Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Man Missing France

This is along the lines of, And now for something completely different:

Today I discovered that the photographer diver paraglider can write about Things That Grow. And about things that grow in places I've only been in books. I hope this becomes a book... I've lifted it (yes, with reluctant permission) from his email to me...The context is a conversation started about Antibes, where Vince grew up, and about the wisteria that grew there - and me sending him a paragraph from the manuscript I finished early this year, about the gardens (and wisteria) I grew up in, and with.

"Antibes used to called "La ville des fleurs." La Cote d'Azur has a climate that is even better for flowers than Provence. Nice (Cannes is on one side of Antibes, and Nice is on the other) used to have "La fete des fleurs," a carnival-like festival, with a procession of huge floats entirely covered in flowers forming designs and patterns...

And indeed, Grasse still is one of the European capitals of perfume. The problem there is that the smell is so strong that it becomes overwhelming from kilometers around, or more when the mistral is blowing (a cold wind that brings exceptionally clear days). At that range, walking in the city, the fragrance isn't as delicate as a perfume lightly sprayed on your neck or wrist...It's strong, catches you by surprise and is way too powerful to be really appreciated. I guess the smell comes from very concentrated essences, perfume syrup so to speak... But it's quite an experience.

To me, the real magic of smells and perfume is in Provence. But on the way there from Antibes, you'll go through entires hills covered in mimosa. Nobody ever knows what I'm talking about when I mention mimosa, but you might. It's the most extraordinary smell I've ever known coming from a tree, and they cover entire hills, their flowers blooming in spring - bright yellow dusty little balls in clusters, it's really hard to describe...

Then you arrive in Provence, and you go through lavender fields. Or you go on a walk in the dry hills and thyme is all around you. There are laurel trees in gardens, their leaves have such a wonderful smell. And the fresh scent of sage and mint. There's rosemary, too. Cypress trees and their little brown balls we used as weapons, not sure if my English name is right, they are the typical vertical and slender trees of the paintings of Cezanne and Van-Gogh. And les pins parasol (a variety of pine tree, called umbrella pines) and their... hmm, how do you call those in English, those you know... arghh, it grows in pine trees, but it's not a fruit, so what is it? It carries the seeds, it's a very odd, wood-like and hard thing that looks a little like a pineapple but with sort of hard petals? And the seeds are behind each of the petals, and from those trees, the seeds can actually be eaten and are very good, like large sunflower seeds, but better tasting... Sorry, I only know of these things in French... We used to call them des pignons.

And there's the subdued smell of olive oil, and the smell of olive tree wood crafted into all kinds of kitchen and decorative things. I still remember the very typical smell walking into a store that would sell all wooden art and things, sculpted walking sticks, souvenirs, small furniture...

My dad was a genius with his hands and turned the weirdest piece of wood into great home-made furniture. We would go walk the beach after big storms looking for large driftwood, then bring it back home and let it dry for months. Then one day, he would get his tools out and make a table, benches, a bar, a chess table or something else. He was extremely creative. We had a old car carburetor, gold painted and in two pieces, that served as an incense burner; a Mayan sculpture he had engraved himself; a copper toilet floater to hold roses, a chess table made of leftover kitchen floor tiles... Every single piece of furniture we had in the house except beds, if I remember correctly, was made of wood and was his creation.

When you read the chapter in Pagnol's book when they go to the brocanteur's (antique's?) shop, think of my dad...But I drifted away from smells and perfumes... I was coming to the flowers. The flowers... No, I can't really describe them. I'll have to take you there.

God I love France!"

No kidding...

And tomorrow the boy from La Ville Des Fleurs will meet the girl (OK: we're stretching this girl-boy business) from Bloemfontein.

And we shall see.


  1. LOL You did it! Ça m'apprendra! ;-) I can't say I wasn't warned... However, I must officially report a major omission on my part: I completely forgot, carried away as I was by everything green, to mention the one scent that isn't land-born. L'odeur de la mer, the smell of the sea. A salty, see-weedy pungent perfume that sometimes mixes intimately with that of les garigues, which Pagnol will describe so perfectly... :-)

  2. ROTFL again, after re-reading my hilariously pitiful attempt at describing pine cones and pine nuts. I think I was performing hara-kiri, or seppuku... ;-))

  3. Aah - that passage has made my day! Merci Vince.

  4. No, Vince, you were giving us a lesson in the art of describing the commonplace - pinecone- and making it uncommon - hardpetaled pineapple.... And making us laugh at the same time. I will never look at a pinecone the same way again!

  5. O Canada!
    Our home and native land!
    True patriot love in all thy sons command.

    With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
    The True North strong and free!

    From far and wide,
    O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

    God keep our land glorious and free!
    O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

    O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.


Comments on posts older than 48 hours are moderated (for spam control) . Yours will be seen! Unless you are a troll. Serial trollers are banned.