France: A path forward

A field of tall grass and thorny brambles in Provence.

“Just let me know and we can turn around,” our guide Frédéric said.

I looked at Steve, trying to read his face. “Let’s go back,” I whispered.

“I’m sure it’s not far,” he said.

Frédéric didn’t get an answer from either of us, so he moved forward on the trail.

“Trail” was a rather loose term. It used to be a trail, Frédéric explained. But because of the pandemic no one had been on it during the past two years and it was overgrown with tall grasses and brambles. We were searching between a small body of water called “le pébre” and a ruined customs house called “la vignolle” in the Camargue region in the South of France. We were there to hopefully see a breeding colony of Slender-bill Gulls and Gull-billed Terns.

Frédéric’s thick white hair spilled out under his sunbleached baseball hat. I could barely keep up with his pace. He wore a white buttoned-down shirt and shorts, and seemed to be unaware that his legs were bleeding from the thorny brambles he charged through. Steve and I wore sensible, long khaki pants adventurers would wear. But I hardly felt like an adventurer as I tripped over the prickly branches and grass that sometimes curled like vines around my ankles as though they were reaching out and grabbing me.

The blood on Frédéric’s legs streamed down over a large scar and abnormal indentation on his right calf. It was a wound from when he fell off a cliff in Corsica in his late twenties when looking at a bird during field work he was conducting. He barely survived the fall, so bushwhacking through tall grass and brambles was not a big deal for him.

Since Steve and I married, we birded a lot in Central America and some of South America. But this time I wanted to go someplace different, where the jungles didn’t look the same. Birding in South of France felt like it would be different and maybe less challenging than the hot, humid hikes on rocky and often muddy trails.

I wanted to stroll though vineyards looking for birds. And mostly I wanted a trip full of patisserie and cheese.

I finally asked Frédéric, “How much further?”

“See that shack over there?” It looked like it was a football field away. “That’s where we’re going.”

“What will we find?”

He smiled. “I don’t know. We’ll find out!”

If he didn’t know what we’d find, why were we continuing on with this hike? I thought. And then I said it: “I’m done. I’d like to go back.”

I’d had enough of this hike. It had been over an hour of tripping, with thorny branches pulling and tugging on me and I was horrified by Frédéric’s bloody legs.

“Oh!” he said with a smile. “Then let’s go back!” And we followed Frédéric back to our car.

I checked with Steve to make sure I didn’t screw up an opportunity to see the birds. “Well, we did see the Slender-bill gull and Gull-billed Terns before, right?” I asked him.

I was happy to end this miserable hike, but I began to regret my proclamation. I made the call to quit for all three of us.

“Yes, but it’s always nice to see them.”

“I know. But I just couldn’t go on any more.”

“That’s okay,” he said.

The restaurant at Mas Saint Bertrand.

After a 30-minute drive, we approached a restaurant, Mas Saint Bertrand, situated at the end of a gravel road where Frédéric announced, “We’re here! They are expecting us.”

Bicycles and cars parked in the dirt-paved circular lot. Tables and chairs were set up under a pergola with a metal roof adjacent to a bed and breakfast. A man greeted Frédéric, they kissed each other’s cheeks and the man pointed to a table saved for us. We walked by another man who worked the grill with a large rectangular griddle on top. Whole fish were lined up on the griddle and a loud hiss sounded every time the man turned a fish, followed by plumes of steam.

We started with mussels at Frédéric’s suggestion. (I trusted the Frenchman would know what was best.) When the mussels met my lips I swooned at the perfect combination of white wine, garlic and butter. They hinted at their familiar earthy mushroom flavor but still tasted of the ocean.

A couple in their 80’s ran the outdoor restaurant, Frédéric explained. The wife worked the outdoor room, kissing guests on their cheeks, seating them at tables, talking about the fresh fish and the new pieces of art sculptures in their gift shop. The husband sat at a table with an old metal till full of Euros as he made change for the servers. Everyone knew him and shouted out to him.

The hike was a distant memory as soon as our plates of fish arrived, accompanied with buttery potatoes and a grilled tomato. My fish, fully in tact, face and all, looked as though it was smiling, having fulfilled the measure of its creation.

Frédéric began asking us what birds we’d already seen in France. “Have you seen the Hoopoe? Did you get European Bee-eater? What about the Eagle Owl?”

Yes to all of those. Our week birding in the Languedoc area in the South of France the week prior with Philippa of Birding Languedoc garnered us a respectable list. Philippa had connected me with Frédéric a couple months earlier, but we hadn’t coordinated what birds we wanted to see before we arrived to the Camargue. By the time we met Frédéric, we’d already seen much of what he planned to show us.

To be honest, I didn’t mind. I was less focused on the birds and happy to just to eat my way around France, particularly in the form of cheese. Lots of cheese.

The Camargue

We drove to Le Vaccares to Le Salin de Giraud (the pink salt pans). There, we found the Les Flamants Roses or Greater Flamingos. Their bodies are white as compared to the coral pink American Flamingos that are found in the Caribbean, Yucatán peninsula and Bahamas. But when the Greater Flamingos spread their wings, you see their jelly bean pink. The water in the salt pans were rosy and looked as though I was in another world. It was as if a child had colored the water with a pink crayon and I smiled at the idea of the world winking at me for not being what I though it should be.

Les Baux de Provence

The next morning Frédéric announced,“Since you have already seen most of the birds I was planning to show you, we will instead begin our day with Provençal culture.”

