Monday, 25 August 2008


For several years now, a big black cloud seems to follow us wherever we go on holiday.

We've had April snow in Texas, a week of torrential rain in Italy at the tail-end of a summer of baking heat, and a soggy July in Ireland (although, granted, that particular weather pattern might not be atypical).

The last time we were in the south of France, it rained most of the week. Our swimming pool grew cold and went unused. We got soaked in a downpour in Grasse. We slipped on the steep
cobblestones in the ancient town of Eze. We huddled in a tiny appartement, playing cards and reading, hour after dank, gloomy hour.

Therefore, you will understand why day after day of the clearest blue skies leaves me feeling rather stunned . . . and sundazed.

In the first few days, we couldn't get enough of the sun. We were either swimming, or playing ping pong or tennis, or walking, or just lying by the pool -- soaking it up. I felt like an animal, or a child, or an aristocrat from prewar Europe. My day was devoted to feeding and watering and exercising my body.

On one particularly memorable day, I walked the two winding miles into Vence and back for the morning croissant run, I swam and sunbathed all afternoon, and I wound up the day with an hour or two of tennis doubles. As the sun waned, I drank a strong gin and tonic and nibbled olives on the stone porch -- feeling rather Great Gatsbyish. (As I want to keep on the truthful side of whimsy and romance, I will admit that the doubles tennis game was a round robin with six children . . . and that the gin and tonic knocked me out. I doubt that F. Scott and Zelda were ever felled by a single G&T, but then it requires more stamina than you might think to "play hard.")

Have you ever noticed that when you first relax you just feel tired? We've been to bed by 10 pm some nights, drugged by the great draughts of fresh air we've breathed all day. The outside is inside here because the windows and doors are always flung open. At night, a cool breeze drifts up-hill from the nearby sea.

A fair bit of novel-reading has been mixed in with all of this mindless physical bliss, and since most of it has occurred poolside I have given some consideration to the question of what makes a good holiday read. I have decided that being able to match the subject of the book to the physical and emotional landscape is a bonus, but not strictly necessary. What is really required is a book that is so engrossing that you can tune out the shrieking of six children in the pool, not to mention an occasional blasting from a water pistol. Language must be simple, but elegant.

So far, I have read three books . . . and they represent the entirety of my scattershot approach to holiday reading. I brought one of the books from my to-read bookshelf: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. I found one book here, on the villa bookshelf: Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. And my favorite of the three, The Road Home, by Rose Tremain, was a last-minute purchase from Heathrow.

I had heard good things about The Road Home, not least from my blogging friend Just a Plane Ride Away, and Tremain's writing is just the sort of reading terrain that I like best. It has substance, and style, but she lets those qualities serve the story -- and not the other way around. This is a really topical book, too, as it explores the experience of a Polish immigrant who has come to England to find new economic and emotional opportunities. Lev, the protagonist of the story, was totally real to me and I was positively gripped by the various learning curves thrown at him. I suppose that books always aim to reveal life from the perspective of another person, but rarely do they do it so thoroughly and believably. Some books are "hard to get into," but my attention was caught at the first page of this one and it really didn't flag until I, with some sad regret, finished the last page.

A couple of days ago, I received a charming email from one of the regular visitors to Storyvilla. She is coming here for her wedding in September, (!), and she happened upon my little blog while she was googling. We had an interesting back-and-forth about the contents of the villa bookshelves -- from the preponderance of Graham Greene, which the owner favors, to the presence of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which my Irish correspondent left behind on her last visit. I have decided to leave behind The Road Home, and hopefully this Storyvilla visitor -- and others, too -- will enjoy the book as much as I have. Blogging often feels like a message in a bottle that you send out, with the hope that some likeminded person will read it. There is a particularly serendipitous pleasure when one's scribbled messages drift upon unexpected shores, and I like to think of holiday books as leaving a similar trace.

