So, what do you get when you mix an art teacher, a hospital administrator, a biology professor, a French teacher, a woman who teaches English at a maximum security prison, and the world's most incredible man (who is married to the English teacher)? The best two weeks possible in France!
At the art teacher's insistence, although no one has ever needed to twist my arm to get me to go to France, and at my best friend's suggestion, I offered the trip to France for adults through a program at my school called Academy Nights. This program raises money for the financial aid fund at Durham Academy. I met with my group a couple of times in the attempt to convince them to write a check and off we'd go. The biology professor wasn't part of the original group. I'll explain how we found him later.
We decided to focus on art and cooking. The first indication that this was going to be a great group of people happened at Charles de Gaulle airport upon arrival. Betty, Yolanda and I were attempting to get ourselves and our ridiculously heavy luggage through the tiny turnstiles to take the train into Paris. Betty's luggage got stuck and she had to climb either over or under the turnstile. She just jumped right over that thing, collected her bags and was ready to board the RER. I was greatly relieved. We stayed at a lovely little hotel in the Rue Cler neighborhood of Paris, near the Eiffel Tower. Betty's son Alex joined us for a few days. Alex speaks French beautifully so we bonded quickly. And he became our restaurant expert. Since I normally travel only with 8th graders, about the only cuisine in Paris I can point you towards is the nearest crêpe stand!
We were joined on Bastille Day by Pat and Joan. We found a spot in the Gucci window to watch the military parade on the Champs-Élysées. My first Bastille Day in France! The highlight of the Paris stay was our outing to Monet's home in Giverny. We booked a bus tour, packed a picnic lunch and off we went for the day. We decided to open a bottle of red (we were in France, afterall, and drinking wine is never off limits there) on the bus to celebrate. Betty proceeded to spill her glass all over the very sharply dressed Alex (a white polo and beige linen slacks, if I am remembering correctly). Yolanda and I were curious to see how this would be handled since we are mothers of boys. Alex flinched ever so slightly and then went about helping his mom soak up what wasn't on him and in the seat. Not a word was said about it the rest of the day. We enjoyed our picnic on a bench in Monet's garden and were the envy of everyone who passed by as we consumed our freshly baked baguettes, various cheeses, ripe red cherries, dark chocolate and wine. Yolanda was asked to be the official photographer of an American guy proposing to his girlfriend in the gardens. The young woman had no idea what was happening until he got down on his knee and later Yolanda was revealed as the photographer. L'amour, l'amour, toujours l'amour.
After Paris, we boarded the TGV to head to Arles. We arrived on the doorstep of the Vedel's bed and breakfast and checked into our rooms to rest for a bit before the welcoming dinner. I was told that one other person would be joining us for the Mini-Gourmand course. I must confess that, initially, I wasn't too keen on the idea. Our group had already bonded. Why throw someone else into the mix? We met Richard, the Ole Miss biology professor who has a thing for turkeys, at dinner that night. He was very quiet but assured us he would be more himself the next day, after a good night's sleep. I was skeptical. However, Yolanda managed to give him a proper welcome to our group the next morning at breakfast by scalding him with the hot water for tea. We seemed to have a problem with liquids. I was told that Madeleine Vedel would not be with us for the week. I would be the translator for Chef Érick. What followed was the most wonderful week in Provence imaginable. Érick is a native, born and raised in Arles. He took us to visit Jean-David, an organic winemaker, to Saint-Rémy to visit the handsome chocolatier, Joël Durand (Yolanda was the only one to catch a glimpse of him, though, and she did get a photo and bragged about it the rest of the trip, bien sûr), to Glanum for lunch overlooking the on-going excavation of a Roman city, to an olive oil producer, Mas des Barres. Thanks to Joan and her ever present curiosity, I had to ask the young man giving us the tour of his family's facility if his "100% extra virgin" tee-shirt had a special significance. I wonder if I blushed? Doubt it.
The highlight of the week was our trip to the lavender field at the Abbaye de Sénanque. I now realized that Érick understands more English that he lets on. We had been discussing lavender amongst ourselves in the van and before we knew it we were off to see it in person without having asked Érick to take us. We had our picnic there and wandered around the abbey for a while.
We reluctantly left Arles, Érick, Barbara, his assistant for the summer, and Richard. I do not believe for a minute that they thought we would actually make it to our next destination, Aix-en-Provence, with me behind the wheel of a straight drive, loaded to the max, Ford mini-van with Yolanda as the navigator. I have absolutely no sense of direction, even having trouble telling my right hand from my left. However, with only a few wrong turns and Joan getting a little testy and telling Yolanda to put her camera away once and for all, we made it. We saw the Cézanne exhibit there and I still remember the warm goat cheese salad I ate. We left for Nice after only one night.
We found our hotel in Nice and had only a short walk to the Promenade des Anglais and the Mediterranean Sea. Pat, through the New York Times, had the names of some restaurants in Vieux Nice. We made a reservation at one, La Table d'Alziari, called a taxi and off we went. The taxi driver didn't recognize the address and, luckily, I had the phone number. The owner came to the end of the street to greet us and take us to his small restaurant. What a wonderful experience! He is from an olive oil producing family and his food was amazing. We went to the Matisse museum and to Matisse's chapel in Vence. We got lost on the way there and ended up half-way back to Aix before getting our bearings (how do they mark exits on the highway in France, Betty?) but made it to the chapel in time for a tour by one of the nuns who cares for it. What a beautiful place. That was followed by lunch at La Table d'Amis, another of Pat's finds (Melanie loves you, Pat!). I believe that we found paradise there. Well, my idea of paradise, anyway! Lunch outdoors among incredibly beautiful trees and flowers with a group of people who had become my dearest friends. The owner's handsome race car driving son serving us, along with his gracious wife checking on us periodically. We were photographed by the local newspaper, Nice-Matin. The food critic was there writing a story.
Now, how exactly did a girl from Spruce Pine, North Carolina get to heaven on earth in the south of France?