Sampler: The Promise of Provence by Patricia Sands
November 26, 2020
Memories of heartbreak and betrayal linger—and her former life waits for her back home. Can she find the courage to begin again?
On the evening of her twenty-second wedding anniversary, Katherine Price can’t wait to celebrate. But instead of receiving an anniversary card from her husband, she finds a note asking for a divorce.
Fifty-five and suddenly alone, Katherine begins the daunting task of starting over. She has her friends, her aging mother, and her career to occupy her, but the future seems to hold little promise—until, after a winter of heartbreak, Katherine is persuaded to try a home exchange holiday in the South of France.
In Provence, bright fields of flowers bloom below medieval hilltop villages with winding cobblestone streets. Charmed by the picturesque countryside, the breathtaking Côte d’Azur, and the enchantment-filled boulevards of Paris, Katherine feels life opening up once again. Lavender perfumes the air, and chance encounters hint at romance and passion. But memories of heartbreak and betrayal linger—and her former life waits for her back home. Can she find the courage to begin again?
Sampler: The Promise of Provence
Instant therapy greeted her when she arrived at the farmhouse as Picasso bounced excitedly by the car door. Katherine knelt on the gravel, ignoring the sharp pebbles digging into her knees, and hugged him before he flopped over on his back for a tummy rub.
This is love, she thought, pure and simple, without threat, without demands.
Wandering around the house before she went out to the garden to enjoy her breakfast, she relished the sense of belonging. After just a week, the familiarity of these surroundings felt right. Her thoughts turned to Andrea as a feeling of gratitude washed through her.
Placing her pain au chocolat on a plate and pouring a glass of juice, she settled happily at the small round table on the back terrace, as she did most mornings. Bees buzzed around the lavender in the early sun, reminding her to buy a few jars of the local lavender honey to take home. She had sampled some in the kitchen and savored the delicately sweet flavor.
Glistening with sweat after a yoga session, she showered and dried her hair before she dressed in a favorite cotton sundress. Coming midway down her calves, pale yellow, with delicate straps, it made Katherine feel cool just looking at it. She picked up a lightly woven silk shawl of cream and butter shades to take along in case she needed some protection from the sun. Her wide-brimmed hat from the market would be the final touch.
She knew James had liked her in this dress and thought fleetingly about that now. She had been determined not to toss out her entire wardrobe purely because some items carried such memories.
Ridding herself of the thought, she picked up the gift she had purchased in Lourmarin for Joy and opened the back seat of her car for Picasso. Today they would drive together.
“You’re my escort,” she told him, patting the nose that was poking over the top of her seat.
It was typical of the complicated system of roadways throughout France that it would take longer to drive to the manoir than it would to walk to it through the vineyard. At one point Katherine thought she might be lost and chuckled at the possibility. Driving was no easy matter in this country.
The lane leading from the road to the house was cut through a small patch of forest, and Katherine smiled with delighted awe as she pulled into the large courtyard. She had only seen the structure from the other side when she rode through the vineyard and was simply not prepared for the beauty before her.
Sitting on a slight rise, the large ochre-toned two-story rectangular structure was the epitome of Katherine’s fantasy of a French manor house. A tower wrapped around the eastern corner, hinting at the early Italian influence. Blue-shuttered windows were placed asymetrically the length of the manor with shuttered French doors beneath them. The enormous door of the grand central entrance stood open, and Katherine could hear Joy’s greeting voice as she approached. A wrought iron balcony above the door overlooked the elegant esplanade dotted with large glazed Anduze pots and lined by stately plane trees. The majestic fountain at the far end of the terrace, moss-covered and slightly crumbling completed the sense of harmony and design.
Joy greeted Katherine warmly as she led her into the expansive foyer. She immediately opened her gift and was thrilled with the hand-blown glass bowl.
“Oh, Katherine, how did you guess? You will smile when you see my table set with only Biot glass. It has been my favorite since I first saw pieces fifty years ago. Thank you for being so thoughtful. I will treasure this.”
Picasso had raced around to the back as soon as he was out of the car, as if he knew it was time for Sunday lunch.
“Come and meet everyone, ma chère, and we will tour the house later. If you would like to, of course.”
