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Vive Les Femmes! A Villa Vacation to Cherish
PATRICE GAINES
(A humorous tale of the vacation of 8 1/2 women in France)


ViveI call my most recent vacation “One villa, two weeks, and 8 1⁄2 women.” Of course, there was not half of a woman. It’s just that my friend Romenia Singleton, “The Goddess” from Tucson, was with us in the South of France for just one week – or half of our planned two-week vacation.


Romenia, who was my seventh-grade classmate in Beaufort, S.C., called from Arizona a couple of days before our scheduled departure to say she was having a hard time leaving her husband behind.


“David and I have never been away from each other for that long in our 18 years together so we’re going to London for one week then I’ll join you girls in France.”


“Oh, you two are sickening,” I said, hiding my envy.


When I said goodbye to my husband as he left for work, he hugged me and mumbled, “Bye,” as if he’d see me later that evening instead of two weeks from then. When I called him from France, using my calling card, carefully dialing 44 numbers, he barely grunted at my witty and colorful observations of the French and their country. But after eight years of marriage, I know what his grunts mean.


“I’m having a hard time sleeping,” he said. (Translation: “I miss you.”) “The dog misses you,” he added. (Translation: “I do, too.”)


But Romenia got telephone calls from her dear David in the wee hours of the morning, for three consecutive mornings. The first time, after a few rings, women ran from five bedrooms to grab the phone. But this was a group of quick learners. By the second morning, Romenia headed for the phone alone.


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In the kitchen over coffee we all teased her about the one side of the conversation that we heard bounce off the stucco walls and hardwood floors of our villa. “Yes, I love you toooo, David,” we teased, parroting her whispers.


Then on the third morning, we heard, “David, don’t call here anymore. The girls are teasing me. I’ll call you.”


“Why does David call here every morning?” someone asked. “Because I’m a goddess,” Romenia said.


Though we had all settled in comfortably together by the time Romenia arrived, we opened our arms to one more. It is important to choose your traveling companions wisely when you travel en masse. I was fortunate enough to be the only person in our group who knew everyone. In addition to Romenia, there was Earni Young, once my roommate in Miami and whose idea it was to spend two weeks in Cote d’Azur; Jackie Jones, the only person I can say who has been both my immediate supervisor and is still one of my closest friends; Pat Adams, designer extraordinaire, who has her own line of erotic lingerie; and Nicki Lewis, whom I met when our daughters were roommates in college, and who won my admiration for her marathon shopping skills.


We were two generations. The three younger women had their friendships sealed at Spelman College; My daughter Andrea Carter, who swore in high school she’d never travel with me again, is now old enough that “never” has vanished from her vocabulary; her good friend Sabrina Lewis, Nicki’s daughter and a lawyer in the District, Jumped on board the vacation idea early in the planning: and Nichelle Poe, who earned the nickname “Compass” on this trip for her uncanny ability to always get us back on the A8 freeway, headed for whatever city was our destination.


Earni made terrific arrangements for us. She booked the villa and rented two Renaults on the Internet. The villa in the village of Valbonne, 15 minutes from Nice, is set on a hill next to an orchard of olive trees and has an expansive view of distant mountains. Each of us nine women paid $760 to rent the villa and the cars. It will probably long remain one of the best deals I’ve ever gotten.


The house had beautiful manicured grounds, a heated pool, a fireplace in the cozy living room, four real bedrooms and a den outfitted as a bedroom for our younger crew. Most important were the 4 1⁄2 baths. On warm nights we ate dinner outside at a table large enough to seat all of us. On cooler nights we made a fire and ate in the dining room under a chandelier, our table adorned by candelabra.


Earni, our official organizer, came up with the idea of pooling money to buy groceries. So we each pitched in another $90 and bought enough food and wine to last two weeks. For snacks we feasted on French pates, cheeses, wines and local fruits. By day we went sightseeing in the town along the Mediterranean—St. Tropez Monaco, Cannes, nice, Saint-Paul-de-Vence and San Remo, Italy—always returning home by 7 p.m. to sit down together to a delectable dinner.


