I have a penchant for competition, but I would never dream of attempting to beat the French at their own game.
Their passion for eating, that is.
It would take a serious training regime of long lunches and longer dinners – over weeks, preferably months, perhaps years – before one could possibly achieve a similar metabolism, let alone the tolerance for wine that would render one a contender.
Food and drink are their game, and they play it extremely well.
Everywhere you look between the hours of 12 and 2, and then again from 7:30 – 10:30, people are enjoying sumptuous lunches and dinners, eyes closed and conversation hushed as they concentrate on the task at hand.
Rose is consumed like water. We stopped at a little cheese shop the other day and noticed the proprietor was also doing a booming business selling rose out of a vat, filling large glass jugs for his patrons for one and half euros per liter. (It was pretty good wine, I might add.) Bottled water costs more, so it is perfectly rational to drink wine instead.
So although I freely admit I will never beat the french at this game of eating, I would like to join them at playing their game, in my own miniscule way. And so to this end we ventured to Jardin d’Ivana the other night.
Jardin d’Ivana is exactly as it translates: Ivana’s garden, which also serves as a restaurant every night. Ivan is apparently the host, server, and busboy while his wife, Nadine, concocts miracles in her kitchen. It was a short walk down the hill from where we are staying, so we struck out on foot. We felt a little sheepish walking into our neighbor’s yard, but this is how it’s done here we reminded ourselves, and went in.
Ivan greeted us and ushered us in to our table. This night their tables were all set under their sheltered veranda – the mistral, high winds that blow down from Siberia, had arrived the day before, and were whipping up the tablecloths and making waves in their small swimming pool.
In the next fifteen minutes, twenty other people were ushered in to surrounding tables, reconciling our previous worries that this was, in fact, very normal here.
The feast began.
There of course were no menu’s, just Ivan telling us what the menu would be that evening. We didn’t understand all of what was to come, so it was a bit like getting a grab bag of of delicacies – each course a little present in its own right.
It was a slow but steady procession of dishes in various forms of pomp and circumstance. Slim aperatifs were served in tiny champagne flutes. Pureed carrots laced with parmesan and cardamon arrived in glass bowls. A long slice of eggplant spooned an equally long slice of zucchini on a salad plate. A pork stew with thick sauce came in round bowls. Slices of apricot sweetened with brown sugar and some other divine sauce were set down just as I started to see double. Wine glasses were replaced with tiny digestif glasses smaller than shot glasses. Espresso in tiny vessels with saucers.
As we rolled out of their garden, I humbly raised my white flag in defeat. I couldn’t eat like that every night, but it was fun trying.
And I hoped like hell that Ivana had an industrial sized dishwasher.
It wasn’t the best time to discover Google is shy on its travel time estimates. One would think such a great company would be bang on, in everything it does, estimates included.
Believing that was my first mistake.
A few months ago, I’d taken a cursory glance at a map of Europe. The distance between Tuscany and Provence did not look daunting. In fact, it was only a couple of inches.
Further scrutiny of possible routes looked even better. The roads that Google suggested hugged first the Italian coastline, and then the French. It held the promise of a beautiful, awe inspiring drive. I imagined us waving to the Europeans lounging on their yachts, bidding them either bon giorno or bonjour, whichever.
Google estimated it to be a six hour journey. A bit of a haul for the kids, but certainly doable, we would stop for a nice lunch en route, and would be eating foie gras and drinking a Luberon rose for dinner.
Emboldened by my research, we started off. We had water and bananas with us. The kids each had their iPods fully charged. We were ready.
The Italian countryside gave way to the Italian Alps, and the children started asking, how much longer it would be.
Not long now, only two hours to go, we replied.
We passed the Cinque Terra, and toyed with the idea of going for a hike. We’d hoped to have lunch in Portofino, so we pressed on.
The thing about driving on the auto route, we realized, was they never gave you distances. We finally started seeing signs for Genoa, and congratulated ourselves for being so speedy.
