I forgot to charge my camera's batteries, so Jean-Marc took this photo (and more, below) with his telephone. Can you make out which monkey is my daughter, which singe is my son, and which one is Braise-the-Dog? More about our walk up Sainte-Victoire in today's story column.

une grimpette

     : a steep little climb

C'est là que dans sa grimpette la rue du repos s'étire jusqu'au lavoir.
It is there, in this steep climb, that the retreat street stretches up to the washing place.

             --from "Brins de houx, bugade en chansons," Var Matin (newspaper)

Audio File: Listen to Jean-Marc pronounce the French word "grimpette" and the example sentence: Download Grimpette (mp3). Download Grimpette (wave file)

On Sunday, Jean-Marc, Max, Jackie, Braise-the-Dog, and I were treated to a picnic at Sainte-Victoire, both a mountain and a muse to more than one artist, including Cézanne, who there would paint his heart out time and again.

We had spent Saturday night with cousins Christiane & Charles, in Aix-en-Provence. The Gallic globetrotters once took their children on a 5-year voyage around the world, navigating from behind the helm of their own sailboat! And, just last November, together with their children--and grandchildren--they traversed the sands of southern Moroccan desert, sleeping in tents at night and getting by on one liter of water per day with which to "shower". The 20 kilometer daily walks strengthened family ties, not to mention hearts and thighs!

Given their athletic nature, I admit to not hesitating one instant when, at the base of the great Sainte-Victoire, cousin Christiane lugged the heavy picnic pack up and over her back.

"You sure you don't want me to carry it?" I offered, my eyes fixed on the French heavens where le Pic des Mouches* (the mountain's highest point) loomed. "It's not heavy," Christiane answered, fastening the straps.

Soon, the scent of pine and wild herbs surrounded us. I reached down to pick up a pomme de pin.* One of the things that I had noticed chez Christiane, was her knack for gathering natural objects (exotic seeds, husks, cones, branches...) and creating harmonious arrangements with them. Hungry for the same harmony here at home, I began to fill my pockets with the cones until Christiane offered the empty poche* of her backpack. "Tiens,* you can put them here, inside."

Kristiandchristiane (more photos at the end of this post...)

We had been talking about friendship when Christiane spoke about the people in her life and, without her having to say it, I understood that the friends with whom she shares it have as much inner-harmony as those compositions in her home: like good art, good friends are pure at heart.

"You know," Christiane said, offering me an imperfect pine cone (one that I had overlooked), "I prefer these to diamonds." For an instant, I was lost in a daydream in which I stood at the entrance of my Secret "Sisters" Club. On entering, each and every "true blue" friend had to hand me one pine cone and repeat: I prefer this to diamonds.

An hour into our hike, we were knee-deep in an aromatic odyssey. Do you call this hors-piste*? I joked with my husband, as we searched for the foot path that we had wandered off of. I let my hands brush over the blooming rosemary and resisted the temptation to snap off several twigs of thyme (add the branches to a mug of piping hot water, for the most soothing wintertime tea!) after Christiane explained that certain herbs, in this area, were protected and should be left alone.

Christiane During the last, grueling grimpette,* Charles, Christiane's husband, kept our group light on our feet with his joyful whistling ballads and thoughtful blagues.* Max, Jackie, and Braise-The-Dog were stoic "sangliers"* according to Charles and, between darting up and down the hilly terrain, they answered to their calling with proud snorts (to which Charles snorted back, respectfully so).

Toward the end of our ascent, I noticed the saturated skyline and marveled at true "sky blue" set off by bright limestone white as we reached the top of the mountain ridge. This must be the color of blue immortalized in the famous Provençal textiles.

On the way down the path, I felt that brilliance--that balance--that only an afternoon basking in the herbal countryside can bring on. The trick will be in recreating it, whether with pine cones--or with pure hearts--in the home and beyond.

