Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Where in the World is Monique?

27 November 2006

I am sure many loved ones back home have wondered, “Where in the world is Monique?”  My previous entries left me enjoying a relaxed life in the French countryside, but this lazy lyon can no longer lounge.  In late October 2006, after my position with the French business owners ended, I became employed as a Traveling Personal Secretary to a VERY demanding high profile individual.

I interviewed in the South of France and traveled to London to meet my new employer. A month later I find myself living in the city that never sleeps, never sleeping and running around like a chicken with my head cut off.  I spend the days frantically making dinner reservations at places like “Bungalow 8,” taking dictation for correspondence to former presidents, and phoning "Gates," people to confirm meetings (all names and locations have been changed to protect the privileged).  Working 14-hour days barely leaves time on the weekends to do my laundry. I feel much like Cinderella as I discover that there is NO glamour this side of the glass slipper.  But there are some perks.  As part of my employment, I am provided a small penthouse closet studio on the West side with a great view of Central Park.  Living in New York is a dream come true, so I do my best to enjoy living in such an exclusive neighborhood.  As the countdown to impending sea travel approaches, I feel a growing sense of adventure mounting.  In late December we depart for yachting in the Caribbean, then down through the Panama Canal to my employer’s private island in Central America for three months. We return to New York for the month of March and then are off before the Summer Mediterranean yachting festivities begin.  I can't share more than those small details, but I will be taking lots of pictures and writing as much I can to share as much of the experience as I can with all of you.  Try not to hold me to it though, this work schedule has me exhausted at the end of the day and longing for the countryside I left behind.

I began this journey, budding with dreams of travel and self- discovery. Through it all I have learned that healing is a process, not a destination. There is so much more of our beautiful green planet I wish to explore as I continue to the journey within. The most wonderful part of my experience in France was discovering to always follow your heart because true happiness lies in the fulfillment of one’s dreams.

More to come, I hope...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Monique & the City

17 October 2006

Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today
I want to be a part of it - New York, New York
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it - New York, New York

I wanna wake up in a city, that doesn't sleep
And find I'm QUEEN of the hill - top of the heap

These little VILLAGE blues, are melting away
I'll make a brand new start of it - in old New York
If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere
Its up to you - New York, New York

New York, New York
I want to wake up in a city, that never sleeps
And find I'm a number one top of the list, QUEEN of the hill
A number one

These little VILLAGE blues, are melting away
I'm gonna make a brand new start of it - in old new york
And if I can make it there, I'm gonna make it anywhere

It up to you - New York, New York....

Saturday, October 14, 2006

My Journey: to be continued...

13 October 2006

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

On the Road Again?

6 September 2006

I have been struck dumb. About three hours ago Monsieur put an end to my growing suspicion that all was not well in his marriage. Boisterous discussions being held in the room below mine have prevented me from enjoying undisturbed sleep the last few weeks. So it comes as no surprise that my employers are divorcing, but their needs  have changed, meaning I have four weeks to secure other employment. From day one, I have been subject to a series of lectures and harsh rebukes for tasks as simple as loading the dishwasher or setting the dinner table. All along I could see the strain in Monsieur’s eyes and the unhappiness in Madame’s. In all my time here I have spent more time with Monsieur and the children than I have with the family as a whole. I've had a lot of fun, as there has been lots of boating, fishing, tennis and board games. I've been enjoyed such peace in Nature, however, life inside the villa is far from it. I have thus far omitted this unfortunate fact from my writing out of a desire to be a discrete employee, however, decisions have been made that now directly affect my future. Monsieur and Madame decided to end their marriage after an unfortunate incident last week. It was the night I cracked my skull on my living room floor. The story begins like this…

This particular day I had charge of my employer’s eight and four-year-old girls for two days while my bosses devoted their attentions to opening the restaurant. On Wednesday I took them to a small amusement park and petting zoo in a neighboring town. I thought the fun outing would win some quality time with the children, but it did not go as I hoped. Instead of it being a bonding experience, the girls ignored me and made faces at me the entire day. I sympathized with them and remained calm while their rudeness glared in my face. I reminded myself that this was the first time that they spent an entire day with a stranger, but at 8pm, I was ready from some time alone. After putting the children to bed, I retired to my room with a lovely glass of red wine. My employers were working late at the family restaurant so I absorbed myself in the fantasy of a French novel. I was getting sleepy after the long day and it was beginning to be difficult to keep my eyes open. The grandfather clock struck ten, then eleven; finally at midnight, so I decided to turn in. I concluded that my employers went to bed after their children did, so could I. At half pass twelve I was jolted out of bed by the sound of the Madame screaming and the girls crying. My first thought was that harm had come to them. I jumped from my bed, ran through my suite and down a flight of stairs. Madame was in the hall screaming. As I approached her she began yelling in French that upon their arrival they found in the girls in the kitchen crying. My first thought was, “I can never please them!” 

