the future.

In the evening I had an opportunity to participate in un défilé de mode, a fashion show, as a model dressing up with six other women in les vêtements designed by Michelle of nearby St Hippolyte du Forte.  We descended a great stone staircase in La Maison de Comte, a grand and elegant house of the XVII Century in the center of the village, to an audience in attendance for a theatrical spectacle to follow.  In my asymmetrical pleated burgundy dress and whimsical chapeau attached to my head I experienced a moment of elegance, joy and pure amusement recollecting my very brief modeling career in my twenties.   Unfortunately, my camera was not in use and the memories are caché dans ma tête, hidden in my head.  To follow Un Dimanche a Sauve go to: undimancheasauve.com

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La maison des hirondelles: a quaint vacation rental in Sauve, France

La mason des Hirondelles, the swallows nest, is a petit medieval house in an ancient four story chateau rising majestically out of the limestone riverbank in the thousand year old village of Sauve, France.  West of Avignon Sauve the Gard region is thirty minutes from the Mediterranean sea and an hour from Nîmes and Montpellier situated on a steep hillside in the foothills of the Cevennes.  Two charming levels face east to the breath-taking views some fifty feet above the Vidourle River burgeoning with fish, ducks, geese and heron and supporting a vast population of swallows and martins which fly high above in the blue skies.

The top floor has a beautiful arched ceiling comprising the kitchen, dining and sitting area, a cozy bedroom with a single bed, and a bathroom with shower, sink, toilet, and washing machine.

Below, down the solid stone stairs, the magical curtained sleeping chamber with its queen sized bed can be found.  This opens on to a spacious salon including the original fireplace, a comfortable sofa (also a double bed) and a grand window through which the morning sun shines.

With respect to its historical architectural origins, this gîte was sensitively restored to preserve the original terre cuite tile floors, wood beams, carved stone stairs and sink along with the vintage fireplace (which is strictly decorative in this century).  This is a dream come true for romantics.  Come fall back in time….

The Gîte consists of 450 sq ft on two levels in a four story medevial stone house.

* living room & kitchen

* 2 bedrooms:  1 single, 1 queen with 1 double hideabed

* bathroom with shower, sink & toilet

* capacity:  2 or 3 ideal, 4 if a family

* washing machine, linens provided, radio

* view onto the Vidourle River and two lovely bridges

Rental Conditions:  Weekly Saturday afternoons to Saturday midday

 Prices:  first week only (reduction for multiple weeks)

*high-season (July-August)            400 Euros

*mid-season (June & September)  350 Euros

*low-season (May & October)        250 Euros

*deposit                                              150 Euros

Contact:    Alison Johnston    Email:    loves2paintali@hotmail.com



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La Cuisine chez moi

Yesterday I escaped my stone house when there was a break in the clouds.  I climbed above the village and walked in the grey light to feel the wildness, the limitless space and to gather bay leaves, laurier as they are called in french.  I was thinking of Noêl, and something to send from my home away from home.  Les herbes gathered in the garrigue seemed a likely idea.

It is dark now in the month of November.  I spend much time inside with a pot of tea and my le Cruset full of le soupe de jour.  Yesterday I made a “poti” with onions, garlic, choux or cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and boudin aux cêpes which is delicious pork sausage with mushrooms.  Into this I tossed four bay leaves, un carré of chicken bouillon, some pepper and a bit of Dijon moutard.  With a soup ready during the day, my mind is free to think of painting or writing.

Living in a foreign country can really enhance your magic à la cuisine.  I decided to collect all my favorite french food photos from the past four years.  Le mois de Novembre makes me think of chestnuts which I have had roasted, cooked in squash soup, and in apple tartes, and as a crême de chaitaingnes spread on bread for breakfast.

Quiche with poireaux, or leeks, and loads of Emmental rappé makes a fabulous lunch with some fine slices of artisanale saucisson.  My favorite is wild boar with hazelnuts, or sanglier avec noix followed by one rolled in herbes de provence.

Recently the pears from Spain have been exceptional each coming wrapped in a white tissue with a fruit logo reminiscent labels in the thirties or forties.  I am saving these treasures for some creative moment…  The pears were actually secondary, but in fact were excellent and made a divine tarte de poire.  

