Category Archives: Cotignac

Cotignac is an idyllic village in the South of France, and the inspiration behind this website. Feel free to visit these official French websites too:

Cotignac Tourist Office
Cotignac Town Hall (Mairie)

Lockdown day 22 – Update

Hi everyone, how are you today? It’s an absolutely gorgeous day in Cotignac! This morning I had to drive out to Brignoles because it is where the closest open post office is and I had to send a package out. The normally half-hour drive took exactly 19 minutes this time because of course there is no one on the road and again, I was not stopped by any police even after taking full advantage of the newest way to draw up a permission slip (via smartphone). Story of my life; I never get caught for doing the right thing. You can now go straight to the government site (“attestation de déplacement” on and fill the form out, then download it onto telephone, then show the QR code to the police who will scan it. Apparently they do not store the information anywhere but, hmmm, I have my doubts about that!

It was so odd to drive into Brignoles, our biggest nearest city, without any traffic, especially near the roundabouts. All the shops were closed yet the post office was open. But they were not letting anyone into the building. Instead, the postal workers would come out and deal with people in line one at a time. It was actually quite efficient and I spent hardly anytime there. Oh, and there was plenty of parking, wow! It was slightly dreamy, actually. I drove over to the frozen market shop, Picard, to stock up and that was also a pleasant experience, albeit having to wear a mask and not be able to use a shopping caddy. I carried two bags instead. I also went to the bakery that was open, hoorrah!

I have this problem of my glasses fogging up when wearing a mask actually, it’s rather embarrassing. But I think the psychological affect of wearing one is powerful; you are more aware of touching/not touching your face and of people near you so you can make sure to move the appropriate distance away. Also, I did too many abdominal crunches yesterday that I now have some painful upper abdominal muscles that make sitting up hard (like for driving) and laughing really hurts. Has this happened to anyone of you? It’s horrible! My family members don’t seem too understanding about this and my kids are doing their best to come up with jokes, very annoying.

It is my mother’s birthday today but we cannot be with her in Macau like we had planned to. My family and I are all very sad about this. I wonder when we will be able to go next?

It is technically Spring break for schools in the North of France but of course it is not permitted to travel so many families will not be able to take their vacations like they had hoped to. It’s not just that people are afraid of being caught by the police and fined (even though one would trying to get on and off the auto routes) but in the lucky chance you arrived at your vacation home, the eyes of your neighbours would be enough to make you feel the shame of a lifetime. This is particularly true in small villages like ours. Already people have caught sight of those making use of their secondary homes here and have expressed their anger on social media and to the town hall and I’m pretty sure the culprits will be told off. So, it’s important to stay put. It’s sad not to see the usual tourist crowds descending on our village this time of year but it’s not worth the risk of having coronavirus infection. So far we are doing well in keeping it largely at bay in Cotignac but it is still unclear as to when things will get back to “normal.”

Bonne journée 🙂

Lockdown day 20 – What’s important

First I’d like to thank those of you who have written some very encouraging comments on the facebook page of Provence Living. I went through feeling down the last couple of days but you really lifted my spirits. Today I’m done feeling sorry for myself and I’m back thinking about what’s important in life and think about how I’ll do without the rest.

It helped for me to read what many medical staff were writing about their experience in fighting this “war.” Basically they are telling us to think about what they are going through; how they have no breaks, they cannot stay at home and put their feet up and watch Netflix, nor can they spend time with their family members. They are already exhausted but they continue to fight for our loved ones in hospital. I am grateful for their time and energy sacrifice, I would not be able to do the job they do every day. What’s important is for all of us to be aware of this.

Now the question everyone here in France is asking is: to mask or not to mask? Being half Japanese myself and seeing how low the death rate is for coronavirus in Japan I’m going to say yes to the masks. Back in January I saw this coming so I ordered 100 surgical masks on Amazon. but I thought they would be used more for travel and in places like aeroports. I have since given many away to friends. Now everyone is using them inside the supermarkets so I will not be leaving home without one. When I run out I will use that little sewing machine of mine and start making reusable ones. There are so many things you can learn to make on Youtube these days! But here is my reason for wearing one: you can have the virus and be contagious without having symptoms. If EVERYONE wore masks therefore, we can keep to a minimum the spread of airborn droplet contagion by keeping our mouths and noses covered. It’s that simple. What’s important is that we do our best to keep others and ourselves safe.

So I think one of the other reasons I am feeling better is because I have finally accepted this situation. But here’s the thing – I’m now going to act as though this is not temporary but semi-permanent. As in, accept that I will not have friends around, not be able to travel or work (in the same manner), and will make the most of a year in “hiding.” If you were sent to jail (whether you deserved it or not), what would you do for a year? This is the question I am asking myself. Obviously it’s not as bad as being stuck in a small jail cell (although for some families in small apartments it might be worse!) and we can, once in a while, go out to shop for food, but, you now have the time. What can you create, construct, work towards? What might you read or learn that you may not have been able to before? It doesn’t even have to contribute to society or make the world a better place, it could just be for yourself. With all this time, we can now afford to be philosophical. It’s like being on the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because the physical (food, water, warmth, security), the psychological (knowing you are accepted in the family and that you have friends) needs are met. If you have the luxury of reading blogs on the internet I’m going to assume you are safe and have human basic requirements met. So, if you don’t have to worry about work, being presentable, driving in traffic, getting up early in the morning, engage in mindless chitchat, etc, what would you do? This historic time can be seen as a grand opportunity to self reflect and think about the things that matter the most. Maybe get back in touch with the people that we lost contact with, forgive those who pained us, or maybe make new friends on social media? Say the things we were afraid to say before, express ourselves genuinely, honestly, and without shame or guilt. Exceptional times call for exceptional ways of being. Let’s concentrate on what’s really important in our lives.

Yesterday my hubby and I spent a lot of time in our garden. The sun was out and it was warm so it felt really nice to be outside. In France it is required that brush is cleared up to a 50 metre perimetres from one’s house in keeping with forest fire prevention regulations. So hubby was busy using the brush cutter and I swept up behind him. These days I’m letting my children sleep in as much as they want as they are adolescents and need more sleep than we do. I also feel like this will keep the quarantine “trauma” to a minimum. The last thing they need is a demanding mother that makes them do lots of chores during this trying time. They should just concentrate on getting their school work done and keeping in touch with their friends through social media and enjoy feeding the pigs. What’s important to me is that they are happy.

Living in Provence has many advantages. The good weather will allow us to grow lots of vegetables so I’m going to concentrate on that more than I have in years past. I’ll also read up on the history of Cotignac and will share what I find with you. In the meantime here are some old and more recent photos of Cotignac. Can you spot the differences? Not much changed up until “yesterday.” Today, since the arrival of the coronavirus, we must begin to visualise and construct a new future. But let’s hold onto to the best of the past; those important things that are handed down to generations. Have a great Sunday.

Lockdown day 18 – Breakdown

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself” my mother used to say to me when I felt down. “Stop being so dramatic” was another one. Or, “Save it for the stage!” she used to say if I was really acting up. But yesterday was one of those days where I just felt like I’ve had enough of this. This staying-at-home-all-the- time-stuff sucks. I wanted to scream out loud and would have, if I’d been alone, but I don’t want to scare my family members. It’s not just one thing or another that bothers me, it’s not the small stuff like picking up socks on the floor, having to clean another toilet, or looking at the overgrown weeds in the garden – those things no longer bother me. It’s the big picture this time. The world as we know it is dead and it now has to find a very different way to turn.

Unless well-equipped with the latest technology in communication, I can see how many older people (boomers) would find it difficult to be isolated. Extroverts (like me) need social stimulation so they would find this harder than, say, the introverts. But everyone needs attention more often than not, and feeling heard and/or listened to is paramount to life.

In a sense, writing is a lifeline for me. Without it I’d quite frankly go out of my mind. For others a source of comfort might be found in music, in dance, or figuring out how puzzle pieces fit. Speaking of puzzles my mother once told me about a dream she had a long time ago that was quite scary. She was standing in front of a bathroom mirror and pieces of her face were lying there next to the sink. Her job was to pick up the pieces and try and put them back together. It was a metaphor for getting her life back together again. So this is how I feel at the moment. The world is in pieces. We need to carefully put the pieces back together but be wary that the end result may look a bit different, even cracked, in places.

The novelty of the pandemic has worn off for me. I’m sure it has for many people. But now I’m starting to feel panic for the big picture. There is no way we can just take off where we left before the coronavirus hit us. Much of our future has to now be recreated. The earlier we start this process the better off we will be.

The millions of jobs people have lost may no longer be there so they need to be recreated from scratch. New industries need to be created, hopefully those that favour preserving the environment over destroying it. For now people are still scrambling to save lives, to recover from illnesses, and the drama that is unfolding is still fresh and shocking and therefore dominates the news headlines but all this will eventually become repetitive and therefore uninspiring. When the long catastrophic « killer storm » is over and the bell curve begins to fall the destruction, in hindsight, will be so great we will all be in danger of being depressed. But we can’t afford to be inactive. We will have to rebuild and move quickly. What will this look like? If it’s not going to change much for you it will for someone around you so how can you help them?