In that moment I saw black as the blood drained from my head, ten seconds later I was unconsciousness. The only thing I remember is hearing a loud crack when my skull met the marble floor. Next thing I know, Monsieur, for the second time I’ve known him, is carrying me back to my room. My head pounds violently as Madame resumes chastising me. But I can’t for the life of me I can't remember what she said. Monsieur rushes her out of the room so I can rest. Once the door closes I crawl to the bathroom in a desperate search for painkillers. As I drift back to sleep a disturbing thought comes over me. What if I have a concussion? I began wishing that the whack on my head had put me into a comma because facing Madame the morning was going to be much more painful. In the end I count myself lucky that Monsieur saw the truth. It was not my fault that the girls got out of bed. When we discussed what would be required of me, Monsieur clearly stated that I was, “Not supposed to be on duty until midnight.” Little did I know that my sleepiness was what pushed them to end their marriage. Monsieur closed our chat by saying, “it’s good that you were here because it showed me that her unhappiness was not my fault. Even she realizes that you are brilliant and that the problem lies within her.” My heart goes out to the entire family at such a difficult time. Madame is actually a nice person, just unhappy. 

So there you have it. I’ve been quietly living a dysfunctional situation. As for where this leaves me. I am far from being ready to return to the States! So as I devise a plan, I am resolved against being employed by another family. The next adventure lies ahead! Wish me luck and cross your fingers for me!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Frolicking in the Forest

5 September 2006

Life in the French countryside continues to be a series of wonderful new experiences. I now know what it means to encounter a silence that is deafening and almost painful to the ear. Being raised in a large family and in urban cities, I never knew what nothing sounded like. Even when out camping one hears wildlife. The acoustics in my room are such that the depths of the night are deadly silent.  My suite in the villa is like a mausoleum and it entombs me every night.  But every morning when I step outside ready for my daily walk, I am greeted by nature’s soft symphony filling my ears. Here, on the quaint outskirts of an old French village, there are no airplanes or helicopters overhead, no street noise, just the gentle rustling of the trees and soft blowing of the wind that only gets louder as I approach the forest. Warning: this entry is not a story about jet setting or glamorous cocktail parties or even meeting worldly, exciting people. This story is a simple story about how a sickly city mouse was transformed into a robust country mouse.  As you can see, the road into the forest is picturesque.

Every day is an adventure in the natural world. Today I discovered that the villas on my chemin (country block) are all built from rock mined from the area. Construction workers laying the driveway next door actually excavate pebble from the vacant lot at the end of the road for gavel for the new driveway. Gravel is not trucked in but constructed utilizing natural surrounding resources.

The woodland path behind the villa is a patchwork of burnt red, bright peach and slate gray; colors of earth I have never seen before. I don’t know how old the road is, but its worn path seems almost ancient. At the opening of the thicket there is a weathered bridge built centuries ago to support a stream that no longer exists. The trail in some places is wide enough to fit a Suburban, of which I have yet to see while living in France, and in denser parts of the wood it is only a foot wide. This is a scene I’ve only experienced vicariously. Living at the entrance to a forest has brought me alive with childlike curiosity. I had never taken the time to look at a tree, let alone notice the sinewy veins in a leaf or the snowflake-like originality of its flower petal formations. The wood is a symphony of birds chirping, insects buzzing, and the billowing wind. The sky above is piercing blue sprinkled with wisps of brilliant white clouds.  It is a different sky, much more clear than the one that hung over me growing up. There is no gray smog hanging overhead like a wet blanket, here there is nothing but blue sky. Sky and forest stretch for miles, and on a clear day one can spot the Mediterranean Sea.

The wood is thick and dark in parts. When I take this path to the market I feel just like “Little Red Riding Hood” walking through the forest. This is not the kind of environment I imagined thriving in when I dreamed of life in the French countryside, but it turned out to be just what I needed. This daily walk has become the very cornerstone of my new life in France. 

