Suggested Song: The Human Touch, Bruce Springsteen
Suggested Drink: Communion cocktail: vodka, creme de menthe, orange juice, grenadine syrup

It was billed as “The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment,” and the local event was held in a large grassy park in my hometown of Aix-en-Provence. This is what happened. I arrived soon after lunch to find 3 dozen or so people already paired up, sitting on cushions and facing one another, relaxed and concentrating on their partner’s eyes, and not uttering a peep. This trance would hold for a few minutes, then after warm smiles and a short debrief they would part and seek out someone new, … someone like me.

Fixing on a stranger’s eyes for a sustained moment without conversing is an intense, slightly disconcerting experience at first. Nicolas was my initial victim. I’ve never fixed on another man’s eyes for 2 minutes in silence. What should I be expressing and how do I do that without uttering a sound? It’s the opposite of mindfulness. You’re not focused internally on breath and body, you’re connecting externally and personally, and there is an odd intimacy that is unavoidable. The mind searches for the appropriate decorum. How to convey empathy but not attraction with only my gaze?

Lily was next. She was a different person of course and the opposite gender, and I was now experienced (as Jimi would say). I was curious to see if that changed things, started to relax, and could lock eyes without overthinking my presence and demeanor. From Nicolas I received a gentle vibe of curiosity and outreach, and with Lily it was a simple acceptance. Here I am facing you. There is nothing more important at this very moment than our simple bond. We are going to just connect in silence and relax, … friendly smile.

I sat with a few more people before leaving. Each exchange was unique and quietly profound, and required a moment to reflect and recompose before moving on to someone new. The point of this event, held that day in dozens of cities across the globe, was to appreciate afresh the wonders of genuine human connection. Not through a carefully manicured iPhone photo or social media stream, but across a naked space of perhaps 3 feet, separating you from a stranger offering 100% of their attention, deeply, for a few minutes. Beautiful.

The Need for Speed

I have a few friends on Tinder. I’ve gotten the demo: the wow Bill, the check this one out, their swipe, the immediate response and plans for an evening dalliance. It’s an ultimate end to the trend in speed and effortlessness that has taken root these past many years. Why spend time in the kitchen when gourmet options are available in your frozen section? Why learn to play a guitar with real strings when you can be the next Slash with Guitar Hero? Why learn to commune with friends in person when you can socialize over the phone, still in your boxers at home? And why learn to love when sex is available with the ease of a swipe?

Am I showing my age when I say that this leaves me more than a little sad, … and confused? What don’t people get? The joy of cooking is more than a classic recipe book. Art offers even more to the creator than the consumer. The beauty of friendship is most deeply enjoyed elbow to elbow (and glass to glass!), … without ringtones. And love, well the gulf between sex and love is as wide as the ocean is deep. It’s like comparing a Big Mac to the Colours, Textures & Flavours course at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris.

Personally, I shoot for the human touch trifecta by inviting good friends for long dinners prepared throughout the afternoon in my modest kitchen. And for this they get a proper torturing after dessert with a few new songs on my trusty guitar or piano. Food, friends, music, perfecto!

Life is short. Why rush through it? Dive deep and linger over what you create, when you connect, and whom you love.

For more on the “The World’s Biggest Eye Contact Experiment” click here.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Hello, Goodbye, the Beatles
Suggested Drink: Memory Lane cocktail: rye whisky, shrub, bitters, lemon juice

Goodbyes can be hard and I’ve had an avalanche of them this year. Friends, kids, and lovers moving on, cherished apartments given up, and even my daily out-door market moved from the bottom of the street to across town. Now that really hurt. Adios.

This kind of churn wreaks havoc on the daily agenda. Whom I see when, where, and what it is we do together has been upended, and being a creature of habit I am off my game. The creative well is dusty, productivity down, and motivation flagging. My summer rosé pace remains robust and thank god for that. At least I can point to something that’s trending up.

It all started near year-end with that darn Sottak family. After holding court as provocateurs and organizers of all things social and immensely fun amongst our circle for the past 7 years, they decided to call it a French day and skedaddle back to the US. They were the glue and warm glow that pulled us all together for spontaneous apéros and long family dinners, group holidays to hither and tither, fun and frolic and generally irresponsible licentiousness. That they could not be replaced made their move even more unforgiveable.

