Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Snails in Provence

with one comment

Eileen, Juniper and I recently returned to Geneva after a month-long vacation in the south of France. We returned to the Lubéron area in Provence, which we have visited each of the last three years. For our two previous visits, we stayed in a couple of the beautiful villages, perched on hillsides, for which the area is known. This time, with baby Juniper along, we chose to stay in the less attractive, but more centrally located and full-service town of Apt.

I selected a house to rent in Apt from a vacation rental website, but when I first tried to contact the owner through the listing, I received a response that felt odd: it came from a generic Gmail account (; was signed by someone other than the listed owner; and offered a discount for early payment. A quick Google search of the email address confirmed that a scammer had likely hacked the property owner’s listing page and was phishing for some easy money. I phoned the owner and alerted the listing website. The owner was at first suspicious of my story, but was happy once she had confirmed that her listing was hacked. Given the goodwill created by this exchange, we were fortunate that the house was available to rent for our preferred dates.

There is always some unknown involved in renting a vacation property from a private owner: photos and descriptions on a website never capture everything about the property, and they can easily be embellished. Nevertheless, our experiences have largely been excellent, and we followed a similar selection process for this house in Apt. It had three bedrooms, a pool, a barbecue and a big yard. On the map it looked to be within walking distance of downtown Apt. But when we approached the house, I had a moment of doubt, as we were ascending a street that was far too steep to walk while carrying groceries and a baby.

Despite my moment of doubt, the steep hill was probably an advantage, as it protected us from any traffic whatsoever. Apt is the busy commercial centre in the area and its teeming Saturday market spills traffic into most of the town’s outskirts – except up our steep hill. The compromise of having to drive downhill to the grocery store was worth the quiet days and starry nights at our house on the hill.

Here is Juniper lounging by the pool on a warm day:

Although this house was spacious, cool and quiet, it had cheap furniture and kitchen equipment, as do many private vacation rentals. Nothing that attracted the attention of my camera, in other words. Here is one of the only photos I shot of the house – a Gretzky shadow cast by the ironwork outside the kitchen window:

Given that we were on holiday in Provence for a month, with a private pool and a two-month-old baby to occupy us, I understand if you thought that the snails in the title of this entry referred to us, moving slowly and rarely leaving our home. The metaphor may be apt, but the title also refers to the infestation of actual snails that we encountered during our stay. Thousands of snails had climbed and clustered on every possible perch: branches of the quintessential Provençal lavender bushes and olive trees sagged under shell-to-shell crowds of snails, as did individual blades of grass. Fences and street signs did not sag, but their profiles were distorted by thick snail borders.

Here is a photo of a hydrant near our house – apparently the snails could not cling to its painted vertical surfaces, but nonetheless found a few perches on which to cluster:

Eileen searched the internet for an explanation of the snail infestation, but found only descriptions of the climbing behaviour, not of causes for the infestation. In the summer, the snails flee the overheated ground for breezier perches, there to lay dormant until cooler weather returns (source, in French). Well done, clever snails, but I was baffled by how these zillions of snails each found enough food to survive, especially given their clustering behaviour.

Here is a photo of a typical roadside patch of dry grass, with almost every shoot laden with snails:

The snails not only baffled us during our stay in the Lubéron, but also sent us home with an amusing surprise. After we had returned to Geneva and unpacked from the trip, we found this snail on the kitchen wall – he had stowed away in a flat of peaches that we smuggled home:

We rented a house with a pool mostly for us adults to stay cool in the August heat. But we also had visions of introducing Juniper to “swimming.” During her teen years, Eileen was a swimming instructor and taught a few lessons for toddlers, so I was keen to watch our exceptional child learn the doggy paddle after two weeks, and then progress to the butterfly by the end of our four-week holiday. In reality, Juniper’s swimming lessons involved testing her tolerance for water that was colder than bathwater.

