We return to the ancestral manse

Trip Start Sep 25, 2012
Trip End Oct 16, 2012

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Flag of France  , Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur,
Sunday, October 7, 2012

We bid fond farewells to Feelie, Felix, Ina, and Lisa, packed up the car, and drove east. We were headed to St Paul de Vence, where Annie, Emily, and I lived a decade ago.  The circuitry that so unerringly remembered The Fox and The Greyhound in Keston wasn't so tuned in to remembering the more recent and more frequently travelled roads to St Paul—both Annie and I would get little flashes of familiarity, but usually by the next roundabout  the spark had been extinguished and we couldn’t give Manfred authoritative directions.  Maybe the roads had changed since we’d lived there, we thought hopefully.  But by the combined authority of our intermittently functioning memory banks and Manfred’s GPS we arrived in St Paul de Vence.  Everything looked pretty much as it had.  We drove to the Espace Sainte Claire, a multi-story car park, for church.  The "International Church in the French Riviera" was perhaps the world’s only church located in a parking garage.  Well, it’s not exactly in the parking garage itself, but just off “Level 0,” which is three circular stories below the “+3” entrance level.  We had arranged a rendezvous with old church friends.  There was Anne with her infant son Emmanuel, who inexplicably was no longer a baby, but now ten years old!  And our good friend Paula was there too.

After church we took the inevitable walk down memory rue.  As always, the venerable Colombe d’Or restaurant, which guarded the entrance to the village, was surrounded, like a swarm of black flies, by Mercedes, BMWs and Jaguars.  The Colombe is stuffed with original art by the likes of Picasso and Matisse—in the 1920’s and 30’s these unknown and impoverished artists stayed at the hotel and the prescient owner accepted their paintings as payment in lieu of cash.  

Then we walked past the metal cylinder that serves as a barrier to keep non-residents from driving into the village.  It’s about the width of a telephone pole, two feet tall, and sinks down into a hole in the road to allow passage when the nearby card reader is activated. (As residents, we were proud to have one of the coveted cards).  When we lived there, a prime source of entertainment for Emily and me was to sit on the terrasse of the Café de la Place, drinking coffee or having frites and beer and watch the show:  Following a resident car, unsuspecting drivers would find their car bounced into the air as the cylinder, with a pneumatic hiss, reemerged from the hole in the pavement.  The car’s undercarriage was pinned and the front end was held aloft in a humiliating display for all to see.  Eventually the police would appear and make the cylinder retreat back into its hole, and sometimes a tow truck had to be called to drag  the car away.  What fun.

Meanwhile, the old men were still playing petanque on the brown gravel court just adjacent to the café.  The thud and scrape of the metal balls, which we could hear from our house, sounded just the same.

We walked past the Café down the sloping narrow road to our old house, La Golondrina.  The apt name means swallows; we had lots of them.  We stood in front of the metal gate we’d opened hundreds of times to walk down the stone path to the house.  But now we had no more right to do so than did any of the tourists who passed by our house and looked in when we lived there.  As I stood, looking at La Golondrina, so many memories packed away in the archives were released: puppy Pandora tearing up the underground plastic sprinkler pipes (they weren’t cheap to replace!), the raucous concerts that lasted most of the night that took place in the space just on the other side of the city wall from the house, the swallows at twilight sewing complicated patterns over the vineyards, the bottle I rigged up on a branch of the lemon tree so that it contained a blossom, which grew into a lemon within the bottle.  When it was ripe, I cut the stem of the lemon, untied the bottle, and filled it with vodka.  We still have it.  During its decade-long marination the lemon has become somewhat bleached out, and the vodka has acquired a strong yellow tint.  The passage of time can be marked in so many ways.

We went back up the road for lunch at La Petite Chapelle Restaurant, which was within smelling distance of La Golondrina.  We rarely ate there—it was hardly like going out—but it seemed appropriate for this visit.  From our table on the terrasse of the restaurant we could see the roof of our old house.

Finally it was time to walk, as we’d done so many times, under the arches of the thick city wall into the bustling core of St Paul de Vence.  The same tourists milled up and down the stone paths, holding dripping ice cream cones and stopping suddenly to look in a shop window, blocking the narrow way.  We revisited the old church at the highest point in the village.  Then we tracked down the shop of our German friend Giesela, proprietress of Les Trois Etioles.  It had moved to another part of the village, but the fabulous home-made liqueurs were alive and well.  Carole and I toasted little glasses of fig liquor, which was beyond scrumptious. 

There were two last stops on this sentimental journey:  We visited the cemetery where Marc Chagall is buried and placed small stones on his grave.  Then  Annie and Paula went to the little tourist office, just across from the estate agent’s where we found La Golondrina.  The office was able to supply Annie with the phone number of her dear friend, the artist and St Paul fixture Nanou.  Since Nanou speaks almost no English, Paula translated.  They made arrangements for us to visit Nanou at her house and studio the next day.
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Julie on

I was one of those awestruck tourists many moons ago.

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