Meet me in St-Rémy: Julie Mautner guides Americans to Provence
Birthplace to history’s greatest know-it-all, Nostradamus, the town of St-Rémy-de-Provence is only about 20km south of Avignon. Probably the town’s most famous “recent” visitor was Van Gogh who spent a year from May1889 as a self-admitted patient at the Saint-Paul Asylum, where he coined the phrase, “You don’t have to be crazy to stay here, but it helps”, and painted by day his famous work The Starry Night. (The latter is estimated to be worth over $100 million and the former – priceless.)
Yet for most Americans, St-Rémy is not a destination on the Provence map, or as alluring as say Cannes or Monaco. So just how did Julie Mautner, 54, end up in this small French village with a population hovering around 10,000?
Julie Mautner at a château-cum-apartment building in St-Rémy-de-Provence
Unlike Van Gogh, Julie arrived in St-Rémy under happier and healthier circumstances. In 1998 she took a two-week photography class in St-Rémy and became smitten with the area. She knew she had to come back somehow. At the time she was living in New York but that trip to France changed her view of the Big Apple.
“I love New York but I fell for the peace and tranquility that I found in St-Rémy. I wanted to be around nature again in a way that you can’t easily access when living in New York.”
Van Gogh's The Starry NightFortunately, Julie was then working as a freelance writer so the possibility of picking up and moving to another country was a little more feasible than had she been chained to an office chair.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Julie received her journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin and spent the following fifteen years in Chicago before working as a magazine editor of food magazines in New York, and eventually becoming founding editor of Food Arts Magazine. With such a professional background in food, it seems inevitable that she would find her way to France. Like many expats, Julie originally thought she would stay for a few months but has ended up calling the area home. She recalls nervously signing a lease for her first French apartment, which was a standard three-year agreement, as she was certain that she wouldn’t be staying that long. Nearly fourteen years later, she’s still in the same apartment.
Even though she loved the peace and serenity of her new home, moving from a city of eight million to a town of ten thousand required a little life tweaking.
Van Gogh’s room at the Monastère Saint-Paul-de-Mausole where he painted The Starry Night. Photo: Marianne Casamance“There were everyday adjustments like shopping to the big cultural differences … and, of course, not speaking the language.”
Driving was one of the biggest changes for Julie. Even now, she finds the French very aggressive behind the wheel and instructs friends and visitors to be nonplussed by the way drivers will honk on local roads telling the slower out-of-towners to get out of the way.
Closing times for shops also took some getting used to, especially after having lived in New York where almost everything is available at any hour. “There are very distinct morning and afternoon periods. You have to plan your day around the mid-afternoon closures as well as get used to the limited opening hours on the weekend at the post office and bank.”
One aspect Julie admits she hasn’t fully adapted to is the language. “I still struggle with the language even though I operate in French. Each year it gets easier and better though.” She admits to enlisting the help of friends who speak better French when she’s in a real pinch.
After her first trip to France on the photography course, Julie stayed in touch with one of the French teachers from the course. That teacher decided to open up a hotel catering to photographers and artists. Julie came over for the opening and that’s when she made the leap to stay.
Rue de la Commune Photo courtesy of OT St-Rémy-de-Provence
In 2011, a travel agent phoned her to help plan activities for an American group coming over to France. She loved the work and decided to launch Provence Post Travel (www.theprovencepost.blogspot.fr), which arranges vacation packages in Provence and the Côte d’Azur. While most visitors are familiar with the coast, few are aware of how stunning the interior can be. Sharing lesser-known corners of beauty with others is what Julie loves about being a travel planner. It also gives her the excuse to better discover the area. “I can get in my car and even though I’ve been living here for thirteen years, in half an hour I can find something that gives me a new joy of the region.”
Fête de la Transhumance Photo courtesy of OT St-Rémy-de-ProvenceOne such recent find was the winter truffle market in the village of Richerenches, north of Avignon. The Saturday morning market is held from mid-November until the end of March. “I went for the first time a few weeks ago and loved it. The smell of the truffles hits you even before you set foot into the market.” Every weekend truffles worth tens of thousands of dollars are sold out of vans and cars, along with everything from truffle saplings to truffle hunting hounds.
American tourists enjoy visits like the Richerenches market because, as Julie points out, “They really love how the French embrace tradition.” Plus there is just so much visible and tangible history in the area. “They respect how the French revere their history.” And like many a tourist before them, they’re pleasantly surprised at how the stereotype of the snobby Frenchman is not the norm where she lives.
Les Antiques Photo courtesy of OT St-Rémy-de-Provence
An ideal Sunday in St-Rémy for Julie is meeting friends for coffee at the friendly Café de la Place, followed by a sunny, leisurely lunch of moules frites at Café du Nord au Sud (27 quai du Général de Gaulle, 04 66 59 02 55), one of the canal-front cafés in Beaucaire, about 15 minutes west of St-Rémy. Even though they serve a full menu Julie always goes for the moules, prepared in a variety of ways and served in a large crock with terrific fries and bread for dipping. All for €12-€13, plus you get a great view of the rag-tag collection of boats that come down the canal from all over Europe.
With no plans of moving in the near future, Julie describes St-Rémy as “very special”. “I’m extremely happy and this is the place for me. I still have the feeling that I’m on vacation.”