Friday, August 9, 2013


All the voices in your head… ♪♫calling GL0R-I-A! ♪♫♪♫•*•*´¨`*•   Laura Brannigan

GLORIA was mom's theme song at family celebrations... here we are singing it at Jess and Vic's wedding.

She was my rock and my anchor.  Everything I knew, everything I felt, everything that motivated me, was because of the way she moved though my soul and carried it with her heart.  She was my best friend, most ardent supporter, worst critic, my conscience and my guide.  Never again will I know the uncompromising, unconditional love I had with her beside me.  She left us in a blink of an eye.  My last memory seeing her was standing at the front door, tears in her eyes, waving me off to my new life in France.  I didn't know that would be the last time I saw my mom.

Mom passed away as Ian and I were flying over the Atlantic in a frantic race to get to her before she left.  I needed to see my mom one last time.  I needed to hold her hand, kiss her face and tell her how much I loved her.  I know she knew I loved her.  But I needed to say goodbye.  Mom couldn’t wait.  She left quietly on that Tuesday, the 23rd of April.  She was so tired and Dad must have been calling her over.  She took his hand in the middle of General Hospital.  My sister Maria was there with her.  Joanne was on her way over to visit.  Maria said, her breathing changed and she just “left.”  I miss my mom every single day.  Although I know we all go through this; losing parents.  When it’s you… it’s uniquely intense and cruel.

On August 23rd  in 1929 Gloria Frances Bertolotti was born and raised in the Little Italy section of the Bronx in New York.  She had one older brother Livio Americo (Uncle Lee) who died young; at 32.  She was very close to being named “America” by her newly immigrated parents.  They lived in a (barely) 2-bedroom apartment on Lorillard Place filled with love, music, food, friends and family.  My grandparents were money-poor.  Grandma worked in a sweatshop sewing rich women’s dresses.  Grandpa did any odd job he could from chauffeuring to tending bar.  But they were the richest poor people I knew. Grandma always said, you’re only poor if you act and think poor.   She was very proud of her aristocratic lineage and always would remind me that I was of the bloodline of the Pallavicini’s.  She always dressed and acted like a lady, outside of the sweatshop!  I grew up listening to opera and classical music and knowing how much I was loved just like my mother did.  My mother had an immense joy for life which she clung to and passed to her children.

My dad... do you blame her?
My mother met my father while on an Atlantic crossing to visit family in Italy.  She was travelling with grandma. I think she was about 19 years old at the time.  On the return trip, the MV Vulcania became the “Love Boat.”  My father was part of the crew and this is where they met and fell in love.

My father jumped ship and stayed with a friend in Hoboken, NJ.  Both my grandparents, party animals that they were, invited him and his friends over to the Bronx often.  This marked the “courting” period for my mom and dad.  Soon they were engaged.  My dad went to Canada and then re-entered the country legally and married my mother.  It took several years to become a citizen, in which time my sister and I were born.  It was lucky for me that he was not a citizen until a while after I was born, because this easily enabled me to reclaim my Italian citizenship (jure sanguinis) and be able to live in the European Union without hassle.

Ernesto Bertolotti and Giuseppina Pallavicini
My grandparents
My early childhood is swept up in memories of living in Little Italy.  Hoffman Street, Arthur Avenue and Lorillard Place were our turf.  Catholic School at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel with its grand feasts surrounding the church and spilling onto the streets of our little world is still vivid in my mind.  The open markets displaying a bounty of fresh fish, snails, clams, fresh vegetables, the butcher, the baker, the cheeses hanging alongside enormous rows of salamis and cured meats were the precursor to my draw to the small French villages and markets here in Sud de France.  We played in the streets, ran the “Johnny Pump” in hot weather (fire hydrant) and spit watermelon pits into the street when the Watermelon Man came on a hot summer’s night.   After dinner, the woman would come and sit on the stoop to gossip and cool down as we played long into the evening.  My identification as Italian living in America was about to come crashing down.

My parents moved to Floral Park on Long Island.  It was just “barely” out of the city.  In fact half of it is in Queens and the incorporated village we lived in was in Nassau County.  To us it was a different world.  Here, we blended with people who not only weren’t Italian, but weren’t Catholic!  We even went to public school!  My father’s European ways, were not the ways of other parents and so the differences between my world and the new world I was living in was vast.  This is where Gloria (my mom) stepped up!   She became the trailblazer of her generation of women within our family circle. 

My father was a southern Italian.  My mother grew up in a Northern Italian household.  The Northern Italians are much different than those in the south.  All of my father’s family and friends were southern Italians and the wives of most of the other family members were docile and obedient servants to their husbands.  They bowed their shoulders and did what was expected according to command and tradition.  Some of them were in arranged marriages.  They ran their households the way they remembered growing up in Italy, totally unaware that even as America was changing, so was the Italy they remembered.  To them the old country remained in a still life painted by memory.  It wouldn’t be until some of them were able to return many years later that they would see that even the homeland got past the war years and was progressing beyond this mindset.  But all the men did what they could to make life in America emulate the one they had “before the war.”  My mother would have NONE of that! 

My mother dressed like an American woman and not in the housecoat and slippers and dowdy church dress.  When there was a death in the family, she stayed in black for an appropriate mourning period and then went right back to color avoiding a lifetime of black dresses and stockings.  My mother laughed and teased my dad and didn’t go along with everything.  She fought when she had to.  She fought to get out of the Bronx (many followed), she fought to get us the things we needed to “Americanize” and move forward.  She was the first of the women to get her driver’s license (ok, so she almost drove us off a bridge in Fire Island, but hell, she learned to drive).  She fought to make sure my dad not only learned English but went to school at night to learn to read and write it as well so that he could move up from being a laborer to head foreman.  She fought to be able to work outside the home.  She fought for things in the house that needed updating and refreshing so that the house was presentable and was proud to give the “tours” when friends and family came for the first time.  OK, that meant we lived in the basement because the “upstairs” was the museum packed in plastic covers and plastic runners… but it was her home and she had no intention of being ashamed of it.

