Thursday December 6th – Afternoon in Cannes

Today we drove to Nice Airport in the morning to drop Gigi off for her flight back to California. Before we left, we had decided that about mid-way through our trip she would return home to visit her mom. The cold Mistral wind has been blowing 6 of the last 7 days, but today when we arrived at the airport, the air was calm and the sky blue. Off to the north behind Nice, we could see snow covered mountain peaks. Justin asked, “Is that the Alps?” The answer is no, but I hear that there is skiing off in those mountains, maybe 30 minutes from Nice. Gigi was relieved for the calm weather, the plane would not be bobbing and weaving from a buffeting wind.

Gigi was encouraging us to go exploring the coast, not just take the freeway straight back home. I decided to drop into Cannes and see what was there. Cannes is only about 30 minutes from Nice on the way back to Grimaud. It took quite a lot of weaving through the streets from the freeway to actually get down to the town center/harbor area, Cannes is part of the densely populated Cote d’Azur, much different from the St. Tropez area, which is downright rural in comparison. Once at the harbor, we parked in an empty parking lot right at the harbor. The sun was shining, the car thermometer showed 13 degrees Celsius. From the car, we saw people wearing fairly heavy jackets, but we ventured from the car only in our long sleeved shirts, and soon took those off and just had on our T-shirts. This felt sooooo good! For the past week we have been bundled in our heavy jackets, gloves and hats whenever we went out. I feared that winter had hit, and it was going to be long and cold. Today broke that pattern. After taking a picture in front of the Hotel de Ville, we doubled back and went down to the beach. Maybe 20 people were on the beach, all of them sitting up against the rocks or concrete wall and sunning. Only Jordan and Justin were close to the water. They took off their shoes, hiked up their pants and went looking for polished glass and pebbles in the sand. They also rock-hopped on the small jetties that are spaced every 100 meters or so to prevent beach erosion. Justin was very excited to find geode-like crystal deposits in the large rocks.

Afterward, we crossed the street to a café and had ice cream at an outdoor table.

Such a beautiful day. I just read a book called ‘The Olive Farm’ that is set in the hills just behind Cannes. Very much in the same vein as Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence.’ The author comments about the crazy crowds each summer. I can’t imagine what that would really feel like as we enjoy an empty beach for as far as we can see, and walk-up sidewalk café tables. I am willing to forgo the warm summer Mediterranean waters and sun worshipper people watching for this opportunity to have the beach at Cannes almost to ourselves, and in T-shirts.

Monday December 3rd – Flamingos in the Camargue

Viewing wildlife has not been much of a focus for us this trip. It is not like Europe can offer any kind of a safari experience. Domesticated animals are what have caught our interest. Sheep in the Cotswolds. The Percheron draft horse in Perche. Geese in the Dordogne. Catching sight of moose in Sweden and Norway and cradling a hedgehog found rolled up in the middle of a road outside Stockholm has pretty much summed up our interesting wildlife encounters…until now.

In reading up on Provence, I discovered that the Camargue region had flamingos that stay year around. The Camargue is the Rhone delta area west of Marseille and south of Arles. There is a bird sanctuary called Park Ornithologique de Pont de Gau on the road to Saintes Maries de la Mer, only a 30 minute drive from Arles. Further research on the web said that 10,000 flamingo pairs breed in January and February here. And, every day at sunset they lift in a mass and fly off. How exotic! I had to see this. When I told the family about this, only Justin was firmly in favor. Anything to do with animals has Justin’s attention. Apparently when we get home we will be getting chickens, bunnies, and a few more dogs.

First, we drove past the Parc Ornithologique to the town of Stes Maries and found it quite dead. It has a bullring and a boat harbor. The Camargue is famous for black bulls, and the type of bull ‘fighting’ here is not a blood sport, the man has to grab a ribbon tied between a bull’s horns. Stes Maries is the legendary place where Jesus’ mother, aunt and ‘girlfriend’ – if you like the Da Vinci Code – (all named Mary) sailed to after Jesus was crucified. We took a ride around town and left. On the way out, I spotted a group of flamingos in the water. Score! Flamingo sighting…I was not going to be skunked. I say this because I really wasn’t sure if we were going to find flamingos at the Parc. I avoid talking on the phone in French, and therefore had not checked with the Parc people about the flamingos.

We got to the Parc about 3:00, a good 2 hours before sunset. There were maybe 10 other people in this 50 hectare park besides us. The Parc is like any wetlands area you would find in the Bay Area, very scenic in its own way with paths winding through waterways, the tall rushes were all dried and brown. We were initially met with the sight of about 50 flamingos in the water right next to a picnic area with a wooden deck. There were also snowy egrets in the tree branches, blue heron, and several types of duck. This was cool and almost looked staged there was such a concentration of birds right next to the entrance of the Parc, but the real show was a short walk away. Two separate lagoons each held hundreds and hundreds of flamingos. We spent the next two and a half hours wandering and watching these birds. It was sunny and the Mistral wind was not blowing this day, so we were not wearing our heavy jackets and gloves for the first time in 4 days.