Corrections, comments, and stories of your own--always welcome here, in the comments box.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~French Vocabulary~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
le Pic des Mouches = Peak of the Flies; une pomme (f) de pin = pine cone; la poche (f) = pocket; tiens (tenir) = here; le hors-piste (m) = off-piste, off-trail; la grimpette (f) = steep climb; la blague (f) = joke; le sanglier (m) = wild boar


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Nancy L.

Kristin! You look so happy, if a bit chilly, in your photos. Speaking of grimpette--in November we visited the grotto of St. Marie Madelene in mountains of St. Baume. It was our second day on our "walking tour" and we were a little daunted by the steep climb. But what a magnificent view from the grotto at the top! Well worth every drop of sweat or shortened breath to get there! Although we were in Aix on that trip as well, we visited Cezanne's studio and simply "imagined" a trek to Sainte- Victoire, leaving that climb for another time(-: lol

Nancy L.

PS- The photo of your children and Blaise in the tree is WONDERFUL!


merci for this sweet story that brings back beautiful memeories of hiking around St Victoire. I love that the herbs are still flowering in January and look forward to returning ourselves in march.

Debbie Chavers

Wow! I loved being able to travel this path with you. My goodness, I could almost smell mountain air. What a wonderful way to start my Monday with a mini vacation. Thanks, Kristin, may you have many pine cone moments.



Here is my pine cone, Kristin; I prefer them to diamonds.....

Jules Greer

Hi Honey, I loved this post - a min-trip for all of us dreamers. Tree photo with Braise and the kids is the most inspiring.
Off to buy the correct size canvas - what a great painting this will make. You look so happy and beautiful in the photo's - what a great life you live...and this we all know is thanks to Jean-Marc for draging you around the countryside. I am so happy you married JM - he has changed all of our lives. You know he calls me MOM - what an honor for me. I just love all of you so much.



What a lovely post! Such a nice way to start my day...

Jules Greer

Honey - I forgot to put this one my last post. Of course I'm in your club !!





Try climbing to the Moorish fortifications above La Garde-Freinet, between Le Cannet-des-Maures (Le Luc-en-Provence) and St. Tropez next. Travel between the cork trees, cross theold Roman bridge, and then drive up the hill to the town, and then follow the goat path to the top. The climb, the moat and the fort, and the view are all so very much worth it. Charge your camera batteries.

Kristin Espinasse

Patti: You're in!

PS: "brothers" welcome too :-)

Kristin Espinasse

Mom: you're in!


Yesterday, after church, we headed east to get a glimpse of Mt. Sainte-Victoire but ran out of sidewalk near the Castle Noir. Not as adventurous as you, we turned around and walked back into town, well exercised and happy to be outside after the rainy Saturday. Maybe someday I'll be able to say I prefer pine cones to diamonds. Til then,

Esther Dalgas

Your story is such a good dose of French sunshine for US Northwesterners swimming in January gray skies! I want to be in your club also, as I much prefer pinecones to diamonds.


What a delightful story!
It reminded me of my own effort years ago to climb Mt Sainte-Victoire with a friend, and sleep at the summit, as an hommage to Cezanne, and we chose the steep south side for our climb. Naturally we started much too late in the afternoon after classes; darkness fell, we became lost half way up as we lost track of the route marks, and ended up spending a charming night on the side of the mountain!
The stars were wonderful and all was quiet until a French climbing club came by armed with flashlights at 2:00 AM. They asked us to join them, though we declined as our small ledge was then seeming more comfortable than climbing in complete darkness with these experienced climbers. Greetings and food were exchanged and off they went, still singing. Dawn came, we found our route and eventually got to the top, where we found our new climbing friends fast asleep in the cabin. We took the more walking friendly northern route back down and hitch-hiked back into Aix, with some interesting photos in the camers.
I still use a stone retrieved from the summit as a paperweight in my office.

Tom Mundis

What a lovely story Kristin. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Tom Mundis


I really enjoyed reading about your hike, Kristin, and it was a lovely way to pretend that it isn't 15°F outside of my window. There are only 53 days until spring, and I can hardly wait to be hiking through our local forest preserves again! Your photos make me want to look for more adventurous hikes in my area. The monkeys in the tree look quite at home, a very intriguing photo!

