This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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The extravagance of a soul-searching baroness

france-2The owner of this place must have been ambitious. And quirky: she had gazelles, monkeys, and a mongoose in her garden.

She was born into a banker family – and smartly married another banker at the age of 19, not caring her husband was 15 years her senior. Marriages were seldom for love and more for economy, politics, and convenience. When her husband’s business affairs went south she divorced him. They had no children and the rumor goes he not only gave her gray hairs but also a disease that made her barren.france-3She was no angel either, because just as her husband, she liked gambling, too. Her gambling room in her pink (yes of course, pink) villa is quite something. And if she was not entertaining there, she was being entertained in a casino in Monaco.

Her villa was pink, yes; and she loved to dress in blue it is said. If she had lived today she probably had dressed her pets, too. Perhaps she did. But they certainly all had their own luxurious daybeds from best silk and brocade.france-4Béatrice Ephrussi de Rotschild lived the most extravagant life a divorced woman in the turn of the 19th century could. She commissioned an incredible villa and garden – not for herself but to see and to be seen. But was she happy? Perhaps she was in some ways. Women in those days found themselves unfit for any mold if they were divorced, unmarried, and wealthy. Perhaps she was shallow and happiest when entertaining. Or perhaps she felt lost in her role and happiest doing all the things she should not: play tennis, ride horseback on a man’s saddle, drive a car, and even fly a plane. Did she find meaning in her life? Perhaps. And at least one cannot blame her for not trying hard enough.

Unfortunately the house took its time to be completed, and the baroness herself was swept away from this life just four years after its completion. But the house is still there, as are the gorgeous gardens. And if you listen really carefully you can hear the jazzy tune from the gramophone and the click-clack of cards and dice from the after-dinner parlor.
france-5(Cap Ferrat, France; April 2018)


When I grow old

france-13When I grow old I do not want to look at four walls. I do not want to become a person who is afraid to go out of the house. I do not want hospital food unless the hospital is my only option. When I grow old I do not want to endure long, dark winters. I do not care if I will remember things or not. Most likely I will not. That is fine, as that is how life goes sometimes.

When I grow old I want to live by the sea. If I can walk I would like to go for a walk along the waterline, come sun or rain or wind.

If I cannot walk I would like to just sit and stare at the sea. In a chair. Or, even better, in a swing. If I can smell the sea, I would like to smell the sea every day. If I cannot smell a thing, I want to remember what the sea smells like. They say scents are the deepest memories of our being. I hope I will remember the scent of the sea. But even if I do not, it does not matter as long as I know I can see the waves.

When I grow old I want to sit and look at the sea. Every day. If I cannot see a thing, I would like to listen to the sea. That is fine, as that is how life goes sometimes.

When I grow old I want to sit and listen to the waves rumble. Every day. If I cannot hear a thing, I would like to feel the breeze and salt spray on my skin. I want to feel the hairs on my arm stir in the breeze and my cheek cool down in the wind. That is enough, and it is fine, as that is how life goes sometimes.

(Villefranche-sur-Mer, France; April 2018)

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Where to hide from view

france-9Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat: for those who have yachts to spare, or those who wish to take a lovely harborside stroll. The trick is to find parking, and most likely you won’t, so consider taking a bus here. While Nice and Monaco and the rest of the Riviera is becoming almost too developed, Cap Ferrat is still lush, with extravagant mansions hiding from view under much greenery and at cul-de-sacs. Because here one can pretend to be just anybody, many royalties and aristocracy have preferred this place. But who was (saint) Jean?france-1(Cap Ferrat, France; April 2018)

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france-11No need for a gym pass for those who live in Villefranche-sur-Mer. Their gym has either a sea view or a view of sunlight old houses nestled close to each other. Those who work at the city hall have the pleasure of a light cardio exercise as they walk through the citadel and enter the sunny courtyards on top of the hill. france-12Villefranche-sur-Mer’s little alleyways have always been so narrow. The town just grew organically around the little fishing harbor. Rumor is Jean Cocteau used the back streets for a haunting scene in a film. What is known for sure is that he loved the place so much he painted the insides of the fishermen’s chapel in a lovely Picassoesque style. france-15Many other movies have been partially filmed here: a James Bond, a Hitchcock movie, and others. Somerset Maugham had an apartment here as he much preferred the quiet waterfront to the busy Nice boardwalk.

