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The Madwoman of Fontvieille

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We noticed the sign on our way to Les Baux des Provence, hand-painted on a piece of wood—Huile d’ Olive in bright red paint with an arrow pointing toward a driveway. I made a note of it and we continued to our destination, which did not disappoint in its scale or beauty. On our way back to Arles, we stopped at Chateau D’ Estoublon for some wine tasting. It was a large commercial enterprise with not only wine to sell but mustards, tapenades and vinegars and those damn cigales a motif that appears all over Provence, usually in the form of an endlessly chirping fancifully painted mechanical toy. I have earned the utmost admiration from my brother and his wife for not buying one for their children.

The wine was very nice and we purchased two bottles and were encouraged to walk around the grounds, which were lovely, the large house meeting our expectations of grandeur and well, being so French, and a large pond with the requisite water fowl but watch out for the low lying electric wire, cutting off access to the fields and other areas. The whole experience would not have been out of place in Napa or Sonoma counties.
We returned back to the car grateful for the modern amenities of the newly renovated bathrooms but convinced we didn’t really experience an authentic Provencal moment. We get back on the two-lane road heading through the small town of Fontvieille and I spot the sign for olive oil, yes, yes, let’s pull in and we turn into the small driveway, our tires crunching on the crushed stone pavement. We notice a shack to our left and a garage on our right; we pull up next to a car with a cracked windshield, with barely enough room for another car and an unseen dog barking incessantly. Should we rethink our adventure in olive oil? But before we can reconsider our impulse a figure appears at my husband’s window. To call her a vision would not be quite accurate—a gypsy, a sorcerer perhaps? She must be over seventy, of average height but quite thin, gaunt even and she is swathed in fabrics; a long skirt, a brightly colored blouse, a black shawl, bangle bracelets over her sleeves and her hair wrapped in scarves, with ringlets of dyed brown hair peeking out and her face painted with makeup, her mouth a slash of color, her eyes lined in black, circles of rose blush on her cheeks. It’s as if she has been making up her face the same way for the last fifty years, and there is no need to stop now. She asks in French if we are looking for olive oil, my husband asks if she speaks English, she shakes her head no, I pipe up I speak a little and she says we’ll make it work.
We get out of the car and follow her into the shack. There are more hand-painted signs on the porch, NO PHOTOS, is one and the other offering CERISES, cherries for sale. We follow her into complete darkness, the humidity envelops us; all the while she continues her monologue, occasionally stopping to see if I understand what she is saying. “There is no modernity here,” she says as she lights a candle. And indeed there is no electricity. The gloomy candlelight barely illuminates the small room. As our eyes begin to get adjust to the dark we glance around the room, it is crammed full of items for sale. She motions us over to her and tells me to stick out my finger. The oil is completely “biologic.” She tends the olive trees herself.  She opens a bottle of oil, it is viscous and a greenish yellow and then she pours it over my finger catching the remainder in a water glass half full of olive oil. I quickly stick my finger in my mouth like Jack Spratt and lick my finger clean.  The olive oil coats my mouth, vibrant, herbaceous and earthy. She asks if I like it as she unrolls a piece of pink toilet paper and hands it to me to wipe off my finger. At last the only proper use for French toilet paper. I nod and we look at the bottles for sale, it is becoming quite warm and the smell of lavender is overpowering. We decide on a fairly modest bottle to lug back home.
My husband spots some jars of honey on the shelf and she lectures us on the honey, earnest and committed to her art. Of course it is made from lavender, golden colored is the youngest vintage to the viscous aged variety, all in what look like hand-labeled baby food jars. We settle on an aged one and she sits down on a folding chair and sets about wrapping it carefully with the olive oil for the plane ride. On the other side of the shack there are bags and bags of dried lavender of every size, jars filled, little sachets; Provencal fabrics she sews and fills with lavender. She rubs the sachet between her hands to show us how to best enjoy the fragrance. I buy two as gifts; the suitcase is only so big. I think all the items cost 20 euros.
She thanks us and wishes us a “bonne journee.”
She follows us out as we blink trying to get used to the bright sunlight. Now, there are two men getting into the car next to us. “Attendez,” wait, wait, there is no room for them to back out. I think to myself what if we hadn’t come out at that very moment, would they have crashed into our rental car? We quickly get into our car and in the hand signals of all languages one of the men starts to direct us in backing out. The car stalls, there is a great shaking of heads and then we start to backup, turn around and head out. Our madwoman lifts her bony arm and waves. Merci, merci we call out. Our Provencal moment is complete.
It is not until we get home and unpack all our treasures that we realize that the beautiful olive oil has a label on it shaped like a heart, printed with the name, the region, the AOC, the producer and a handwritten number of 2009, vierge extra. We are in possession of a gift of Provence, a gift from the heart. Now I must persuade my husband to use it.  


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