I predict that Cotignac will fair well in the long term but we will see a significant dip in tourism this year. We will see a dramatic difference this Summer with most, if not all, events cancelled. Maybe our tourists will look more French than international like in decades past. But we have a few things going here that will not change in the short term : great weather, beautiful scenery and fantastic rosé wine. Those things, in themselves, will always attract people as long as they can move from place to place. Cleaning and essential services jobs like plumbing and electricity will always be in need here, as will medical personnel to support our dominant elderly population. Last year I thought the holiday rental market was saturated. This year may prove particularly hard for this market as we will no doubt see far more properties available for short term let than takers. Prices will fall, as will real estate values and fewer people will be buying or moving house.

Rebuilding is like going back to square one. Starting over, like you do when one relationship ends, or you go through a job change, or someone you love passes away. But those are easy changes compared to what’s coming with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us will never know what it’s like for one’s house to burn to the ground or get uprooted by a tornado or tsunami but this world change will, I think, feel a bit like that except this time everyone in the world will feel the effects.

Lockdown day 16 – Memories part III

Well things are looking bleak these days, aren’t they? Coronavirus numbers keep going up and it’s so hard to see light at the end of the tunnel even for France. It’s horrible to think so many people have lost/will lose their lives, so many families will lose loved ones and so much hardship has to be felt by the medical service communities all over the world. I really hope we come out of this without being too traumatised. I wish I could see the end but I also wish the earth can stay clear of pollution when that happens. Oh why do these things seem to be so mutually exclusive?

“You have to suffer first in order to enjoy life later,” my grandfather used to say to me when I was young. He told me how he grew up poor and had to stop going to school and start working from the age of 13. This was in the late 1920s. But he was lucky because he didn’t have to serve in the Japanese army. He pulled a cart full of metal scraps around town and it was hard work. He never really learned to read or write properly but he had an engineering mind and managed to invent the first “linking machine.” He was interested in machines that sewed fabrics together but noticed that there was always a seem. The linking machine allowed fabrics to be sewed together without a seem and became the eventual link to a lucrative contract with Singer sewing machines in the U.S. in the late 50s. His business grew into building very large and industrial quilting and bedding machines that were sold around the world from Japan in the 60’s and 70’s. Having had 8 children, he sent his oldest sons to New York to learn English so they could help with the business internationally. That’s where my father met my American mother, got married, and moved back to Japan where I was born. Japan’s economy was booming at the time and continued until the late 90s until the Asian Crisis. But by that time the bedding industry had already moved over to China and Vietnam and soon the Japanese machines were simply too costly for most bedding companies to buy. But the Iwase Prince companies kept my father and his brothers busy most of their adult lives and served me with Summer jobs in the 80s.

When I graduated from high school in 1986 I didn’t want to rush into college so I took a job nearby on 4th Street in Berkeley (California) at a fancy Futon shop called Thousand Cranes. A Japanese lady ran it and needed help selling and making pillow cases and quilt covers with an industrial sewing machine. I was keen to learn and told her about my family’s business in Japan. She hired me and taught me how to take the beautiful silk textiles and turn them into cushion covers with zippers. She also sold cherry wood bedframes with tatami mats instead of box springs. Once I took an order on the phone from Morissey of The Smiths. He wanted us to make him a silk pillow cover and send it to an address in New York. I happily obliged of course! Another time Alice Waters (famous chef) came into the shop with her young daughter at the time and ordered a quilt cover to be made. I took on this job too. She was already famous for her local gastronomic restaurant called Chez Panisse and is considered a pioneer of California cuisine. Her restaurant must have been my first introduction to French style food that I would become very attached to later on in my life, in the South of France of all places.

I loved using the industrial sewing machine to make bedding covers. It worked so fast and had a huge table underneath it which made maneuvering even large pieces of cloth easy and fun. I got to be good at it too but eventually the owner and I had a falling out over another employee whom I felt was not being treated fairly so I left and took the path toward higher education.

I’m staring at a small sewing machine that I bought last year hoping I might find some inspiration to use it for something more exciting than hemming my kids’ jeans. I’m not the most creative person with crafts or visual art. I admire others who can create beautiful things. Maybe I’ll take it out tomorrow and start a quilt. Ha! That would be something.

Lockdown day 15 – After the rain, a rainbow

We had a dousing of rain for about 30 minutes yesterday afternoon which ended in a rainbow. Looks like it will rain some more today. We needed that. I hadn’t seen rain that heavy since the end of November, 5 months ago, when it was so bad our region had to declare an emergency. Our basement flooded and much of our wooden furniture had to be thrown out. We have since had a lot of work done behind the house so that doesn’t happen again.

Most people required to stay home probably have more time on their hands than I do. Having all my family members here (2 kids and a hubby) actually makes staying home for me busier, giving me less time to get my own work done because I have to cook lunch and dinner and clean up in between. When I wake up first thing in the morning I make my coffee. Then when I get behind my computer I notice all the school work I have to print out for the kids (they forward to me what they get by email from their teachers). This is up to 10 pages each. Of course the ink on my printer ran out so I had to order some more. When I looked on Amazon I was surprised and appauled by the prices that had sky-rocketed (more than double the usual cost). How dare they take advantage of everyone like this? Masks and hand sanitiser aren’t the only items costing an arm and a leg these days. I looked elsewhere and after a while found a more reasonable office supplies’ shop where I ordered the ink. It will take three days to arrive.

Every night, after watching the French national news at 8pm on tv (I really like watching Lauren Delahousse on channel 2, he is rather dishy) I usually get some time to watch Netflix but I am finding the dramas suddenly less realistic since they all take place PRE-CORONAVIRUS. Everytime I see a scene where people are socialising, mixing, enjoying each other’s company or getting too close, I get annoyed. I wonder what kind of series will be made after this world crisis. Surely entertainment will look different and take into consideration the major changes that are affecting our world today. Contagion, the movie, looks a whole less dramatic after going through the real thing!

Welp, that’s all from me for today. Hope you are well and keeping safe.

Rain March 30th 2020

Lockdown day 14 – Food for thought

Two whole weeks have gone by since President Macron declared a national lockdown. Time seems to pass by at a snail’s pace, but already I am seeing first hand the positive effects fewer cars on the roads and skies without planes have had on us. The sky was so blue yesterday and so different to what we are used to seeing here with all the plane contrails, being so close to Marseille and Nice aeroports. I never thought the air was polluted here but I heard on the news that the coastal towns like Hyeres and La Seyne sur Mer are recording record low levels of pollution near the beaches which means that it has never been cleaner. So I took some deep long breaths of air while walking down to my letter box (300 metres down the hill) yesterday and gazed at the sky in awe. How terribly ironic that those people suffering with coronavirus in the hospitals cannot breathe properly. I wish I could breathe for all of them and help them recover.

So, how have you been keeping busy these days? I have been cooking a lot and baking too. I learned to cook from living in France more than any other country. This is perhaps due more to the high cost of restaurants and lack of variety in the less expensive options (pizza, pizza, and more pizza) than by choice. Some typical Southern French fare include dishes like ratatouille, aioli, and tian. Pan fried duck with fig or apricot sauce is another favourite, usually accompanied by courgette flan or dauphinois potatoes. In just about every restaurant here in the Summer you can find salad with tomatoes and mozzarella but it’s so easy to make at home it seems like a shame to order it. And everyone drinks chilled rosé with their meals, all year ’round. This is rosé land and the locals will tell you they have been making it for 2,000 years. Not even a plague would stop that tradition.

I’m big into making crêpes, that’s another thing I learned to make here. While volunteering for many years with the parents’ committee in Cotignac I made hundreds and we sold them to raise money for the local school kids’ extracurricular trips. I wonder how far back history goes when it comes to crêpes? I looked it up: “The dish was created out of a mistake made by a fourteen year-old assistant waiter Henri Carpentier (1880-1961) in 1895 at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris. He was preparing a dessert for the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII (1841-1910) of England.” Who’d have thought that the Prince of Wales would be the accidental inspiration to one of France’s proud culinary delights? If he were alive today I’d thank him.

Isn’t it amazing how food popularity comes and goes with the ages, how what’s healthy at one time can quickly switch to being “bad” the next, how food trends come and go, and even tastes change over the decades? When I was about 10 years old my mother decided to make us kids fried liver and onions claiming it would help us grow strong. I had (and still do) have a gag-reflex with any animal liver and cannot even chew it perhaps due to its metallic taste. I remember how my mother angrily put my dish back into the fridge so she could place it in front of me the next day as left-overs. After I threw up several times and she finally gave up. At the time though, she was just trying to be a good mother by feeding us what she thought was the healthiest choice. Liver and onions actually has a Wikipedia entry. I didn’t know the dish orginated in Venice.

In California in the early 90s I remember being influenced by Susan Powter’s popularity in touting that “fat makes you fat.” Everyone around me started eating rice with nothing else and cut out fatty essentials like olive oil and butter. There’s a good reason she was ignored in France. And eventually there was research done to prove that humans need fat in their diets to stay healthy. One of my favourite books about food is Michael Pollen’s In Defense of Food. It’s about going back to basics and how one’s European grandmother might have cooked with back yard chickens and home grown vegetables. Looking around at the older folk here in Cotignac, who cook with lots of olive oil and drink wine with every meal, and live well into their late 80s and 90s, I cannot help but think they might have the right long as they stay clear of nasty viruses, of course.