Your mom is right - what a great life you live! Jules, have you ever given thought to joining Kristin and living that life yourself? I rescued a pine cone for you from my yard, Kristin. I have a collection of them in my home, as I prefer them to diamonds.


Your Mother's comment says it all - nothing more to add! Jeanne


As of this day, I prefere les pommes de pins rather than diamonds--thanks for the jolt back to the mattermost. Ah, nature it never fails to fill us up and enrich life, taking us out of our little cublicles of too-busy-distracted living. Your writing enticed my senses to live vicariously in the smells and sights of your climb up Mt. St. Victoire-- aided, too, by going into my garden to snip a rosemary branch and some thyme for drying.

I was thrilled and delighted to have the good fortune to spend a month in Aix-en-Provence last Septembre chez Monique et Dominique Faillard. Enjoyed painting w/her,lovely outings and mostly just soaking up the life of the city and its people. She took me to Bibemus (spelling?) with its magnificent views of the quarry below, the dam and of course, St Victoire. She said Cezanne also spent time there painting his mountain. It was one of those cool, perfect-blue-sky days, breeze blowing, but not too hard. We then drove to and walked across the dam...the lake behind it was an intense deep blue that I have never before seen. Fortunately I did have camera in hand and charged batteries! (Know well the dead battery delimma!) One thing I did before leaving Virginia was to buy an extra camera battery...despite the cost. Ridiculously expensive. I now was able to have an extra fully-charged battery tucked away in a little pocket of the camera case. If I can remember the case, of course.

So thanks for your delightful story, my first from you as I joined the site just this weekend. Do, do want to improve my pitiful bit of French language skills and will faithfully check in, listen (thanks J-M for the pronunciation guide). Fabulous picture of the children/dog in the tree. J'espere retourner a Provence dans '09. Wish/hope/dream!

Also, got Words in a French Life a couple weeks ago (how I found this site) and love it; such interesting and funny vignettes of life en France. Merci, merci. Am thinking maybe I can sign up for one of those 2 or 3 week French language immersion courses in Aix...humm. I've got to come back. My best to you and yours.


Kristin...I think, by the looks of it, you have planted a seed to grow a pine tree of your own and you may have unwittingly been gathering pinecones no matter how far they fall from your tree!! Thank you for your enchanting rustic tales and images!


Does a "penpal" come from a pencil-pine?


You are always an inspiration, mais je suis jaloux - ce matin été -35c plus le refroidissement éolien -48c. If I could move my very anglo prairie family to france I would! Enjoy and merci Jean Marc pour le merveilleux photos.


You look so happy. I love pinecones and definately prefer them to diamonds.
You are the most delightfulmother--I love reading your responses to Kristens posts--the love and pride oozes out.

Madelyn Etkind

Dear Kristen,
Hello again from Long Island. Your mom Jules is right -- you have such a beautiful life with JM and the family. I adore the photos - it's almost , almost like being there !
When are you coming back to NY ?
Love your mom Jules too-
Warmest Regards,
Madelyn Etkind

Christine Dashper

Oh, Kristin, thank you for the lovely story. It looks like a fantastic 'blue-sky day' and what a beautiful place. I love the photo of Max, Jackie and Braise-the-dog in the tree, it is just wonderful.

All of your talk of thyme and pine makes the aromatherapist in me swoon. In fact I am coming over in the summer to see some of these wonderul plants, whose oils do so much for us, in their natural environment.

I hope you have more beautiful winter days like that one.

All the best



Catching up with the last two newsletters.

Kristin, what a joy to share the scents of pine, rosemary and wild thyme, the feelings of beauty, harmony & freedom, the pleasure of a “grimpette” under a pure and intense blue January sky, in the company of your family! Thank you for this perfect slice of winter paradise in Provence, untouched by the wild storms that affected the south west of France! I was wondering whether they would stretch to the south east on their way to Italy... but I believe they didn't!

