Well, we got back from our two week trip to Provence on Sunday night and this week is proving every bit as frantic as I expected –endless laundry and unpacking, getting my sons back to school, preparing for my interview with Jane Rusbridge at the Ham & High Literary Festival next week (details below), polishing my entry for the Costa Short Story Award, all in four days before I set off with great excitement for the York Festival of Writing on Friday morning. (It’s also my birthday tomorrow, but I’m seriously thinking of rescheduling….)
So before it trickles away, a hasty attempt to bottle the elixir and hold onto it a little longer.
I’ve always loved travelling, ever since I was very young, and I’ve always had close ties with France in particular, with my mother a teacher of French and her best friend, my godmother Isabelle, actually being French. I’ve never lived in France but I’ve spent a great deal of time there and have visited just about every region. My husband JC, who had never left the UK before we met, credits me with infecting him with my Francophilia and general wanderlust. Even when we were penniless 20-something newlyweds who could barely afford to eat, we managed to hit the road somehow. On surveying the warzone that was our new house back then (back when young people could buy property), my mum once said something that sticks in my mind: ‘Maybe when the house is finished, you won’t feel the need to keep going away.’ She really didn’t understand. It’s great to get away, especially when you live in a huge city with a hectic pace of life, but that’s never been the main reason for me. It’s more the desire to experience other places and all the things that make them mysterious, exciting, unfamiliar.
We’ve been a few places I didn’t like, not many. The worst ever was Dahab in Egypt in 1991. We’ve stayed in some pretty ropy accommodation too, including a sweltering disco boat in Amsterdam where the heating pipes took up half the cabin and we once spent a mosquito-bitten night underneath the bleachers in a football stadium in New South Wales with the groundsman’s permission. Beat that for bizarre! But most of our trips have been fantastic. Inevitably, some places get under your skin, make you feel something strong. You dream of them when you’re not there, you sigh when someone says they’re going, and above all, you go back. You just have to.
We’ve just returned from a place like that, where we’ve spent five of the last eight summers. The Lubéron is a French national park in Provence, a low-lying mountainous area west of Avignon and north of Aix-en-Provence. Despite the Mediterranean climate, it is surprisingly green even in high summer. Remember Peter Mayle’s novel A Year in Provence? The house where he wrote that is a ten minute walk from the gîte we rent, between Ménerbes and Bonnieux, both listed amongst the ‘Most Beautiful Villages of France’. There’s nothing unusual about loving Provence, of course. It has the status of an earthly paradise: the landscape, the weather, the wine, the food, the markets, Jean de Florette…
We first came to the area in 1999 and were smitten. In 2003 we visited during a heatwave and endured the torture of hearing the neighbours in their pool all day long. The kids, very little then, thought their dad spraying them with a hosepipe was an acceptable substitute. I didn’t, and thus began the search for somewhere to rent that didn’t require a second mortgage – the area is popular with wealthy tourists and a lot of owners are shockingly greedy.
We knew as soon as we set foot in Les Pégots that it was something special. The cottage, to the rear of the owners’ vineyard property, is rustic and simple but that doesn’t matter when you spend all day outside. It almost touches the Petit Lubéron mountain, long and shaped like a hippo, and is surrounded by vines. The light is exceptional and the pool, a very respectable 12m x 6m, is bliss for a keen swimmer like me and ideal for keeping the kids entertained. Jumping and diving in the style of various Olympians and rappers was a (hysterical) favourite this year.
It was strange going back having missed two years in a row. The owners, Roselyne and Jean-Marie, are incredibly warm-hearted and generous people who have become good friends. Since we last visited, they’ve made some stunning improvements, including a new covered dining area leading directly to the pool. It was extremely hot, especially the first week, and we lived on that terrace, witnessing dramatic sunsets, and later, the night sky from deckchairs on the grass. It was only on the last day when the famous cold Mistral started to howl that I broke my resolution to eat every single meal of the trip outdoors.
We relaxed, and we’re not normally very good at that. We got up late and started the day with a swim followed by breakfast. We had barbecues using vine branches, which gives the food the most delicious flavour. I tore through My Poolside TBR List 2012 having the luxury of hours on end to read. I didn’t watch TV, go on Twitter, blog or work on my novel, although once I did sit up until midnight writing a story that had been taking shape in my head for weeks, set in France. When we first came here our sons were only 7 and 3, now they’re 14 and 10, and old enough to go road cycling with their dad, who’s serious about bikes. (We did do one 48km ride all together which nearly killed me). I was so proud of our older son, now my height at 5’10, who rode the Mont Ventoux, the famous ‘Giant of Provence’ for the first time, but sad to realise he might not want to come on holiday with us for much longer.
When you return often to a place, it becomes a kind of yardstick of your life. I can measure so many aspects of all of us here. The last time, in 2009, I had recently thrown myself headlong into writing, to see if I could do it. Now I’m working on my second novel – finally doing what I really love (although I do need to find a way to earn some money from it!) Yes, the kids are growing up, but as Roselyne said, maybe they’ll come back with their own families one day; they love it as much as we do. JC and I have always dreamed of owning a house down here…
Whatever happens, we’ll always come back.