Bon appétit 🙂

Even crêpes go well with rosé!

All the fatty cheese can’t be bad for you?
Back to basics

Lockdown day 13 – Phobias

Are you superstitious? I’m generally not, which is why I will stick to writing on the 13th day of confinement. But I only just discovered that it’s not just superstition that’s behind the fear of the number 13. It’s an irrational but real fear called triskaidekaphobia. Hotels and business buildings in China do not have a floor 13. Some even do not have the 4th or 14th floor because the number 4 sounds too much like the word, “death.” Even in the USA 85 per cent of business buildings do not have a named 13th floor. Bad luck or phobia, you can guess the motive for this. I hope you too learned something new today.

My children are arachnophobic, they hate spiders. It’s unfortunate they live in the countryside as of course there is no shortage of insects here. I don’t know how they became this way, these things couldn’t possibly be innate, they are learned behaviours. So whenever they see a spider they scream and call for me to get rid of it. Unless it looks poisonous I won’t kill the insect; I usually just grab it and throw it out the window. But lately I have been swatting flies. There seems to be a sudden surge of them here. They are starting to drive me up the wall. But maybe that’s due to boredom associated with quarantine.

My ex-husband had a phobia of commercial jets, particularly after 9-11. The irony was that he had a pilot’s license so he was fine as long as he was in control of flying. Before 9-11 he used to get on an aeroplane and ask to sit up front with the pilots, something that was allowed before 2001. He told me once during a flight he even spotted something on the radar that they were headed towards that they needed to avoid (bad weather). “Oh, thanks for that,” the pilot said, and made the necessary adjustments in navigation. After entering cockpits by passengers (with pilots’ licenses) was prohibited he stopped flying on commercial jets altogether, avoiding far away destinations and taking only trains and cars to where he wanted to go. It didn’t matter that one has a much higher chance of dying in a car accident than flying, phobia’s are rarely based on real danger. But I could understand the fear of not being in control or trusting the driver. I’m like that in the kitchen lol!

I used to be annoyed by all the kissing I had to do in the village when greeting others. This was not a natural behaviour for me as the Japanese bow and do not touch each other when greeting. Americans do not generally kiss but rather hug and that was something I got used to in California. But here in the South of France even men (who know and like each other) kiss both cheeks when saying “bonjour!” Apparently my French man needed to learn this when he moved here as being originally from Normandy (in the North) it was not part of his culture either. Where he is from they shake hands between men but it’s customary to kiss the opposite sex. Since being under lockdown I have to admit though that I do miss the social contact. I wonder if this virus will change or slightly modify the way the French greet each other forever?

It’s a another beautiful day out today. It’s so warm and sunny. Gardening is on the agenda. We’ve already had a couple of barbecues here. Thank goodness that’s allowed!

First Spring BBQ
Evening bbq

Lockdown day 12 – Spring!

It’s been 12 days of being confined and during the few times I have gone out of the house no police stopped me to ask what I was doing. So I felt safter this morning going out to get some work done in the manner of checking on some houses I look after. Leaving the house seems like a treat these days so I played some raggae in the car and drove slowly. I wanted to feel the warm breeze on my face as the weather was suddenly back to being mid-Spring like with temperatures hovering around 18 degrees centigrade. I barely saw a soul taking a walk, and because it’s a Saturday there were no trucks around either – bliss! The adventure of driving in the countryside was something to cherish this time and make the most of, so I did.

First I headed into the village and as I was driving up the Cours Gambetta I noticed a long queue coming out of the small Spar (convenience store). I had never seen a queue coming out of there before. About 20 people were lined up outside the entrance, keeping at least a metre or two’s distance from each other. All of the restaurants and outdoor cafés that would normally be full of people and even tourists this time of year, were of course, closed.

I noticed there were poppies starting to bloom and lots of other flowers too. I heard people chatting to each other from inside the village houses but very few people were outside taking any walks. There were birds chirping too but no other noises. No trucks, no cars, no street cleaners…this is how life must have been like before cars, one hundred years ago, save for a few horses and carriages maybe? I saw the cemetery just behind the fish pond on the rue Pra de Pé. I guess many of those who died here remembered the war or wars of the 20th century that affected them, their fathers, mothers, relatives. I wonder what they would think of the world now? Is this our WWIII? Is it more painful to die suffocating with pneumonia than to be shot to death on the battle fields? I must stop thinking like this. I’m making this situation more miserable than it needs to be right now.

While staring at the orange fish I wondered where they all came from. They probably came from people not wanting to look after them anymore in their gardens or in fish bowls or aquariums at their homes. This is where they could be tossed and live out the rest of their lives. It wasn’t a bad retirement home for them. They looked happy enough but they weren’t moving very quickly. They were just hanging out, getting some sun. Sometimes you can see cats sitting on the edge hoping one of them might jump out so they could munch on a treat.

A few years back when my older daughter was around the age of 9 we were driving by a fishmongers in Rocbaron. My daughter squealed with delight and told me to stop the car. “Look Mama, we can get some fish food for the Koi right there!” I giggled then replied “sweetie, buying fish food at the fish mongers would be like going to buy grass for a cow at the butcher shop!” She laughed so hard she cried. Kids are so entertaining.

Speaking of entertainment I have noticed that there is an explosion of new videos, jokes, competitions etc. on social media as a direct consequence of being confined. So many performing artists are coming up with genius ways of coping and keeping the rest of us occupied with laughter and I am really enjoying it. Here are some for you to check out for a laugh. I have also attached some photos from my morning. Enjoy your day 🙂

The fish pond near the cemetery Cotignac
Dead Cours Gambetta

Lockdown day 10 – Here, Piggy Piggy

The death count in France stands at 1,331 oday, the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases have gone over the 25,000 mark and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The government will likely announce a prolongment of the confinement for at least another 4 weeks. I’ll guess it will look more like another 6 weeks. For the moment there are 7 cases of coronavirus at the closest hospital, in Brignoles.

Here in Cotignac the sun is shining and the blue skies are back! But it’s chilly this morning and I saw frost all over our pool deck. But this did not bother me because I can tell Spring is definitely in the air because the pear tree has blossomed! In the beginning of the year I swore that this would be the year to start the long-overdue process of composting so we could do our bit for the environment and lower our weight of trash. But then a miracle happened: our neighbours brought some pigs down to just above our house.

This morning I brought up just a bowl full of carrot and potato peals from last night’s dinner. We had onions too but apparently they are not good for pigs nor for compost. It so satisfying to watch the mamma pig chow down on the bits. This is a real treat for them, kinda like if someone were to offer me some Beluga caviar or black truffles. But pigs are not so different from humans. They like truffles too.

Every January Aups, a village just 20 minutes’ drive from Cotignac, puts on a Truffle festival complete with demonstration of the giant truffle-hunting-pig and master. Aups has this amazing truffle museum that doubles as their tourist office there and it’s great for kids and adults alike to learn more about the Tuber melanosporum. There is also the white Alba truffle in the Summer but they are not nearly as flavourful.

In Lorgues the Michelin starred chef Bruno has his restaurant that specialises in truffles. These days his sons are doing most of the cooking and it’s called Chez Bruno It’s not cheap but if you love truffles, gastronomy and appreciate long 7-course dinners this place is for you. Since you cannot get there now, here’s a great article from Mirabeau Wine about the festival in Aups with a recipe for Brouillade aux truffes (a slow cooked omelette) that’s great. If you get around to making it, hope you’ll share some photos with me!

The French love to eat pork. They have this saying, “toute est bon dans le cochon” meaning every part of the pig can be eaten. From chops to terrines to paté and smoked hams, there is a dizzying array of pork delicacies to chose from at the deli counter of just about any supermarket here. So it’s really not the best place for vegetarians although the French are slowly catching onto the trend even in the countryside. Restaurants here in Cotignac now offer vegetarian choices but I would like to see more variety in the future to accommodate any kind of tourist.

Hope you have a lovely day or evening, wherever you are. Stay in, stay safe, and be well. A demain!

Lockdown day 9 – the Var is like a box of chocolates

So, Japan is postponing the Olympic games to 2021. My father was right. And I can imagine many Japanese would approve of this because they would say that the year 2021 would be more auspicious. You see, the Japanese prefer odd numbers which is why you rarely see tea sets sold with an even number of cups. In Japan, they would be presented in a box with 3, 5, or 7 matching cups, not any even number. I was born on an even date of an even number month on an even year, to the horror of my relatives in Tokyo. I was cursed according to the most old fashioned of them. Funny how I don’t see my life having turned out that way. I feel so fortunate to be where I am today.