Bravo Jean-Marc for your wonderful photos. I love the two large size ones with Kristin's beaming smile. I admire the majestic tree with your dearest “monkeys” blending so well in the picture - one, gracefully climbing up, and “l'aîné”, sitting happily and (I guess, proudly) on the big branch above Braise-the-dog!
No wonder this photo is such an inspiration for you, “MomaJules”. When you want a break from painting horses, I guess you will get passionately immersed into the scene and let your heart speak through your paintbrushes.

Thank you to the inspiring cousins, Christiane & Charles, who took the happy family for a picnic at la Montagne Ste Victoire. Christiane, I am not a globetrotter, but I share your love for “natural objects” like drifwood from a nearby deserted beach, branches, bark, foliage, dried teasels, berries... (the list is longer)

As for pine cones, we collect lots of “pommes de pin” of all sizes from the forest district where we live. They always have a “place d'honneur” in the house, specially at Xmas time. The Xmas wreath we hang at our front door is renewed every year and always has a few small cones. Years ago, I (with the children) enjoyed dabbing some cones in white, half covering some others with gold spray, all used for our Xmas decoration. We still re-use them every Xmas, mix them with some fresh ones left “telles quelles”, to decorate the area under the Xmas tree and the window sills. Some fir cones end up in our woodburner, spitting exciting sparkles!
The latest thing I made with these little treasures is 'wax-coated pine cones', using fallen pine cones, the wax of old candles and rose geranium essential oil. They make lovely gifts, beautiful in a basket for decoration, but useful too if you have an open fire or a woodburner (they replace ordinary -smelly- firelighters).
At the moment, I have a wooden bowl full of very small pine cones on which I sprinkled some pine essential oil.

Kristin, may I squeeze in among the members of your club? I've never once in my life put diamonds on my fingers. My gold wedding ring is all I have and will keep till the day I die. No point repeating how much I love and appreciate pine cones... so, all in all, you must have understood I prefer them to diamonds.


Love the picture!! and I too love pinecones (though I admit I also like diamonds)

At my house when I am upstairs I can see the tops of the pine trees in the woods all around my home. Every spring around Easter on the very top of the pines, when there is new growth, it looks like a cross. I see dozens of crosses dancing in the breeze and I sense the renewal of life all around. Much later, when the pinecones drop to the ground, I feel like a little bit of heaven has landed at my feet.

Pete Hyland

Une Blague: Do you know what the limestone said to the geologist? "Stop taking me for granite." Sometimes I wish you had pronounciations for the Vocab words as well. e.g. Blague?
Pete Hyland, Littleton, Colo.
And now to google earth to look up Victory Mtn. (or is it look down on?) I'd like also to zero in on your homestead. Any coordinates?

Pete Hyland, Littleton, Colo.

une blague: What did the limestone say to the geologist? "Stop taking me for granite." Sometimes I wish you had pronounciations of the Vocab words as well as the mot du jour. e.g. blague?
And now to googleearth to look down upon Victory Mtn.--will assume it's not too far from your home?? Would also like to view your homestead from space. Any coordinates you can give?

Pete Hyland, Littleton, Colo.

une blague: What did the limestone say to the geologist? "Stop taking me for granite." Sometimes I wish you had pronounciations of the Vocab words as well as the mot du jour. e.g. blague?
And now to googleearth to look down upon Victory Mtn.--will assume it's not too far from your home?? Would also like to view your homestead from space. Any coordinates you can give?

Julie Horner

Bonjour Kristen! I'll have to tune into your blog so that I can learn more French {add to my vocabulary of about 1/2 dozen words}! I adore the story about you & your mom. She is obviously full of spunk & is a lot of fun! I'm sure that I've embarrassed my girls (21 & 18) a time or two in public while out shopping, as my Mom has me! I took a bit of French in high school & wish I had taken more. I have a touch of French heritage & loved my trip to Paris in '99! Enjoyed your writing style!

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