Then over the Noel holidays my landlord sent a cryptic email that a dinner in January was welcome, … and needed. He needed to sell the apartment that was my welcome matt to Aix-en-Provence in 2010, a small but noble 17th century flat in the heart of this sun-touched, provincial city. So many memories between those walls: my 3 kids and their friends joyfully spread out amongst the cots and daybed and pullout; the communal meals and singing and supporting and debating and always one more bottle; mon amoure at my breakfast table, her perfume lingering for hours after departure. Another difficult goodbye.

More recently good friends of mine in Aix have decided to get divorced. They are managing it with all the love and respect that a beautiful 13-year marriage deserves, but it leaves me sad and deflated. My reaction is purely selfish of course, as they both seem fine and taking on the change with a positive, forward-facing attitude. I see a farewell to the many delicious memories we’ve shared these past 7 years, two of my closest friends imagined as forever a unit and couple.

I will continue to see them separately of course, but between their news and my own recent breakup, and my daughter packing up last week after a final long summer with Dad (growing up and college bound next year), and the Sottak departure, and the apartment move, … 2017 is becoming one long goodbye to an intimately warm and beautiful era.

Coping

Goodbye and Hello are funny words. One starts with a positive syllable but is often a distressing experience, while the other begins with a foreboding term but is typically hopeful and uplifting. Weird. Hello to new people in our lives, hello to new places.

The best we can do with empty space is to enjoy its serenity. Our daily lives are filled with turbulence, and a momentary calm can be soothing and restorative. An empty home is a clean slate, and an empty heart, once healed, open for new and beautiful souls to discover.

I’m keeping my hellos to a minimum through this transition, leaning toward the zen hermit mode and a few faithful friends. Stay busy and switch up the hours regularly. Avoid the routines that tug out warm memories. Run at dawn, write into the night, then write at dawn and run late. Travel on impulse, an evening in Italy or weekend in Paris. Keep the overnight bag at the ready. Staying off balance seems to offset the imbalance of these various goodbyes. I can’t explain why, but it’s working.

I’m hoping that all of your goodbyes are as warm and tender as mine. That doesn’t lessen the sting, but eases the recovery.

Enjoy the rest of the summer. It will be saying goodbye all too soon.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Sunny Afternoon, the Kinks
Suggested Drink: 2015 La Rose Des Ventes rosé, Cotes de Provence

Your author hard at work.
Your author hard at work.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and hopefully someone is working. Are you? Because I’m floating around a placid lake in the south of France with a few friends, enjoying the Mediterranean sun and warm breeze and a bottle or two of Provence rosé. We forgot to bring plastic cups so have dissected small water bottles into goblet pairs. Amazing how creative one can get with a bold thirst and Swiss Army knife.

We’ve rented two small electric powered boats; one for the adults and one for our teen daughters. They’ve set out up the gorge in search of flirtatious mischief and a discreet cove to probably smoke something tucked into a bikini bottom. They would deny all of this of course.

We watch from a receding distance and putter along leisurely, recounting our own tales of youth and sharing details that only great friends care to hear. There is no rush, … to go where? … to power aggressively through one of the most stunning river systems in Europe, the beautiful Gorges du Verdon at the southern base of the French Alps, with its limestone cliffs carving dramatically down into the cool turquois-green water? The good lord was having a inspired day when she cast this spot.

It is a small boat, a lazy pace, and a best-of-friends moment. The sun is bronzing our shoulders from a pastel blue Cezanne sky. Are you working, keeping the wheels of industry turning, the flows of the economy flowing, craving that rush hour drive home in your fabulous gleaming Tesla or BMW or whatever the driven class drive these days? I truly hope so, because the world needs you. We float in our 15-foot rental and praise you, we toast you with another pour of the bottle. God bless you.

First mate with an engineered goblet
First mate with an engineered goblet

We’ll gather with our girls in an hour to share a simple late lunch of smoked salmon and lettuce sandwiches in poppy seed baguettes, and local Provence cherries and strawberries from the market this morning. It’s hot but we have lots of water and plentiful ice for the wine, and now the carved-up plastic cups. All is good. All is really good actually.