She also fought to give us a childhood we’d remember.  Although we loved to go out to our Aunt and Uncle’s place in Shirley, Long Island where all our cousins would play in the woods and ride bicycles, fish and swim in the ocean every day; we also went on real vacations.  We went to a dude ranch one year, and a bunch of my mom’s girlfriends and husbands and kids went to Leisure Lake and rented a cabin in the Pocono Mountains.  We’d go camping in Pennsylvania and to theme parks and every Friday night my dad would pack the station wagon with neighborhood kids for ice cream cones at Carvel during the summer.  We joined the community pool and took diving lessons and slowly assimilated into American life.  Although there was a lot of tongue wagging because my mother knew what she wanted and went for it… she didn't care.  And my father benefited from it.  My father didn't like change and if it were up to him, we’d still be in the Bronx and he’d still be a laborer breaking his back in the heat and cold laying tile and terrazzo floors as he got older.  My mom pushed and my father manned up and became the best he could be.  We were living the American Dream.  A house in the burbs… my dad had a good steady job, with good health insurance and a strong labor union.  He worked hard and he still had his Italian temper and believe me he was set in his ways, but when it came down to it, my mom let him be the captain, but SHE was the helmsman.  As time went on and we got older, they were able to travel.  It was she who insisted they not go to Italy every time they had a chance to travel.  And so, they went to Spain, northern Europe, Hawaii, Caribbean Islands, Australia and took cruises.

Mom LOVED to gamble.  Every Saturday night we’d be rotated to different houses while the adults played penny poker. It wasn’t too long before they were off to Casinos whenever they got a chance.  The Bingo parlor on Jamaica Avenue in Queens was mom’s second home.  My dad would stay home and if we called he’d say… mom went to work.  She usually won something… which meant she’d be taking dad out to dinner that night.  Mom also loved to have parties and we had plenty.  She and my dad would go out dancing with my more “modern” aunts and uncles.  They danced like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  I loved to watch them float on the dance floor twirling and dipping in perfect synchronicity.

Yes, Gloria was something special.  She had always had a lot of friends and was determined that no matter what life threw at you, you find your own joy.  She had a great sense of humor and a wonderful ability to laugh at herself.  She was always curious and brave and would try most anything.  She was the first of her friends to dive into computers and internet and though she didn't quite “get” it, she tried like hell to keep up with her children and grandchildren on “spacebook.” 

It’s so hard to imagine that life force, that loved life as much as she did, is gone.  She was out with her girlfriends, playing bingo, going to ceramics, shopping, running to Lido Beach with her senior citizen friends, even taking the grandkids to Atlantic City on the senior citizen bus… right up till she got sick.  She got sick not long after Kim’s wedding in February.  It went from being tired and a backache in the middle of February to a rapid decline into death by late April.  No one, not even she, had time to process what was happening.  When Ian and I left France we didn’t know how long she had, so we went for the maximum amount of time we could afford.  I knew how excited she was about the impending birth of her first great granddaughter.  We hoped she’d be holding out for that.   As it turned out, mom passed while we were still in the air.  It wasn’t an easy thing to accept.  In fact, I was mad at her at first.  But, she did what she had to do.  I kind of still feel cheated at not being able to say goodbye.  Guess I’ll get over it.  But oh what a blessing to have had that shining soul as my mother!  I am so proud of her and proud to call her mom.  She was perfectly mixed with love, strength, curiosity, joy, pride, humor, social grace, compassion and sense of family.  She loved her children and grandchildren fiercely.  She and my dad left us with a legacy of love and family loyalty; a price above rubies.  Thank you mommy.  I love you.

Stephen, Maria, Joanne, Mom and Me 

The love you take is equal to the love you make
alla famiglia 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Yankee Invasion - Wave 2

“She is your mirror, shining back at you with a world of possibilities. She is your witness, who sees you at your worst and best, and loves you anyway. She is your partner in crime, your midnight companion, someone who knows when you are smiling, even in the dark. She is your teacher, your defense attorney, your personal press agent, even your shrink. Some days, she’s the reason you wish you were an only child.” ~ Barbara Alpert 

I have two great sisters; Joanne and Maria. I wish they both could have come to visit, but Maria was in the middle of planning for the upcoming wedding of her first daughter. Taking time to come out wasn’t an option at the time. Joanne’s husband couldn’t take time off the business so she was flying to France with her girlfriend from high school, Kathy. It was the first time in France for both of them.

The day before they were due to fly in I was getting a little nervous about leaving Ian to go to Montpellier Airport to pick them up. The only time I left him all summer was to go to the grocery store. He was usually ok when I got home, but sometimes he’d be in distress. I was also anxious because he wasn't feeling well and started feeling nauseous and vomiting most of the day. I was hoping that if there was a crisis, we’d get him to the hospital the day before I had to pick Jo up at the airport because I couldn't leave him alone like that. He insisted he’d be all right. He was a little better by the evening. I went to bed that night hoping for the best. He had been sleeping on the sofa-bed. I woke up in the early morning to sounds of him babbling in the salon. I got up and went in to see how he was. He was talking nonsense. His speech was like baby talk and he was talking to no one there. He didn't seem to be able to respond to any questions, even by gesture so I don’t believe he understood or knew what was being said or able to communicate what was happening or what he was feeling. I was afraid he was having a stroke so I called emergency and got him to the hospital as soon as I could.