At times the forest calm hits me in waves and gives me a newfound sense of peace.  I could never fully experience peace in the city.   There was always too much noise. The noise of the city and the noise of my life eclipsed any hope of cultivating tranquility.  Yet I am the alone in my part of the wood. Through the silence I have learned to detect the different sounds the wood makes. At times one can hear a family setting the table for dinner miles away or the crackle of gravel as someone pulls into their driveway. The beauty of the countryside has taught me to take time, and no not smell the roses, but take time to know myself, know who I am when I am alone, when no one is watching.
There is so much about nature that has healed me: mentally, spiritually and physically. I have found deep serenity, a serenity that would have gone undiscovered for decades. I laugh out loud at the realization that I have become somewhat of a nature buff. Something I would NOT have associated with myself in the past.  I hated camping and still do now.  I remember the day I arrived, as my boss and I were making dinner she asked me to set the table on the terrace and I shuttered at the thought of eating al fresco. The little one laughed all through dinner at the sight of me jumping and swatting every bug that buzzed in my general vicinity.  Entertaining for her, but terrifying for me.  I have never been stung by a bee, and the thought of it scares me to this day. Thankfully, I am now more comfortable in nature. Last week I added binoculars to my backpack to look for birds. It tickles me to think of my transformation.  My entire life I had found pleasure in the discovery of say a vintage Halston suit, circa 1981, at the local vintage shop. Here in the country I have learned to find aesthetic beauty in organic nature fore there are no vintage shops in the countryside. I now experience joy in observing the softness of a flower petal and no longer in the softness of fine aged silks. Nature is a world I have never enjoyed before.  Its beauty and majesty inspires me every day.  It has been almost maddening trying to slow down and retrain myself from being hard core productive.  Life in the country is almost like being retired. Having just turned 28, I am nowhere near retirement, but this time has taught me to slow down and enjoy the deep bitterness of dark chocolate or the smoothness of rose wine as it refreshingly rolls down your throat on a hot day or the lingering smell of sunshine in my laundry.  I have learned to slow down. The most beautiful aspect is that nature’s silent beauty has helped me discover the world within me that I never knew.  By not allowing life to consume me I have been able to discover external as well as internal beauty. This road is heaven and I wish I could take each of you with me down the path, whether it be the wide and majestic or the narrow and silently peaceful trail. For now try to slow down and yes smell that occasional rose for it holds inconceivable and untapped beauty. I long for all of you to discover silent beauty in your lives today.

For more photos please see: http://moniquelyons.shutterfly.com/

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Journey Towards Healing

August 22, 2006

Kidney stones are not a girl’s best friend! For my first birthday in France, my body was kind enough to celebrate the day by giving me kidney stones. I however, had quite a different idea concerning birthday revelry. Many of you know that my medical history is a trail of doctor and hospital visits and treatments that stretch practically to the moon and back. Well my medical adventures continue in the fashion in the South of France. Most of you won’t be surprised by the story I am about to tell you of how I celebrated my first French birthday.
August 22nd, 2006 was a beautiful morning in La Cote d’Azur. The sun softly glistened from the skylight in my chamber, warming my face and causing me to stir and awaken. I was all packed and ready to hit the road for an exhilarating mini-break in Barcelona. After living in France for over a month, I was extremely excited about being in a country where I actually spoke the language. My uncle kindly paid for me to stay at one of those ultra modern hotels one kilometer away from El Mar. I bathed while enjoying happy thoughts of discovering the country of my ancestors’ forefathers. I could almost smell the paella and hear the deep and sensual rhythm of the tango. As I shampooed, a vision of bronzing in the sun and sipping sangria poolside hypnotized me. All it would take was one glass of sangria and my tongue would remember to lazily roll my “rs” instead of gargle them at the back of the throat.
Then, out of nowhere, I am doubled over in pain. Pangs of stabbing pain dug deep into my back and ricocheted down my right side. Once the pain dulled, I optimistically brushed it off thinking I was still recovering from the kidney infection that had me bedridden for seven days the week before. Nothing was going to stop me from celebrating my birthday speaking a language I didn’t have to think first to speak. I carefully finished getting dressed and limped down the stairs for a glass of cranberry juice. And when I say limp, I mean LIMP! It took me five minutes to make it to “le cuisine” to join my bosses for breakfast. We were chatting lightly about my impending excursion and then suddenly shots of burning pain in my right side so intense that that I knocked the breadbasket off the table and into Monsieur’s lap causing him to wear his breakfast. I would have normally been humiliated, but I didn’t give a damn about anything but my aching side. After an agonizing ten-minute interchange about the source of the pain, I reassured both Madame and Monsieur that I was fine and that I was just experiencing a relapse. I almost had them convinced until the shoot pain returned, causing me to go limp on the kitchen floor. The last thing I remember is Monsieur carrying me up a flight of stairs to my suite. Half an hour later I found myself in my bed riddled with fever and sadly calling Hotel Vincci Condal Mar to cancel my three-night reservation. Hour after insufferable hour my body raged with fever, then the chills, and the fever again. After two days I could no longer endure the pain; I had to call Madame at work. I agonizingly climbed back downstairs to fetch the number of the family restaurant.
Monsieur was kind enough to return home an hour later to cart me around to the doctor’s office. After a ten-minute symptom synopsis with Docteur DuBois, he pressed the tender areas of my abdomen with great care. He suspected kidney stones, but he sent me for tests to verify his theory. Being examined by a French doctor was a considerably more comfortable experience; it was the first doctor’s visit where I didn’t have to remove my clothes during any point of the examination.