I can quite understand why. If I were to concentrate on writing a book, this is the atmosphere I’d prefer, too.
france-10(Villefranche-sur-Mer, France; April 2018)

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Hot chocolate and returns

Biarritz-4Night caps. What a lovely concept. After a delicious dinner, when one is not really ready to go home or to bed, when one needs to linger and savor the night and one’s thoughts (or company), the answer is a night cap. There is nothing better than dipping into a quiet bar or lounge to listen to some jazz, piano music, or just the conversation of a friend. And yes, a drink is always in order. And yes, at this late hour nothing is off the etiquette, not even a hot chocolate in early July.

The hot chocolate at Hotel du Palais is famous. Liquid, sweet, melted chocolate, lightly whipped and poured into a hot jug. And there is always more, as you will not receive a cupful but indeed a jugful. Just what one needs to wrap up a perfect evening after the sun has set.

Biarritz, I will be back. I will be back when the sea rages, the whales pass by, and the lighthouse beam sweeps over the foaming water. I will let the wind work my hair into a new style and then sneak in to Hotel du Palais, bury myself into the corner of a couch, and sip hot chocolate in silence with a good book. Until then, you have a tiny piece of my heart.biarritz-2(Biarritz, France; July 2016)

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Bordeaux Bordeaux

Lovely ones, I have a confession to make. Before this trip, I did not even know Bordeaux was a city. I simply thought it was a region that produces wines. I cover my shame with the thought that I’m not quite as bad as my American friend who thought Amsterdam was a country. Yet, what a gaping hole in all-round education, at least according to the French!

Surprisingly, thus, Bordeaux turned out to be a decently sized city – with awful traffic jams. Aside from the hopeless journeying through rush hour streets, Bordeaux seems to embrace progressive ideas almost in a hippy fashion – and most have to do with wine. For example, no pesticides or herbicides are allowed in Bordeaux, so one sees very few lawns and much overgrown weeds and flowery meadow-like patches. If you have a garden you have three choices: pluck the weeds by hand, pour boiling water over them, or let them be.

In old times, sheep would graze between the rows of vines. Now one either has sheep, plows the ground, or, again, lets the weeds be. Instead of poisons, Bordeaux and its farmers and wine growers grow forests and ensure biodiversity of those animals that eat insects and worms. Bats were reintroduced for this reason. During vine flowering season, the vines are sprayed with female pheromones that confuse male butterflies and insects who cannot find the females based on a scent gradient. They end up going into the meadows and forests where the eggs are also laid. Hopefully.

Surprisingly, with all focus on quality of the terroir and the wine, only very few Bordeaux wines bear an Organic or Biodynamic certificate. The winemakers must comply with about a million different stipulations in order to be able to call a wine Bordeaux + sub-appellations, and therefore they wish no further compliance to difficult rules. And if the harvest is at risk, many want to retain the option of taking to sturdier measures. In a world of high-performance farming and synthetic and short-term culture, it is refreshing to see that when it comes to quality wines, the market drive is for organic, natural solutions simply because people can taste the difference and are ready to pay for it. Thus, any Bordeaux wine bought in the store is most likely nearly if not completely organically produced. If only the same were true for most groceries!

Bordeaux winemakers make the wine their ancestors made. The regulations to follow to be allowed to use appellations on the bottle are an incredible catalogue of rules to adhere to. Crudely put, the end result should be that as a customer you know approximately what you get, year after year. Since the system is mainly for preserving tradition and maintaining quality and therefore brand equity, there is not much room for creativity in making a Bordeaux wine. Some bend the rules by for example adding only 1% of the second wine in the first (a Bordeaux is always a blend). Others make wines that only bear a Bordeaux label or break the rules so the bottle only says the wine is from France. We fell in love with a delicious little rosé from Chateau de la Grave that was bigger than its body: it had been matured in oak barrels like a white wine. This wine was not a typical Bordeaux but, oh, it stole my heart for as long as I had it in my glass.

The intricate system of what one is and is not allowed to do in order to make a Bordeaux wine got me lost, especially after the first glass. Fortunately, most of us only need to know where to find a bottle, and how to open it. Easy peasy, thank goodness.

(Bordeaux, France; July 2016)