I know that with a stroke it is imperative to be treated as soon as possible. By the time he was off to the hospital it was about 5 am. I had to leave to pick up my sister by 7:30. I thought I’d wait until he got settled in the hospital and then call to see how he was. If he was stable I’d go pick up my sister and we’d stop in at the hospital on the way home. At 7 the hospital called and told me to get down there because it was not looking good. I didn't know what to do about my sister. There was no way they could grab a cab back here because they didn't know the language or the area. Plus it would have been very expensive from Montpellier. I managed to get hold of Wendy before I left and she put it on Facebook. I knew Joanne had her iPad and hoped she'd get online while at the airport. Luckily, she did. I told Wendy to have her just sit tight. I’d get there eventually.

When I got to the hospital and saw Ian my heart just sunk. He was babbling incoherently and talking and pointing like he was talking to people that weren't there. He didn't even know who I was. The doctor came to talk to me. He said he had a stroke but they didn't know how serious. They were taking him for tests. I figure while they had him in for testing I'd go pick up my sister and come back to see how he was. I explained it to the doctor. He said, he’d be in for testing for hours anyway, so now would be a good time to go. I said goodbye to Ian and tried to explain what was happening, but I doubt he understood. I kissed him and went to pick up Joanne. Thank God I had good ole nav-sat Emily to get me to the airport cause I was in no state to find my way there alone. I called Wendy to let her know what was happening and she posted on Facebook for Joanne to sit tight. Back in the car… set Emily for Montpellier Airport… and please no RECALCULATING … and off I went.

The sun was sporting a beautiful azure-blue Mediterranean sky to welcome Joanne and Kathy to the south of France. I pulled in to Montpellier airport and drove past the front doors… there was Joanne and Kathy. I honked and waved. They looked so relieved to see me. I motioned I'd go park… I couldn't find an entrance to pull up where they were standing so I parked in the lot. Soon we were hugging and packing their luggage into the cracks and crevasses of the trunk and back seat of the car. Already my morale had lifted a thousand percent. I was so happy to see a kindred spirit! We drove back to Nîmes hospital to see Ian. It was amusing to watch their first reactions to France… and their first encounters with “roundabouts.”

We arrived at the hospital just when they were wheeling Ian into a room in the neuro ward. He seemed slightly better… at least he recognized me, but he was still a little incoherent and looked so frail and fragile. My sister gave me a look as if to say “wow, you are dealing with a lot more than I thought” and I felt relieved that at last someone sees! I followed him into the room to spend some time with him and after a while brought Joanne in from the hallway to say hello. I know he wanted me to stay longer but we needed to get Joanne and Kathy checked in to le Lys d’Ors (hotel) and stop by Carrefour (supermarket) so we’d have something to eat since I didn't know where we could go for dinner that would be open. I explained to Ian that we would see him tomorrow, but probably not until the afternoon. I think he understood.

After we were all settled, had a dinner of local wines and cheeses, and called home to assure safe landings we talked about what we could do tomorrow and visit Ian as well. We decided to have lunch in Nîmes near the Nîmes Arena and then shoot over to the hospital.

Jo and me at Nimes Arena


Nav-Sat Emily easily got us to the Arena … parking was another story. Had to do a “European park” (see photo beow) … my sister, Jo – knowing my driving history – was amazed… and hysterical… they’ll never believe this back home… thus the photo!

Nîmes has a rich history, dating back to the Roman Empire but even further back than that were findings of a Neolithic site showing evidence of semi-nomadic cultivators in the period 4000 to 3500 BC. There were also traces of a village of huts and branches from the Bronze age. Nîmes became a Roman colony sometime before 28 BC. The Arenas of Nîmes is a Roman amphitheatre built around 70 AD, it was remodeled in 1863 to serve as a bullring.

my European car park ...
anywhere it fit in Nimes
It seems, at one time there was a city within the walls of the amphitheatre. After the Roman Empire fell, the amphitheater was fortified by the Visigoths (a branch of nomadic tribes of Germanic people). After the collapse of Visigoth power, followed by a Muslim invasion and then conquests by the French kings in the mid eighth century, the viscounts (European nobility) of Nîmes constructed a fortified palace within the amphitheater. In 737, Charles Martel (Prince of the Franks who restored centralized government in Francia and began the series of military campaigns that re–established the Franks as the undisputed masters of all Gaul… oh, and he was also the grandfather to Charlemagne) destroyed Nîmes and its amphitheatre on his way north. Later, a small neighborhood developed within its confines complete with two chapels. Seven hundred people lived within the amphitheater during the height of its service as an enclosed community. The buildings remained in the amphitheatre until the eighteenth century, when the decision was made to convert the amphitheatre into its present form.

                 Lunch in Nimes

The Arenas of Nîmes is the site of two annual bullfights, and it is also used for other public events. (British rock band Dire Straits recorded some of the live video and album, On the Night, in May 1992; American Heavy Metal band Metallica recorded their DVD, Français Pour Une Nuit, on July 7, 2009 and French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut filmed part of his first film, "Les Mistons", in 1957.)

We had a really nice lunch near the Arena, did a little window shopping and headed back to visit Ian at the hospital. He seemed a little better and even recognized that Joanne was my sister and in from New York. He joked around a little. I spoke with the nurses and he did have a mini-stroke (a second one). They were giving him medications and they suspected epilepsy and would give him meds for that as well. I felt better about his condition, especially seeing some improvement. His mood was fair… he hadn’t eaten and was a little cranky with the staff… but all in all, better. I asked them to bring him something to eat and they said they would. I know that he is used to me being there all day long with him, but I hoped he realized that wasn’t possible with out of town guests. I was just so grateful that he was safe and in a place where they will be taking care of him. I couldn’t imagine doing these day-trips and leaving him alone at home so if he couldn’t be home and healthy and riding around with us giving guided tours (which he would have done so much better than me,) this was probably the best place he could be.