Other images include my favorite seafoods, les huitres et les moules, as well as all the fresh fruits of summer which remain in our culinary memory to entice us as the seasons turn.  There is nothing sweeter than les garrigettes, strawberries from the Luberon sold in wooden baskets at a fruit stand on the N-100 in the month of May.

Finally for desert, or for le pause, take a break with a steaming cup of café noir.  Treat yourself to a patisserie from le boulangerie, or perhaps a square of organic chocolat noir a l’orange qualité Suisse.  La vie est belle! 


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Halloween in France

On Halloween, my friend Charlotte and I were all snug inside la maison enjoying les pommes de terres au gratin which we had made together using delicious petit potatoes, grated or rappé comte cheese, and a bit of crèam fraiche.  We were actually watching a film on her computer when a knock was heard at the front door.  Surprised and completely oblivious to the fact that it was the 31 Octobre, I got up and descended the six steps and opening the antique red painted door to find four adorable smiling faces painted by an artist, dressed in costumes even my mother would have approved of. Luckily, Charlotte likes caramel and we had exactly enough bonbons to share with our young goblins.  Merci, merci, giggles, merci… quickly we reached for our appareils photos to capture the moment.  I was laughing remembering that in the seven years of living in a cottage in town on San Juan Island, Washington,  I had never had one trick or treater come to the door!  Yet, I come here to rural France and voilà! 

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Le marché des puces à Anduze

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Last sunday before the orage began, we had one gorgeous trés beau sunday so Charlotte and I decided to drive to Anduze to wander through the colorful marché des puces or flea market.  The clear skies pronounced the autumn colors and the atmosphere of the market was bright and upbeat.  Charlotte was intrigued with the vintage linen torchons, kitchen towels, she found for her family as presents for Noel and a pair of diminutive painted wooden clogs made in the Cevennes.  Enamored by the enameled cast iron pots with “Made in France” stamped into them by Le Cruset, I was thrilled to find an oval orange pot with lid for 5 Euros!  Soups for the winter!  I cannot pass up looking at old plates and handed the vendor a euro for a lovely one to match my mismatched collection as well as two napkin rings made of horn with wild flowers etched around them.   Admiring the colorful enameled coffee pots and remembering the painting of two blue ones I created from the photograph I took at a market in Paris in 1999, I snapped another for my cyber collection of raw material, leaving the vendor somewhat baffled but agreeable.  As the late autumn sun warmed us we strolled back to the deux chevaux parked in the shade for a picnic on the bumper en pleine air.

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Inondable en temps de la pluie…easily flooded in times of rain

The waters are rising.  Overnight they swirl around the rock, a muddy green olive.  The three white geese watch at the far side, their reflections in the water still bright, still clean.  Their island is gone.  I sit in the high window hearing the roar of the source, gushing, rushing, vomiting into the river, an incessant drone.  A great flooding, or vidourage has its origins with the Vidourle I look at.  The rains have returned.  The earth succumbs to the persuasion of water.  From it, dryness is ravaged.  Nothing can hide; leaves from branches let go… blind fish swirl in the dark depths… from drinking stones sleeping ferns awaken… lichens breathe…

It is a good time to seek out a cave in which to hole up.  We go inside, each one of us and every small beast, under rocks, in crevasses, burrowing into the earth.  Great walls of stone surround me.  Inside it is dry.  Stone, linen, iron and wood, man makes a shelter.  I hear the church bells toll. It is le aprés midi.  The water has receded un centimeter, maybe.  Les oies stand on their island with wet feet, wet bellies.  For a moment preening, their feathers drift down stream.  Their reflections are not so clear now…  Darkening skies, more thunder, le tonnerre and lightening.  Then in a moment more rain.  I hear it streaming outside the door, down le passage, pooling at the bend where brilliant leaves swirl in the torrent…the force of impatience…like the pressing of a crowd.  The rain is awesome…and it is a reason the stay inside and get to work,  no excuses now!