The light is starting to fade from the upstairs study window, which means that it is gin and tonic time. This is the light that has inspired artists, from Renoir to Matisse to Picasso to Chagall, but so far I've mostly just kept my sunglasses on. Perhaps next week, as we tire of the swimming pool, we will begin to visit the many museums in the area. In the meantime, most mental pursuits have been suspended . . . and I remain just a bit sundazed.


Brave Sir Robin said...

Wonderful, wonderful description. I feel like I'm there.

So, what brand of gin? I'm a Bombay Sapphire myself.

I love the idea of leaving the book behind.

Connections . . . .

Alyson said...

Lovely post. I also love the idea of leaving a book behind. I will have to look that book up that both you and JAPRA have recommended!

The house we rented in Vermont must have been devoid of "readers" because nothing of slightest interest was there for me to read. I brought a book with me, but was barely able to find time to read it and it wasn't keeping me enthralled anyway. I feel this summer has been my biggest reading drought ever. I must get to a library or book store ASAP!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, your holiday sounds magical. No sharks in a pool either! Great to get book recommendations. Tremain won the Orange Prize for The Road Home this year. I love your message in a bottle simile about blogs. I wonder how long these posts will bob along in the cyber sea. Glad to hear you finally found the sun. Enjoy the rest of your vacation. This summer has gone by too fast.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Bee, I enjoyed your sundazedness vicariously this morning. It's overcast and a bit nippy out, perfect weather for getting into gear for school, which starts tomorrow. The sun and heat we experienced this summer in Germany and later in Belgium and Holland was just plain hot. However, I have fond memories of our sunny days in Annecy last summer, therefore I must conclude French sun is different! Ooolala ;-)

So glad you're enjoying your summery days. And glad you liked The Road Home.

Beth said...

The details of your vacation and the lovely way you write makes your post read like a short story. (And, yes, a "Gatsbyish one.)
Passing books along is a wonderful idea. I do it as often as I can - a share the joy kind of thing.

Nimble said...

Do you wear a hat in the sun? or just trust to your sunglasses? I think all those artists wore their hats.

I am enjoying your trip vicariously. And the book comments are welcome. I'm glad you found something so satisfying. I'm currently striding my way through a Jincy Willett novel (which has an annoying title) that I like very much. I'll blog my impressions once I'm done.

Debski Beat said...


I know where you are !!

You are very near Roger Verge's place, he was a start up engine for nouvelle cuisine, he is still there and lunches are reasonable but must be booked. Also, please buy the losanges that are lavender or better even violet, I bought two jars once and they did indeed last over a year , they are very intense . Higher in the hills there is a town built by artisans,some parts are now touristy but most still lovely, fab cafe's nearby. Try "Au marché d'Yvette" on some days in the week, I think Thursdays, a market.
Enjoy the sunsets. Bee.

Bee said...

I like Bombay Sapphire too, but we had Gordon's.
As for leaving books behind, I feel like I owe "the House" one as I have read so many of the books here. I just finished a memoir called "What Remains," and discovered a book mentioned in that book (Mary Cantwell's memoir, "When I Was Young in Manhattan") on the shelf, too. Is that just a coincidence? Or did reading the one lead the read to the other?

I would have thought that Vermont houses would always be filled with books! What else does a person do when it is bitter cold?
I'm sure that the return to school will end your reading drought.

Yes, I do prefer to swim when I can see the bottom of the water! I fantasize about having my own swimming pool, with beautiful glazed tiles in greens and golds and blues on the floor of it. As for the end of summer, I know when we return to England it will be instant autumn!

It is hot here, too -- but there is the sea, and the mountains, and lots of shade. We went to Antibes one day, and walked around in the late afternoon, and it was definitely TOO hot. The kind of heat that makes a person "cross," as my friend Jenni says.

Share the joy, indeed! In truth, though, I rarely leave my books behind . . . as I am a bit of a book hoarder.

Actually, I wear a straw hat, too. Like Renoir and that lot.
I've not heard or Jincy Willet -- the name sounds English, but neither male nor female. I will look for your review.

