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Matisse, France, Travel, Creativity, Adventure, Expatriates, Dreams, Reinvention


Chasing Matisse: The Book

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Matisse, France, Travel, Creativity, Adventure, Expatriates, Dreams, Reinvention

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August 2, 2003

Lily of the Valley

Dateline: Côte de Azur. We were driving through billowing clouds along the corniche, and moment by moment, stunning views of mountains plunging into turquoise sea and storybook villages floating on peaks pierced the vapors surrounding us. The air hummed with a profusion of herbs and flowers scenting the air, while blossoms of hot red, magenta, yellow, purple, and pink burst in our vision. No wonder the glamour pusses who can afford to go anywhere in the world choose this. The mountains with their wealth of enchantment-flora and fauna, perfumes and panoramas, villages and charm flow to the sea as pure sensuality, sex in 3-D.

Every village, town, or city that we saw or passed through had its allure. Eze and La Turbie were aeries in the sky for eagle people to fly in and land. Menton was a garden delight with café tables lined by the sea with hula skirt umbrellas to shade the hot sun. Crossing the border into Italy was barely slowing down, but once we drove through the tunnel, the landscape was transformed. It was less developed and not as crowded as the French Riviera. Terraced hillsides covered with vineyards replaced a grid of multi-million dollar houses.

I'd been wondering if there were any authentic fishing villages or seaside towns unspoiled by hordes of tourists left on the Mediterranean. Was this coast of Italy less crowded than France? From our initial impressions, it seemed so. Latte looked nice and quieter. It wasn't dripping with perfect redo. We both had this feeling and noticed a lovely and large villa by the sea that could be brought back to life.

Jim says Italy doesn't call to him. Not to me either. I would be happy to spend a season in, say Lucca or Sienna, for which we felt a pull. But France is my love. France feels like home to me though I believe we could live in many places-not for good but a few months here and there. In fact, this is how I want to live my life and have for many years. It's the way artists have always drawn fuel. We have short attention spans, a need for ever-changing stimulation, a need to experience our worlds besides in our heads. Our brains have to be restarted periodically with new sensory input, which then must be processed before spitting out our work. It can be done in other ways, but there's a reason that Matisse, Hemingway, and countless others like them chose the lifestyles that they did.

Since we've been homeless, where and how we want to live is a continual discussion. I've loved our nomadic life. Constant change has been fulfilling maybe because I was in one place so long. There are two ways we could go: 1) Travel with few belongings. 2) Keep a base somewhere and come and go. The first has proved impossible so far. Our car is stuffed. As writers, we have to have our equipment-computers, printer, files, books (and lots of them), etc. Plus, I've never learned the art of packing light. I'd bring my whole closet if I could. The second still leaves the questions of where the base should be, and what do we do with all our belongings in storage? To be honest, being homeless is still engaging to me. I'm not dying to have the responsibility of a house and all that that entails.

Spending time in Nice has made Italy more appealing. But suddenly we were driving along the Italian coast without a view of the sea. From one centro to the next, it was an endless line of cars like the urban sprawl of California. We finally arrived in San Remo, on which we'd set our sights for a nice lunch, but we couldn't figure out where and we were starving. We were looking for dejeuner with the amusement of observing a restaurant scene with Eurotrash. It took forever, but we finally found one by the biggest yachts in the harbor. The restaurant wasn't actually on the water, but the gnocci and Caprese salad were so amazing they made up for it. Eurotrash sightings were gratified. There were two young couples of pudgy men and wafer thin women sporting cropped clothes and designer accessories, and a table of old stodgy women dressed in suits with one leftover husband to escort them. Then there was a group of men, women, and children who we could never figure out who went with whom.

Traffic was bumper to bumper on our return. It was a French holiday, and we were getting a taste of the summer nightmare. I hopped out in Menton to snap some photos while we inched through the street, but the angle was no good. As I headed toward Jim, the traffic speeded up. Before long I was running behind the car trying to catch up, or at least get Jim's attention, but he was driving along daydreaming and didn't see me. The people behind us must've been laughing their butts off. I was laughing myself while I ran, before he finally slowed down long enough for me to dive in the car. Thank you, Monsieur Bubba, from Madame Bubbette.

Later in the evening we strolled to a nearby restaurant for dinner. As soon as we sat down, I knew it was wrong. It was nice, quiet, too deadly dull, and more than we wanted to spend. In a situation lik this, my answer is to bolt. Now I am a bolter from way back, but Jim gets embarrassed by it. To add to the drama, I started having a heat stroke and began fanning myself as we were trying to slip out unobtrusively. When the waiter came to my assitance, I told him I was ill and had to leave. Jim said I was having a boredom stroke. We dashed out of there. Some restaurants are easier to bolt from than others, and this was a close call.

The following night would be our last in Nice. Although it had taken me several days to appreciate and understand the textures of the city, to get its feel, now I hated to leave. Le Grimaldi had become a home for us, and it was a great comfort as well as pleasure to be a guest. We decided to celebrate Matisse's favorite city and reserved a table at what had been described to us as the best seafood restaurant in town, Les Viviers, which was just down the street. As soon as we walked in the door, it was cozy yet vibrant, a sophisticated décor with brasserie feel. It was perfect, and our hostess made us feel like we were part of her regular clientele who packed the tables around us. The lobster ravioli, bourride, and grilled scallops were sublime. It was an elegant meal.

The next morning we packed up our Peugeot station wagon with our massive luggage, files, art books, and all the other stuff we'd added along the way. Le Grimaldi's chic owner, Joanna Zedde, had presented me with a gift. It was a Lily of the Valley planted in a purple cachepot with beautiful pink paper wrapped around it. She explained that it was a French tradition to give Lilies of the Valley for happiness on the May 1st holiday. I was touched by her thoughtfulness and named my dear lily, Lilianne. Along with Frida Kahlo, this made three girls to Jim's one--just the way we like it. I found Lilianne's place in our Peugeot, and we said goodbye to fabulous Francoise and the other wonderful staff members. It is always sad to leave a place we've grown fond of, but we were excited as well. We were on our way to Corsica, where the Matisses spent their honeymoon.

When the ferry arrived, it was enormous. After parking our car onboard, we climbed the stairs to find our comfortable and roomy seats. The Mediterranean was smooth as silk as the ship glided over it. The mix of people ranged from families with babies to a group of senior citizens who were having lots of fun. One couple were dressed for another century. The man sported an old-fashioned suit from the early 1900's with a boater plopped on his head, and he sauntered up and down the quay (and later ship) holding a wooden cane and pair of gloves. It was burning hot outside. Thank God, the ship's cabins were crispy cool. I wanted to follow this couple around to see what they did and where they went but didn't. I watched the water slipping by me.

Water has played an important part in my life. My family loved to swim and play in it. My father died in it. One of my brother Brent's last happy dreams was of swimming with whales. The year before Jim and I left for France we took Mother to a friend's charming lake cottage for Thanksgiving and her birthday. Some of her happiest moments were being in or by the water. She enjoyed swimming and skiing or just watching it. It brought her peace, so she treasured spending these long weekends with us when we cooked and pampered her so she could be carefree.

As the huge ship cut through the blue Mediterranean, I thought of my mother and how much she'd also love this, and I wished she were with us. I wanted her not to be dead, but I pictured her in a field of Lilies of the Valley with water lapping all around.

posted by Beth on August 2, 2003 | View All Diary Entries

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