This makes me think about the goings on in my old stomping grounds of San Francisco. Tom Perkins died there last week. He was an originator and titan of Silicon Valley’s venture capital industry and amassed a great, great fortune investing in companies like Genentech and Tandem Computers. Perkins was a man of big appetites and had commissioned the 289-foot clipper the Maltese Falcon (at that time the world’s largest private sailing yacht). He must have enjoyed some amazing times on that massive beast, champagning the biggest celebrities, wooing the hottest models (just saying it’s possible), traversing the oceans blue. Well perhaps not too much free time for traversing blue oceans. That high-gain, high-burn vc lifestyle doesn’t tend to pair well with extended, low-stress getaways. Unlikely he’d have been caught dead on our dingy, drinking discount wine out of MacGyvered cups. We would have enjoyed having him aboard I think. What an exchange.

I think about Perkins and his accomplished life while bobbing around on this warm serene day, chilled rosé in hand. I hope he died a happy man, with that keen knack for moneymaking and great talent for toy buying: the boats and Bugatti collection and massive homes. He probably did, what do you think? Maybe he got buried in one of his Bugattis, that would be cool. Who said you can’t take it with you? He did get touchy about his wealth status near the end, writing that the rich in America were being unfairly persecuted in a manner last visited on the Jews in Nazi Germany. It’s a weird paradox: the more we have, the less willing we are to share it. Money is like that, cocaine is like that, rosé with good friends isn’t like that.

How’s that commute going?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: The Ties that Bind, Bruce Springsteen
Suggested Drink: Domain Saint Aix rosé (hey, it’s almost summer!)

I’m back in the U.S. for 3 weeks. I always miss home when traveling, but I’m sharing fun times with people I love, mixing in a bit of work that I enjoy, getting my fix of Americana like smoked BBQ and sweet tea and friendly waitresses who say darlin’, and staying in sunny locales with good wine and lively music. No need to reach for the Kleenex just yet.

My final day before departure was a list of last-minute to-dos that mark the approach of an extended trip: the laundry and ironing and packing, and discovery that my favorite shirts weren’t washed; the inventory of passports and boarding passes and U.S. bank cards that I use stateside; and a sit at the laptop to firm up flight times and can’t wait to see you soon emails.

AixStill, there was time to for a dose of my daily routine, first stop the outdoor market for flowers and strawberries, and surprised to find a good friend back from winter travels and manning a fruit stall. After promises of a longer follow up over drinks I popped over to the roasterie for a rich brew with my morning coffee clutch. We spent an hour discussing nothing more pressing than the current glorious weather, last night’s dinner menus, and who had the best produce at the market that day. I made a pitch for Maité’s berries: unbelievable.

I was back home in time to scratch out a short note (writing letters with a quality fountain pen on heavy parchment is pure indulgence) and a meander to the post for stamps. In a moment of clarity I decided that the ripe strawberries, bought for my incoming house/cat-sitters, would pair nicely with a split of French champagne or Italian prosecco . My guests would be arriving from California after all, so midday here would mean late night there and the combination sounded like a perfect antidote to their certain jetlag. Since my go-to wine shop was en route, I stopped for a recommendation from cave manager Carl and picked up a couple of bottles of rosé for the effort. A productive start to the day indeed.

Lunch and the afternoon followed with the requisite nap, two hours at the desk putting final touches on an upcoming Interprize workshop in Charlotte, a self administered (and poorly executed) yoga session, and a half hour or so at the piano to wind things down. I was considering a dinner of leftover pasta when the invite came to an impromptu garden apéro. The evening was spent chatting with friends and enjoying pan-fried veal cutlets, a spicy simmer of spring vegetables, a simple green salad tossed in truffle oil and lemon juice, and more than a few bottles of well-matched Cotes de Rhone.

My life in Provence is deeply rich, but without the wealth. It’s colorful, luscious, intemperate, unhurried and simple, and it thrives on connection and community. I might splurge on a Saturday night feast for a dozen good friends, then go a week without paying for a meal. We share a passion for food and entertain from our kitchens, comparing recipes and debating our favorite market stalls and butcher shops and cheese guys. With local Provence produce so inexpensive eating well doesn’t break the bank, especially with meals focused more on seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs and zesty Mediterranean spices, less on a dominant meat entree.

Our Aix circle is a varied mix of expats and natives, runaways and homecomers, bar browsers and homebodies, left-leaners and right-wingers, carnivores and vegetarians and pescetarians and flexitarians, hedonists and innocents and the malleable. Professionally we are a handful of struggling entrepreneurs and industry captains, writers and artists, engineers and admins and bartenders and merchants of mysterious unmentionables. In other words, all over the map in both income and accomplishment. Everyone is pursuing something purposeful but greater affluence is not the guiding principal; status not the binding glue. And this is the implicit thread that connects the group, I believe.

