When my French husband and I considered moving to Provence from New York City, the determining factor was the house we would find. We had toyed with the idea for a year, looking at properties while both working in Manhattan high-rises. I’d go to one of the windows and gaze out at Park Avenue far below and imagine just fields. It was when we took a weekend trip to Provence to visit properties that we stumbled on the house we would call home.
We first visited a lovely French home, fenced in by vines on all sides. We loved the landscape and the remoteness of the property, but didn’t love the house itself. We asked the broker if she had anything older and with a bit more room for visitors. She squinted and looked in a specific direction and told us she had something we should see. Same village and a bit higher than our price point. We wanted to see it.
We drove not 5 minutes and down a gravel path. Big trees lined the property and a row of tall cypress trees met us as we approached. It was the first weekend in April, a glorious time in Provence. The property was bursting with blossoms - a cherry tree, an apricot just next to it and a pear tree. A proper olive grove with 25 trees was there just behind the blossoming fruit trees. We were speechless just wandering through the yard.
Then we entered the house. It is a Bastide from the 1600s, with two mammoth plane trees planted just in front - 400-years-old, like keepers of a great place. It was. We wandered through the rooms - vaulted ceilings on the ground floor, a stone staircase with steps our 2-year old at the time would find hard to climb, burgundy tomettes (tiles) on the floors, embossing and paintings above the doorways on the second floor. We just knew. We made an offer the same day, neither having quit our jobs nor having put our house on the market in Harlem.
Seven years later, we live in this house and we feel it is a character in our lives, part of our family. I think of leaving it and I feel the pain of someone who is in love contemplating the loss of that love. Our house has lived so many lives and we know we are fortunate and temporary participants in its narrative. The house will live on long after us, long after our children. The house has great bones. Bones that make decorating a very simple and difficult task all at once. We’ve danced the line between letting the beautiful details be and adding the stuff of life.
The French use a verb that has no proper equivalent in English (or perhaps no real cultural equivalent): “Profiter.” If you look it up, you might find “take advantage” or “to enjoy.” After seven years in Provence, I have had a blessed education in the art of ‘profiter’ and now understand just what a French friend means when she says about someone, “Elle ne sait même pas comment s’asseoir avec un café. Elle ne sait pas profiter.” (She doesn’t even know how to sit and drink a cup of coffee. She doesn’t know how to ‘profiter’).
The art of a home in Provence is ruled by the ability to sit, close one’s eyelids, breathe in the aroma of coffee (or steamed asparagus, or the delicate perfume of a lemon blossom) and just be still in the pleasure itself. The decoration of a home in Provence (particularly an ancient one, pregnant with the charm of the region) revolves around this notion.
I’ve thought through 4 things we do faithfully to enhance the beauty of our home. They are simple, Provence-inspired, but could be applied anywhere. The French in the south of France have understood one great thing: pleasure in the most natural and everyday things. Cut flowers, a beautifully set table, seasonal fruits and vegetables - plants left to flesh out in their abundant form.
1) Cut Flowers
It is so simple, but a habitual show of cut flowers throughout the house - especially from the garden or wild walks outside - brings so much beauty and abundance into any space. I love to cut lilacs, roses, lavender and blossoms from the fruit trees, fill small vases and containers and deliver them to the bedrooms, the bathrooms, mantels, desks. When guests stay, I make sure each has a small vase filled with flowers next to their bed. I like to use many different kinds of vessels as vases: clay pitchers, beautiful glasses, jars, vintage champagne buckets...
A great pleasure about living in Provence is attending antique markets. Our house is ripe for a selection from any of these markets and it has been a continual source of excitement to find new additions to fill the space. My French husband has a very good eye.
We found these 19th century medicinal plant frames at an antique dealer in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and we both knew just the spot in our house. (Most of the items in these rooms are also antique finds).
Hats and baskets! The hat hanging above the hooks is the traditional straw hat of Provence. The hanging light is an antique enamel fixture. The hanging wooden board is a current price list from a French grocer circa 1940.
This gold-leafed mirror is a common find at any good antique show. We loved its elongated form for this small nook. The bantam glass vase hung on the wall is a special one (spotted by my husband).
Antique markets often feature tiny frames (containing vintage photos). While it is charming to keep the old photos for an antique flair, I like to remove them and replace them with tiny prints of our own photographs and artwork.
A vintage gumball machine from the 50's adds a splash of color to our kitchen and I don't think we've ever had a guest who didn't remark on it (their children even more so).
We also love to comb through paintings for sale at an antique show. This one, painted in 1920's features a section of the Côte d'Azur we know well.
The yard is also a lovely place to feature a special find at an antique market. I found this vintage 60's parasol at a brocante in Paris and brought it back home with me on the train. It is one of my favorite pieces. Perfect for the evening apéritif in the warmer months.
Sizable antique pots add complexity to the front of a house. When we first bought these pots, I dreamt of growing jasmine that would stretch and arch over the doorways that line the ground floor of our house. Today, the jasmine is abundant and mature. From May until July the jasmine blooms and its perfume fills the house as we open the shutters in the morning.
Small pots are a pleasure to keep as well. I've filled many tiny pots with hens and chicks and they thrive outdoors here all year long.
4) The art of the table
When it comes to savoring life, (profiter), the time spent around a table becomes treasured.
In Provence, from May until October, we eat our meals outside, the soft light of the evening fades and the cicadas serenade our dinners. A table teeming with candles is the perfect invitation for guests to linger.
We love to set a table in an unlikely spot on the property and host a dinner party there. Guests feel transported when taken out of a traditional dining room or patio.
The art of carefully setting a table before a meal is the perfect foundation for the act of savoring (profiter). Candles lit, glasses ready for wine, a beautiful tablecloth...and seasonal food.
Tie it all together and it looks like this: bountiful flowers, antique accents, a beautiful table, wine served and a decadent raspberry tart waiting.
Emilie Johnson and her family are based near Aix-en-Provence. She can be found on instagram at @emilie_johnson_joly