My companions worked magic in the kitchen, pinching off fresh herbs from the garden outside the kitchen door, each cook filling our evenings with comfort smells. These women could cook! Well, everyone except the Goddess, who offered to pay someone to cook for her. We figured if she was really that bad, she shouldn’t be forced. So Earni, known up and down the East Coast for her culinary skills, took an extra turn. She added brandy, vanilla and only-she-knows-what-else to stale French bread to make the best bread pudding I have ever had. And of course, since it was vacation we had dessert after every dinner.


One night while the rest of us slept, the younger crew made invitations to the dinner they were cooking and hung them on our bedroom doors. When we sat down the next day to shrimp scampi and a salad we also found elegant handmade name cards on each plate.


Every morning we divided into two groups to head out for that day’s adventure. One car might head for Nice and more shopping (I was generally in that one), while another headed for an antiques fair in the countryside of the real Provence. This procedure generally worked, though occasionally someone wished they could hop into a car that was already full. Basically, we all ended up doing and seeing the same things, just on different days.


But one morning we headed out together. Destination: Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the mountainside town where the late James Baldwin once lived.


“Do you know who James Baldwin is? The writer?” I asked the first store clerk I ran into in Saint Paul. Then I focused on her baby skin and blushing cheeks and realized she was much too young.


I then asked a middle-aged salesman, who spoke English, and he became quite animated. Oh yes, Jimmy was a very nice man,” he said, stepping outside the store and pointing down the street. “He loved drinking and eating over there. He lived around the corner, down the hill. Take the fork past the school and it’s the third house on the left.”


I was breathless I adored James Baldwin, the way his hoarse voice dragged words together to make sentences, the way his written word captured the passion and pain of black life.


We were forced to stand on a hill across from the house in order to peer over the stone fence to see the place where “Jimmy” hid from America’s racism and homophobia. A lone cat sat on the porch. The trash of the current owner was at the curb. I took photos, and then filled my pockets with stones—“from Jimmy’s House,” I would tell my sisters back home. As my fellow vacationers and I walked back to the car, I tried to take in everything Baldwin must have seen on his walks: the burnt-red tile rooftops of homes in the valley, the cluster of sand-colored houses perched on the surrounding mountainside, the delicate flowers draped over stone walls along the sidewalk.


“This is it for me,” I told Jackie. “I can go home now.”


But of course there were many more things to do and see. There were new highlights every day, spectacular views of the Mediterranean from cliffs and winding roads; the palatial jewel of Monaco perched on a pink rock jutting out into blue water that kissed the horizon; the seemingly endless tunnels through the Italian mountains; and evenings in the house with eight interesting women.


One quiet Sunday afternoon I scanned the living room to see that every woman had a book, a glass of wine and a face full of contentment. Another evening, after an amazing dinner, we put on some oldies and then club music, and danced around the house and the yard. In Cannes and Nice and St-Tropez, I watched with joy as Nicki managed to find something beautiful to buy in nearly every store. Then one night Nicki and I were riding with Earni when she pulled into the villa, scraping the side of the car against the iron gate at the entrance. But she was ever the confident woman as she stepped out of the car and ran her hand across the new concave shape of the passenger side.


“Was this here before?” she asked. Oh, such confidence, I thought. I delivered the bad news in a gentle tone. “Nooo,” I said.


“They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” she said, as a plastic strip fell off the side of the car.


Where could I buy a postcard to capture that moment?


This is the real stuff of which vacations are made. The truth is it wasn’t just the beauty of quaint old villages with curving cobblestone roads or the piercing blue of the Mediterranean that made my vacation memorable. It was being in a circle of women, holding hands around the dinner table as someone blessed the food. Watching Sabrina twist her face and cover her ears whenever her mother joined in the chitchats about sex.


It was spending two weeks in one villa with 8 1⁄2 women.


(This story ran in The Washington Post, January 20, 2003)

Copyright©2011 Patrice Gaines Email: info@patricegaines.com
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