San Francisco1I’ll be touching down in San Francisco in the next 30 minutes and I’m excited. It’s a city of remarkable beauty, diversity, energy, and potential. It has also become a city of extremes and divisions, of unhealthy margins at both ends. The hyper-creative and hard-working tech tribe and the financial industry that funds them are driving an impress economic resurgence. They live from bonus check to options grant, dress their kitchens with high-end stoves and cookware, then eat out because, well, who has the time or energy to create in the kitchen? Mingling with the masses means chatting up the tattooed bartender or speaking broken Spanish with the housecleaner, but these folks are not getting put on the dinner invite list (which is a missed opportunity. Imagine the stories). There is a very tangible caste divide between the have-a-lots and the others in this city that cuts mostly across income and wealth.

To find the strongest currents in the deepest streams you have to move beyond surface illusions. I’m not at all adverse to money, just no longer willing to compromise my lifestyle and community for it. New possibilities open up along so many dimensions – where you live, what you do, with whom you love and commune – when you stop obsessing about the bank balance and status trajectory. I could be dead in a week. Fuck that.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested Song: Garden Party, Ricky Nelson
Suggested Drink: Strawberry basil margaritas: strawberries, lime, basil, tequila

A new spring edition of Bill’s fabulous adventures in Provence. It is easy to write about this time of the year, with the eager return to longer days, changes in the local farmers markets, and the resumption of warm weather rituals that most often center around drinks and socializing.

connectionI’ll start, though, with an epiphany of sorts: smart phone addiction is little different than other forms of unhealthy dependence, and the loss of its tickle in our pockets leads many of us through the same series of withdrawal emotions.

I suffered through 5 days sans connection recently. My iPhone went missing after a Saturday night of pronounced revelry at the restaurant Les Agapes in Aix. There was eating, there was drinking, there was singing and dancing, and my socket to the wireless ether vanished mysteriously through a wormhole of midnight excess. These things can happen when we’re having serious fun.

As the next day was a Sunday and the day after that had me on an early morning train to Paris, there was no time for quick replacement, so I resigned myself for a few days of unconnected disquietude. This I experienced:

  • Day 1, Sunday: denial, anger, depression, acceptance (that my phone was indeed gone, dammit)
  • Day 2, Monday: comprising, coping (through another day – this one traveling – without constant connectivity)
  • Day 3, Tuesday: observing, realizing (all the ways my smart phone distracts, demands attention, and eats up my precious life minutes)
  • Day 4, Wednesday: embracing, flourishing (the minutes and hours freed from uninterrupted connectivity and distraction)
  • Day 5, Thursday: denial, anger, depression, acceptance (that my new phone had arrived)

For a final word on this topic I defer to Prince Ea’s compelling recent video: Can we auto-correct humanity?

Artist: Jennifer Pochinski
Artist: Jennifer Pochinski

Back to the warming weather, we took advantage of longer daytime hours this past weekend to throw a casual dinner party in a friend’s garden. Spring training for the competitive season that will be in full swing by May. Creating an Aix-Mex menu from the spring vegetables in the local markets was challenging great fun, and with the aid of said friend’s massive grill we offered up fajitas of slow-roasted skirt steak (onglet to my local French butcher) and melt-in-your-mouth beef tongue, peppery gambas marinated in Italian lime and cilantro, papas con chorizo with spicy Spanish sausage, and an amazing Provençal inspired pico de gallo with local tomatoes (just starting to find their flavor now), green onions, and roasted chili peppers. Homemade cornbread and a just-from-the-oven chocolate cake filled out the menu. Yee haw.

All in there were 27 of us – half kids – enjoying this spring fling; no phones sitting on the table or gripped instinctively in needy hands. Just great conversation and catching up after the dark days of winter. Another bottle please. Life is short, the world is beautiful. Unplug, connect.

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence

Suggested song: Woodstock, Joni Mitchell (this is the CSN&Y rendition I love)
Suggested drink: Harvest Bell Lemonade, organic vodka, lemonade, basil, lemon slice, simple syrup

We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

Much is written on the merits of eating locally and seasonally. I’m a fan and advocate, and adopting this practice in Provence is easy and immensely pleasurable. The benefits of adapting to seasonal changes extend well beyond an evolving dinner plate, however. Acknowledging that we’re in the month of October, not May, and cooking and eating accordingly encourages us to consider nature and our environment; it inspires respect and empathy for the earth’s bounty and limits. In the age of hyper connectivity and globalized availability – Blueberries in December? No problem! – we lose this appreciation and are the worse for it.