Kathy and Jo at the cafe
downstairs from our apartment
The next day, the plan was to go to Carnon and stop to see Ian on the way home, and then it changed to Palavas les Flots. We ended up in La Grande-Motte. The great thing about my sister is that she is so much like me. We both easily just go with the flow. We work better without set plans, lists or schedules. A year of Ian’s military planning and rigid schedules really made me appreciate the freedom of living in my natural state. No wrong turn or forgotten item was the end of the world as we know it; no missed timing for meals, stalled engine, or unforeseen occurrence was cause for panic, blame or condemnation … just a lot of laughs, regroup and carry on. Aaaah, said my soul.

La Grande-Motte 

La Grande-Motte is a popular Mediterranean seaside resort and port. The only thing I know that characterizes La Grande-Motte is its architecture; buildings in the shape of a pyramid. But the main goal for me was moules-frites … and … mission accomplished. It was a wonderful lunch by the marina even though it was a cloudy day. We had a great girl’s day. I drank it in like a fine wine, savoring every drop! 

On the way home we stopped to see Ian at the hospital. I was very relieved to see that he was getting a little bit better every day. Still not comprehending EVERYTHING, but more than he did the day before. This time he got to meet Kathy as well. We had a really nice visit. I told him we planned to go to the Dali Museum in Spain the next day, so we wouldn’t be able to visit, but that we’d be back the following day. He wasn’t crazy about that and I know he’s thinking that my place is with him, but how could I ask my sister and her friend to spend their French holiday in a hospital? That wasn’t an option and I was doing the best I could to satisfy both parties. There is so much I can stretch myself and to tell you the truth, it was nice to have someone there to lean on, someone to actually see what I was going through. At last some of the stress was not feeling so heavy and I was starting to enjoy where I was. Europe.
my sister Jo at La Grande Motte


Driving to Spain was a lot of fun. The scenery driving through the south of France along the Mediterranean coast was very beautiful.  We passed through the Petite Camargue (which is where we live).  The Petite Camargue is an area between the Mediterranean Sea and the two arms of the Rhone River Delta.  It is a wetlands protected as a National Park and home to the famous white Camargue horses (and cowboys), black bulls and pink flamingos.  As we drive we can see the rice paddies and reed covered marshes.  We also passed a lot of wind farms with great white arms churning like goliaths on hilltops.  Nav-Sat Emily took us down through the coastal area always hugging the sea to our left so that every now and then we'd pass a beach or port village sporting views to that deep blue water merging with endless blue sky.

It wasn't too long before we found ourselves in the Pyrenees Mountains oooo'ing and ahhhh'ing at what we were seeing.  We stopped there for lunch and gas.  We were pretty amazed at the quality of food you get at a rest stop.  Nothing like the greasy, processed fare you find along the tollways in the States.  We really enjoyed the lunch.  That was the only stop we needed to make on the trip because it’s really only about a 2-1/2 hour drive from Vauvert. Emily took us straight to the Dali Museum and parked easily (for once). We were a little disappointed there was no border stop – we wanted our passports stamped… oh well.

The town of Figueres is in the north-east corner of Catalonia, Spain and is the birthplace of Salvador Dali. The museum has the single largest (and probably most diverse) collection of his works. The Teatro Museo Dalí is home to a range of pieces spanning Dali’s career (1904-1989) including: Port Alguer (1924), The Girl from Figueres (1926), The Spectre of Sex Appeal (1932), Soft Self-Portrait with Fried Bacon (1941), Poetry of America – The Cosmic Athletes (1943), Galarina (1944-45), Basket of Bread (1945), Napoleon’s Nose Transformed into a Pregnant Woman Strolling Her Shadow with Melancholic Amongst Original Ruins (1945), Atomic Leda (1949), Apotheosis of the Dollar (1965), Galatea of the Spheres (1952) and Dawn, Noon, Afternoon and Evening (1979).

Salvador Dali

In the early 1960’s, Dali decided to construct his museum inside the ruins of the old Municipal Theatre of Figueres. The building was originally constructed between 1849 and 1850 but was destroyed by a fire at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The only parts that remained intact were the vestibule and the foyer. His fascination with the ghostly ruins of the theatre captivated Dali and he chose it as the site of his future museum.
“Where, if not in my own town, should the most extravagant and solid of my work endure, where if not here? The Municipal Theatre, or what remained of it, struck me as very appropriate, and for three reasons: first, because I am an eminently theatrical painter; second, because the theatre stands right opposite the church where I was baptised; and third, because it was precisely in the hall of the vestibule of the theatre where I gave my first exhibition of painting.” ~ S. Dali

Teatro Museo Dalí ~ Figueres, Spain

Dali died in 1989. His crypt can be visited. It is located in the center of the museum and lies with an exhibit of a collection of gold jewelry designed by the artist.

The streets of Spain were lively and filled with tourists.  Kathy bought a beautiful Spanish shawl.  I wish I picked one up.  The only memento I bought was a great Dali calendar for 2013 ... but in hindsight... the shawl would have lasted longer and when I think about how beautiful her shawl was I could kick myself for not getting one for myself.  Perhaps on another visit to Spain. After the museum we had a great dinner and savored the ambiance of Catalonia.  As always, all too soon we had to head home.  By the time we left Spain it was dark - driving in the dark - well, that part wasn't so much fun.

