Saturday, November 16, 2013

Carpentras + Cousins

Samedi, 16 novembre.

Considering the weekend I'm about to describe happened just under three weeks ago, I'd say this qualifies as one of my most belated posts yet. It's just that life has been a little bit crazy for the last, well ... long time. I've had assignments and project proposals and trips and it's been difficult to keep up with this blog! But now that I'm enjoying a bit of a lazy weekend, I figure I can go back and pick up where I left off. Or, rather, before where I left off. (October 26, to be exact.)

Before all the adventures in Luxembourg and Belgium, I began my fall break with a short trip to visit my dad's cousin, Cécile, and her family in their vacation home in Provence! (I know, life is hard.) I took the train from Montpellier to Nimes to meet up with my cousins, whose house in Carpentras isn't far from the city. It was my first solo train trip since arriving in France and I was more than a little nervous that I'd get to Nimes, be unable to find them, and be forced to spend the rest of my days begging for food outside the old amphitheatre. (I have a good imagination, what can I say?) Luckily, I had no trouble finding the Harié family: my dad's cousin Cécile, her husband Jean-Claude, and their two youngest children, Raphael and Anne-Sophie.

They had never been to Nimes so in a very weird role reversal, I -- with two previous visits to the city under my belt -- became an impromptu tour guide. ("So... if I remember correctly, the Arenes are this way!") It was a struggle to remember what our tour guides had told us during my last visit to the city. ("This is the Palais du Justice. There's something important about the architecture at the top... but I don't remember what it is...")

Loved seeing the Maison Carrée sans its typical crowds!
Although I was far from a good tour guide, I had a lot of fun walking around with them. As opposed to my last tour of Nimes, during which we stumbled from historic site to historic site, this was much more relaxed. Sure, we peeked at the arenas and the Maison Carrée, but most of our time was spent just walking around. We stopped in at loads of little stores -- sometimes to look for something to buy, sometimes to window shop, and sometimes just because Cécile wanted to introduce me to some of France's famous marques. She was surprised how many brands I hadn't heard of: I had to explain that I'm in the habit of buying discount soup, not foie gras!

After a little bit of adventuring in Nimes, we headed "home" to Carpentras, where another cousin (Olivier, who is my age) was waiting. The city itself is relatively small and despite its history (like Marseille, it's been around since the Greeks) and great location in Provence, it's not exactly a tourist hub. In fact, when I first told my host family I'd be spending the first few days of my fall break there, they didn't understand.  "But ... what are you going to do there?" they asked. In fact, not much: most of our adventures were a little drive away from the city itself. My only real exposure to Carpentras was on Sunday morning, when cousin Cécile and I went downtown to go to Mass and run errands. And you know what? I really did like it! Sadly, I didn't take any pictures of the cathedral or the city center. (But if you're curious, try Googling "Carpentras centre ville" or "Carpentras cathedrale" -- I'm sure you'll find some great pictures.

I really had no idea what to expect from their vacation home; I remembered seeing some pictures when they had visited us, but really had no idea what it would look like. Let me just say ... WOW. The house was absolutely beautiful -- ancient and rustic and charming in that way that only the South of France can be. Although I had been expecting a tiny cottage, the house actually had three floors -- all connected, of course, by the most picturesque ancient stone staircases you ever did see. My room (because sharing rooms is so very not French) was at the top of the house, with windows that overlooked the backyard and the pool. However, I was a bigger fan of the rustic sloping ceilings!

Even the bathroom sink was perfect!
I'd been in the house about ten minutes before I fell totally in love. I'd been telling the cousins about my plans to travel to Luxembourg and Belgium, but suddenly the idea of spending the rest of my life in a provencal cottage in Carpentras sounded much more appealing.

We had an absolutely delicious lunch -- paella and homemade apple cake that made me reconsider all food I had eaten in France until that moment. Then it was time to head out on our second adventure of the day! After a breathtaking drive down the winding roads of Provence, our first stop was the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, an incredibly picturesque twelfth-century abbey located at the foot of the Vaucluse Mountains.

It's still a functioning monastary! See the fields in the pictures above? The monks who live there grow lavender and make honey to provide for themselves.