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Autumn in Sauve

     I drew aside the curtain to ma chambre and could see the clear wind-blown sky framed in the arched window looking east and I knew the day at le marché in St Hippolyte du Fort would be beautiful.  Each morning the sun takes a few minutes longer to break the skyline with its red orange glow.  The air was particularly clear this morning as a result of the mistral blowing the day before. Charlotte and I made our petit déjeuner of our favorite granola muesli mix with fresh chopped prunes, bananas and apple, du thé in our large tea cups, and jus d’orange.  Gathering up our market bags, sweaters, obligatory scarves, and the keys to the “Deux” we stepped down the stone stairs to lock my ancient burgandy painted door.  Le froid d’Octobre surprised us instantly causing me to return, adding a vest and wrist warmers to my ensemble.  In one day the temperature had changed and a winter chill was in the air.  Walking down the steep and narrow Passage de la Source to the Vidourle river which flows in front of the village we found the grey 2CV waiting, patiently as horses do, for her next excursion.  Unfortunately she would not start and I had to relearn where the choke was located and eventually we were on our way.  Purring along pleasantly at 70k we made it in no time to St. Hippo where the market was underway in the central place.

     Intimate in scale, one can find everything culinary as well as books, imported treasures from India, clothing, and even household items as obscure as carrot peelers and dustpans.  We purchased local chêvre pelardons (creamy white goat cheese rounds), fragrant olives vertes drenched in garlic, tender dried prunes and apricots, organic salade mix and swiss chard, local sanglier saucisson made of wild boar, as well as fresh baked pastries to tide us over till our return.  In the short hour we were there we were happily greeted by six acquaintances from Sauve reminding us of their close and friendly proximity being only seven kilometers from each other.  In many ways the life of the villages in France resembles our island communities in the San Juan Islands held together by their commerce and the arts.

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J’ai du thym dans ma poche…I have some thyme in my pocket…

It is October the 12th and the sun continues to shine here in Sauve.  It has been eight weeks since the last rain.  There are farms whose wells are dry in the Cevennes Mountains and springs which cease to flow.  I am loving the beauty of the

golden light but I feel for the earth which needs the water of life.  Yesterday hiking up to le Col de Fosse, the Pass of the Pit, I could finally appreciate the wildness of the Cevennes.  We walked on un chemin which was built by the Romans which had originated in Milan, Italy and went all the way to Burgundy.  It was a trade route and well maintained with granite stones placed eons ago by slaves undoubtedly.  Climbing past ruins of stone houses and walls to enclose sheep I learned that at one time three million sheep used to make the annual transhumance in summer to graze on the cooler mountain pasturage, where only one percent of that number make the journey today.  In Roman times the entire economy was based around the raising of sheep.  Now only a few strident bergers make a living tending their flocks among the great granite boulders along with those who seek the solitude and rough simplicity of living far from the madding crowd.  It was at one such stone house that we stopped to have un café noir et du chocolate on the shady east side of the col.  Jeremy, an expat from England is restoring a stone house which had once been a toll house for the passing herds of sheep in Roman times and later a refuge for the French Resistence in WWII where sadly seventy men had been slaughtered by the Nazis in an ambush.  As I looked at the garden and the last of the fall cosmos blooming their magenta flowers I thought of how many lives had passed by this site yet revived again by another generation of dreams and hard manual labor.  He and his wife and three children run basic gite for hikers qui fait des randoneés throughout the region.  This morning I pulled a hand full of fragrant thyme from my pocket gathered from amongst the rocks and fat chestnuts scattered along the paths with their prickly bogs and crisp coquant dry leaves….oh the sound of the crunchy leaves!   It is good to have thyme in ones pocket…to savor life.