In short, kidney stones attacked for the third time in my short life. To celebrate my birthday I managed to dress in a few items from my vintage collection and enjoy a nice luncheon before the strong painkillers took hold. Kidney stones changed my birthday plans a bit, causing me to sip Perrier, instead of Sangria and dine on quiche on the veranda, instead of poolside in Spain, but as far as I am concerned, to enjoy a birthday living in France is still a dream come true.

I can’t tell you much about the subsequent week because the hours blended into days as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Only daylight peaking in from the skylight marked the time. I read Monsieur’s entire collection of English books, most of which I was too delirious to remember, and took lots and lots of antibiotics and painkillers. You may think the experience to be jolly, doped up on Vicodin while relaxing in bed. Interestingly enough painkillers prescribed by French doctors are not laced with opiates and yet are just as affective. The focus of the medication is to dull the pain but allow one to remain cognizant. A very different experience than in the States where painkillers have been proscribed to me kill the pain, but keep me comatose. That isn’t the only difference I have noticed between the French and American medical field. My doctor impressed me greatly. He used my pain and symptoms as a guide to find the underlying illness, and then treat it.  I am accustom to visiting an array of doctors who play the guessing game by masking the pain with pill after pill or play Russian roulette by prescribing pills and hoping one of the hundreds prescribed will provide the cure. The French climate and lifestyle have just about cured me of most of my pain. I am glad that I am not as sickly as I thought. Living cooped up inside cramped apartments and working in stuffy offices gave little opportunity for nature to heal me. As it turns out sun, trees, breathable air, and whole foods are all a body needs to heal itself. Having made hundreds of doctors and hospital expeditions gives me an expert opinion. It amazes me how it took ONE visit to the doctor to discover I had kidney stones. Of the myriad of illnesses that I have suffered, even kidney stones, many have gone misdiagnosed and undetected after at least two doctors and/or hospital visits. While other symptoms still puzzle my doctors and have remained unsolved mysteries to this day. I now see that there are other healing paths to explore and this experience has inspired me to search out one that is right for me.
Lesson one: when ill in a foreign country, pray that you are in France, they have excellent healthcare. Lesson two: having kidney stones can be rather productive. The pain was dull enough to unpack the remaining two days my stone passed. I had quite a lot of time to unpack the last two boxes of personal belongings, making my room a bit homier. All in all, kidney stones in France were a painful, yet surprisingly educational experience.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Monaco--Soiree Blanc

August 12th, 2006

I would have never imagined that my day trip to the local village of Mougin last Sunday would have proven to be so fortuitous. I spent Saturday evening at the penthouse apartment of the billionaire I met at lunch. It was his annual "Soiree Blanc Avec les Etoiles” (White Party Under the Stars) thrown for a hundred of his closest friends and business associates. Having just met him and his lovely Australian companion once, receiving such an invitation two days later was a very pleasant surprise. Needless to say, three shopping trips to Cannes and Nice produced the only suitable white frock. I donned a French designed classic dress with a tight bodice, scoop neck and a full circle skirt reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s vestments in Sabrina. At 40 Euros, the designer dress was a steal after the four-inch white Valentino sandals I purchased to complete the look. The invitation said to dress conservatively so I paired the ensemble with a very sweet black Agnes B bolero cardigan I found at the Nice shopping mall. I topped the ensemble off with an up do and a black vintage cocktail hat I found on Melrose Blvd.
Having my party clothes prepared ready gave me a little solace. As the day of the party neared I wondered what was an American Afro-Latina to do in such a setting. I had no idea what to expect. I was to be surrounded by the Rivera's richest residents with not a clue on how to conduct myself so I trolled the Internet for helpful etiquette tips. 

For one thing, planning was key! Monaco is at most an hour's drive from my doorstep, but I have myself a two-hour head start. It was a good instinct because I left just in time to sit in traffic for two hours. I stopped en route to change at a gas station just off the expressway. The station attendant was amused to see me go into the bathroom workout attire and exit in full black tie vestments. This also turned out to be a good instinct because I not only avoided wrinkling my party dress, but I avoided expiring from suffocation due to a tight bodice, while sitting in two-hour traffic. A successful twenty minutes in the loo produced me fresh for the party. However, my back felt tight after such a long drive so I popped a painkiller to keep my back from complaining about being jacked up in four-inch heels.