We didn't stay too long at the abbey: instead, we headed into the hills for a little hike! Good thing I'd worn my walking shoes! (Just kidding, I was wearing my Keds. Still.) The higher we got, the more beautiful the views became. I loved this shot of the abbey, framed between the trees!

Once we reached the top of the hill, we began our descent to the town of Gordes, which -- like the beautiful Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert -- is another one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. (You can see more photos of the stunning village here.) It's a small village and, from what the cousins told me, very touristy and full of expensive villas and high-end hotels.

Sadly, the threat of the quickly-setting sun and the fact that the car was still parked several kilometres away at the abbey meant that there wasn't much time to spend in Gordes. We sat for a little on the terrace of a cafe: while I enjoyed the view, Raphael, Olivier, and Anne-Sophie enjoyed coming up with words that sounded funny in my American accent. (Ecureuil, the French word for squirrel, was their favorite.) After a quick break, it was time to head back.

The walk back was, if possible, even more beautiful. The whole horizon turned shades of purple and pink as the sun began to set behind the mountains; as we walked, it slowly faded to streaks of red and orange. The bushes and trees we passed, which were in the midst of changing colors themselves, reflected the light and the result can be described as nothing less than glowing. It felt like we were walking through the sunset ... absolutely incredible. My pictures will never begin to do it justice, but I'll try anyhow!

We didn't get back to the house until almost 9 PM, thanks in part to a desperate latenight tour of Carpentras in search of bread! (You can't feed four teenagers without some serious reserves of pain.) After dinner, we all sat in the living room and watched a hidden camera TV show that's apparently very popular in France, with a Belgian comedian who acts ridiculous to see how people will react! He pretends to be a tattoo artists, giving people TERRIBLE (and thankfully fake) tattoos, or a toll booth operator, refusing to let people pass until they have a polite conversation with them. It was terribly marrant -- the new word I learned to describe something funny!

I woke up bright and early on Sunday morning to eat breakfast with Cécile and Jean-Claude. (The other kids apparently had other plans. Primarily, sleeping.) We sat in the outdoor kitchen and sipped cocoa and just talked. It was really pleasant and they couldn't have been more interested in what I had to say! After breakfast, Cécile and I went to Mass at Carpentras' little cathedral. Although I couldn't quite arrive at translating quickly enough in my head to respond to everything, I was able to follow along pretty well and even sang along with some of the Latin (thanks, Catholic school). And I was delighted to learn that adorable babies are a staple of Catholic churches everywhere!

Sunday lunch was, again, delicious. Raphael made homemade French fries -- to remind me of home, they said! -- and we had steak and little fruit tarts for dessert. Yum!

In the afternoon, we headed off to yet another of one of France's most beautiful villages: this time, Les Baux-de-Provence. The small village, which was built around the remains of an ancient castle, is located on a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles Mountains that has been inhabited since around 6000 BC. Although it was once a strong fortress, it's now completely devoted to tourism. (The town itself only has 22 inhabitants!)

Our first stop in the town was actually underneath it, at the Carrières de Lumieres (Caves of Light). It's an abandoned quarry that has been turned into an amazing multimedia show, in which famous works of art are projected on the walls and floor. The exhibit we saw was called "Monet, Renoir, Chagall: Journeys around Mediterranean" and featured dozens and dozens of famous paintings, like I'd never seen them before. I took lots of pictures, but it's hard to explain exactly what it was like! Luckily, Cécile was nice enough to buy me a little guide book ("to show your parents what you saw") so I can more easily share the experience! In the meantime, however, here are some of the pictures I did manage to take.

So much better than a museum!

After the art show, it was time to explore Les-Baux-de-Provence. Like Gordes and Saint-Guilhem, the village is exceptionally tiny and touristy. We arrived in the late afternoon, so the village wasn't half as crowded as I imagine it typically is. I loved walking up and down the narrow streets, and we even popped into a few little shops!

