What was your first French experience?
When I was three, my grandfather took me to lunch at his friend, the great chef Henri Soulé’s restaurant Le Pavillon in Manhattan. Soulé joined us in whites and toque, kissed my hand and called me “Mademoiselle” and I was bit by the Francophile bug. In 1963, I visited the Côte d’Azur, Provence, Brittany, the Alps, the Loire Valley and Paris. Despite all my imaginings, nothing prepared me for the wonder that was France. The old peasant women in their tall white-lace hats, long skirts and wooden clogs who served us lunch outdoors in the Breton countryside – just-picked artichokes, freshly-killed rabbit and fried potatoes dug from the earth that morning; the market on Paris’s Rue Mouffetard with live goats, sheep, chickens and geese; fruit, vegetables, cheeses, oysters, pastries and breads the likes of which I’d never before experienced; the Gendarmes on bicycles wearing dark-blue capes; the memorial plaques to those killed and deported by the Nazis; and the countryside that varied beyond description.
What do you love about the French lifestyle?
My garage here in Nyons, the town in the Drôme where I’ve lived since 2002, was vandalised. I waited two hours at the gendarmerie to make a report. My turn arrived at 11:45am. The officer explained it was lunchtime and he was hungry – could I return after the three-hour déjeuner? Nothing takes precedence over mealtime holy hours. The pace of life in Provence is slow – at times maddeningly so – but I have learned to shed my NYC get-things-done-yesterday A-plus personality agita, along with my anti-anxiety tablets.
Cats. In the country they are everywhere and if you buy a house, rest assured cats are lurking, ready to adopt you. I never liked cats; in fact I was allergic. In 1998, I came here to babysit eight cats for three months in a feudal château, something I repeated for five winters. I fell in love and unexpectedly bought a 350-year-old house. I now have six cats and a West Highland white terrier. They rule my life and I adore every minute. (The allergy symptoms have vanished, by the way.) Be nice to cats: you never know where it might take you.
In summer, Nyons has outdoor communal meals with hundreds in attendance and live music. There is Le Grand Aïoli; Le Grand Paella; La Soupe au Pistou. The mayor is there, the marginaux are there and everyone else in between. We eat and drink and dance and talk long into the night. Life is good.
What are your favourite places to visit in France?
I adore Paris, which is three hours away on the TGV and always special. I enjoy Strasbourg, a cosmopolitan city of exceptional richness. I love to hop in my little red Renault Clio and drive to Marseille for the day, or Arles, or Avignon, revelling in the magic incantation of the historic names on the road signs. Mostly I love the Drôme and exploring its perched villages, Jurassic rock formations, olive groves, lavender fields, farms and unique humpy-shaped mountains and glorious vistas. I often drive up into the rugged Diois region and explore the area which I call “the land that time forgot.”
Are there any food and drink specialities you particularly enjoy?
My tastes are simple. The Thursday morning Nyons market is one of life’s great pleasures. Oysters from Didier; truffles from Patricia; freshly-laid Araucana eggs from Patrick; tomatoes, the uglier often the better; raspberries and Mara des Bois strawberries; white peaches; frisée lettuce; wild mushrooms; asparagus in every hue, which I gorge on for two months and then don’t eat till it’s back in season.
I’m partial to café life; everyone has their special café, mine is La Belle Époque – a café crème or a Côtes du Rhône blanc; in summer a PAC à l’eau, a natural citrus drink native to Provence.
Tell us about a secret special place you love.
I belong to the Synagogue du Carpentras, a National Historic Monument, the oldest active synagogue in France, celebrating its 650th anniversary in 2017. When I go to services, I’m part of history, a member of an ancient community; I’m in the presence of survival and the Divine. I’m also in Provence. I am home.
A native New Yorker, Patricia Fieldsteel worked for a major New York book publisher, was an outreach worker to street prostitutes, and the personal assistant to a New York cultural impresario and dance critic. She has written for The New York Times, Newsday and BonjourParis.com, among other publications.
From France Today magazine