At first, Juniper did not appreciate the cold water at all. But Eileen quickly discovered a promising technique: trick Juniper into thinking it was playtime and sneak her into the water when she was distracted. Soon enough, Eileen was swooping a wary Juniper’s waist and legs through the water:

Eileen was very deliberate and gradual in introducing Juniper into the pool, but even if our daughter remained tear-free during the lesson itself, the cumulative stress of the cool water often led to a post-swim meltdown:

Juniper’s Mamie (my Mom) was with us for the first two weeks of our trip and took pity on her granddaughter, buying her a little inflatable pool that we could leave to warm in the sun. Clever Mamie: swimming lessons became more like daytime baths, with Eileen joining Juniper in the tub. No longer wary of cold water, Juniper actually began ignoring the water altogether and seemed most fascinated by the design on the edge of her pool:

The Lubéron has a number of villages classified as among France’s most beautiful, and they draw tour buses and crowds throughout the year. On each of our trips to the Lubéron, we have joined the hordes for the obligatory outing to the more famous villages, such as Gordes and Rousillon. Those two in particular are beautiful but overrun, and navigating through their traffic and crowds saps my energy, so they are one-off destinations. For the remainder of our outings, we prefer the second-order perched villages, which feel quiet, airy and spacious by comparison. Last year, for example, we stayed in the classified village of Ansouis, which has just a trickle of daytime traffic and is dark and empty at night. This year, our house was linked by back road to the village of Saignon, distinct on the horizon throughout the area due to the cliff-ringed promontory that juts up from the village centre.

Although I did not plan to shoot a photo essay of a particular subject during our vacation, Saignon was the one subject I shot several times, from different angles and in different light conditions. Below is a selection of the photos I shot of Saignon:

Having my Mom with us for two weeks was a special feature of our month in the Lubéron. She had spent two weeks with us in Geneva before we all travelled down to the Lubéron, so Mamie was already in sync with Juniper’s routine by the time we arrived in Apt. My Mom drinks deeply at the well of her chosen pursuits, and embraced our little family rhythms, not only to enjoy the fun times with Juniper, me and Eileen, but also to help Eileen and I as we adjust to parenthood.  She jumped at the chance to hold a happy, chirpy Juniper, but also to soothe her in her sour moods, and to put her down for naps – the hardest job with Juniper. Mom even changed diapers, stepping well beyond grandparent duties. After Mom returned to Canada, Eileen and I both remarked at how much of the parenting work she had happily undertaken – work that we were now carrying with only two pairs of hands!

Along with Mom’s practical contribution to caring for Juniper, I enjoyed reflecting my early parenting experience on the same effort made by my mother for me, 36 years ago. I suppose every parent is doomed to say to their petulant, ungrateful teenager, as my Mom surely said to me: “when you are a parent, you will appreciate what I have done for you.” I do not think I was an oblivious or ungrateful son, but it was impossible to understand the physical and emotional effort involved in caring for a needy little baby, until now: for example in the moments when I push beyond my comfort level of fatigue, anxiety and frustration to soothe Juniper in her inconsolable moments. Add to that the physical effort expended by our mothers during pregnancy and delivery, and I have a redoubled gratitude for Mom’s parenting.

Here is a photo of Mamie and Juniper, in front of one of the stone bories that are typical in the Lubéron:

Mom is a horse fanatic and no doubt missed her horses Espiritu and Banjo during her four-week absence. During our excursions, Mom’s eyes and ears perked up at each sign of horses or riding. On one of our walks in the hills above our house, we encountered these two horses and their long-eared cousin, each of them poking through the long, dry grass in search of greener treats underneath:

We braved the mayhem of Gordes on a market day, meaning I spent half of the excursion in the car, looking for parking. I stepped out of the car long enough to shoot this photo of my three favourite ladies, with the pretty village almost an afterthought in the background.

Near Gordes is the Abbaye de Sénanque, an obligatory stop for its lavender fields, its architecture and its setting, nestled in a tight valley. The lavender fields are fenced off to prevent them being trampled by the hordes of tourists. As a result, there are only a few angles from which to shoot a photo that includes both the abbey and its lavender fields. For example, nearly every camera-equipped person who enters the abbey’s gift shop stops to snap a version of this photo:

We also followed the crowds to Rousillon, where Mom and I strolled along the excellent Sentier des Ocres next to the village. It was hot and busy, so I shot only a couple of photos, including this one, looking out from a shady spot:

At the other end of the spectrum from busy Gordes and Rousillon, Eileen and I drove to the end of the road and found the sleepy little commune of Sivergues. It sits high in the hills, at the end of the asphalt road, in the last little valley of arable land beneath the main ridge of the Grand Lubéron. I suspect hikers come here to have immediate access to the upper trails on the mountain and I saw signs for a couple of guesthouses for people who want to holiday at the end of the road.

