Before I settle down to a summer’s work it’s good to do a little gypsy roaming. I just had a great break from my routine, exploring Provence. At first I enjoyed the companionship of wonderful friends at Le Beaucet in a delightful country home. We saw the sights, enjoyed the regional foods and wines, and were expertly guided, tended and fed by Mary James and Xavier (www.maryjames.net) .
In my journal I made a list of sounds and sights and smells that were especially vivid. And of course, tastes. There were many. It was a sensual feast from morning until night. Lavender and garlic in the markets, wild thyme disturbed by my feet on a hike up the hill, patinas that were rich and complex, cicadas in the heat, a tomato reduction dressing an eggplant that I will not soon forget.
The second week of my journey I took off by myself with my tent and sleeping bag to explore more unknown territory. Mary James equipped me with a giant map that I’d stop and consult about 40 times a day. Thank goodness France’s signage is very logical and finding one’s way is made simple. The un-simple thing is navigating a 10th century road in a car if anyone else decides to come from the opposite direction.
I circumnavigated Mont Ventoux and walked the streets of more hill towns than I can recount. I also took some afternoons to sit beside swimming pools in the intense heat. I chose campgrounds with pools that had splendid views so I could swim and paint and rest all at the same time. I’d paint a while, then fall asleep in the heat, water sounds lulling me. Then I’d wake up and paint some more. Camping allows for a lot of intimacy with the nature of a place. I loved going to sleep to the sounds of the cicadas, and waking to the dawn birdsong. Or seeing the moon through my tent’s little window. In the hotel at the airport all sound was muffled in thick carpet, and all moonlight masked by drapery.
What did I bring back? Recognition of how I love to sit by water. Recognition that French food is wonderful, but in the same way that North Carolina food, or any food grown and prepared with love is wonderful. I brought back a fascination with the textures of ancient surfaces– the way a thousand year old piece of cypress used as a supporting beam gets eaten away, but stays strong; the surface of stucco when it chips and peels and changes color; the immense shade cast by trees when they’re allowed to grow as tall as they want without being cut down for “progress”; the elegance of women who listen to their own inner voices instead of enslaving themselves to some kind of commercial standard of beauty and rightness; the energy, imagination and wildness of Cezanne’s landscapes, which made me feel timid by comparison; the brilliant engineering of the Romans, seen up close and still functional; the logic of good national road planning; the kindness of strangers; a few new words added to the vocabulary; a newfound love for the afternoon glass of French rosé.
But waking up this morning, thinking I was still in France, I realized I took away something else. Because I traveled alone, in the absence of conversation–in silence– I took into my body a group of kinesthetic impressions from the hundreds of miles speeding by under my car, the arcs of the many roundabouts, the textures under my feet, the buzz and hum of the life around me, the cyclical movement of the sun and moon.
Because I stopped each day to paint the place where I was, to examine it with care and attempt to represent the feeling of it, I brought it deeply into my consciousness. There was a kind of oneness that occurred between me and that lovely place that went deeper than tourism. This all came to me in a rush, before I’d really opened my eyes to the day, believing I was still in France . Swinging my feet out of bed I felt the smooth texture of my bedroom’s heart pine floor and that texture told my body I was not in France. Returning from a camping trip when he was 3 years old , my youngest son Stewart announced “I miss my tent”. I know exactly what he meant.