The next morning we slept in a little. Joanne and Kathy stopped at the boulangerie for baguettes and croissants and we met here for coffee. Then we headed for the Cave Cooperative (Cave Des Vignerons de Vauvert )… Joanne had seen photos and wanted to see for herself. Both were suitably impressed. We walked around the village and stopped in the café for some rosé and then went to visit Ian in the hospital. Happy to see that every day he was a little better we kind of dropped a bomb on him. Joanne and Kathy wanted to go to Italy. They would treat me to an overnight stay. I knew Ian would have a kitten when he heard that, but Joanne insisted and broke the news to Ian. Then I had to try to explain that we would not be visiting for 2 whole days. He sounded like he understood that we wouldn’t see him tomorrow or the next day, but would be there as soon as we could the following day. But I knew he wouldn’t understand why I wasn’t there for so long. I spoke to his Godson, Philippe and asked him to call him to remind him. Of course when Philippe called Ian complained that his wife never visited and that I didn’t love him anymore, which upset me to no end, but I didn’t know that until I got back. Ignorance is bliss, so driving to Italy was a great and much needed adventure.


Jo in Cannes
The movie French Kiss (Meg Ryan/Kevin Kline) is one of my favorite chic flicks. Little did I know, the first time I saw it, that living in the south of France would be in the cards for me. Joanne just watched it again before she came to visit. One of the things that the main character (Kate) would do is wave her hand and proclaim “Beautiful!” when she came upon a place that was a typically awesome French vista. So our tagline for most of our trip was “Beautiful!” as we passed beautiful landscapes (especially in the Alps). Like the main character in the movie… we decided to go to Cannes. It was on our way to Italy anyway. We thought we’d spend a few hours in Cannes and Nice, but we ended up just spending more time in Cannes because it was so “Beautiful!” and we couldn’t force ourselves to leave.

Jo and me in Cannes
It was October. Although it was by no means cool in the Gard, we really weren’t prepared for the summer weather we’d find as we traveled through the Riviera. I’m glad I packed a pair of shorts but I could have used my bathing suit once we hit Italy. The closer we got to the Alps the more we’d have random exclamations of “Beautiful!”  the closer we got to the Alps the realization of having to CROSS them to get into Italy became a more and more apprehensive execution. By the time we got to Cannes we were only nearing the foothills (or it might have been the Esterel mountains) and already the car was protesting on a steep incline. Oh brother.

Cannes is a commune of France located in the Alpes-Maritimes department. Everyone knows it from the famous Cannes Film Festival. If you don’t you must have been living on another planet. The city is also famous for its luxury shops, restaurants, and hotels.

In the 2nd century BC the Ligurian Oxybii established a settlement here. They were ancient indo-european peoples who gave their name to Liguria – the region in north-western Italy that we were headed to. The settlement was known as Aegitna but historians are unsure what the name means. The area was a fishing village used as a port of call. In 891 it was attacked by the Saracens (Muslims) who remained until the 10th century. The town was known as Canua (probably derived from ”reed” as where most of the city now stands was swamps) but by 1035 with the construction of a castle which fortified the city it was known as Cannes. Monks seeking refuge from attacks on the nearby Lérins islands controlled the city for hundreds of years. Around 1530 Cannes detached from the monks and became independent.

In the 19th Century Henry Peter Brougham (a British statesman who became Lord Chancellor of Great Britain) bought land there, improved living conditions and attracted English aristocracy who built their winter residences there. With the 20th century came new luxury hotels such as the Miramar and the Martinez. The city was modernized with a sports center, street cars, a post office, and schools. There were fewer British and German tourists after the First World War but more Americans. Winter tourism gave way to summer tourism and the summer casino at the Palm Beach was constructed. The city council had the idea of starting an international film festival shortly before World War II. The first opened on 20 September 1946, held in the Casino Municipal.

We drove down into Cannes off of A8/E80 into the center of the town. The tiny, hilly roads wound down to the Mediterranean coast and soon we found ourselves on the Promenade de la Croisette which goes along the coastline of Cannes and is lined with all those expensive shops, and hotels we’ve all seen in the movies and on tv. We parked where the port for boat cruises up and down the coast took off from. I really would have liked to have done a 2 hour tour along the coast, but Jo and Kathy preferred to explore the town, so once again I didn’t get my boat ride. Oh well, maybe another time. We walked around the Croisette taking photos, checked out shops and stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the Marina. We sat outside in the warm, Mediterranean sunshine … a beautiful day, taking in a beautiful view, filled with beautiful people, huge yachts and cruise liners as well as private boats, bustling traffic and posh stores and hotels. Very trendy, very touristy and oh so “other world” … we drank it all in and couldn’t believe we were there, even for just an afternoon. We loved it…. “Beautiful!”

Time was clipping by and though we had planned to stop in Nice as well, we decided to stay longer in Cannes. Maybe we’ll do Nice and Monaco on the way back. We needed to leave in time to get to Italy before dark, so we grudgingly made our way back to the car and left beautiful Cannes behind us.


The A8/A10 route from Cannes to Italy is the most beautiful, awesome and scariest drive I ever took. This route takes you from the Cote D'Azur to The Italian Riviera. My sister Jo will attest that it is a white knuckle drive… I can, in fact, still see the imprints of her nails on the dashboard. Yet it is one I don’t regret and will never forget. Driving out of Cannes you can feel the motorway slowly gaining in altitude. By the time you hit Monaco you are shooting through the Alps. By the time you hit Menton (at the Italian boarder) you have travelled as much in altitude as you have in time.