Here is Sivergues’s commune hall:

The village square is dominated by an impressive fortified house, which is now run as a gîte d’étape (cottage-guesthouse). The fort was built in the 14th century by the archdeacon of Apt (source, in French), although I could not find a convincing explanation of why he devoted all that money, effort and stone to building a fort in such an isolated, thinly populated location. Neither could the locals, apparently, as by the 15th century the commune was deserted, for unknown reasons.

Here is Sivergues’s church, with the main ridge of the Grand Lubéron behind:

When I was off-duty from parenting, my favourite activities were jogging on the trails in the hills above our house, and shooting sunrise and sunset photos. I do not have any photos from the first of those off-duty activities, but I have many from the second. For example, here is a photo of a full moon above some sunset-lit cliffs near Saignon:

Next is a photo of Mont Ventoux in the distance. It is the “Giant of Provence” and, although it sits north of the Lubéron, it was a fixture on the horizon from any elevated position in the area.

The next two photos are of Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, shot from castle ruins on the cliff above the village.

Eileen rarely joins me on photo excursions, as she finds it boring to watch me sniff around for a good angle, muttering to myself and ignoring her. But she joined me at sunset in Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt and brought Juniper for company.

Light conditions were phenomenal on September 11, so I shot at both sunrise and sunset that day. Here is the village of Lacoste, with the sunrise just beginning to warm the walls of its hilltop castle:

Here is the road into Lacoste, shortly after sunrise:

That evening, I shot photos of Bonnieux, a village perched on the hillside opposite Lacoste. Whereas the sunrise earlier that day was tinted pink, the sunset was splashed with orange:

Next is a photo at dusk, looking from Bonnieux’s Église neuve, across to Lacoste and its illuminated castle on the far hillside:

After shooting photos of Lacoste the village one day, I shot photos of a living Lacoste two days later. After completing some work in London, my cousin Joan flew down to visit us before returning to Canada. Her married name is Mara, but her maiden name is Lacoste, inherited from the village. The last piece of the puzzle is to discover whether or not Joan has a claim to a portion of the Lacoste t-shirt empire… Here is a photo of Joan on the cliffs above Saignon, with Mont Ventoux in the background:

Excursions and activities aside, Juniper was obviously our main preoccupation during our Lubéron holiday, both through carrying out her daily routine, as well as observing her rapid physical and behavioural changes. She was approximately two months old when we arrived in Apt, so by the time we left four weeks later, she had spent a third of her young life there! Juniper’s face and body shape really changed for me at around four weeks. Since then, I feel as if she has been growing into that new body shape. And indeed she has grown chubbier and chubbier:

Almost overnight during our stay, she began to recognise baby faces, including her own face in the mirror – she had previously ignored small faces, focussing only on adult ones. The following photo is actually from after our trip, but shows Juniper smiling at her new friend in the mirror:

Hello cutie

Juniper has also been in a hurry to develop her social skills: she now smiles and squeals like a crazy person, and is intent on making eye contact with anyone who crosses her field of vision. Here is a photo of her squealing in excitement at my camera:

Juniper’s range of expressions has expanded beyond just smiles. Here is a classic one on dad’s lap, after her morning meal:

So “chubby” and “expressive” describe Juniper’s development during our vacation in the Lubéron. Here is a photo that captures those two adjectives at once: this is one of her weekly growth photo, in which she was too giddy to hold still, squirming arms and legs that are wrapped in some burgeoning rolls.

I shoot a lot of photos of Juniper, but I often forget to organise us for a family photo. On the last day of our stay, as we were packing the car, Eileen and I remembered that we did not have a family photo in front of our holiday home in Apt. This photo is therefore a fitting end to this entry about our first family holiday, not only because it shows us smiling on a sunny day in southern France, but because it was snapped five minutes before we drove away, satisfied with our vacation and eager to return home to Geneva.


One Response

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  1. I think I need a cuddle of my niece asap. Looks like a great trip you guys. Awesome photos as always Kris.


    September 27, 2013 at 14:45

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