What is the name of the Roger Verge place? We are going somewhere nice tonight, sans enfants, but we have mostly eaten plain food as we have six children in tow. As for the artisan town, do you mean St. Paul de Vence?
I'm afraid that I will have to decline your kind suggestion to try the lavender or violet losanges. I have an aversion to flower-tasting things which I attribute to a childhood devoid of Turkish Delight. (As with Marmite, I think that you have to have to start young with the violet flavor to really appreciate it.)

Cindy said...

Bee ~ What a lovely description of your holiday. I'm so happy you have perfect weather.
When I used to travel, I would leave books at the hotel I stayed at (my 2nd home)all the time. In the bar (think cozy Danish hotel bar, more like a living room) there was a loft library/game area. I spent many hours curled up in the comfy leather chair reading from my "private" library collection.

Debski Beat said...


Here is the address and number for your meal

Le Moulin de Mougins
06250 Mougins, France
04 93 75 78 24

I would suggest lunch as the evening menu's can be very expensive. he will likely be closed on Mondays as is the whole of France which takes some getting used to.

Yes, I did mean St Paul de Vence. Halfway up the hill is a lovely art gallery, I nearly bought some acrylic sculpture there once and deeply regret not doing so, the restaurant at the bottom of the hill is very child friendly.

Like BSR I do not think you can beat Bombay Sapphire but Tanquray is really good too.

Enjoy your meal wherever you eat !

Dick said...

So vivid is the description and so evocative of year after year of holidays on the Cote d'Azur where my parents lived, that I am now juggling nostalgia and jealousy! St Ives this year was beautiful, but the wind was constant and the rainstorms were horizontal.

Thanks for the recommendation: I have now promoted 'The Road Home' to next up in my pile of novels to be read before Christmas.

Anil P said...

I quite liked the analogy between a blog and a message in a bottle. I wonder if after it washes ashore is it thrown back in for another to find it.

I read 'Into the Wild' several years ago. I was struck by the futility of hope the book traced, of belief, of hope, and the end. His 'Into Thin Air' pans a different landscape, equally adventurous.

It makes me wonder if nature writers are drawn to the pathos they share with the future they 'see' for the planet, more of fear than hope.

Elizabeth said...

So glad your holiday is going well.
I love reading random books discovered in odd rentals or in hotels in far -flung parts of the globe.(Where one is greedy/starved enough to read ANYTHING)
So interesting to discover treasures amidst the usual dross........

Fionab said...

I hope I’m not intruding but my friend who is getting married in Storyvilla told me about your blog and so naturally out of curiosity I took a look and I love the thread about books!! (Yes I am the Graham Green loving owner of Storyvilla. Now I feel a bit guilty about invading your blog but I think it would have been deceitful not to announce myself.)

So I look forward to reading ‘The Road Home’ and thanks for leaving it behind.

I must say we bought the villa from a New York Jazz impresario and 80% of the books which are there came with the villa.

But ‘What Remains’ is one of mine and you are correct, it did lead me to buy ‘When I was young in Manhattan’, though I haven’t read it yet. I loved the narrative in ‘What Remains’ and Carole Radziwill's account of her life married into that family was exquisitely described.

And by the way, Le Moulin de Mougin has a new chef now, he’s called Alain Llorca. I ate there for my birthday in March and I was a bit disappointed, it seem to be full of corporate expense accounts and whilst the food was amazingly constructed it was a bit too radical for my taste buds, even though I consider myself a gourmet! Unfortunately I never ate there when it was owned by Roger Vergé.

So this encounter is a vote of confidence for blogging and how small it makes the world (unless you have to clean it, as my mother would say!). I see at Democrats convention they have a dedicated ‘big tent’ given over to bloggers, so powerful a voice they have now become!

And just to prove how tiny the internet community can be, I used to log on to a Mum-to-be website and after several months of ‘chatting’ I discovered that someone in our group who was due her baby in the same month was in fact the daughter of my next door neighbour…

Anyway I’m so glad you got good weather for your holidays and it made up for all the others!