Once you hit Ventimiglia you are officially on the Autostrada… known as "Autostrada dei Fiori", Motorway of the Flowers. You also have to pay a toll before you even get on. It wasn’t posted as to how many Euros we were supposed to throw in. The whole time we’ve been using my credit card to pay the tolls so we didn’t have to fish around for the right amount of coins. But you couldn’t use a card in Italy. We had NO IDEA what the machine was saying in Italian so we kept dumping coins in hoping it was the right amount… it was NEVER satisfied and there were cars behind us. Finally, in frustration I just grabbed the change purse we had for such occasions out of Jo’s hand, dug my hand in and threw a fist full of change into the basket… after spitting out our change and finally hearing “grazie, buona giornata” the gate opened and off we went chugging up the next incline with Joanne and Kathy in such hysterical laughter over my ‘coin frustration’ that we are all in tears by the time we hit the tunnel.

The autostrada runs 158 kilometers (about 98 miles) from the French border to Genoa and has 136 tunnels and 143 bridges and viaducts. The legal speed limit on the autostrada is 130 km/h (81 mph) for cars but Italian legal limits allow drivers to zoom at 150 km/h (93 mph) if the road conditions are good. EVERYONE sped ahead of us… and I didn’t care. Speed on you crazy bastards … I’ll just chug on… over the massive viaducts soaring hundreds of feet above valleys (some almost 300 feet) and a if mountain got in the way we’d plunge straight through it (ok, we used the tunnel). Some of those tunnels were REALLY long but most of the time when you’d come out after a good 4 minutes in the dark… wham you’re hit with sunlight and some awesome view… either an alpine vista complete with snow summits and ever higher reaching peaks or a stretch of valley littered with brightly colored houses embraced by rock between sea and sky as the Mediterranean, never more than a few kilometers away at any given point, met the mighty Alps. Our favorite phrase of delight… “Beautiful!” (complete with hand wave) was uttered so consistently, it was almost a song (and a dance). I can’t find the words to express the beauty and grandeur of such a spot on this amazing planet. Pictures would never have captured it, words are just totally inadequate and only music (that I don’t have at the moment of this writing) could possibly convey the feeling of overwhelming astonishment and awe at what we were seeing. Sometimes you just feel like a pimple on the butt of humanity; small and insignificant compared to the indomitable and dynamic forces of nature that leave such beauty.

Even though we would blast through mountains via tunnels, there was always a consistent gain of altitude. Between the strain on the engine to get up those inclines and my inexperience with a stick shift and more importantly, how to drive in a mountainous region, we were constantly freaking out when we needed to get more power to make the ascent to the next tunnel. “I’m flooring it!” I would consistently screech in panic (absolutely sure I would start rolling backwards at any point) … my sister in the front seat next to me would hold on to the dashboard with nails digging ever deeper at each perilous incline. Those marks are forever ingrained into the faux leather of that panel! But I think the scariest point (but also pretty friggin awesome) was when we came through a tunnel and straight into a cloud. I couldn’t see the road and I knew we were passing over a viaduct… surely hundreds of feet to our deaths below…. WE’RE GONNA DIE!…. You’re supposed to see your life flash before you upon imminent death, but all that flashed before me were the tragic car crashes of Princess Diana in the tunnel and Princess Grace of Monaco off a cliff not far from the very area we were at that moment! Joanne and Kathy pleaded with me to slow down but I was afraid we’d start rolling backwards and I couldn’t see if anyone was behind me. Thank God for the tunnel that came up pretty fast. I was able to see again once we were in the tunnel. We were apprehensive about coming back out into the cloud, but were delighted to emerge into sunlight giving clear and unobstructed views of the mountain road. Before we knew it the Mediterranean was to our right again and the deep blue color against the craggy gray rock and colored speckles of small villages clinging to cliff edges brought on another chorus of “Beautiful!”

At last, the exit for Diano Marina, our Italian destination. As we wound down from the mountains onto the small roads that led to the sea, the sun was just getting ready to set. Our dear guide, Emily, directed us straight to the hotel with no “recalculating” and we parked easily right across the street from our hotel. The Hotel Tina. Yes, I said the Hotel Tina. The hotel was chosen as much for its name as for its location; directly on a Mediterranean beach.

We checked into the hotel, using very bad Italian which was even worse than my horrible French. Unfortunately, they weren’t speaking much English. I think most of their foreign clientele is German. But we managed fine. The room was clean, had a shower and a balcony that didn’t look out to the sea, but a very quaint Italian street. It was quiet and was very nice. Since we hadn’t had time to explore the area we didn’t know where to eat so we just ate at the hotel restaurant. The food wasn’t the greatest meal I ever ate, but it was nice. I really liked the pasta e fagioli soup. Don’t remember what else we had, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. We had our cappuccinos out on the beach. They had little hearts drawn in cocoa in the foam. Very cute. The weather was warm and the sound of the waves gently lapping onto the beach was relaxing.

The next morning we had our breakfast on the beach. It was a beautiful, warm day. Joanne and Kathy decided to check out the town while I opted to sit on the beach and soak up the sun and read a book. Really wished I thought to bring my bathing suit but glad I at least brought shorts. People started dotting the beach with colorful umbrellas and blankets.

Along the shoreline I could see mountains in the distance as well as other towns along the coast. There were a few surfers in the water, though the waves weren't all that challenging. It was a little odd to think that just 6 km from this beach people were hiking up Monte Bignone (closest mountain peak to us in the Ligurian Alps). It’s near San Remo and we probably passed it on the way to Diano Marina.

