When I decided to take the time away from work and travel in France for two months this year, I had a primary goal: to get my language skills back. And in sticking to this goal, I found myself most often in the French countryside. This ranged from a small farm to an atelier outside of a tiny Provencal village to a hameau where I got directions from the old man loitering in the street (go on up to the left, take another left, pass the trash ... did you see that truck go by a while ago? That's who you're looking for).
Now I am not an architect, just someone behind the scenes in accounting, but what I realized is that there is a strong connection between architecture, daily life, and regional terroir, if you will. For over a week, I stayed on the outskirts of a tiny town in the middle of Provence to take a mosaics class at a local atelier which had an adjoined stone house used for guest rooms. Two of the sweetest ladies ran the place and really introduced me to living life in a small French town. We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together. They would suggest places for me to visit during the morning, other small towns, local roman ruins, etc. In the afternoon I would work on my little mosaic projects. And we always had an aperitif in the afternoon and a glass of wine with the made-for-TV French movie we would watch at night while chatting (they did not speak English-which worked out well for my French skills).
Their town happened to be in a valley, in the shadow of Mont Ventoux, but driving in the Provencal countryside, there are numerous small stone villages sitting on hilltops. Many are classified as one of France's most beautiful villages (Les Plus Beaux Villages de France) and others could very well be if they were interested in applying and paying the fee. These latter were my favorite as they didn't have the same tourist attention and the cafes were always filled with friendly locals. The village centers were not freely accessible by car; you parked at the perimeter and walk in. The stone streets were more pathways than anything, and wandered up and down and between all of the closely knit buildings. Some of these towns had so many flowers and vines, I had a hunch that everyone who lived there had a plant stipend, because literally every edge of some of these towns were covered.
On multiple occasions, I found myself eating outdoors at someone's home. I do love a charming French balcony covered in flowers, but more often than not in the country this was just a set of doors leading to a place with a table and chairs. Coffee on the patio, lunch on the patio, aperitif on the patio. You brought it all out and put it on the table. The cafes and restaurants were outside, serving on the sidewalk terrasses. That connection to the outdoors was never lost. And there were always a table and chairs outside among the plants, like an extension of the house.
In central France there exist big stone houses called maisons de famille. They are called "family houses" because they were created to house the entire family-even the animals. They are made from local limestone, and the temperature regulation is incredible. Walking in from a hot day, you are greeted with a pleasant stony chill, the same chill that can also be so cold and haunting in an old cathedral. Even with shutters wide open for light, it still retains its coolness. Notably, there aren't walls of windows in these old houses which usually had two stories and were quite long. Nowadays, they are often divided in half and bought by two different families. Out in the countryside this is a unique contrast of close living and isolation at the same time, although France is not a vast country so neighbors are never too far away.
The gardens, the old stone buildings, the terraces, and the windows with blue shutters opening up to an olive grove ... Ultimately I realized I would never be able to just bring French country life back home with me. It's built over time, specific to the place. And the most surprising thing of all: discovering that love and sense of place in the French countryside made me appreciate what I have had here in Portland all along.