“No question!” Katherine said with a widening smile. “I can’t wait.”
Joy led the way through an enormous room and then one slightly smaller from which French doors led out to a large fine gravel terrace, where a large animated group were chatting and laughing around a very long table.
The bright tones of yellow, blue, and green of the fabrics in the classic Provençal tablecloth and napkins were echoed in the distinctive Biot glassware, creating a symphony of colors.
Introductions were made by Joy, assisted by Picasso, who made his way around the table, greeted by squeals from the young children and affectionate words and rubs from the adults. His popularity was obvious.
“Of course, you know Mirella.”
Mirella, looking cool in a crisp sleeveless pale green linen dress, approached her immediately with a warm smile as they exchanged bises. “I’m so looking forward to hearing about your motor trip!”
Introductions went around the table with each person standing to greet Kat with bises. Joy’s son and daughter, each with their spouse, two of her four aged twenty-something grandchildren, as well as Mirella and her two youngest grandchildren, ages six and eight, had all taken their seats again when a man rose at the end of the table.
“My dear Katherine, this is Philippe Dufours. He is the nephew of François and the Philippe I thought you met the other day.”
He smiled somewhat shyly and took Katherine’s hand, bending over it in a most gracious and flattering manner as he murmured “enchanté.” The gesture, unfamiliar to her, momentarily stunned her and she blushed furiously.
“I’m confused,” she said to Joy as she looked from one to the other. “Who was the Philippe I met?”
With a chuckle, Philippe explained the young man was the son of a friend in the village who had helped him out that day.
Katherine felt better having that perplexing encounter explained. She had been wondering why it had felt so bizarre.
“Well then, thank you so much for the beautiful bouquet you left on the window sill. It was stunning!”
“De rien! It was my pleasure. We are all so grateful to you and Pico for saving François. It was such good fortune you were there,” Philippe replied, his English accompanied by a charming accent.
Katherine’s attempts to play down her role were waved aside.
Joy indicated Katherine should sit next to Philippe as she then took the chair on the other side of her.
Conversation flowed easily as champagne corks popped and flutes were placed on the table by a couple that appeared to help serve. When everyone’s glass was filled, Joy stood and held her glass to make a toast.
“Ma chère Katherine, we are so pleased to welcome you here as a friend and hope by the time you leave you will feel part of our family. Not only are you a lovely person, but now, you see, we feel you have saved our dear François and we are forever in your debt. Bienvenue et merci mille fois.”
Everyone at the table raised their glass to join the toast while Katherine’s face once again turned a deep pink.
Shyly, she lifted the slender flute. “Merci beaucoup. Je suis très heureux d’être ici et vous êtes très gentils. It is my honor to be here at your beautiful home. You make me feel very welcome.”
Glasses were emptied and more corks popped. It would be a champagne beginning to the lunch, which consisted of bowls of olives, baskets of baguette, platters of small sliced salami accompanied by bite-size tomatoes, and a selection of paté. As they tended to filling glasses and keeping the little ones busy, Joy introduced Antoine and Hélène, a quiet elderly couple.
They beamed with pride as Joy said, “They are the third generation of their family to help us run the manoir and so are also very special members of our family. We could not manage without their talents.”
Everyone was interested in hearing Katherine’s opinion of the villages she had visited, and of course the inn that was getting so much attention. Recounting her adventures with great enthusiasm, she omitted the worst and realized she could completely isolate the bad from the good. Philippe had quietly listened, asking the odd question as Mirella and Joy pressed her for details.
She tried not to gush over everything, which was what she truly wanted to do. At length, Katherine pretended to take a deep breath, confessing she was talking too much. The others assured her she was not.
“It’s a pleasure to listen to visitors that don’t complain! Many have long lists.”
She was relieved when someone else picked up the chatter so she could indulge in the melt-in-your mouth pâté.
Philippe chuckled as he prepared a portion for her and passed it on a small plate. With a look of bemusement, he said, “I believe you have seen as much in a week as most people see over the course of several visits to the Luberon!”
“There’s more on my list for this week, but I doubt if I will be able to see them all.”
“If you were asked to choose one moment from those two days that really stood out, one thing that you saw, ate, heard, what would it be?” Mirella asked.