Speaking of the Olympics, one of my favourite movies of all time is Forrest Gump. I wonder how Tom Hanks is doing? I hope he recovers from the virus soon. He’s such a talented actor. Who doesn’t like him? “Life is like a box of chocolates…” mmmm, chocolate. I rummage through the kitchen cabinets, there must be some, somewhere. Oh my god, we are out of chocolate. How could we be out of chocolate? We have a ton of toilet paper and wine, chocolate is in with that group of life-necessities! I start thinking of ways of sneaking out of the house and go to the Spar just to get some. I’d have to lie to the policeman and say I was going to buy flour or something. Just kidding, they don’t ask for specifics, even after the latest even more strict clampdowns of not taking walks more than a kilometre away (previously we were allowed to walk up to 2 kilometres from home) and of calling for curfews in the larger towns like Brignoles (from 9pm to 6am every night).

Cotignac is like that one favourite chocolate in the centre of the box. For me this would be See’s Scotch Mallow. It’s chewy toffee topped with fluffy marshmallow and covered in good quality dark chocolate. It’s not too sweet, not crunchy or nutty, just perfect. Here we have a really beautiful limescale cliff that hangs over the old houses that were built back in the 1500s. On top of the cliffs are even older Medieval forts from where you can admire the view that stretches out to other villages and the rolling hills of Provence. There are several waterfalls to easily walk up to and the main shopping road, called the Cours Gambetta, is home to many restaurants including my favourite place to drink, bar La Tuf. At this time it’s normally bustling with locals and tourists but for now we are taking a big break, like the rest of the world. Now, the other surrounding villages are not bad either, don’t get me wrong. But for me, they are are more like the chocolates with almonds, walnuts or praline stuck in them that take them just one step away from being perfect. Okay, I’m being biased of course. The Var is very much like a box of chocolates; in any direction you go from its centre Cotignac, you’ll find a village, not unlike those other chocolates, that’s worth picking and tasting.

Just to the North you’ll find Sillans-La-Cascade. At first glance the dominant turret from the castle (which is its town hall) is grand and impressive but this cute little village is famous mostly for it’s huge double waterfalls, hence its name. You’ll see cars parked here all year ’round because it’s such a picturesque place to come and take a walk. It’s just over a kilometre’s stroll through the olive groves in front of the main church and down into the valley from where you’ll see and hear the waterfalls. In the Summer you can walk further down (at your own risk as the signs will warn you) to discover the many pools of azur waters flowing into each other, it’s spectacular and a great place to cool down. But it can get crowded here during the day so if you do get there, try early in the morning.

To the South there is Carces where the Saturday markets are always very crowded but the village itself is worth taking a walk around because there are some really charming alley ways, Medieval tunnels, and sweeping views to check out from the outdoor theatre. If you get here, I highly recommend lunch or dinner at Les Chineurs, for mussels (Moules-frites) and home made fries that are out of this world!

Go East and you’ll get to the delightful castle town of Entrecasteaux and if you go just a bit further, there is quaint Saint Antonin, which is a wonderful place for a picnic in the Spring. There is a nice park there too with a zip line to hang from and a big tyre to swing on. Perfect for kids.

To the West is our neighbour village of Montfort-sur-Argens with a beautiful castle you can walk up to. One of my favourite restaurants is here, the pretty “La Petite Marmite.” You can get lunch specials with starter and/or dessert for 15 euros during the week.

In any direction, if you keep going you’ll discover even more flavours of beautiful old villages here in the Var. I’ll even go as far as saying that all of France is like this. The country has everything anyone would want to live with: snow covered mountains with ski resorts, white sand covered turquoise beaches of the Mediterranean, stunning old castles and cathedrals, steep canyons (think the Gorge du Verdon), the list is long! Of all the places I have lived in the world – and I don’t take it for granted, ever – this one takes the cake, or rather, la boite aux chocolats 🙂

For more photos, please do a search on the site, for eg “Sillans-la-Cascade”, “Verdon canyon”, “Carces”, etc.

Lockdown day 8 – adaptability

Good morning! It’s an ugly day here today – overcast, cold and dull. Might as well stay in, eh? Ha! Great idea.

When I went into the kitchen this morning I decided I would have something different with my café. You see I usually have my personal mix of organic meuslii with fresh fruit like strawberries. When blueberries are in season they are my go-to fruit. When raspberries are growing in my garden (in early Summer) I pick those. I have to admit though that although I did have a flash fantasy of trotting down into the village to buy myself a fluffy warm croissant at Lou’s boulangerie, I decided I would hold off being so exigeant until after this ‘rona crisis. I would make do with what I have and practice the virtue of being grateful. I cut a slice of some pain rustic left over from dinner last night and placed it in the toaster. While waiting for that I sliced up a banana. Then I spread my toast with the very French “demi-sel” type of butter, which is salted. I never understood why they call it “half-salted” but nevermind. I gingerly placed the slices of banana over my toast and took a big fat bite out of it. When was the last time I had bananas on my toast? It’s been decades. I remember now, it was 26 years ago.

Between 1992 and 1996 I worked in Los Angeles for the Japanese government’s trade agency, JETRO. I lived in an high-rise apartment within a 10 minutes’ walking distance, on Figueroa street, downtown. I would walk to work in the morning. For most of you this would sound perfectly normal but for Los Angeleans it was novel because everyone drives everywhere, even for just a few blocks. Anyway I would first head over to the little Mexican snack shop across from my office building and ask the friendly shop manager to make me a sour-dough banana sandwich for breakfast. The bread had to be toasted and buttered and the meal had to be accompanied by a giant Latté. The sweetness of the banana mixed with the saltiness from the butter was pure bliss and in sunny Los Angeles this was the way I started my work day. And I earned it after the long 10-minute walk. Happy memories.

At the end of 1996 I said goodbye to my life in the warm, palm-tree-paradise to live with my English fiancé in rainy Yorkshire, England. I suffered a severe bout of culture shock that first year. It rained every day. Every day. I had left my life of morning lattés and started drinking tea like a proper English lady. I had to adjust because frankly the coffee there did not taste good. Adaptability was my pointe forte. I missed the sun but I would survive because damn-it, I was adaptable. I even learned to be sarcastic because that was just the way people communicated. But coming from California, where everyone takes everything literally and we have to be mindful and careful of not insulting others or their cultures, etc, this was a challenge. But quickly I went from feeling shocked and insulted to throwing sarcastic quips right back at anyone and even found it funny after a while. As for getting used to that dreary weather, well, that was the exception.

Sarcasm is not a form of communication for the Japanese either, so I did not grow up with it. Their humour is found more in poking fun of people or things, in manipulating words, or even in criticising. Virtue is found in being humble, like putting your own children down because saying they were wonderful was not being humble enough and would be considered conceited. Breakfast in Japan was often a piece of grilled fish, some miso soup with seaweed and a bowl of rice. I loved that. But when you grow up in a country there is no process of forced adaptation to its culture. It’s naturally learned throughout childhood. It’s seemlessly absorbed, assimilated and then enjoyed.

Adaption is the second main point of Darwin’s theory of evolution, after competition. Survival of the fittest – I wanted not just to survive a new culture but evolve and be better. I got a taste of this in the UK but France was where I exploited the opportunity to do just that.

I have now lived in France for 18 years. It’s the year 2020 and the world is going through a complete transformation. Maybe the Christian date starters got it wrong 2,020 years ago. Everything leading up to this year should be called B.C. – before Corona! Perhaps this is the year we should start counting, in the year of A.D., after disease…

Lockdown day 7 – update from the South of France

Fines for leaving your house, for no good reason and without a permission slip, have risen. 135 euros for the first warning, then if you get caught again you’ll be asked for 1,500 euros. If you get caught 4 times in less than one month the fine goes up to a whopping 3,700 euros plus 6 month’s of jail time. I’m sure even the wealthiest among us would not want to risk jail at this time. I wonder if the cops get commissions for fining like they do with giving out parking tickets?

Watching the news, showing incredible scenes of a deserted Promenade des Anglais in Nice and the turquoise beaches sans sun woshippers, I had a thought: I wonder what the prostitutes are doing? Since there are no cars on the road I suppose they wouldn’t be working either. Would their wage losses be covered by the government too? Afterall, their profession is legal here (as long as they work for themselves (ie without a pimp) and declare their earnings).

My father called me from Japan this morning. He wanted to know how it’s going in France. We communicate in Japanese. “Looks like you guys are in a very bad position there” he says, not-surprisingly. “How do you get to work?”

“I work from home, Dad, don’t worry, we are fine, we are all at home, the kids are off school and we are keeping busy, how are you?”

“Well everyone is out shopping, it’s as normal, except Disneyland is closed!”

What a surprise.

“You know how we Japanese are: we wash our hands all the time and wear masks in normal times when sick and we don’t kiss each other, like the Italians do all the time. But they will cancel the Olympics, you’ll see. Is your village okay? Are there any cases there?”

“No, there are no Coronavirus cases in Cotignac but there are 3 cases in Brignoles at the moment, that’s about 20 kilometres away.”

“That’s far enough,” he says, reassured.

I’ve always been amazed by the Japanese’ superiority complex in spite of all the natural disasters they have suffered. The last big earthquake with massive Tsunami that killed over 10,000 people comes to mind. That was around this time of year, 9 years ago. They showed the world, even during those horrific times, that they could be stoic, free of emotion, and wait silently and patiently in queues at the supermarkets. I suppose this global catastrophe will be treated no differently. Will they show the rest of the world they are better at controlling the spread of diseases? Time will tell.