My adult life has been largely enjoyed in San Francisco, where there are just 2 seasons really in the city proper: chilly, foggy season A (winters and summers) and glorious, less foggy season B (springs and falls). To be fair to the larger Bay Area, 15 minutes sunflowers2outside the city in any direction and the climate dynamics are wildly different.

Getting back to a full climate cycle was one of the many attractions I anticipated when moving to Provence. The changing seasons define life here beyond just weather, but also in ways edible, social, visual, and cultural. Provence is colored by brilliant summer yellows, somber winter greys, by fresh spring greens and fading autumn browns in all shades from blossom to decay. It is a cycle that keeps things in flow and evolving, changing in predictable patterns that echo previous seasons but never truly repeat. This cycle also ties us to our surrounds in ways more natural and organic, less artificial and technologic. And this is a very healthy thing: enriching, humbling, authenticating.

strawberries2Placed between the Alps and Mediterranean, Provence swings from bone chilling Januaries to sweltering Julys. This change stimulates a vast range of local fruits and vegetables, flowers and herbs, wines and oils and nuts. Local Gariguette strawberries and Charantais melons fill the market stalls with shades of orange and red – and pesky honeybees – through the warm summer days. The fields are ablaze with sunflowers and lavender. The aromas are inviting, seductive. During the darker months gourdes of every odd shape and size, and middle earth root vegetables like turnips and rutabagas inspire child-terrorizing recipes. Cool salad plates yield to steaming soup bowls. Sweet red and black raspberries give way to cepe mushrooms and the savage black truffle: formidable king of all French fungi.

roseOther selections on the Provence menu are seasonal as well. The café scene is vibrant year around, but the outdoor terrace reigns supreme for coffee and drinks in summer. Without outdoor seating your restaurant business is somewhere between anemic to 100 percent dead. Socializing with a cool glass of rosé or pastis in the early evenings under a warm Mediterranean sun is pure bliss. A light dinner of shared charcuterie, cheese and bread is plenty when the weather is still balmy at 10 p.m. And with the elegant baroque setting of Aix and beautiful pageantry on display why stay home, and when out why be inside?

The out/in seating bias evolves gradually to a complete 180° flip by year end, with those same terraces now the exclusive domain of a few weather-defiant smokers, bundled up for a shivering fix in heavy winter coats while the rest of us crowd into cozy, packed interiors, warmed by wood fired ovens, calming aperitifs, and simmering plates of delicious this or that. Summer nibbles and pale rosés give way to hearty menus and full-bodied reds. The winter din is unique to the season, the chatter amplified by the tight enclosed quarters, the espresso machines hissing, the waiters barking, the clatter of coffee cups and wine glasses and silverware being served or collected.

As the daylight hours dwindle and temperatures drop we start to entertain more at home and indoors. I struggle to find my Escoffier toque when the thought of sweating before a hot stove top in midsummer is the reward. By October there is no place I’d rather be. The changes in local produce at the outdoor markets give us a chance to mix up the dinner menu, the entrees, the wine selection and cocktail starters. What an opportunity to find harmony with the sun, moon, rain, wind, and dirt; with the terroir as they say in France. Respect for and adaption to our climate cycles is a sign of humility, a deference that is critical in this period of extreme climate events that reveals a nature mother aggravated by our false sense of control and hubris.

earthWe can choose to insulate ourselves from the natural world or embrace its messy chaos and diversity. We’re brimming with modern technologies that enable sterile, inert lives largely impervious to the seasons. Increasingly we encapsulate ourselves in the great digital bubble, plugged in to an endless and fascinating online universe that gives no hints of the natural world, the real world. And that’s our collective loss.

Our climate has become unhinged thanks to a global appetite for better lives, bigger homes, a car or 2 in the garage, and more stuff – in essence the “good life” – with ignorance (initially) and disregard (ultimately) for the ugly environmental impact of this pursuit. Isolating ourselves from the natural elements only widens the disconnect and exacerbates the problem. What’s on your menu tonight?

Bill Magill
Aix-en-Provence