Some of you know this area – do you recognise it? Tell me about the place in your heart wherever it is – I think we all have one.
My Literary Sofa goes live next week at the Ham & High Literary Festival! Would love to see some of you at: Jane Rusbridge in Conversation with Isabel Costello (we’ll be talking about Jane’s second novel, ROOK, and about writing generally) 11-12pm on Tuesday 11 September at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, NW11. There’s a fabulous 3 day programme with over 60 events and a stellar line-up of top literary talent.
*COMING SOON* Review of NW by Zadie Smith
Good morning! Reading your blog today was a wonderful prelude to our upcoming stay in that heavenly spot next week! Only eight more sleeps before we fly off to Menerbes! Lovely descriptions…..Ness
Lucky you Ness, to have it still ahead of you! Have a wonderful time. Missed our chats by the pool… Left some books and Yorkshire tea bags for you with Roselyne!!
Welcome back in Blighty! I have recently re-read “The discovery of France” by Graham Robb (published 2007). I would be surprised if you didn’t know it. What do you think of it? It made me deeply annoyed with myself that I allowed my school French, which was not so bad, to lapse completely. Perhaps I will live long enough to relearn it again and read Stendhal’s novels in French? Anyway, I found one thing badly wrong in France: the widespread disgusting habit of keeping urban dogs and letting them crap al over the place, especially near café terraces in otherwise delightful provincial towns. That is pretty gross in hot weather.
Well, be surprised Tom because I don’t know that book but will look out for it now. The crotte de chien problem is only really an issue in Paris and nowhere near as bad as when I was a kid when it was truly revolting, and everywhere!
Great to have you back on-line Isabel. Your holiday sounds lovely and really makes me yearn to be back in Villefranche again this year. Sadly, moving house took precedence over a holiday but there’s always next year… Good luck with the literary festival event and happy birthday when it comes!
Thanks Helen, it’s been lovely having a cyber break but now I’m happy to be back. Sorry you couldn’t get to Villefranche this year and hope you make it soon. The story I just finished has a Nice connection – you’re welcome to read if you like (although it’s not got a holiday vibe!)
Welcome back Isabel! I’m so glad you had a wonderful trip to one of your favorite places. As you are aware, I just returned from my first trip to Provence a few weeks ago and fell in love with the area. Next time, if we don’t return to Roussillon, we would love to try Les Pégots. I know what you mean about a place becoming a yardstick of your life when you go there for a number of years. For us the closest thing would be the North Shore in Minnesota, a little town called, funnily enough, Grand Marais. When you stay there it feels like you’re right on the cusp of true wilderness. I could sit and watch Lake Superior for days from the balcony at our hotel. We took our son there when he was 6 weeks old and, with visits in between, returned with our daughter when she was about the same age. We haven’t been in several years now, but it will be one of our first stops next year, maybe for the fall colors. Great post, thanks so much. And Happy Birthday!
Thanks for that lovely story about your special place Kristin, I’d love to go there. So glad you loved the Luberon as much as we do. See you tomorrow!!!
Happy Birthday! Hope yhou’re having a lovely day.
Your trip sounds wonderful place – a truly lovely place. And with such happy memories, I’m sure your boys will return in later life. I’ve never been to France, which my husband thinks is crazy, given my love of food, wine, and beautiful countryside. But being unable to speak even schoolgirl French (tried to learn it again a few years ago but just couldn’t get a grip) I’d feel quite awkward. I know what you mean about special places, though, despite have rarely left this country. There are little spots all over England that I yearn for when I’m not there, and feel a sense of homecoming when I visit them. They’re usually coastal, but not always. i’m visiting a much-loved place next week – Lumb Bank, near Hebden Bridge (I’m going on an Arvon retreat – yippee!). This is not far from another special place, Haworth, where the Bronte sisters grew up. And then are many more little nooks and crannies in this eccentric country of ours that sometimes dream of running away to, even if just for a week or two.
Thanks Susan glad you enjoyed it and well done for giving our own country a deserved plug. Can’t believe you’ve never been to France – I will try to convert you (masses of people go who can’t speak the language, you’d be fine!) Really looking forward to meeting you again at York Festival tomorrow and having time for a decent chat.
Hi Isabel, glad you had such an energising break. Good to see you back!
Good luck with your short story entry for the Costa Award – and Happy Birthday!
Looking forward to seeing the Literary Sofa live at Ham&High Lit Fest next week. Sarah
Thanks Sarah, your help with my entry was hugely valuable, as was Kristin’s – I am incredibly lucky to know such talented and generous writers! See you at the Sofa next week x
So very inviting! I am saving this post for our trip to France early in the new year. We will have to visit the Lubéron. Your photo of the patio dining reminds me of my all-time favorite place to eat: outdoors, in France, with dear friends. (I have the photographs to turn to whenever I need an emotional/spiritual lift, taken on our last trip to France.)
Thanks Raymond, so glad you enjoyed the piece. I just know you would love it!
So many thoughts and sights of romantic places that some of us on this side of the Pond will never get to see. That is why I read your posts, so I can feel as if I have been there, by just reading you words and closing my eyes. Wonderful post Isabel.