Anyway, back to France. Strict curfews have been set in place in the larger towns. From 10pm to 5am in Nice, 8pm to 5am in Bandol, but I haven’t seen anything announced for our village of Cotignac…yet. The last time they had curfews here must have been during the war. Maybe that is why so many village houses had tunnels that connected them in their basements? I can imagine the fear they felt as the Nazis were approaching and all the gossip that must have circulated about who supported The Resitance and who might have been less keen. The biggest human loss suffered in one day was the Bataille du Bessillon, on the mount Bessillon, about an hour’s walk from the centre of Cotignac, on the 27th of July 1944. The Germans massacred 18 brave fighters. They are paid hommage to, every Summer, by the village Council and locals here who wish never to forget.

It’s cold and overcast here today. It matches my melancholy mood. I think I overdid it on the treadmill yesterday because I felt nauseous afterwards and even skipped dinner and evening wine because of this. But they say it’s a good thing to fast every so often? I’ll take it easy today. Hope you are well, wherever you are 🙂

The memorial that honours the soldiers and locals who lost their lives in WWII, Cotignac cemetary.

Lockdown day 6 – back on the treadmill (Memories part 2)

What day is it? Oh, who cares. I’ve had it. This morning I took my “lard-ass” down to the basement, damp cloth in hand, and started wiping down two-milimetres of dust off the old treadmill. I plugged it in – it worked! With my bluetooth speaker I started playing a high-energy playlist on Spotify that I put together some months ago. It’s called “Funky Friday Night” and it’s a great dance worthy mix of tunes. I was blasting the music so I’m sure my neighbours now hate me. Wake up everybody!! DJ Susana at your serrrrrrvice!!!!

I forgot how great it feels to sweat it out while singing out loud. I felt like Brigitte Jones at the end of the movie, like Carrie Bradshaw at a NY city nightclub, like the dancing queen in the Abba song. And that brought back memories of my party days in Hong Kong from 2000 to 2002. That was a crazy time in my life. Every young-ish person worked hard and played hard and I was no exception.

I lived on the 19th floor of an apartment building on Glenealy street just a few steps from bar-central Lan Kwai Fong. I used to take the subway to Causeway bay then after work take a taxi to my gym, work out, go home, grab some dinner, then every weekend head out to meet friends at the bars. After bar hopping, where we’d meet some expat strangers who seemed nice enough, we’d move on to clubs like Drop in Soho where they served the best watermelon Martinis and always played the best music; Jamiroquai was popular at the time. Or if we felt like braving the seedy after hours’ bars we’d go to Wanchai where drinks were cheaper but you had to brave the sticky smelly floors. On ladys’ night (during the week) we could even score free Long Island ice-teas at many bars there so it was always oodles of fun. But excess has its limits and for me it was coming down with acute tonsilitis and ending up in Central Hospital for a week on intravenous antibiotics. I always seem to learn lessons the hard way.

Which brings me to think how lucky I am to have these happy, studious, genuinely do-good young girls as my children. When I was their age I got into so much trouble. Everything that was “prohibited” I was attracted to like a magnet. I smoked clove cigarettes at the age of 15, I was drinking and dancing in clubs with a fake ID by the time I was 16, spending every last dime I made from babysitting. I can’t imagine my girls doing this. Maybe telling them about how dangerous my behaviour was back then has had a positive effect. I occasionally offer them a sip of my wine so they don’t think it’s something off-limits and therefore something to do on the caché. They can try anything, I just ask that they are open about it. My mother was the opposite. She told me I would have to wait until I was 21 (in California that is still the age limit for alcohol consumption) which obviously did not work.

Sixty minutes, 5.6 kilometres, 360 calories and 6,500 steps on my fitbit, yesss!! I am sports queen, fitness godess, the champion of quick-walking on the treadmill. I feel like I just climbed to the peak of a tall mountain, like I can now conquer the world! Astounding what a release of endorphins can do for the mind. I feel happy again, waaaheyy!

“Mom, what’s for luuuunch?” Ahh, shucks, my kids are whinging again. Back to the kitchen. And I just realised – it’s Sunday.

Hong Kong party days

Lockdown day 5 – memories from my past Part 1

I chose not to look at my phone this morning. When I came downstairs to make my coffee I chose not to turn on the television, I don’t want to hear more bad news from around the world, I’ll catch up with it later. It’s another gorgeous sunny day but unlike previous days it’s not windy. The tall pine trees aren’t moving. And if you just looked into the distance it would seem like any other day. The birds are chirping and some frogs have begun croaking. Except they are in our swimming pool which has yet to be cleaned out for the season. It’s too early of course but the days are getting warmer. You could pretend that life was normal and everything was dandy.

But the stress is still there. It’s a constant undercurrent manifesting in aches here and there. Sometimes in the head, other times in the back or neck. When under stress it certainly helps to talk about it. But no one here wants to listen to me. My kids keep telling me, “Mom, you’re going on an on about the coronavirus, okay, we get it, it’s dangerous. Can you stop now?” People like my hubby deal with stress by going out and being physical. In his case it’s extreme; he spent 8 hours chopping and stacking wood yesterday and today he’s out using the chain saw and clearing the brush. I’m nothing like that. I put pen to paper…or rather fingers to keyboard.

While sipping my coffee and staring out at the view of tall pine trees so many memories came flooding back to me when I asked myself, how did we get here? My girls are now 12 and almost 16. I’ve been with my Frenchman who is originally from Normandy, for 17 years. We’ve lived in Cotignac for 10 and a half years. I’ve lived in France for more years than anywhere else now and I am now pretty sure I’ll spend the rest of my life here. But my first year was rough – I didn’t speak the language and lived pretty much alone. It was Winter of 2002. I arrived at Nice aeroport with all my luggage and two cats that I brought over from Hong Kong. My English husband at the time had purchased a vacation villa in Théoule sur Mer so I chose to live there after being laid off from a publishing job in Hong Kong – a direct result of the economic collapse due to the terrorist attack, the collapse of the Twin Towers, in the United States. It was a beautiful villa with a breathtaking view of the Cannes Bay but arriving on the Riviera in the dead of Winter was a bit of a damper. Needless to say my marriage to the Englishman did not last, but life in France became the new beginning.

I did not do well in French class at Berkeley high school. I loved my teacher though: Madame Claudine. She was a plump lady with thick round glasses and hefty laugh. She would brag about her Summer trips to Paris and would bring back these big colourful books full of photographs of stylish cafés that I remember flipping through. I used to fantasise about being there. My mother once met Mme Claudine during a teacher-parent session and told me that she said “Susana is not very good at French but she’s great on stage!” You see, I was much more interested in Drama class and theatre than any other subject.

But the practice of stage performance gave me the life skills I needed to survive; a good load of self esteem and presentation skills that would get me the jobs and the confidence needed to adapt to changes, whether they were environmental, cultural, or learning a new language – in this case all of the above, which came in very handy for starting a new life in France, on my own.

When I was young my mother used to call me into the living room whenever she saw something exciting on television. One funny memory comes flooding back to me the most. “Sooooozieeee! Look! It’s the Cannes film festival on TV, isn’t it WONDERFUL?” She pronounced the “s” in Cannes, like it was the plural version of can. But then I didnt know how it was pronounced before I used to visit the area. It’s pronounced “canne” with a soft “a” and a little emphasis on the “n”. I enrolled in three weeks of intense French lessons at the College Internationale de Cannes then forced myself to communicate in the language but taking the easy route of finding a French lover. Voila, works a charm!

Looking back it’s amazing to think I now call this place my home. I still pinch myself from time to time. I owe Mme Claudine a lot. If I could see her again I would thank her for all her positive energy and enthusiasm for France that influenced me so many years ago. I wonder what she might think of what became of me? Would she even remember me? But I will never know; she passed away from cancer just a few years after my time with her.

…to be continued 🙂

Lockdown day 4 – Ch-ch Changes

Every morning I wake up thinking maybe this is all one big nightmare and we are back to being normal again, but alas, no. I grab my phone from bed and check the news: NY Times, the BBC, CNN…they are all talking about the same C-word. Today France’s coronavirus death tally is at 372 and at almost 11,000 cases we are just under the USA (with 14,366). It’s not a bad dream and it has made us all change the way we behave every day as we can no longer do what we want.

In the words of one of my musical heros, David Bowie, “turn and face the strange ch-ch changes.” That song was ringing in my head when I went out for a walk this morning. Again, I filled out a clean new permission slip, dated and signed it. I took a bottle of water and my phone and off into the warm sunny outdoors I went, alone, because that is what is allowed for the time being. Before I left I heard the French government representative on BFM news that people need to stop wearing masks and leave that to the medical staff. That is the exact opposite of what Asia is doing. Whatever, okay, I’ll do as they say. But they also insisted no cycling, no going on long runs (more than 2 km away from your home), and no frequenting parks, beaches, or public gardens. I can understand why.