“Without question, I loved seeing the statue in Cadenet.” They all nodded knowingly. “That tale struck a chord in my heart. I was most touched there; reminded of how terrible the war must have been here.”
There was silence around the table briefly as Katherine’s remark resonated. Then Joy’s son, Henri, spoke up.
“My mother’s generation does not speak of those times very often—”
Katherine interrupted, feeling flustered, “I … I’m sorry … of course, I should have thought before mentioning …”
Joy put her hand on Katherine’s arm and patted it. “Non, non. It’s not a problem, ma chère.”
Henri quickly continued, “Non … sorry Katherine, I did not mean to make you feel badly. I actually wanted to say that my generation is trying to encourage my mother and others to tell their stories because they are important. So I’m very glad you brought that up.”
“Yes,” broke in his wife, Sylvie, “we must insist these stories are shared. You made a very good point right now about how meaningful they are … really, I’m so glad you did.”
All faces were turned toward Joy and Mirella, who were looking into each other’s eyes and nodding.
“Nous vous écoutons … we hear you, “ Joy replied quietly. Mirella nodded in agreement.
Katherine thought for a moment before speaking up. The champagne had relaxed her just enough to let the story spill from her lips.
“I had the same situation in my own family …”
She went on to tell her mother’s story in a shortened version and how finally she now had the written account in her mom’s own words. “I cannot express how much it means to me. I so agree that these stories must be told.”
There were sympathetic expressions around the table. Katherine could feel this was an important topic here too.
The moment was interrupted by platters of food, theatrically delivered from the kitchen by Antoine, Hélène, and Joy’s daughter Julie.
“Bravo! Le grand aioli especially for Katherine!” announced Henri.
Three large platters heaped with chunks of white fish and a colorful array of beets, potatoes, cauliflower, artichokes, carrots, and beans were set on the table. Large bowls of freshly prepared chickpea sauce and aioli accompanied each platter.
Smaller plates with hardboiled eggs and wedges of lemon also arrived, as the eager diners waited to begin.
Carafes of rosé now replaced the empty champagne bottles.
“Bravo! Mère, you have prepared another feast for us!”
“Not without Hélène by my side, as you know!” Joy responded.
Turning to Katherine she explained, “This is a very traditional summer recipe and possibly quite unusual for you. I hope you enjoy it.”
“It’s the aioli that makes it,” Henri shouted from the other end of the table. “I guarantee it will cause you to swan.”
Katherine looked puzzled until Mirella quickly corrected, “Swoon, Henri, you mean swoon.”
Laughter filled the terrace once more as everyone began to fill plates.
“I cannot get over how everything tastes so much better here,” Katherine commented to Philippe.
“Trust me, I can show you some places that might cause you to change your mind,” he suggested. “But truly, you are right. Food is our religion. Everything is prepared to bring about the greatest pleasure in every sense.”
Mirella leaned in to explain further, “You know, Katherine, we are masters of the art of plaisir. It is the underlying theme of life here. In spite of the many negatives in our society today, the French continue to strive to be artful, exquisite. It is a legacy we do not want to lose.”
“It combines with the art of seduction … la seduction,” Joy interjected, with a knowing smile. “It’s a virtuous skill here to seduce and touch all the senses with fashion, cuisine, wine, scent, words …”
Katherine glanced at Philippe, who was gazing at the two women with bemused admiration.
Turning back to Katherine, he gestured toward them. “And here is a perfect example of how the women in France simply continue to improve with age.”
The others around the table had moved on to politics and parenting while Mirella and Joy were interrupted by the antics of Picasso and the young grandchildren.
Someone had obviously made a funny remark, as the far end of the table erupted in laughter.
Philippe was interested in Katherine’s life in Toronto. He plied her with questions about the whole experience of home exchange, something unheard of to him.
In return he explained he was a fromager with a business selling cheese in the south of France near Nice.
“A fromager is a career you would not hear mentioned often in Canada. Please tell me about it … and excuse me, but I must say your English is excellent.”
“Ah, merci, thank you,” Philippe replied with a smile. He told her about living in England for several years as a teenager while his father worked with a British cheesemaker who wanted his goat cheese expertise.
Katherine asked question after question about his family’s history and found it mesmerizing.
