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January 8, 2023

A letter from far away in France

7:35 a.m. at the coffee shop
The snow painted our picturesque Laurentian town all white overnight. When I open my eyes, I am five years old and want to go outside.
– “Mom, where are my boots? And my mittens and my blue wool scarf?”

The snow makes me think back to a time in my childhood when we carved out snow blocks in the snow to build a fort. My brother oversaw the operations while us girls had to carefully listen to his instructions or we’d get a snowball in the neck. Bobby, like my dad used to call him, was the champion of winter projects. And his specialty was igloos, in which he would sometimes imprison me when I teased him one too many times.

I still clearly remember one particular winter day. My brother and I were building an enormous snowman. The snow was wet and it was easy to roll into two big balls which we were going to use to make a large figure just like Dad’s. That’s right! We were creating a snowman version of our dad, whom my brother enjoyed teasing; I in turn enjoyed teasing my brother.

I had just helped him place one of the huge snowballs on top of the other when my brother’s body started to shake. He was squeezing his thighs and doubling over like he really had to go. Apparently he couldn’t wait, because before I could say anything, I saw a reddish liquid shoot straight out of him, staining the immaculate white snow. My brother was waving his arms wildly, screaming in terror. He thought he had been struck by some illness.

It turns out, Mr. Know-It-All didn't know that when you eat beets, your urine turns a similar colour. How could he have known? The pain from mom’s eczema-blistered hands had abated enough to allow her to garden that summer. And the delicious red-brown beets were just one of the many things we had recently discovered.

8:45 a.m.
This week at the head office, I received a letter from a little-known area in France. The sender was congratulating me on my French Canadian prose. The return address indicated “Gordes,” which I had to look up on Google.
Population: 1,670 habitants
Last census: 2019
Density: 35 habitants/km2
Area: 48.4 km
Altitude: 373 m
Founded in 1031

Gordes is ranked among the most beautiful villages in France. Its distinguishing feature is its location: perched high atop a mountain and visible from far, far away. Seen from the foot of the mountain, it gives the impression that it has been standing guard over the valley since forever. Good heavens, where is that? Google, help me again! “The village of Gordes is a French commune located in the Vaucluse department of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.” Distance Paris-Gordes: 718.8 kilometres
8 hours and 5 minutes by car
Car rental: 16 euros/day

Apoline Duschesne, the author of the letter, wants to know more about me. Her daughter is a teacher living in the province of Quebec and reads my weekly Sunday letters, which she then shares with her mother. Having retired from journalism 20 years ago, Appoline misses the written word. Without much preamble, she tells me that she wants to do what I do: WRITE.

Apolline wants to empty her mind of the 30 years of news she has chronicled. She wants to change her life and change her style. She begs me to explain how I am able to enjoy such a close, honest and generous relationship with my readers as I recount stories of my life.

10:28 a.m.
Dear Apolline, your letter touches me deeply. We are probably about the same age. After many years of hard work, I stopped my management activities at the business I built in 2018. Fourteen months later, a nasty virus spread around the globe. Locked up in my house, I was eventually asked to write a weekly letter to our wonderful customers, which would be posted on the Cora restaurants Facebook page. And so our customers began to read my Sunday letters. My initial intent was to simply encourage them to keep up their spirits as the pandemic overturned our worlds.

Without realizing it, all the sorrow and frustrations I felt in my new retired life disappeared. I dare say, dear Apolline, that WRITING saved my life. Writing each day has become my ritual for happiness. My heart opened up by talking directly to my readers.

Each day I explore the present, the surprising everydayness of life such as going for a drive in the mountains, visiting the market, browsing a new bookstore or simply pedalling faster on my new stationary bike.

I usually write 4 or 5 hours each day, often at the coffee shop or sitting at my kitchen table while listening to baroque music. A wise man, whose name I forget, once told me that listening to baroque music helps you write. I also admit to taking a midday nap on the couch in the library for one or two hours, a thick mask covering my eyes.

I read the rest of the time. I learn or search for new words that call to me. Since I started writing regularly, most of my money goes to purchasing bestsellers, how-to books and magazines of all kinds. They have now far surpassed the cost of all my colourful clothes, scarves, shoes and trinkets I wear on my clothes or in my hair.

There, you have it, my dear Apolline. I know you will succeed in finding a new voice. Every human in its own way represents a ground to be cleared, a story to be told, a future to be sown. And maybe one day, in the commune of Gordes, I will have the wonderful opportunity to visit the Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey with you.