My walk was going into the village and back. It’s a circuit that crosses a couple of rivers, passes at least 3 waterfalls, goes up and down hills with sweeping views of the Provençal landscapes – tall cypress trees in the distance, olive groves and pine forests, vineyards… and at the moment the quince trees are blossoming! It’s idyllic, utopic, it’s just pure bliss to be living here at this time of year. But normally now the main road in the village called the Cours would be full of al fresco diners chatting away while enjoying lunch. Kids would be in school. The villagers I pass on my walk, whom I mostly know having lived here so long, would happily say “bonjour!” and kiss me on both cheeks. But not today. An elderly lady I know, who is a local, gave me an awkward hello and made a huge bend to avoid passing me too closely. Ah, yes, right, the ONE METRE rule, I thought. But she was walking with her husband and one is supposed to walk alone (this rule does not make any sense to me but nevermind). I kept walking. The river water was crystal clear. The waterfalls were heavy and pretty. And even the crows in the sky seemed to be sticking to the ONE METRE rule.

As I was walking back up the rue d’Ecole I saw a couple of state police (gendarmes) in their patrol car parked at the entrance of the road that leads to the Medievel forts. Oh good, I thought, I can finally show them how well prepared I am with my perfectly filled out permission slip! But they didn’t stop me. They didn’t even say hello. I smiled at them. Nothing. Again, I felt so cheated!! I also felt like telling them off because they were sitting too close together, bad gendarmes, bad! One of them should be sitting in the back…or something! They are going to get each other contaminated, grr!!!

While walking I wondered: when was the last time I had to go through a big change in life? When was your last time? For me it must have been when we moved from the village house into this house with a big garden. But wait, let’s go back to more dramatic changes, like that time when I was living in Berkeley in the late 80s and I “survived” the Loma Prieta earthquake; the Bay Bridge collapsed making us get on a ferry to get over to San Francisco. My boyfriend at the time lived there and I would go and see him on the weekends. It was so pretty to do this at night because the lights of the tall skyscrapers would glisten and sparkle – it was magical! But as soon as the bridge was fixed (a month later) it was back to business as usual and people quickly adapted back to their old habits of driving. Then there was the Oakland firestorm of 1991 that burned down 3,000 houses, many of them owned by my friends and/or university professors. That felt like a big change with so much loss that people around me seemed to be experiencing. People had to adjust to the sorrow. Or how about that time the Northridge earthquake woke me up out of bed in Los Angeles in 1994 and I remember crying because I knew it instantly killed or injured thousands of people. “That was nothing,” I can hear my Japanese grandparents saying. When they were young the Kanto (Tokyo) earthquake of 1923 caused so many fires over 100,000 people died including many of their own relatives. My grandfather had to jump into the Sumida river to keep from getting burned. “You are so lucky,” they used to say. “You don’t have memories of wars.” They must have suffered so much. But if the Japanese could survive and overcome all those earthquakes and two atomic bombs then I’m sure we can get over this virus. Trouble is, it’s all over the world and not just one place. It will probably tank the entire global economy and make many more people poor or poorer. But with all our cultural differences we all share the same traits of being human and therefore of being adaptable. How will we adapt to this, I wonder, if it doesn’t go away anytime soon?

Where the Asians seem better at listening to their governments when asked to change their behaviour, in the West we seem less than keen. Asians do as they are told, generally speaking. Just look at the Chinese and the Japanese. The Koreans had it hard with this virus but they have clamped down hard with all their testing and it’s working. Here in Europe we are one big mess perhaps due to our unwillingness to do as we are told by the authorities. “Stay home!” they ordered, but then we saw all those people on the beach in Nice, having picnics and enjoying the sun like, comme d’habitude, tra la la. Westerners do not like being told what to do. But heck, if it’s going to save many lives I’ll do everything they tell me to do! I’ll bring out the Asian in me!

In the meantime my kids are continuing with their studies on-line, hubby has been productive in the garden and with the wood cutting, and there is more to clean and cook at home but that doesn’t bother me much. It’s the price I pay for spending SOOOO much more time together with them and that is priceless, I remind myself. Over and over.

Reporting from Cotignac, France, on day 4, this is Susana Iwase clocking out. Okay, now, is it rosé-o-clock yet?

Lockdown day 3 – to market, to market

So I braved going to the supermarket today. With government site-down-loaded-permission slip dated and signed and in hand, I got into my car and drove over to my favourite supermarket in Regusse, 20 minutes away. But I felt cheated because I wasn’t stopped by any policeman. I didn’t even cross any!

I drove past some cyclists and thought about how wonderful it must be for them, all this beautiful weather and hardly any traffic! I saw a couple walking their dog but I almost felt like telling them they were walking too close together, jeez – what is wrong with me?

Nothing looks different here of course. The sun is still shining, it is very warm today (17 degrees C) and the radio station I listen to in the car, France Blue Provence, was talking about the closures of national parks here. The representative from the Calanques Marseilles (a beautiful narrow, steep-walled inlet that is developed in limestone and dolomite with turquoise waters of the Mediterranean) was saying he was sad that the park had to close to tourists but was excited about the fact that without them, the park will “rejuvenate” thanks to being left alone for a while. This has been the case for the canals of Venice for example. I’m sure all the other rivers here (although I always thought they were pretty darn clean) will also profit from dramatically lowered frequenting. So, there’s another example of a silverlining to the lockdown.

I parked my car and got out. After carefully rubbing an antiseptic wipe on the handle of the cart, I took out my clean handkerchief so I can use it to open fridge doors in the market. I noticed a sign at the entrance, “only 50 customers at a time” but there was no one there to control this. I walked in but was reassured to see few people shopping, even though the parking lot looked full. I scanned the aisles but felt myself strangely attracted to the rosé display. Gosh, so many pretty prink bottles screaming for me to take them. I have lots of wine in my cave at home but this was a good time and excuse to try some more local rosés. I stuck to a price range between 6 and 8 euros per bottle, which these days is on the low side. I remember just a few years back when these bottles cost 4 to 6 euros but the world demand for rosé dramatically rose in the last couple of years shooting the prices way up. I wondered though, if the economy takes a nose dive (and this looks like the case) rosé prices will do so too. Another silver lining for rosé consumers? Well, as long as there is excess of course. But I shouldn’t be thinking like that since my hubby is in the rosé business (lol!). Times are a bit uncertain to say the least! But everyone is in the same boat. Except supermarkets, pharmacies, and internet shopping sites. This is their gold rush.

After selecting a few bottles of rosé based on their colours (I’m big on a pale pink sort rather than golden salmon and to be honest Mirabeau’s Classic is my absolute favourite) I mosied down over to the organic food aisle. Then I had this epiphany: why am I worried about pesticides? I’m using wipes to keep myself from getting a killer virus! Organic food suddenly took a back seat to the more pressing worry of a world-wide plague and so I selected a package of non-organic smoked salmon, so much cheaper. Then I noticed the fresh tuna on the fish stand. It was nice and rosy red. I thought about how I used to think there was too much mercury in fish. Fuck it – life’s too short!! I asked the lady for a couple of pieces but she was quick to snap at me for getting my handkerchief too close to the fish. I assured her my handkerchief was not touching any fish but she was having none of it. She was not in a good mood. I don’t blame her. The fish was expensive, 24 euros per kilo. Should I be spending so much money? Then I remembered my Japanese father once saying to me when I was young, how in business, you should save up your money when things are going well. But when things start to look bad, that’s when you can start spending again. Works every time, he assured me. So okay, it’s time to heed my father’s advice…for once.

Many shoppers were wearing masks. I have a bunch of masks in my car. I was smart, I had ordered them on line back in January when I saw that the virus was spreading in Asia. I haven’t felt the need to wear one here yet. The French news channels keep saying only wear one if you are sick. But if you are sick, why would you be out at the supermarket? Shouldn’t you ask someone else to do your shopping? I found myself moving past the shoppers quickly, keeping at least a 2 metre distance from each person. But why was I holding my breath when I moved past them? How silly of me…must be some weird instinctive human thing to do when feeling threatened? The pay counter was next to the toilet paper aisle. I grabbed a pack. I’m running low at home, I swear!! And okay, next time I’m out I’ll wear a mask.

I feel for the supermarket clerks who have to serve so many people all day. I feel for the policemen, the medical staff, the emergency workers, everyone who doesn’t have the “luxury” of staying at home and must continue working during this terrible time. Then again, at least they are getting paid. These knots in my stomach and this constant worrying have much less to do with the possibility of contracting COVID-19 and much more to do with not knowing what is going to happen in the future, our jobs, tourism for the region, oh gawwwd. Nevermind, rosé and smoked salmon will keep me happy – for now.

Pretty bottles and a pack of toilet paper made up part of my grocery cart today

France under lock-down day 2

So it’s the second day since the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has ordered everyone to stay at home. Except if you need to go to work and cannot work from home, except if you are taking kids to a care centre because you need to work, except if you need to take your dog on a walk or need to exercise…huh? All shops that are not selling “necessary products” like food or tabacco or newspapers are now shut. Wait…tabacco? Nevermind, I can get wine at the supermarkets and I guess that is just as bad so, voila, thank God I am stuck in France not…somewhere else. This almost makes me want to take up smoking again.