He led us to Les Baux de Provence, a medieval hillside village in the Alpilles mountains. We hiked a trail that wrapped around the hill and led us up to the village’s cobblestone pedestrian streets. We sat at a café overlooking Provence’s symphony of greens; apricot orchards, almond orchards and vineyards. I knew our visit to France was supposed to be a birding trip, but I was perfectly content sipping my Orangina and eating a pain au chocolate. I preferred this view of Provence over a hike in search for birds.

Provence

We left Les Baux and Fréderic navigated us to the village of Eygalières, with its beautifully maintained ancient stone buildings, colored shutters and vines climbing the walls. Sitting under red umbrellas at a café we ate samplings of goat and ewe cheeses accompanied with olive tapanade atop toasted baguette toasts. As our salads of greens, charcuterie, cheese, tomatoes, honeyed viniagarette and pine nuts arrived, Frédéric asked us what we did for a living.

“Oh, where do I work?” I asked.

“That is different,” he said. “In France we have a saying: ‘On perd sa vie a la gagner.’ “It translates to ‘One loses his life by earning it,’ or another way to say is, ‘Earning a living is winning your life.’ You can choose to work for a living or live to work.”

I reached for the last bit of goat cheese and toast, not sure what I was doing. Was I working? Was I living? We were in week two of our trip and I had cleared my head of meetings, emails, projects and writing persuasive internal communications to employees who always seemed to be unhappy about one thing or another. As a writer I made words my career for over thirty years and mostly used those words to inform and persuade. But I couldn’t say I was winning my life. It felt more like a chore. And I resented the fact that I was thinking about my corporate job here in this lovely little postcard village in Provence.

Eygalières

Steve broke the silence and said he was retired. I answered that I wrote communications for a big company then I shoved a big forkful of salad into my mouth to end the topic.

Pear tree orchard

After lunch Frédéric navigated as Steve drove us to a location where Frédéric swore us to secrecy. “There is a Bonelli’s Eagle nest there and we want to protect it,” he explained. “You cannot share where this is.” We assured him we would honor that and we drove for an hour past vineyards and turned onto a dirt road near a grove of pear trees near a mountain cliff. After a short walk Frédéric pointed out a nest on the cliff’s edge. He set up his scope where we could see two juvenile eagles on the nest made of branches and twigs. One was at the back of the nest while the other stood at the front, stretching its legs and practiced flapping its wings. The parents were nowhere to be found and we could hear the young eagle at the front calling, begging for food. Though, it was the parents we wanted to get good looks at.

“I’m going to walk down a ways,” Frédéric said. You two stay here with the scope and let me know if you see anything. We scanned the skies for eagles and after awhile, I was tired of standing and laid on the ground on my back, looking up at the sky through the branches of a pear tree. I thought more about Frédéric’s question from lunch. I thought of the man and woman in their eighties running their restaurant full of joy and love for others. I thought of Frédéric and how he overcame a frightening injury to still pursue his passion.

But me? How would I lose my life by earning it? I wondered if I was working for a living or living to work. And if it was the latter, what did I want to live for? Do I earn a living to have things? To pay bills? Or do I earn my life? The French have expressions that always seem like a riddle to me, I thought, and I couldn’t help trying to untangle the riddle under that pear tree.

“They’re here!” Steve shouted. I got to my feet and looked up to the sky and there they were. The male and female Bonelli’s Eagles. Their long, slender dark wings splayed out from their cream-colored bodies as they soared. They took turns bringing food to the nest. The female—the larger of the two—even returned with another stick for the nest. They would occasionally perch on the side of the cliff and then go off to look for rabbits and partridges to bring back to the nest.

I followed the eagles with my binoculars, scanning from the male then to the female and then back to the nest. “Wow!” I said to no one in particular. These eagles have purpose, I thought. They work to live. Every action they do is to survive and help their young to survive. For the bird world it’s simple: Get food, avoid predators and don’t die. But sometimes they soar. They take to the skies and find a thermal that lifts them higher or flit around in the breeze for no apparent reason except to enjoy it. I’ve seen birds play in the wind. I needed to find that breeze that would lift me up.

Frédéric came running back to us. “Did you see them?”

“Yes!” I said with a big smile. “Thank you for bringing us here to see this. Merci!”

* * *

After returning from France I found myself on a plane again, but traveling to my company’s headquarters for work. I met team members who I’d never seen in person, shook lots of hands, took meetings, sat through endless PowerPoint presentations and met people for coffee, lunch and dinner because relationships are important to a job. I soon caught up with the rumors of restructuring and it made me nervous.

When I returned home I kept watching our stock price fall and I found myself not sleeping the nights before I had meetings with new leadership. My workload continued to seep into my weekends and evenings and then four months later it happened. After 18 years at the company where I had worked, I was let go.

It wasn’t personal they told me. It was just restructuring. But it still stung. Working as a communications professional for over 30 years was part of who I was and I immediately felt lost. In one moment that identity, my routine, my income, my community and my future plans all disappeared.

As I packed up my personal items from my office, I came across a postcard picture of an area in the South of France. It was propped up next to my computer monitor for over two years in anticipation of our trip to France. Moments of our time in Provence swirled in my mind. The Bonelli’s Eagles, the mussels, the 80-year-old husband and wife who exuded joy as they ran their restaurant. I remembered all the cheeses I ate, the view of Provence from Les Baux and that frustrating hike through overgrown brambles as Frédéric forged a path with bloodied legs toward a little shack.

There is a path forward, I realized as I carried out my box of belongings. What will I find? I don’t know. I’ll see when I get there.

On perd sa vie a la gagner.


Interested in a birding tour of the Camargue and Provence region? Our guide, Frédéric Bouvet can be reached at Bureau de Guides Naturalistes.

(We did not receive any compensation, perks or anything in exchange for this post or during our stay. Our review and comments about our experience here are genuine.)