It seemed like every expensive luxury and sports car in Monaco were parked in front of my host’s building. I smiled to myself as I maneuvered the convertible into a tight spot, remarking on my luck at obtaining a space directly in front of the very swank residence. My host calls home to one of the most exclusive apartment buildings in Monaco. Just seeing it's golden encrusted façade was enough to make me nervous. As I walked onto the elevator I steadied my nerves by reminding myself that money isn't everything. Values like moral character, honor and family were one’s true wealth. However, the opulence took some getting used to. Europeans display wealth in a much different fashion. Beverly Hills, Bel Aire and Park Avenue did nothing to prepare me for an evening on a Monaco rooftop but by the end of the evening I found myself comfortably sipping Dom Perignon from a flute in one hand and the other hand on the arm of a handsome Italian. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Nearing my destination, I took comfort at the ease with which it took to spot my fellow partygoers. A Bentley full of elegant fifty-somethings decked out in their finest designer, and in once case couture, white summer attire pulled up in front of me. The passengers noticed my white dress and assumed we were headed in the same direction. The four older Frenchmen were complete gentlemen and took it upon themselves to escort me to the party. Being the only American and the only guest to arrive at the party alone, I found solace in their chivalry. I clutched the arm of a lovely fifty-something-vineyard-heir as we stepped from the gilded elevator onto the penthouse floor. A sign posted on the elegant double door in three languages asked all guests to please enter and join the soiree on the third floor balcony. In comparison, the downstairs lobby was modest to say the least. Stepping into the reception area of the penthouse I felt a rush of adrenaline from the exquisite ambiance of the home. Antiques were delicately paired with a careful blend of Southern French and Parisian décor. It was the kind of apartment that Robyn Leach guides you through on "The Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous". Growing up in Los Angeles desensitizes, displays of wealth are common among wealthy circles in my hometown, which made it easy to not be impressed by wealth. However, seeing it first hand was quite a surreal feeling. As I stood face to face with a privately owned Renoir, I was sobered knowing that it was possible that my life’s earnings would never equate to its' monetary value. In that moment my personal values were strengthen. The image of  success upheld by the Western mainstream media places an individual’s value on their monetary holdings, rather than the quality of person they are. However, I am enjoying taking a peak into “The Lifestyles of the Rich & French”.

 The lovely host greeted each of us at the door with a flute of Dom Perignon in one hand and a welcoming outstretched hand. I was guided up two flights of stairs to the balcony. My brand new four-inch Valentinos still needed to be broken in, so I was grateful for the steadying elbow of my very kind escort. Out in the patio garden the party was in full swing. Knowing only one other person at the party, I asked quickly where the young lady could be found and headed over to that general location. The sun was beginning to set as I made my rounds, gaily chatting and drinking my way through the party. Nerves automated my movements as I unconsciously sipped the champagne. Donned in white tuxedos, the very capable wait staff magically replaced each empty flute I produced. I caught myself, but possibly too late. I put down the champagne flute and continued enjoying the party by making light conversation, taking photos and employing deep breaths. In a moment of pure happiness I remarked at seeing Monaco alight like a starry night sky. The fascinating, worldly company made me ponder if this would be the last time I get to enjoy such surroundings as a guest.

 At about nine o'clock, I started feeling a little light headed and excused myself and retired to one of the guest bathrooms for ten minutes to get my bearings. At the precise moment I was reapplying my lipstick I remembered that I had taken a painkiller at 3:30pm. Needless to say, it was a magical evening until I realized that I mixed prescription pain medicine with champagne. The painkillers in my bloodstream mixed quickly with the Dom Perignon and  I carefully headed back to the balcony for some fresh air. As I inhaled the fresh sea breeze a beautiful Italian voice bid me “Buonasera”. I look over and see two handsome Italian men smiling welcomingly. The host appeared out of nowhere and kindly introduced me the gentlemen as "the American". The tall, gorgeous gentleman paid me a compliment, saying, "I looked very much like Sophia Loren this evening”. Blushing, I tried desperately to conceal my intoxication and asked if the three of us could move our conversation to one of the garden benches. They obliged and with much refinement, one gentleman extended his arm to escort me and the other took my champagne flute from my hand. I couldn't tell you the length of time I conversed with my new Italian friends, but I believe it was a span of an hour. The extent of my intoxication was becoming slightly evident. The host and the two gentlemen accompanied me to the lower living room to rest for a moment.  As we descended the staircase, my heel caught on the fabric of the silk jacquard curtains adorning the entrance of the balcony patio. Luckily my escort held me steadily or I would have tripped and fallen down a flight of stairs and smashed headfirst into the wall below. I supposed it wouldn't have been so painful because I was anesthetized almost completely, only kidding. But I digress; I was fortunate enough to reach the chaise under the Renoir safely. It was then that one of the lovely Italian men realized how truly ill I was becoming. I sat in the living room terrified by the fact that it was becoming apparent that I was unable to make it back to the villa.

I would have normally never done something as naive as to accept an invitation to stay in a stranger's flat. Upon the host’s recommendation and assurance that  this friend of his, like every single person invited to the party was at one time either in business with or a friend of the host. He assured me that he, as a businessman trusted everyone in the room; I was the only new face. Since there are no Holiday Inns or Best Westerns in Monaco, I allowed myself to be driven to the very first destination in my drive to Italy two weeks before, Bordighera. There I slept peacefully in a suite of my own for six hours, long enough to rest for my return to Cannes. Like all my travel adventures, focusing on the lessons learned are the true jewels along the journey. Lesson one: remember what medications are consumed before imbibing large quantities of expensive champagne. Lesson two: whenever possible enjoy the company of wealthy individuals because when an emergency presents itself an exciting and luxurious solution is quickly discovered. Most importantly, when merriment is in full swing, meet as many rich men as possible!