Look, I shouldn’t complain. We have amazing weather here at the moment in the South of France, the sun is shining, it’s no longer cold outside, the cobalt-blue skies are therapeutic and there is lots to do around the house. My kids are doing their school work on their computers upstairs (online classrooms) and hubby is out chopping wood as a form of exercise because he doesnt need to go to his office and can work from home. We have a garden so I can walk around it to get my daily steps onto my fitbit. I have stocked the freezers and the kitchen cupboards full of food for the next week at least even though it meant waiting in line for half an hour after scrambling through half-empty food shelves at the supermarket on Monday.

It’s my younger kid’s birthday today. She turned 12. She was disappointed not to be able to celebrate with her friends. I had promised that we would go bowling and eat Asian buffet at a restaurant in Saint Maximin-la-Sainte Baume but of course that is not possible. We are not allowed outside our property unless you carry a special permission slip downloadable from the government site, dated and signed. You need this even if you are going out to take a walk, and if you go out you need to go alone, not with anyone else. If you get stopped by a policeman in your car or on foot and you do not have one of these slips then you are fined on the spot anywhere from 38 to 135 euros. Yesterday there were policemen everywhere in our village of Cotignac, said my hubby, and lots of people were stopped.

So, okay, this is odd but I know we will get through it. After all I have a basement full of wine and some champagne in the fridge, some Netflix movies and series I have not yet watched, and lots of time to spend with family, something I always complained about not having enough of before! Just this time, it doesnt feel like quality time; even with all the card games and Scrabble we play after dinner, all the cupcakes and cookies we can bake in the afternoons, I can’t help checking my phone for updates on the Coronavirus situation locally and around the world. I check it so much that I now have a back ache, on my left shoulderblade, and a stomach in knots from the stress and worry. Today’s France numbers from the worldometers info are: 7,730 cases, 175 deaths. Shit, that’s more than 1,000 cases since yesterday. So at this rate every day there will be more than that. When, I wonder, will we hit the peak contagion? No one knows here but if Italy has now reached it, that will be after hitting around 30K cases. I have to stop looking at these numbers.

It’s not like it’s a real war and we need to shelter ourselves from bombs. It’s not like we are being asked to go and fight as soldiers and carry weapons. It’s not like dealing with forest fires everwhere around us. And it’s not like we have no way of communicating with each other. Imagine if this were happening during a time when there were no phones, internet, electricity, safe drinking water… How lucky are we that we live in this day of high tech gadgets and social media? I don’t know…I miss the days of phones ringing in the house and my running to go and pick it up.

SFR, the French phone company has just sent a message saying they won’t cut anyone off if they miss a payment. Of course that doesnt mean much as their payments are direct debits from everyone’s bank accounts. I suppose what they are trying to say is that we will have access to the internet no matter what. Of course I live in an area of France that has not been connected by fibre optic cables so our internet speed is slow. Oh and our banks and insurance companies have sent out messages saying they will do everything they can to help in our current exceptional situation. How nice.

The messages of even cancellations keep coming in. Every event in the next couple of months here has been postponed or cancelled. I was meant to travel to Japan and Macau to see my parents with my kids in April and of course that was cancelled. How funny that I thought I would avoid the craziness of this virus by staying in Europe over going to Asia. My American mother is thankful to be in Macau where they have had a total of 13 cases and almost all of them are now cured. My Japanese father believes the Tokyo Olympics will be cancelled but of course it’s in Prime Minister Abe’s political interest to continue saying they will be go on, for now. I guess at this rate the Cannes Film Festival will also be cancelled but they have not announced that yet.

I hope you are well, wherever you are. Thanks for reading. I’ll update this blog every couple of days as it helps my nerves. I also hope to inform you of the situation in France. Have a good week!

The Coronavirus and life in Provence

It’s the biggest worry around the world and of course even here in Provence life is having to halt, for the most part, as we all do our bit to help contain the dangerous virus that can no longer be ignored and must be fought, in the words of the French president Emmanuel Macron, like a “war.”

People are being told to stay at home and only go out if absolutely necessary for work and food shopping. Those who can work from home are not allowed to go to their offices. Restaurants, bars, and shops that have nothing to do with food have been ordered to shut. Pharmacies and supermarkets, gas stations and tabacs (where you can buy cigarettes) are open, as are places where you can buy magazines and newspapers.

Yesterday I went into a frozen foods shop (Picard) in Brignoles and saw that half their stock had disappeared and there was a very long queue waiting to pay. It took me 30 minutes to get out of their but I got out with enough food to last a week. I have also stocked up on much needed wine the week before and was thinking “thank God I live in France” where wine is affordable! I’m also thankful that I am a decent cook and that I can whip up international dishes to serve my family (I have two adolescent kids and a French hubby) like chicken stew, tagines, cous cous, sushi, Mexican chili, Thai fish cakes, Chinese dumplings etc. I love to cook and having lived around the world I always have a good choice of different spices and oils in my kitchen, cupboards full of seaweed and rice, a fridge full of miso and tofu, and freezer full of wild boar (from our last hunter’s gift) and baguettes – did you know bread freezes really well? It’s a great time to empty those cupboards!

Details about Macron’s speech and demands here:

Before all this drama with COVID-19, or rather, while it still seemed far away (when cases were being recorded in China), I wrote a piece about my last six years as Council member of Cotignac. I know it seems a bit out of place currently (with the more pressing reality of a killer virus going rampant) but I needed to put down, in writing, the important work I have been involved in, with and for the village. My duties have now come to an end (with the recent Municipal elections on the 15th of March 2020) as being a British citizen I was cruelly no longer allowed to vote or serve as a result of Brexit. But I will continue doing what I can to promote and help bring attention to everything our village has to offer, to tourists and residents alike. Here’s wishing all of you good health and bon continuation! One day this will all be behind us and we will see international travellers in and out of Provence once again. For now though, I can only take photos from around my house (please follow me on instagram under Provence Living, Susana Iwase) but will keep my followers updated on important information. You can also follow me on Facebook: Susana Iwase.

Looking back at my term as Councillor for Cotignac

Brexit took place at the end of January 2020, and with it, amongst the loss of other rights, my right to officially continue serving the Cotignac mairie (town hall). Only European Union citizens have the right to vote in French Municipal elections and hence the right to serve. I was therefore prohibited from running again in the election that took place on the 15th of March. Cotignac has effectively lost a native English speaker to represent and communicate with the foreign public but there is now a Dutch lady (artist) who will be responsible for that in the next term. I am not the only British national to serve on a French council; there are over 130 of us in France who have been directly affected by the cruel measures of Brexit, the exit of Britain from the European Union. It’s a big loss for the commune, I believe, with effects not immediately felt but will become more obvious with time.

I was elected in 2014 on Mayor Veran’s ticket and for the last six years my Councillor position has required me to volunteer my time to be the liaison between foreign nationals here as well as the person who took commands 24/7 from the mayor for any messages needed to communicate to the public via facebook and the official town hall website. I also had to attend monthly meetings, weekend ceremonies several times a year, more than half the associations’ events and take most of the high-pixel photographs necessary to create the annual town hall bulletin (a 58 page glossy magazine called L’Echo du Rocher). At council meetings we would vote on anything that would cost the commune money. Anything from road works to carreer advancement training for the staff, donations to other towns in their emergencies, to deciding how much in grants we would afford local associations was voted on. We would also often meet ahead of the official sessions (open to the public) to make sure we agreed with the mayor. Cotignac is a very active village throughout the year with its over 35 associations organising all sorts of events from film festivals, concerts, art exhibitions, wine festivals, sports events, and much more. It was a job that came with ups and downs, sometimes extremely rewarding but often frustrating and not without obstacles. But of course I aquired priceless knowledge and information, made many connections, and felt grateful for the opportunity to be amongst the leaders of this beautiful Provençal village that I have called my home for over 10 years.

You can’t please everyone – that was a motto that came into my thoughts more often than not. But boy did I try at first. There was only so much money to be able to spend on the various improvements needed in a village every year and when one part was given attention there was always another problem placed on the non-priority list and with it came criticism from those who felt neglected.

The PLU (zoning laws) were updated in 2017 and many areas of the village were flipped over from being constructible to non-constructible. Anyone who had qualms about this had about a year to speak up and if needed, fight to keep their land constructible (and therefore sellable at a much higher price). The people who missed this chance were understandably upset when they found out what had happened to their land. But zoning laws need to stay in place for 10 years before being updated and adjusted again. There can be modifications made but only in exceptional circumstances with lots of bureaucracy involved. There is a labourious effort in the process of creating new zoning regulations. For example, department and national requirements based on environmental protection as well as town/village development needs taken into consideration as well as public input. So the study process was tiresome and involved specialists to come and give public presentations over a period of a year and a half. For months, maps were posted all over the town hall entry area to show the various proposed changes and any resident or property owner could come and express any concerns or bring up any questions they had. Nevertheless the end product did not come without a little controvercy and protest.