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Le Deux Chevaux

Alors, today I am in Vallabrix experiencing the frustrations of auto ownership in France.  My cute green D2C or Deux Chevaux needed its control technique yesterday, something like a physical for cars in France where you discover what a citron you really have.  By that i mean lemon not Citoen which the car actually is.   Upon reflection it is in fact both a citron and a Citroen!  Sour fruit or not I was determined to carry on.  With the list in hand and confidence in the brilliant sunny 1st of octobre morning, I headed out back to Sauve to enlist the help of a mechanic to put the list in order.  I must preface this with the fact that for the first week here I have been driving a borrowed Trois Chevaux which is in far better shape mechanically and physically than my car.  It has another horse pulling and even though the steering column is on the right(it being of English descent) I had grown accustomed to a considerably higher degree of mechanical security than I would experience down the road.  As soon as I started her she reminded me of her finicky attitude; I may or I may not…We pulled out and onto the narrow patched road headed to Uzes.  The soft suspension I had remembered from fifteen months ago felt more like I might bounce and touch my seat bottom to the pavement and I felt a distinctive diminishment of power.  Ok, shall we try second gear, maybe third, oh no sorry, not that one….we are sounding far too gutteral here… HANG ON here comes the first corner!  The woman behind me passes at the first chance.  It is the gorgeous saturday market in Uzes so I go the back route because I may be able to avoid the stop and go traffic she hates.  At one point on the single track looking up the autumn landscape I felt at one with the curve of the road, the shadow of the crumbling stone wall, the spire of the cypress ahead on the rise by the olive tree, the breeze through the window.  Ah France!  La vrai France… moi et mon D2C…

At the top of the hill Uzes sits on I weave my way to the busy Boulevard Gambatta only to discover I have not avoided a thing.  With a single one way road around the bustling medieval city, traffic creeps as tourists wander like geese from behind every parked car to cross to le marché in the heart of the Place des Herbes despite the best efforts of a noticeable plethora the traffic gendarmes.  I make a clumsy retreat downhill from first attempt only to be met with a near head on at the curve where I had noted to USE HORN on the ascent.  Scabbing to the right to avoid the car and the slightly vacant gaze of two teenage girls out for le weekend; she falters and stalls dead in her track.  Merde! Quelle chance!  I get out to push her exo-skeleton off the track so the girls can continue and sit like a stuck turtle in a danger zone.  From experience I know that waiting is the only solution to her carburator flooded with gas which I can smell evaporating my good mood.  Ten minutes later she reluctantly starts and I decide to take the low road and avoid the city all together.  There, in a second tight situation, afraid to pull out from a tenuous standstill into testosterone driven french traffic imagining a possible stall…I STALL AGAIN!  “I hate this stupid car!” I shout.  Embarrassed by my situation and other cars using the same detour as I trying to pass me, I decide.  Get back to Vallabrix, park it and put a sign on it.  A VENDRE.  Romance aside, I have had my fill of excitement.  Je suis une artiste et pas un mechanic. So I am here making the most of a bad idea, sitting at an impossible french keyboard correcting all the q’s and turning them into a’s!  The one     thing I do


love about their system is that the ? is less important than the !  I am both questioning and exclaiming today??!!!!

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Je suis arrivée en France: coulis des tomates

Two days ago I was wondering how I would possibly manage to carry my two twenty three kilogram bags on and off le TGV in Paris and Avignon, and today I was gathering ripe figs with my dear friend Madeleine in un verger abandoné.  Oui, je suis arrivée!   It was late afternoon, the air warm and sweet. She knows all the trees whose owners have long since forgotten them; les figues, les pommes, les cerises, les abricots, les pruneaux…sun kissed and delightful. Yesterday, as to celebrate our four year friendship, we went to le marché in Uzes in the Place des Herbes and bought les tomates, les oignons, les poivrons, et de l’ail and spent the afternoon slicing and mincing and peeling to prepare le coulis des tomates.  First, she boiled water to peel or éplucher les tomates, while I sliced the enormous onions, their fine skins crumbling from my hands.  Next, the crescents of onions, transparent as slivers of a mid-day moon, and rich green peppers fell into the great pot on the gas burner steaming into a limp mélange followed by the fat white cloves of garlic minced paper thin.  Last, herbes de provence were added for flavor and we were ready to fill les bocaux, to seal them, and preserve them.  I remembered with fondness the entire day we spent in 2007 preparing four times the quantity of coulis; thirty-two jars, with the eager help of Jonathan and Daniel, and Robin and Art.  The fresh taste of summer brightened many a dark winter evening thanks to many hands, many couteaux, and much laughter while creating “the fruits of our labor.”

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