January in Provence

January in Provence
Nyons, France.  The Parisians who spend the holidays in their vacation houses have left, the tourists have gone, and les gosses have returned to school. The feasting and fêtes are mercifully done with. There can be too much of a good thing–the remaining foie gras in my frigo went into the poubelle, after I gave each of the animals a small piece. Daily routine? I’m basking in its luxury! But more than that, I just love Provence in deepest, dullest winter. Perhaps this time of year holds such sweetness for me because my first experience living in Provence began in January. Provence in January? Seriously, it’s lovely. Calm, peaceful, serene. I tell myself this is the real Provence, the Provence for people who actually live here. This Provence is just for us, our time to luxuriate chez nous. Mornings, smoke rises from the chimneys on the ancient rooftops like the tail of a happy cat, the air blossoming with the bouquet of crackling wood. I lie in bed and watch the day emerge from night. The first awakening begins across the river, shortly before 8:00, behind the mountains and rocks. It starts with a slight lightening above the mountaintops, then spills across the sky in palest blue. Wisps of cloud emerge pink and soft like the silk slips from my grandmother’s trousseau, and then the sun, bursting, enormous, blinding bright. Another winter day in Provence has begun. In an hour or so the temperature will climb to the mid-50s, the outdoor cafés will begin to fill and the sitters will follow the sun as it crosses the Place de la Libération and they move from La Belle Époque, Kiosque and Palmiers in the morning to the Cafés de la Tour, Autostop, Pontias and La France in the afternoon. Often, the main topic of conversation will be the frigid temperature and the degree (no pun intended) to which everyone is suffering. Bitter cold to the Nyonsais is anything below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Occasionally, I am unable to restrain myself from blurting out, “You don’t know from cold,” but I try to respect local sensibilities and customs. When the nightly news carries sensational reports about a deadly chill in New York, my neighbors are incredulous that any human being–especially one with whom they are personally acquainted–could survive such conditions. I admit to a certain delight in dismissing it all with a Gallic flourish of my hand, “C’est normale pour New York,”  as they step back in awe, shudder and hurry home to their pots au feu, cassoulets and hearty soups bubbling contentedly on their stoves. This is la France profonde, the real country, no haute cuisine–three lightly steamed pea pods and a swizzle of foam on a plate. Restaurants feature hearty game, stews, truffles, foie gras and lots of potatoes and pork. No self-respecting super- or hypermarché is without a massive January sale of porc–chops and ribs, cutlets and roasts, ears, snouts, feet, tails, organs, blood, whole heads and bodies. Glancing into some of the neighboring shopping chariots on the check-out line is not for those with delicate constitutions. Winter is also hunting season and weekends are heavy with the pop-pop of buckshot from the hills. Sanglier (wild boar) is the regional specialty and everyone has an “encounter-with-a-sanglier” story to tell. I even have one of my own. Driving home one night on the twisting unlit road between Mirabel-les-Baronnies and Nyons, something enormous dashed in front of my car. Swerving, applying my brakes, I was just quick enough to avoid colliding with a mammoth sanglier. Colliding with a sanglier is akin to colliding with a rhinoceros; the car will not survive and often not the passengers inside it; the sanglier will trot away untouched. This winter, for the first time, I did not work the olivade (olive harvest); I had to be in Germany when it took place. Nyons is the olive capital of France; its oil was the first to have an A.O.C., like the finest wines. Olives begin on the trees as delicate white flowers, then evolve into hard green fruit. Gradually they fatten to brown, then black; when they are wrinkled, it’s time to pick. Oliviers (olive trees) never shed their leaves. In winter, Nyons is blanketed by a lush velvet patchwork in shades of green from the oliviers, cyprès, pins d’Aleppe, palmiers and fir trees mixed with the tans and browns of the bare rocky earth and gnarled roots where the grape vines have been stripped, cut back and tied; their leaves and branches burn in small piles throughout the winter, leaving low-hanging strands of smoky clouds.At night, Emily and I walk along the river in the moonlight. The songs of the frogs and cigales are silenced; the annoying swarms of gnats gone with the first frost. There is only the river, gurgling, swishing, glistening over the rocks, punctuated by the occasional conversation of ducks. There are seventeen year-round resident ducks who live beneath the Pont Roman, seven couples (ducks mate for life) and last spring three ducklings. An elderly Nyonsaise, dubbed Mlle. Canard, slowly makes her way every morning and afternoons after lunch from the local hospital where she lives to the arch of the bridge, where she spends her days talking to the ducks and tossing them morsels of bread from plastic sacs. These days she also tosses stale chunks of galettes and…
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