Who knew the history of making cheese could be so interesting—or is it Philippe I’m finding so interesting? His voice is like velvet.
Philippe explained he had driven up to Sainte Mathilde as soon as he received the phone call about François. He planned to stay for a few more days until arrangements could be made for the goat herd to be cared for. He spoke fondly of his uncle.
“He has always been a fine man. He worked hard all of his life in investment banking in Paris, very successfully, and not without a great deal of stress, and provided for his family in a very good way. My father, his brother, died in a car accident shortly after our return from England and my uncle did all he could to fill his shoes. I love him very much.”
“And now he is a goat herder?” Katherine asked.
Philippe smiled broadly. “Oui, un chèvrier. He loves the peace of the fields, the goats and the fresh air. The goats do not need him, but he needs them. He spends the day meditating, thinking, reading, being at peace.”
“Plaisir,” said Katherine. Philippe nodded.
Joy leaned in. “Did Philippe tell you that François knows the goats by name?”
“Just like his father and grandfather before him,” he said, laughing.
“It’s a dying tradition that you still find on some farms in Provence.”
Luncheon plates had been cleared and a simple green salad arrived as the wine glasses disappeared.
“Wine with salad is not a choice we make here,” Joy explained to Katherine.
Katherine noted how relaxed everyone was, taking in food and conversation in equal portions. Each course was lingered over and murmurs of appreciation hung in the air.
When the salad was finished, selections of cheese were brought to the table on beautiful slabs of olive wood, along with heaping bowls of freshly picked cherries.
A variety of digestifs were offered, including eaux de vie, a homemade pear, plum-cherry-raspberry liqueur.
Everyone insisted Katherine try it.
Henri was speaking to Joy and Mirella about their stories of the war years.
“Katherine, thank you for giving us the opportunity to raise this topic again. Mère and Mirella both have tales to tell. Provence was a hotbed of the Resistance, and there are amazing stories of bravery and daring.”
Katherine mentioned that a favorite poet she studied at university, René Char, had been involved in the Resistance in Provence.
Mirella shook her head in disbelief. “Mon Dieu, it’s a small world indeed.”
“During the war, M. Char lived in a house owned by Mirella’s family,” Joy explained. “He refused to allow his work to be published by the Germans and buried his papers in the basement of the house until the war ended.”
“He often read us stories and helped us with our homework,” Mirella added.
“His code name was Capitaine Alexandre, and he truly was a hero of the Résistance, commanding the famous Durance parachute drop zone,” Philippe explained.
“Not just a résistant but a fighter on a moral plane his entire life,” said Mirella, her eyes shining with admiration, “none more famous than his protests against polluters or with Picasso in the sixties against the threatened nuclear installations on Mont Ventoux.”
“The village where he lived, Cereste, is not far from here,” said Joy. “But then you can stop in any of these towns and villages and find stories of the Résistance.”
“And of collaboration and betrayal and pain and loss,” said Henri. “There’s no question it was hell. But we must keep the stories alive.”
“And so we will,” Joy and Mirella both promised.
Katherine had been touched by the thoughtfulness shown by every person at the table as they each made time to speak with her. Some spoke English quite well and were happy to show off their ability. Others struggled, but in a good way, with good humor, laughs, and hand gestures.
Katherine made every effort to use her limited French vocabulary and was not surprised at how she enjoyed it. She had already decided to join a conversational French group when she got back to Toronto.
Farewells were now being shared and Katherine noted how the words sweetly meant see you soon, à bientôt, rather than goodbye and, of course, there were bises all around. Always bises.
Joy reminded Katherine she would tour her through the house and Katherine asked if she might bring in her laptop to use the Wi-Fi and Skype her friend Molly.
“Of course, ma chère, as we discussed the other day. Avec plaisir.”
As this was all being organized, Philippe was chatting with the rest of the family. Now he returned to Katherine and asked if she would like him to drive her to Cereste on Monday afternoon to visit the tiny Char museum.
“It would be my pleasure to introduce you to some of our little shortcuts. Mirella would love to go as well and show us the house in which Char lived.”
“I would very much like to do that,” Katherine replied and Philippe arranged to collect her at 2 p.m.
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