As much as I didn’t want to leave that beach, that scene, that relaxing atmosphere; my thoughts kept straying back to my Ian sitting in a hospital in Nimes. I knew he was being taken care of physically, but I knew that he was probably feeling abandoned. I tried to shake off the guilt and try to enjoy the moment as it was happening because I also knew that although Ian and I had planned to travel around Europe, what I was seeing on this trip with my sister is probably as far as I’d ever be able to travel. He was not in any shape to really go to all the places we talked about and the best we’d be able to explore is the area we live in. Not that there isn’t a lot to explore right where we live… but I had hoped to be able to see so much more of Europe. Maybe if things improve more and he is more confident about being away from home base we’ll be able to stretch out further, but whatever we do, we need to consider his health. Really, that comes first. Also, we don’t really have the money to do much more than that until I start bringing in some income or until I am able to collect my social security from the states. Then we’ll be in a better position anyway. But I knew, for a while anyway, this is as far as I would be able to stray… so I was trying really hard to soak in and enjoy what I could.

Too soon it was time for us to leave Italy. If I didn’t have to get back we surely would have stayed another day or so. There was so much we wanted to do and see and we were in such a beautiful, warm and peaceful place. Alas, real life beckoned so off we went… back through the Alps (at least we knew what to expect this time) down through Monaco, passing Nice without having time to stop since we stayed as long as we could in Italy… waved to Cannes as we passed and soon we were passing Marseille and gratefully flatter landscape to drive through. Before we knew it we were back in the Camargue and close to home.  We unpacked and stopped in to Pizza Nico’s to order a pizza and went back to the apartment for more wine and cheese.

The next day Jo and Kathy came with me to visit Ian (who as I expected was upset that I hadn’t been there for so long and didn’t know where I was). We went to a local Vauvert resto for a quick dinner, back to the apartment for some pastries and coffee and off to bed. We were packing a lot into the time they were staying here, so at this point we were all exhausted. On their last day here I went to visit Ian alone and left them to explore Vauvert to their heart’s content. I’d meet them at the café when I got back. They went to Nico’s on their own to order a pizza which I’m sure was quite comical as they were trying to explain to them they didn’t want any “quack quack” on their pizza. I believe they went through a pantomime of all your basic barn animals for a yay or nay to the pizza topping. I’m sure they were talking about the crazy Americans at Pizza Nico’s for weeks.

Their last night in France was spent inhaling all the French cheeses, baguettes and local wines they could knowing they won’t find this in the States. We did a lot of reminiscing and talking about possible future visits and what we’d do next time. I was going to miss my sister like crazy. It was nice to have someone who knew you and you didn’t need to explain or justify things to. Who accepts you exactly how you are with no exceptions... a partner in crime, a cheerleader to my quirky artsy endeavors, and a believer in the religion of “don’t take life so friggin serious… lighten up and enjoy the ride!” Gotta love her… gonna miss her.

Thank you Ian, for giving me this time with my sister.  It wasn't how we expected it to happen, and not how I wanted it to be... not without you there with us.  But given all that was going on, it was just what I needed and the best gift anyone could have given me.  I love you.

.... and I love you my sister.  Thank you for being here when I needed you most.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Yankee Invasion - Wave 1

Vauvert -- from the Cafe at the square downstairs from our apartment
I was a little worried that our first visit from an American friend was going to be a disaster. Ian was in hospital again and Peter was due in to Vauvert within a few days. Peter was doing a European tour planning a study group for his photography students which was going to take place the following summer.

Peter, me and Ian at the Nimes station
Peter Glendinning is an accomplished photographer and professor of photography at Michigan State University.  At the time Ian was in the hospital, Peter was in Paris on his way to Arles to check out the International Festival of Photography. The festival is one of the most important photographic events in the world of photography. Last year it drew 84,000 people (including over 5,000 journalists) so this is an important stop for Peter’s students. Our little village of Vauvert is just 36 km from Arles and Peter was only in for an overnight stay on his way to Marseille. Both Ian and I were looking forward to showing him our little corner of France. Peter was more than happy to just help me out where he could if Ian was still in hospital but we lucked out and Ian got home 2 days before Peter was due in. 

We drove to Gare de Nîmes (train station) to pick him up. Naturally, there was no place to park and between us trying to find a place to stash the car and Peter looking for us in the wrong spot… it was a comedy of errors but we finally met up. 

Peter and me at the Cafe in Nimes
First stop was the café across the street from the train station.  It was a hot day so sitting outside for a cool drink before we drove back to Vauvert was a nice way to re-aquaint ourselves.  I hadn't seen Peter since... well, let's just say forever ago... putting a number on the years really seems to make us ancient.

We got back to Vauvert and installed Peter in our village hotel, which was quite nice.  Le Lys d'Or in Vauvert is just a small 2-star hotel, but it’s clean, charming, had a shower, air conditioning and free wifi… what else do you need? My sister and her friend stayed there as well when they came in to town. 

Our local hotel ... Le Lys d'Or
As it was late in the afternoon when we were finally all settled, we sat downstairs at our café and had an apero. Then we went up to the apartment and Ian cooked up a storm. Not knowing the culinary tastes of our American friend, Ian played it safe and made turkey. Turned out, Peter would have been enthusiastic to participate in Ian’s affinity for game or lamb or rabbit or bull meat (I would have stuck to potatoes and veggies) … but turkey it was. All through the starter, main course, cheese course and dessert… the local wines were flowing. I have to admit, we really do have the best wines in the world right here in our area. By the end of the meal, Peter and Ian were feeling no pain. While I did the washing up, Ian walked Peter back to the hotel. Although it was a short walk, I was a little worried about him walking back alone given he really just got out of the hospital… but when Ian sets his mind to something, stubborn doesn’t even define his resolve. So I was glad when he got back to the apartment without incident.

trying to figure out how to get to Nimes
from Vauvert is not as easy as you'd think!
The next day Peter met us downstairs at the café armed with all kinds of breads and croissants and baked deliciousness from our favorite boulangerie for petit déjeuner (not so petit as it turned out). We then went back to his hotel to get his luggage and check out of the hotel. Next stop was the Vauvert bus station for a ticket back to the Nîmes train station. After some typically French confusion as to routes and times, we managed to secure a ticket for the afternoon bus.