I’m looking forward to going down in September for the wedding and hope the sun shines down on the 20th! By the way did Georgie tell you she was also from Texas?


Bee said...

There is something about a well-thumbed book which is quite delightful. And my good weather held to the very end . . . although it was cold and rainy when we returned to England on Sunday!

Debski dear,
We never made it to Moulin de Mougins, but we had a lovely meal at Le Chateau du Domaine St. Martin -- high in the hills above Vence. It was splurge enough. We had an excellent meal the next evening in Vence, a little place called Le Peyra, and the bill for 8 people was the same as it was for a couple just the night before! As a bit of English trivia, you might be interested to know that "Richard and Judy" were also dining at Le Peyra. It was mostly a French crowd, and no one seemed to be giving them a second glance! Richard was shockingly tan.

I broke down and bought some violette candies in Nice. They are not precisely my cup of tea, but surprisingly pleasant.

There are some interesting parallels between Vence and St. Ives, but I think that dependably sunny weather is more likely to be found on the French Riviera! We have many friends who went to Cornwall this summer, and they have all moaned about the dreadful weather there. Rain, especially when it is accompanied by a stiff wind, is very mood-dampening.

Do let me know what you think about "The Road Home." It has made me eager to read more of Tremain. (I'd only read "Restoration" before.)

Just this morning, I was reading an Observer article about multiple deaths on K2 this summer. People who want to "conquer" mountains fascinate -- and bemuse -- me. I have read both of Krakauer's books, too, and I suppose that I'm intrigued by people who want to physically experience the world in this way . . . although I do not share their desire. I definitely appreciate creature comforts! I'm not sure that I entirely understand what you are getting at, but Chris McCandless (the young man in "Into the Wild") obviously had a rather romantic belief that Nature could somehow cure the ills/wounds that Culture had inflicted on him. Of course, Nature proved to be rather hostile and indifferent. I have a firm belief that humans require communities in order to thrive physically and emotionally.

This was a lovely house, and there were many treasure to be found amongst the varied book collections, too.

You are very welcome to join in! We heard about the villa from my friend Julie, who has been there twice with her family . . . and of course all of the best things in life get shared by word of mouth! (I suppose that word of blog is the updated form of this sort of sharing.) And no, Georgie did not tell me she was a Texan! How could she leave this out!!

I bet that I can guess which books belonged to the jazz impresario! We listened to lots of jazz while we were there . . . did he leave some of his music, too? (We loved the history of the piano, but sadly, none of us play very well.)

We did sample a little of the Graham Greene. My husband found a funny story called "May I Borrow Your Husband?" -- set in all of the little towns around us -- and so we all read that one. It appealed to the rather twisted sense of English humour belonging to my husband.

I found "What Remains" completely absorbing. What a haunting story. That family (Kennedy and Radziwel) has certainly received more than their fair share of both tragedy and good forture. I got about halfway through the Cantwell, and I'm going to have to order it from Amazon now.

I will cross my fingers for sunny weather on Sept. 20!

JaneyV said...

I wish i could've gone away this summer. I'm not a sun worshipper, being too fair-skinned to bear the intensity for any length of time, but still and all I need a certain amount of exposure to the heat and light to keep the happy-juice flowing through the darker winter months. This holiday sounds idyllic. (Although I'd've given the tennis a skip in favour of reading in the shade of a grand old tree).

It is so weird but I had never heard of Atwood's Oryx and Crake before and yours is the second blog I've read today that has written about it. My other Blogging Buddy loved it. I must give it a shot.

Hope the back-to-school blues have gone now. I'm through the first day and nobody needs a shrink - so it's all good!

Audrey said...

Bee, glad you had a sunny vacation because THAT MAY BE THE LAST TIME YOU SEE SUNSHINE. You know what I'm saying. Read "the Road" by Cormac McCarthy to cheer myself up when I got back last week (see my blog) and LOVED it. Now, I gotta read more of him. What do you recommend?

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