When in France, Sunbathe Topless

August 9, 2006

August 9, 2006

So, the children are gone. They left with Madame this morning. She is driving them to Brittany to stay with relatives for two weeks. Thus my summer holiday begins. The master of the house slept in while I took my daily hike in the woods behind the villa and swam laps in the pool. Monsieur commented over lunch that I am becoming quite the French woman. I have conquered French traffic, become a lover of fine French wine, and you will be happy to know that I finally tried le stinky cheese. It was what I expected, very, very strong. No wonder the French enjoy wine with pungent cheese, it dulls your senses and makes you jolly no matter what you consume

While Monsieur was taking his daily after lunch siesta (something as French as sunbathing topless), I decided to take another dip in the pool. Yes, I know, tough job. After a few laps I decided the sun was perfect to even out my farmer’s tan, so I nervously slathered on some suntan oil, turn on my iPod and grabbed a glass of chilled vin rose for courage. Ten minutes later my boss was off for the day and so was my bikini top. Allow me to preface, if you don’t know me well enough, I am very bashful. I don’t change my clothes in front of girlfriends, share dressing rooms, or feel comfortable in revealing clothing. I have sisters that would have whipped off their tops their first day in France, but I blush if someone sees too deeply down my top. I can only imagine what my mother is thinking as she reads this, but going topless while sunning oneself is one's God given right in France. Just the other day I took the kids to the beach and most women were basking in the sun without tops in full sight of an audience of all ages. In France little girls swim in only bikini bottoms until they are 6, then, as I have noted from observation, they resume this dress in their adult years as they see fit. So in actuality, I am not all that brave, sunbathing topless in the total privacy of the villa's sun deck makes me a bit of a prude by French standards. The villa is secured on all sides by seven feet tall hedges, so there was no danger of peeping toms. French women of all sizes are proud of every inch of their bodies, no matter the shape. A bit of that is beginning to rub off on me because feeling comfortable enough in my own skin to sunbathe topless gives a sense of accomplishment. I didn’t have to wait until I was a size 4 again to feel at ease in my own skin. I inhale and exclaim aloud, “the boss is right, I am becoming more and more a French woman every day”.

As the warm summer sun and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" gently lulls me to sleep. Suddenly I am awoken by a man standing over me, telling me in French that he is the plumber and asking where my employers were. I don't know how long he stood over me, but I quickly noticed that he was gentlemanly enough to cover me up before waking me. I can hear my mother giving me a good old-fashioned "I told you so" and "what would your great grandmother think" but I wasn’t as embarrassed as I thought I would have been and neither was the plumber. The older gentleman was so matter-of-fact about the whole experience that I suspected he only covered me as not to frighten the unliberated American. After he fixed the sink he bade me "bonjour", I resumed my topless sunbathing, reminding myself to be sure to lock the main gate and turn on the intercom before whipping off my top. 

A Sunday in Mougin

August 6th, 2006 

I find myself enjoying the sunshine and old world charm on a quaint restaurant terrace in Mougin one beautiful Sunday. This charming village was once the home of Cubist painter Pablo Picasso. The view from the town square is breathtaking; it’s no mystery why Picasso was drawn to this town. A look around the old village is enough to fill anyone with artistic inspiration. The thing is, I don't really know how I ended up here. I got in the car this morning with every intention of seeing the beautiful beaches of St. Tropez. But something drew me first to the old village of Mougin.  Miraculously I found parking right in front of the bustling Sunday antique flea market. As I got out of the car a beautiful old wardrobe caught my eye. I walked over to the lovely old Frenchman standing guard over his prized antiques. As I drew closer and saw the 1200 Euro price tag, I turned sadly on my heels.

All the dealers, mostly older men, were enjoying an elegant five-course meal, complete with real silverware and crystal wine glasses amid the bustling chaos of the flea market stalls. One case in particular caught my eye because it held a beautifully delicate piece of jewelry. My eye first gazed upon this gorgeous antique ring. An elegant silver ring with 19 pinhead-sized amethyst encrusted in a sinewy facade. The lovely dealer, Chantal, at once said that the ring was a hard sell due to it being "trop petite," or too small. I asked her politely to allow me to try it on, and wouldn't you know it, the ring slipped right onto my finger. I bought it right away for 30 Euros, a steal considering it is a sixty-year-old ring. Chantal explained that in France a piece is considered an antique only after it is at least a century old. So I got quite a buy! 