Off to the Cave Cooperative; where the natives go to fill up their jugs, plastic bottles and containers with the local Nîmes wines.

Cave Des Vignerons de Vauvert is always a favorite stop for visitors to our village. It’s pretty cool in that it hosts artwork from local artists as well as huge vats of wine with a hose and gun attached to fill hungry plastic jugs. Next to the Cave is the winery where the actual winemaking (or vinification) takes place. Sometimes you can catch them in action. We are surrounded by vineyards, so it’s not hard to imagine the process of vine to barrel. Did you know that the time from harvest to drinking can vary from a few months for Beaujolais nouveau wines to over twenty years for top wines? However, only about 10% of all red and 5% of white wine will taste better after five years than it will after just one year. Factoid!

The rest of the time Peter had remaining in Vauvert was spent shopping for souvenirs in the village and another stop at the café before heading back to the bus station for his trip back to Gare de Nîmes. From Vauvert he was headed to Marseille. Peter’s visit was a welcomed break from our constant hospital/health scare merry-go-round. Ian and I both enjoyed it. We wished he could have stayed a few more days so we could show him more of the area. But we look forward to seeing him again when he comes back to Arles for the International Festival of Photography 2013.

au revoir Peter, a bientot -- your visit was
short but sweet and we loved
showing you our village!
Ian continued to feel good, but after the usual 10 days out of the hospital the acute vertigo and nausea started again. Soon we were back in the hospital. This time when he was released from the hospital the vertigo hadn't dissipated. So he went straight from the hospital bed into our bed. It got to the point where he couldn't leave the bed. Our General Practitioner gave him different vertigo meds but he said they may take weeks to work. Poor Ian was in bed all summer. He could barely sit up enough to eat. Poor me, I spent my first summer in France in a hot apartment. The only time I got out was to go to the store and lug heavy supplies out of the car and into the stairwell. Once the supplies were safely in the building I got to deal with cursing French drivers because I was blocking the road so I’d yell back in English (and international hand gestures), then get in the car and drive around trying to find a parking space. Walking back to the apartment was the easy part. It was lugging everything up the stairs to put them away that offered the sauna treatment (too bad a mani/pedi didn’t come with it).

So, for what seemed like an eternity, my days were spent making meals, washing up, and making the next meal, sorting medications, trying to make Ian comfortable, bringing him what he needed when he needed them, sitting with him in the over-hot bedroom to keep him company (in an uncomfortable chair), and cleaning up the messes when he’d get sick. It didn't help that we also had a leak in the roof, so I had to deal with huge messes when it rained as well; all this without benefit of a clothes-dryer and no terrace/balcony to hang wet clothes out on.

It was a hard time for both of us.
Luckily it was the beginning of the end. 

As time went on, we easily got on each other’s nerves. I tried to be as patient as I could, knowing how sick he was, but there’s so much complaining and criticizing you can take when you’re doing your best under difficult circumstances. Ian is not an easy patient. Not in the hospital and not at home. Maybe it’s a guy thing. My dad wasn't much better as a patient in the hospital. Or maybe it’s just the frustration of being sick for so long with no answers in sight. I can understand that, but it’s no picnic being a caregiver either… as anyone who’s cared for an incapacitated person on a daily basis can attest to. Ian finally got to the point where I could roll him from the bedroom into the salon on the rolling office chair. He couldn't walk it because he couldn't stand all the way up or he’d get dizzy. I pulled out the sofa-bed and he spent the rest of the time in there. That worked out pretty well because I was able to do more with him out in the larger room with the tv. Sitting out there was much cooler because we have a small air conditioner but you have to put the hose out the window. If you know French windows, you know that they don’t roll up and down but open out. The hose hanging out the window left the window basically open, so cooling down the room was a joke. But it got so hot; we appreciated the cool air we got from it, even though it only cooled about a 5 square foot area. 

Ian slowly started feeling a little better. He still couldn't stand up, but I was at least able to get him on to the rolling office chair and into the bathroom and he was able to sit up better to eat. A few months earlier he arranged for my sister to come out for a visit in October. It was a very generous and very kind thing for him to do. He did it as a surprise for me. Part of me wished we had discussed it first, because the money we would put to that visit could easily have moved us into a ground floor apartment or gotten pieces of furniture/attractive storage baskets/boxes I desperately needed to store my belongings in. I’m so tired of my things being in plastic bags in the corners of the apartment. But it was an act of love and I really did miss my sister. Now the date of my sister’s visit was rapidly approaching and Ian was still sofa-bound. I was totally exhausted and weary. I was not ready to figure out how to entertain my sister and her girlfriend, both coming to France for the first time AND take care of Ian as well. If there wasn't already so much arranging and cost invested in it, I would have tried to reschedule it… but at this point it was too late.

NOTE:  I planned to write the "Yankee Invasion" in one post but my sister's visit encompassed 3 countries and the blog was getting crazy long.  So I broke it up by visit.  Peter's visit was one day.  Joanne and Kathy stayed for almost 2 weeks so the next blog will be all about our adventures... which were many!  I should be done writing it this weekend, so stay tuned... another blog to follow shortly.  It will be fairly long, so get your coffee, wine, smoke of choice and or snack... curl up on your favorite chair and get ready for a nice long read... talk to you soon !

 ~ a la prochaine ~
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