See those absolutely beautiful decorations in the photo below? They're called quenouilles de lavande and they're my new favorite thing in the whole wide world. They're made by folding the stems of lavender around the blooms and weaving them with ribbon; the lavender then dries and becomes a sort of self-contained potpourri! You absolutely MUST check out the process of making them (either through some beautiful images here or in a cool video here). Although the ones in this shop were particularly high-end, they actually don't seem too difficult to make! If only it were summer and I could find myself some fresh lavender...


The sun began to set as we made our way to the top of the hill and entered the ruins of the castle. As it got darker, the town became even more magical! The lamps and lit shop windows made it feel like one of those little porcelain villages that you light up with candles at Christmas.

The view only got better as we continued. From the top of the hill, where the castle ruins are located, I could see all the little homes and villages in the surrounding valley. It was a little dark and cloudy, but on a clear day, it's apparently possible to see all the way to the Mediterranean Sea!

We meandered around the castle ruins as the sun set. Raphael, his dad and I even climbed all the way to the top, passing a sign warning us that we could "continue at our own risk" ... encouraging, right? (But at least I'd gone to Mass that morning. Phew.) It was pretty much dark by the time we reached the top and made our way back down. In fact, I think we might have been the last people left in the whole place! 

Looking back on my series of very blurry photos, part of me wishes that I'd been able to visit at another time to really photograph the view from the top of the ruins. But I think it all worked out pretty well in the end. Because if I'd been there at any other time, I wouldn't have been able to see this...

I had one last evening with the cousins, which turned into dinner and movie night -- they had decided I absolutely could not leave before I watched a French movie! We decided on De rouille et d'os, which you might recognize as "Rust and Bone" from last year's Oscars. Apparently, it received a ten-minute standing ovation at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, so it must be good. Just maybe in that weird and depressing and not very enjoyable way that French movies tend to be.

On Monday morning, after one last very yummy breakfast, Jean-Claude and Cécile drove me to the train station in Avignon. We made a few stops -- including one at a chocolate factory ... yum! -- but it was all too soon that I was boarding my train back to Montpellier.

I had been a little nervous to spend a weekend with cousins I hardly knew, but in the end, it was hard to leave. Although we'd visited some truly beautiful places and I'd eaten some absolutely uhh-mazing food, it was the little things that made the weekend truly special. Answering all of Raphael's many "... so what is it like in America?" questions. Braiding Anne-Sophie's hair because she and her mom wanted her to have a braid like mine. Peeling potatoes with Jean-Claude and running errands with Cécile.  Sitting at the dinner table, listening to Olivier tell jokes and mentally making notes of all the new vocabulary words. Watching music videos with Anne-Sophie, chatting about Katy Perry (she loves her) and Miley Cyrus (we both preferred Hannah Montana). And, of course, ACTUALLY SPEAKING FRENCH.

No lazy American friends, no Facebook chatting or blogging, and no host family wanting to practice English meant that I truly did nothing but speak French for two and half days. Just that tiny bit of total immersion went leaps and bounds: I felt like in just one weekend, I progressed so much. It made me wonder how much progress I could have made this semester if I'd been truly pushed: dropped off without fellow English-speakers, without the ability to message my friends and family back in America. I truly am happy with my semester. I've made some lovely friends and have been able to travel to absolutely gorgeous and amazing places. I know my French has gotten better. However, part of me worries that I may not be improving as much as I should -- or at least, as much as I could  -- be. It hits me every now and then, mostly when I'm with other Americans -- walking around town and speaking English, or even just sitting in class and listening to people making high school grammar mistakes.

Maybe after finals, I'll take the bus and only get off at the most remote little mountain town I can find. And I won't come home until I'm speaking, thinking, dreaming, and breathing French. Just kidding, I won't do that. Partially because I'd miss Christmas. And partially because then I'd probably come back with some crazy French version of a redneck accent ... eek!


  1. How wonderful to have this opportunity! By the way, I think you are absolutely fluent in French! You amazed me! Just keep trying to look for opportunities to learn and speak more French. You are doing terrific and we are so proud of you!
    Mommy and Daddy

  2. What a wonderful opportunity to acquaint yourself with your family. Loved hearing all your adventures with them and know that you soaked up the language and ambience like a sponge. Thanks for sharing. Love you P & B

  3. Quel plaisir de lire tout cela...Merci!