As I wandered through the village, I felt a distinct sense of culture shock. The sound of heavy freeway traffic and the hum of busy Melrose shoppers would be out of place in this centuries old village. The culinary world I grew up in was the LA restaurant scene, equipped with polite, attentive service and elegantly uniform dishes. Angeleno waiters are quick to stand at attention in their black slacks and starched white shirts, but they would be out of place in this relaxed French country setting. There is no place for a uniform in this quaint village in the South of France. Here the waiters serve in casual slacks, hugging ever so sexily to their hips. White is the last color seen here. Tables are dressed in every color of the rainbow, delicately coordinated to the theme of each sidewalk cafe. The rustic old fountain in the courtyard subdues the buzz of French families discussing their day’s excursions, providing a backdrop of tranquility.  Once I get settled at my table, it finally hits me, "we aren't in Los Angeles anymore."
I never imagined I would long to hear the flat American accent chopping up the beautiful flow of the French language.  After three weeks of sign language, I would love nothing more than to chat in my native tongue.  And in response to my homesickness, I suddenly hear the sweet droll of a southern American accent.  I presumptuously introduce myself.  Brian is in France on business, but is lucky enough to have an old French college buddy to show him the hidden jewels of the French Rivera.  I realize we are being watched and look over to see other diners sneer at our audacity at speaking English so freely. I take little notice of their superiority because my excitement at meeting another American will not sway me into embarrassment.  His kind companion Emerique quickly encourages my homesickness by informing me that his wife is American. He very neighborly asks for my card in order to pass along to his wife and their group of American expatriates. I am suddenly comforted with the possibility of making American friends.  Yes, that was no typo...I was excited about the possibility of making AMERICAN friends. As they depart, Emerique tells me to make sure to take their phone calls because his wife, Danielle, would love to show me around Mougin. I adore the French but the language barrier makes me slow to make local friends. 

I enjoyed the most fabulous omelet lunch. As a vegetarian, I find it refreshing to have another culinary choice at any meal. I felt so inspired by my surroundings that as soon as the handsome waiter cleared away my meal, I pulled out my laptop and began blogging about my day trip to Italy. I was deep into the article when a lovely Australian accent inquires if I am a professional writer. I blush with embarrassment and inform her that those are my aspirations. Her companion, a silvered-haired gentleman of great refinement, interjects to introduce them both. He is a wealthy businessman visiting from Monaco, and she is his guest from out of town. He explains that he has held an annual White Party for all his friends and business associates for over twenty years.  As he mentions the party I find myself fantasizing about attending it.  He must have sensed my desire and asked for my contact information in order to send along an invitation. Shortly after our meeting the billionaire and his beautiful Australian companion departed for their return to Monaco. As I walked back to the car I remarked at the auspiciousness of the day!  I wonder when my invitation will arrive?

I drove home grateful that I was able to enjoy an afternoon not dominated by the language barrier. My employers greeted me at the door with a glass of red wine and stories of their adventures as expatriates. I discovered that they were once in my shoes. The family lived in America for eight years in the 1990s and their support has been valuable in helping me acclimate into the French culture.

I drove home grateful that I was able to enjoy an afternoon not dominated by the language barrier. My employers greeted me at the door with a glass of red wine and stories of their adventures as expatriates. I discovered that they were once in my shoes. The family lived in America for eight years in the 1990s and their support has been valuable in helping me acclimate into the French culture.

Daytrip to Italia

July 30, 2006

Yesterday, Sunday, was my weekly day off. I have been feeling more confidence as a driver, so the family gave me full use of one of the cars, a convertible. So, what does one do when Italia is only an hour's drive away??? Take a day trip of course!

Ah, how can I express the beauty of the drive? With a handsome Frenchman as my guide and the local French band blaring their audes of love, I cruised down the Cote d’Azur at 100km/hr with the top down, heading towards a wonderful adventure.

It wasn't until noon that we hit THE spectacular sight of Nice's plage (beach), I have NEVER seen a bluer or more beautiful ocean. Nice tops Cannes in a second! The winding road hugs the French Rivera all the way to Italia. Monaco was the first stop. The Palais de Monaco is breathtaking.

     It is built on the remnants of a medieval castle that once stood hundreds of years ago. There is a jardin (garden) with beautiful ponds and flowers so abundant that the air about the palace is thick with perfume. Just as mass was in session, I popped my head into the cathedral where Princess Grace was married. Just beyond the chapel, there is a spectacular view that overlooks the coastline where one can see all the way to Italy. The marina below show the only signs of life, aside from us tourists, the wait staff on board the sleek yachts docked in Monaco’s marina busily clearing up lunch the remnants of their employers’ lunch. It seemed all of Monaco was enjoying their daily siesta.

After a leisurely stroll through the deserted town we were off once again. Next stop Bordighera, Italia. Weeks after the World Cup the festivities were still in full swing. There were hundreds of beautiful Italians running down the beach waving their patriotic flags, some even bathed in the nude! A huge crowd of partiers stopped traffic at one point to play in the ancient fountains along the route through the city.