We found one knot of particularly entertaining flamingos. They held their heads high up in the air, and some of them looked to be taller than 6 feet. They kept going through a cycle of whipping their heads back and forth, getting really noisy with geese-like calls, then snapping their wings open wide to reveal deep red and black feathers on their wings, then get quiet again, only to repeat this in about 3 to 5 minutes. We were wondering if these were the randiest of the birds getting into the mating rituals early.

There were a few photographers waiting around, and one of them confirmed that the birds would fly off at nightfall. Where? ‘They disperse.’

We waited past sunset and were treated to pink hues in the sky and water to compliment the flamingos. Finally, about half the flamingos in the lagoon we had staked out lifted and flew right past us and banked away towards the more open water. It only lasted a minute, but it was a beautiful and exciting display of nature.

Then on the road home, we caught this sunset with all its deep purples, blues, reds and pinks. The Camargue has captured our hearts.

Care Package from Home – Happy Halloween!

One day a week or so ago, we were going out the front door and heard this loud honking noise from a car on our street.  Bob walked out to see what was going on and found that it was the mail carrier trying to deliver a package to us but couldn’t get into the gate.  Bob brought the box back to the house and the boys opened it on the table.  What a surprise when they found it full of halloween candy, rubber spiders, eyeball bouncing balls, fake mustaches, and other crazy disguises.                                        Our lovely renters back in California sent the boys a halloween care package!  How nice is that!  They don’t celebrate halloween here in France as it is considered “Too American”.  There are some parties in bars and such but the kids don’t trick or treat or dress up as far as we can see.  We did find a pumpkin at the Chestnut Festival in La Garde-Freinet and plan to carve that tonight.  We are having a little halloween party with a local family who invited us over.

Happy Halloween!

October 21st. Chestnut Festival in La Garde Freinet: New Acquaintances Made

We went to the next town up the mountain from Grimaud for the seasonal chestnut festival. It is really just a large market day, with chestnuts as the showcase. My family has found out that fresh roasted chestnuts hold no appeal for them. I liked them a bit, but our bag of uneaten chestnuts did find its way into the trashcan. Besides the chestnuts, the day was very eventful. While tasting some Brebis (sheep’s milk) cheese, the salesman asked me where we were from. It turned out his wife is an American who was born in Hollywood. Hollywood is not far from Studio City, where I grew up. He gave us his number and invited us to meet his wife and two children. We are actually getting together for a little Halloween party this coming week.

Fifteen minutes later in this town, we were on a side street just talking when a man exiting his house started giving us pointers in English about the town, and his accent was American. He grew up in Southern California, and had gone to high schools in Laguna Beach, Burbank and Hollywood. He has been living in France for 20 years with his French wife. His wife and 20-something son soon came out of the house, and we all started talking. The man, Christopher (Chris) Mason, is a saxophone musician who recorded with Chet Baker, a prominent (and tragic) jazz trumpet player. Chris’ son is also a musician, and they do work together. They invited us to their house for coffee and to see Chris’ gold album that he got for an album he did with Chet Baker. Jordan also got an invitation to jam with these guys. We have wanted to find music connections/instruction for

the boys on this trip, and we may just have struck more than a gold record on the wall in that regard.

Small world stuff: Two Los Angeles connections in a small Provence village in the hills outside St. Tropez.

Thunderbolts and Lightning: Very, Very Entertaining

Grimaud – first week, week of October 7th

Our first week in Grimaud brought varied weather – 80 degree and sunny beach weather and two thunderstorms. Both thunderstorms started in the late afternoon and lasted past bedtime. Our house is on a hillside, and we have a fairly good panoramic view looking south and west, so we could see the cloud cells rolling over the countryside. The lightning was amazing. We had both the lightning bolts hitting the earth, and intra-cloud/sheet lightning. The sheet lighting kept the clouds lit up. The last time we saw such a light show was during our vacation in Minnesota 8 years ago. We just do not see this kind of lightning in California. The rain was heavy at times, but always was interspersed with dry patches. At one point in the late afternoon, a patch of blue sky appeared overhead. We could look up through the underlying black clouds to the puffy white tops of the cumulonimbus outlined by the bluest of skies. Thunder rumbled in the distance and we could see rain sheets falling on a ridge miles away. It was quite the performance by Mother Nature. We were lulled to sleep with flashes of light in the windows and the thunder rumbling. What was really nice is that each morning we awoke to blue skies and a beautiful day.