As small a village as Cotignac is with its 2,300 resident population, 65 per cent of whom are over 60 years old and therefore mostly retired, the active population looks more like 700. Most of the residents still vote though and show up to do so every couple of years when there is a local, state, or European election. No shows are low and therefore you can say most people here are politically aware. So whenever there is a controversial subject being discussed at the town hall, people listen, participate at the public meetings and express dissapproval and/or concerns openly. Those sentiments sometimes transpired into anger. I once had a woman (who lost her constructible land due to the PLU changes) slap my arm away when I went to stay hello to her. She obviously transferred her anger personally onto me and I was shocked. Overtly racist comments were also made towards me by people that felt threatened, I suppose, by “foreigners taking over.” While helping at the voting booth one elderly man came up to me and said “it’s amazing that someone like you is sitting on our council.” When I gave a puzzled look he went further by saying “I didn’t mean that in a good way.” But this didn’t thwart my efforts at wanting to do my best, I moved on and swept negative vibes to the side, after all, I’m not the type to whinge and whine. Having been born in post-war Japan to a green-eyed, ash blonde American mother in the late 1960s, I knew a thing or two about racism. And I must admit that discriminatory sentiments did not suprise me as after all, Marine Le Pen (the racist, far-right, anti-immigrant former presidential candidate) is relatively popular here.

Being officially elected meant serving the people and so I went about trying to get to know many of the merchants in the village; some who had been here generations and others that had just arrived to start a new life selling this or that. Before 2014 I had worked for four years volunteering for the Parents’ Committee, raising money for the school children (for various activities outside of Cotignac) and in so doing already had the opportunity of relating to various business owners and local parents. So I had an advantage. What I learned from the merchants though, was that whatever the town hall did or was supposed to do for them, it was never enough. Whether it was to help establish terrace-use rights, eliminate market day obstacles that hindered easier access to their shops, calm neighbour business conflicts, establishing parking rights, needing more light, cleaning up the dog poo on the streets, needing to shut before midnight because of noise that bothered the residents living above them, there was always something that they felt the town hall could do more to help their businesses. And when I noticed that whenever one business was given aid, there was always another that complained as a result. No one was ever happy all of the time. This problem of cooperating with businesses and meeting their demands is probably the most challenging for any town council.

New ideas, however great they may have been, were always pushed to the side because the list of proposals, that were initially used by a team to win the election, needed priority. I shared my idea, for example, to rid the Place Neuve (also known as Place Joseph Sigaud) of cars and restore it back to how it originally was when first built, a boulodrome (Petanques court), not unlike the gorgeous Place des lices in St Tropez. It could be a place for children to play too, and be decorated with an old band stand (classic gazebo) in the middle, or a fountain. The mayor told me at the time that it would never be considered for this term, that any big idea needed to be saved for the next term. The term in progress was meant to stick to the initial proposals laid out for the public so that they could have clear goals for the village, to vote for. In otherwords, the team with the more attractive proposals would be the winner. Having said that I have noticed that the French generally do not like change and therefore tend to vote for the leading personality (in this case our social and amicable mayor) no matter what, as long as they have felt content in the past. Any opposing candidate would symbolise change and therefore did not appeal particularly to the comfortable elderly and retired community.

Some prosposals came to fruition during the term but not all. The primary school was merged with the kindergarden and given a massive overhaul and renovation complete with new cantine and a more spacious parking area behind it, a brand new medical centre attached to the new pharmacy was built, the grainage (entertainment building) was given a renovation and new elevator, the 12th century Chapelle St Martin’s exterior walls and roof were finally secured and fixed up, the sports stadium was given artificial grass and a new club house, the tennis courts were given a makeover, and the mayor’s 30 year wish, of finally getting a roundabout built (in order to slow down traffic) in front of the wine cooperative, came true. The Circle des Arts, a beautiful hall behind the main church, was also restored, and arrangements were made to help bring the privately funded Centre d’Art La Falaise to public attention.

During the term a generous private donor purchased, then began the monumental process to revive and restore the Hostellerie Lou Calen, a famous landmark that once hosted the adored French singer Joe Dassin’s wedding. It had been in abandoned ruins for the previous 15 years and it was now going to be fully restored. It was as if Cotignac had won the lottery! But no matter how great these projects are for a village, they couldn’t even start without the town hall’s approval of course. And sometimes, even with pre-approval, some details can be contested by residents concerned with optical changes in landscape or their views being modified. So the project of Lou Calen experienced some hiccups and learned nothing is straight forward in rural France no matter how great the benefits may be to the community. Parts of the retreat are scheduled to open later in the spring of 2020. When it fully opens next year this establishment will no doubt bring the most attention, particularly international, to the village of Cotignac, as a luxury destination for well travelled clientelle looking for the authentic Provençale village experience (be it art classes, cooking courses, outdoor sports or other) without the trappings of Michelin stars or other commercial hotel chain standards that place limits on potential. The location promises to provide expert service and top quality accommodation for its guests. Two restaurants – a terrace brasserie and wine bar, and another rustic farm-to-table style dining establishment, are planned. And my hope is that they will also provide a level of excellence that the other local restaurants can be inpired by and work up to. I can even see Cotignac one day becoming the gastronomic capital of the Var, and why not? We certainly have the picturesque setting for it.

The cherry that topped the sundae for me was Cotignac’s nomination in the popular television show, “Le Village Préferé des Français” for 2019, presented by celebrity Stephane Bern. Out of the 13 villages nominated in all of France, our village came in at number six and with it, a lot of media and tourist attention. It was this moment that made me feel that all my hard work, since 2012 and the beginning of Provence Living, in trying to get Cotignac more visibility, finally came to fruition. Our village was finally getting the attention it deserved and I felt rewarded.

Building permits saw a big rise during the term due to demand and anyone can see that there is a lot more development that has been going on in the village and particularly just outside the village on the East and South sides where parcels of land have turned constructible.

Where there was no time to complete all the proposals set back in 2014, the team up for reelection, led by Mayor Véran in 2020 will be sure to place them on their new list of “promise to dos”. The construction of a mediatech (multi-media library) that was planned for this term for example, did not occur. But the old kindergarden (that was going to be transformed into the medial library) was instead put to good use as an extra space for school childrens’ extra-curricular activities during the 18-month construction at the primary school.

The new Medical Centre building was a great success in attracting new and much needed medical personel to Cotignac. While the village will have lost three of its previously resident generalist doctors by late this year (due to retirement), it would gain two more in the next two years, in addition to physical therapists, a dentist, and even a new veterinarian clinic (that moved over from Carces) to boot. Whilst France is experiencing a general shortage crisis in doctors and elderly care personel, here in Cotignac we don’t feel these services lacking at all. And for this, we are very lucky.

The next municipal term will see the construction of a new gendarmerie (state police department) which will merge the Carces and Barjols’ state police personnel and equipment, amongst other projects. Thanks to our mayor’s many connections and vision (he has been mayor for almost 30 years), it was possible to convince state officials and local jurisdictions that merging, and therefore saving money, was a good idea. With this new facility, gendarme families with young children will help fill the extra spaces available in the main school as we do have a problem attracting young families due to the above average cost of accommodation. I expect there will be improvements in parking facilities also, to cope with the rising number of Summer tourists that descend each year on us like a swarm of insects. The 900-year-old chapel will likely be given further attention and the interior should be restored to show off the magnificent original frescos discovered during the term. I hope to see some restoration around the two Medieval forts too, with possible public access to admire the view from higher up.

In all good faith I believe things are looking up for Cotignac and its active resident population as well as its retirees for the next municipal term. It’s a shame I could not be allowed to continue but I am proud of my accomplishments: I laid down the communications foundation for the village in the name of a more efficient and better functioning website, an attractive and informative facebook page, and colourful, easy to read annual magazines between 2014 and 2019 and thousands of good high-pixel photographs. I have left knowing it will be easier for the person(s) who take over my duties. I will forever be grateful for the experience to serve my community and to those who have supported and encouraged me throughout the years. It was a true honour to have worn the badge of Councillor in the village of Cotignac.

My current sentiment is honestly more bitter towards British politicians that have led the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the biggest mistake the country has ever made in my opinion. But I love France and I love Cotignac and so I will apply for French nationality (wish me luck, only 30 per cent of applicants get it!) and will carry on as I still have a lot to do this lifetime. And of course there’s much more Provence Living to share so stay tuned and thank you, too, for the support.

Cotignac Christmas Market 2019

This year’s Christmas market in Cotignac was a total success in part thanks to the magnificent weather, the blue skies and a warm sun made dining al fresco a real treat! There were many stands with original goods in the form of locally made food products, toys, clothing, gift items, etc. I bought an entire loaf (10 euros) of home made “pain d’épices” from the Fire Brigade stand (Pompiers) because when I tried it I was really impressed by how full of spices and moist it was. Turned out to be made by one of the firemen’s wives.

I took my family out to lunch at the Café du Cours (their last day open this year). I had a plate of sautéed salmon with ratatouille and rice, it was perfect. We ran into some friends too and ended up having an enjoyable, spontaneously marvelous time, finishing off the afternoon at Mirabeau’s boutique at the bottom of the Cours. Have you tried their new baby, the beautiful Mirabeau Gin, yet? It’s amazing!

At the market there was a marching brass band that played dixie tunes and at 4pm a concert at the church. At 6pm the dark sky lit up with fireworks – c’etait magique!

We felt really lucky this year as last year’s Christmas market was a wash out due to bad weather. I even managed to get myself in a photo with Father Christmas this time, on a sleigh led by reindeer no less!

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and happy holidays 2019. See you in 2020 🙂