Traffic being backed up we decided to take a dip in the Italian Rivera's crystal blue ocean. I found myself a charming bluff to dip my toes in the water and contemplate the beauty of the sea. It was a scene of movie or travel specials. The coast wound around for miles, speckled with naked bodies as far as the eye could see. The only structures visible were gleaming white villas gently nestled into the jagged cliffs. The view was so clear, one could see clear past San Remo, the final stop.

I had heard about the quaint and charming Italian boarder town of San Remo from Film Noir filmsettings and travel references, but being there live was an enriching experience. We found ourselves trolling along the charming cobblestone streets as a symphony of mouth-watering aromas aroused the appetite. As I stopped for my first REAL European meal I contemplated my dilemma. My strict vegetarian diet prevented me from really enjoying the potency of French cheese or the richness of French sauces or deserts. After a few weeks in France, my diet was confined to nothing more than a raw food diet of fresh salads and freshly baked bread, so you can imagine my hunger. Tucking in, as my fellow British travelers say, to authentic spaghetti with clams and a glass of local Chianti was a meal to remember. I have refrained saying too much about my French companion until now because dinner was the first time we could actually make conversation. It is amazing how much one can communicate by employing a translation dictionary, body language and universal hand gestures. I enjoyed so much of the Italian wine and the sangria that only a strong Espresso and a brisk walk along the Italian coast could cure my haze and prepare me for the return drive back to France.

After a nice stroll, we found our way back to the car through the old city square. The blood was pumping in my ears as we drove with the top down at 130km/hr. This was the perfect ending to such a long and exciting day. With a full moon to light the highway, I felt myself feel more at ease behind the wheel along the long winding road back to France. Midnight greeted us as we pulled into the villa's main gate, thus ending one of the most beautiful and exciting days of my life. It isn’t every day that a California girl like me can enjoy two European countries in one day. The Mediterranean Rivera is one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I wish all of you could see how beautiful the view from the villa is; I still can’t believe how with such a humble beginning ended up in such lush surroundings. I often ask myself, "What has this French Adventure taught me so far?" My heart responds, "Take as many calculated risks in life as possible, work hard and above all remain true to one’s heart and your path will always converge on the desires of your heart."

Living here is wonderful, but it is also the most challenging experience of my life. I just want to thank you all my friends and family back home. I would not be sitting in such blessing if it were not for every single person reading this. I hope that these experiences are not conveyed in a boastful tone, but in awe ad gratitude with all I have been blessed with. I have come to realize that these blessings did not begin 10 days ago, but weeks, years, and in some cases decades ago. These blessings began with sharing a special moment with every one of you.  It is my hope that you are encouraged through the conveyance of the blessings I now enjoy.

Love from France,

"Bonjour" from The South of France

July 25th, 2006

Sunday will mark my one-week anniversary in the South of France. Not a day goes by that I do not think of all of my friends and family back in the States and miss you all dearly. 

Life in the French countryside continues to amaze me. I drove today for the first time in ten days. It was quite interesting. The French have a reputation for being risky drivers, but the roads are akin to a well-choreographed waltz. The steep twist and turns on every road ruined my hopes of a refreshing country drive. I was besieged by frequent heart palpitations and near misses. I finally made it home in one piece, but just barely. It seems I still need to get my LA tango in sync with their French waltz. (CAUTION: Foreign automobile passengers should be sure to employ an eye mask when riding in a vehicle in any part of France.) 

The following day I decided that using my legs might be the best way to enjoy my adventure at this stage. So, I went for my first walk in the French countryside. I explored the trail behind the villa, following the beautiful melody of a guitar and mandolin playing deep in the woods. I timidly drew closer to a charmingly aged villa where two old men sat in a beautiful, flower-filled garden playing to chickens enjoying an evening meal at their feet. The purple and red sunset behind them illuminated their wrinkled, but happy faces. Suddenly a light rain began, refreshing the warm summer ground. The rain woke me out of the trance that the music had put on me. I sprang to life and took cover under an ancient oak tree. I realized that if I stayed any longer I would risk walking back to the villa in the dark. I arrived back home just in time to see darkness cover the hillside like a blanket. 

The next day I ventured to Cannes with the family, thankful I did not have to drive the way there. It was like a dream. The city and seascape are beautiful, more breath taking than the photos or films. I could almost see Cary Grant and Grace Kelly lounging on the floating platform with the other swimmers, as in “To Catch a Thief”. 

The language seems to be my biggest challenge living in paradise. It is quite a challenge thriving in a country where one can’t be understood and not be understood in turn. Thankfully, French class begins on Tuesday. The youngest in my care continues to complain to her Maman that she can’t do what I ask because she doesn't know what I am saying. The best way to learn a language is, under threat of being ignored.