I never would have thought that I’d be spending consecutive birthdays abroad. The first occasion was a drunken affair in Bocas del Toro, the party island in Panama and then a second time Provence, France. Both places would be contrasting in terms of the party mayhem versus a quiet escape in the mountains, but both were memorable in their own special way.
I wouldn’t feel the travel burnout that I’d experience later on in Italy, but deep down I knew I’d wanted to slow down, chill out and spend it with familiar faces. In the five weeks that I had been in Europe I had spent most of the time sleeping on a couch or a blow up mattress, and by now my back was now a chiropractors dream; so when an offer of a proper bed and time to relax with friends presents itself during ones birthday week, then one gives it careful consideration.
Such an offer was made by my friend Elise and Benoit, her French husband. They had a bed available in their home near the town of Digne in the region of Provence, so I was more happy to accept as it was on the way to the south of France where I would then move on to Italy.
Elise and I met nearly ten years ago when my media career still in its infancy; back when I knew how to work the fax and photocopying machine with my eyes closed. Elise was put in charge of restructuring the smaller business that was being interviewed at and had recommended me to my boss; all whilst she was planning her own career change into interior design. It wasn’t long until she completed her degree and then moved to the Gold Coast where she met Benoit who was fresh out university and travelling up the coast of Australia with barely enough money to buy deodorant that he would only apply it along with his French charm when he went out on dates with her. Not long after that, she was off to France where they built an Eco-Architecture business from scratch.
Dignes is a small village at the foot of the alps and is a primary location for lavender production, with fields of lavender as well as sunflowers blanketing the area. It is a photographers dream and a major tourist attraction for those who enjoy the scent of lavender products. Elise and Benoit lived out of town about fifteen minutes away in a village called Gaubert, high up on the hills and literally on top of the hill with views to Digne on one end of the home and deep into another valley on the right.
I had the top level of their home which was the soon to be master bedroom, which was still under construction and currently used as storage, but that was the least of my worries. As soon as I laid eyes on the bed with the folded towels and the complimentary chocolates, I was feeling quite pleased at the thought of not having to pack my bag for another six days.
The home on a hill
Despite having not seen each other for nearly a decade, Elise and I had always kept in touch over Facebook and being the thorough planner as she is, was always across when I would be in France. We had made plans to meet back in 2009 but other events would prevent that from happening so this time around it wouldn’t be a matter of if I’d come, but when. Whether or not it was coincidence or purely a result of subconscious planning that I’d arrive on my birthday, I always knew that I was craving some down time, not feel compelled to visit any museums, shoot some landscapes and to spend it with friends so Digne would be the perfect place.
Benoit, born and bred in Digne, is an eco focused architect in an area that has a penchant for hanging onto traditional roots and architectural styling too much. He’s the only architect that is pushing contemporary designs incorporating eco features and has been building a strong word of mouth business in the greater Provence region.
I found it interesting listening to Elise go through her experience of moving from a country where she had an active social life to a small country town in Provence as an ‘outsider’, who took a leap of faith and got married to a local, learnt to speak the language fluently. Yet despite the attempts to fit in, a few of the small town folk remain standoffish and unaccepting of outsiders. I wonder if it’s like this in all small country towns around the world where as a tourist we view them as cute and sleepy towns, but in reality there’s more to that when you peel back the layers of niceties beyond ‘Bonjour, ca va?”
Elise and Benoit’s labour of love has been the construction of their dream home which they’ve poured a lot of the time and energy into over the years. Despite some personal hurdles over the years, it’s been a labour of love that’s evolved from originally being just their only home to one where they’ve unselfishly focused their energies into creating several four star apartments that are rented on long and short terms leases.
The intent is for the apartments to provide a security net for when they take off on their round the world adventures in the near future. However, over the next five days, the entire top floor and a bed that felt like fluffy clouds would become my home and a little bit of paradise for this weary traveller.
Adventures in the landscape.
Not only is Benoit a talented architect, he is also a photography enthusiast. When he first saw my camera hit, he immediately pulled out some prints of a waterfall that he had taken and like a student with a hunger for knowledge, asking how could he improve the images he had taken. I’ve never met anybody who would be so interested to learn about photography as well as post processing, but it was fun talking ‘shop’ both at home as well as out in the field.
The beauty about being self employed is that Benoit was able to move meetings around so we spent quite some time out in the car and exploring the surrounding countryside. On one expedition, we went on the hunt for the perfect lavender fields. To our surprise, most of the fields had been harvested so we just kept driving from one location to another. I was content with sticking to a couple of fields however, once Benoit latched onto a scent of a half decent scene, he was already out of the car and snapping away.
It felt great not to be the one who everybody had to wait for to finish up. We would have gone to about five different locations and as soon as I told him sometimes “it’s the journey, not the destination” he decided to put the “Unbreakable” slogan of his Toyota Hilux to the test; taking us through some narrow and rocky roads to get to the next location.
At the end of a days exploring; in a sudden turn of events, we had became photographers turned storm chasers. The final location that we found turned out to be the picture perfect place where we could capture the glowing sunset against the backdrop of a storm front which now had brought with it a spectacular lightning show. I had tried my best to capture the lightning but Benoit with his trigger finger somehow magically captured about 4 or 5 of them which made things more competitive.
A time to be grateful.
It’s times like this when you’re travelling that you can’t take anything for granted. I am grateful for the soft bed to sleep in, hot water to shower with, Elise’s homemade kumquat liqueur, Benoit’s crepes and an endless supply of cheese. Elise even threw a dinner party for my birthday, including a red berry fruit pavlova.
Overall, I was pretty lucky to have gone 6 weeks of being sorted for accommodation and also at the receiving end of such generous hospitality. In typical JimmyEatsWorld fashion, the only way I could ever repay it was to cook dinner to repay the favour.
Where ever I am, I always like to bring a bit of Vietnam or Australia to the table and with an abundance of fresh produce in Provence I decided to cook twice: a BBQ bonanza using local sausages and grilled fruit on the BBQ and then again with a Vietnamese beef stew which went down a treat.
After nearly a week of relaxing and being fed, I was ready to hit the road again and move on to Italy. It was good to catch up with Elise and meeting Benoit finally, but for me it was a great story to see how a couple in love took the plunge and left everything to go back to France, tie the knot and living out their dreams despite the hurdles life has thrown them during their imperfect journey. Despite not having caught up with each for nearly a decade, by the end of the week it felt like a much lesser period and that I had known Benoit for much longer.
Despite the carefree approach to long term travel, I’ve been having a few doubts creeping in about my travelling staying power as well as the longer term future and happiness in general. Spending time with my friends in this small part of France gave me the necessary reminder that you don’t need to have many things to be happy in life and that it’s important for my own sanity to get out of the cities every once in a while in order to reconnect with myself and friends along the way; that it is all about the journey and not the destination.
If you’re interested in spending time in Digne in Provence then hit up Elise at Belise Apartments for some accomodation in their 4-star apartments overlooking the valley.
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