Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Mediterranean Idyll with Lady Winifred Fortescue

This battered, creased, mildewed book changed my life just over ten years ago. The gaily colored little hot air balloon that was my youthful wanderlust- that took me to Californa, London, Nantucket, and across the South into the desert Southwest - that wanderlust was dormant. Vines and roots tethered it to the ground, and for the next twenty years I never left this city. I wanted to, and in night dreams I tried to, but every trip ended at the first rest stop. I had too many dogs, too big a garden, too many debts, a house, a fear of bridges and interstate driving. Substitute children, caring for an old mother, a bank account in the single digits the day before payday, and I describe how others' lives become rootbound.

Lady Winifred Fortescue and her husband lived in Provence, and she wrote many books about their life there. But she wrote "Sunset House " after her husband died, and decided to stay on by herself.

To anyone who has read Peter Mayles or Francis Mayes , this may sound like well-trodden ground. Restoring a house,haggling with the rustics who surround her- We have, we think, read this before. We know where this is going.

Until we arrive at Chapter 5- "Lotus Land"- a memoir of several September weeks spent in a rented,deserted, Coast guard station on the Mediterranean. Lady Winifred and her friend -known only as" Mademoiselle"-
drive gut-wrenching mountain roads to get there. They travel light. Two dogs, raingear, a few provisions, swimsuits, and one accordian. Fishermen help them air out the cottages, and bring them fish and wine. There is a parafin lamp, but no electricity. Driftwood keeps them warm. They live in their swimsuits. They wade shallow pools and find sea urchins. A vacation for the soul. Yet when Lady Winifred frets over what the workmen may be doing to her house, her friend begs her "Relax. Oh do RELAX!". And Lady Winifred at last does. Here is her description of the Mediterranean:

"And what a sea! That marvellous Mediterranean blazed and scintillated as though some alchemist had thrown all the sapphires, emeralds, turquoises. aquamarines, crystals, and amethysts in the world into one great crucible and transmuted them into fiery fluid".

I read "Lotus Land" over and over. Then I persuaded my younger brother to travel with me to Fort Morgan , Alabama to see our own American Mediterranean. For the next seven years I travelled spring and fall, though never as lightly as Lady Winifred and her friend. Fairhope, Alabama. Through Florida to St George Island, to Ocklochnee Bay, to Cape San Blas, and to Cedar Key. And though I have been dormant for the past three years, and not by choice, I will go again. I will pack little. Nothing I cannot unload in under ten minutes. I do not have an accordion or play an instrument, but there is always the radio. Or maybe I will choose silence. I will not seek the sea urchin. A mess of blue crabs will satisfy me.

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