First Impressions of Provence

September 29, 2012

Bob & I are getting used to driving in France. Despite vague memories of the roundabouts and unique road signage from my trip in 1984 with my mother & sister, when we first drove the rental car yesterday (a VW Polo very similar to our VW Golf except stick shift which Bob hadn’t driven in years), I was freaking out while trying to provide directions to Bob using the Google map on his iPhone. Bob still managed to park in a city garage in Avignon by going down and back up 6 narrow, winding levels–no exaggeration!

After dropping off our luggage at our rental apartment just north of the city, we drove to St. Remy and then over the hills to Les Baux. St. Remy feels like many other old French towns, quaint and picturesque with narrow cobblestone streets, drawing heavily on its famous connections with Van Gogh and a few of his fellow Impressionists of the 19th century. Les Baux offers a totally different experience. A walled city high on an ancient limestone hill, it appears to have successfully achieved a balance between preserving its history while serving as a home to a small but vigorous artistic community.

The countryside in Provence reminds me very much of the northern Willamette Valley, complete with vineyards, orchards, and fields. The big difference is the sprinkling of Roman ruins–bridges, fortified city walls (such as here in Avignon–the wall encircles the old city) and other stone edifices. Actually, there are a few other differences such as the numerous medieval cities tucked here and there, and the relatively uniform residential architecture. The small housing developments typically feature clean, rectangular lines with muted oranges, beiges, and cream-colored stucco walls and orange tile roofs. I felt the presence everywhere of the Mediterranean to the south.

I also felt the influence of Northern Africa as we enjoyed a fantastic Tunisian couscous lunch with two of Bob’s business acquaintances–both from Tunisia. One man, Khalid, lives in Tunis with his wife and two children, but due to the unstable situation in his country, is planning to resettle his family in Dubai, thriving capital of the United Arab Emirates. Both Khalid and his university friend and colleague, Hatem, are PhD plant scientists and research professors focusing on ways to increase the yield of grains and other crops to meet ever-growing global food demand.

We had a fascinating discussion about the economic and political environment of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain. We also talked about the presidential election in the U.S. They, like other people we’ve met in France, sincerely admire Obama. They see him as a wonderful role model for others around the world. Of course, we couldn’t agree more with them!

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