But the signs for Genoa continued for the next two hours.
It was around this time that the tunnels started.
Instead of gazing at the impossibly blue Mediterranean Sea, we looked into the mouths of one tunnel after another, many of which stretched for two kilometres at a time.
These tunnels were both a blessing and a curse. We couldn’t enjoy much of the landscape, but they kept our children busy for hours as they tried to hold their breath the entire length of the tunnel.
With iPod batteries long dead and no radio stations worth listening to, this was something.
How much longer, they asked. About two hours, we replied. You said that two hours ago, they pointed out.
The other thing we noticed was that Italy didn’t mention any other countries that you might be stumbling into momentarily. We saw no signs indicating France was imminent, until we were in France. We happened to glance a European Union blue sign saying France between tunnels. We had arrived.
Surely, we were really only two hours from here. It was dinnertime, and in lieu of our foie gras we had sandwiches au poulet at a reststop.
Monaco gave way to Nice, and then countless other french towns we hadn’t heard of. The sun was setting in front of us, glaring into our tired eyes. We made the turn up north towards Aix en Provence.
How much longer, the kids asked. Surely less than two hours, we replied.
If you happen to be making the journey anytime soon, the drive between Tuscany and Provence is actually eleven hours, not the six that Google promises. I say this with the utmost confidence, and a whole lot of exasperation.
There are, however, two bright sides to this tale.
The first is that our children, incredulously, saw the humor in this situation, and remained good-natured throughout this marathon car ride.
The second is that when we finally reached our destination, we opened the fridge to find one glorious item: a bottle of a Luberon rose.
The doors in the Florence airport fling open as my big toe hits the mat in front of them. I’m momentarily dazed at their flagrant efficiency, and then chide myself for this typical North American attitude. Yes, they have sliding doors in Italy, too.
Standing on the hot pavement outside, I spy a sign displaying the temperature as 32 degrees, although it is 6:30 in the evening. I watch a bleached blonde girl join the taxi queue while smoking a cigarette and drinking a bottle of beer. Although the smell of cigarette is affronting, it is at the same time a refreshing sign that I have indeed changed continents.
My husband and children pick me up and we proceed to get lost for the next three hours in the Tuscan countryside as we look for the villa they have inhabited for the last three days. We navigate narrow roads void of center lines that look like one-way lanes, but yet lorries and boxy Italian cars fly past us going the other way. We circle round abouts again and again looking for the names of villages we recognize, and finally just guess on a direction after seeing none that are familiar.
Finally, dusty and hungry, we arrive at our villa, named La Torre, not far from the village of Panzano. It is 900 years old, and nestled amongst vineyards and olive trees, postcard perfect. It is split up into 5 apartments, and there are two other families staying on the property; one from Chicago and one from Germany. The Chicago family leaves early to explore different things each day and return late at night. The German family rarely leaves the property.
We are somewhere in between, taking small, short daytrips, but spending lots of time lounging by the pool. The German’s have an eleven-year old boy named Paul, who in desperation for a playmate turns to our three girls. He speaks no English, but after a day or so they are speaking the language of play; which here means various forms of ball, pool games, and cricket hunting in the vineyards. Their voices echo all over the property, bouncing off the medieval walls of the tower, as they call each others names.
It is curiously true that everything tastes better in Italy. The tomatoes are sweeter, the basil more lively, the parmesan more pungent. I was prepared for this. What is surprising to me is the aromas that you encounter.
Rosemary bushes are everywhere, their intense sweetness can be smelled long after they are out of sight. Lavendar plants send floral cues floating about the nearby atmosphere. Lounging under the shade of an olive tree the smell of sage is overwhelming. Taking our clothes down from the clothesline, the fresh mint in the field overwhelms the scent of fresh laundry.
Walking through the vineyards is to experience all of these scents mixed together, like living in an overgrown herb garden. A sensory pleasure, especially of the nasal sort.