Our Little Secret

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One of the most positive aspects of living in Houston, TX is that with almost year-round high temperatures, you don’t mind escaping to someplace a little chillier for a holiday. The off-season then, is one of our best friends. It isn’t so painful to pack a heavy coat and hat when you know that upon your return in a week or so, you’ll be back in shorts and shirtsleeves.

A few years back, we took a trip to Southern France in February. The little villages where we stayed along the Côte d’ Azur were mostly shuttered, no tourists milling about, most of the restaurants closed. We were upgraded at every hotel we booked. Why not? It wasn’t as if anyone else was there, anyway. Sure, we needed jackets and the wind was brisk off the water. The streets were mostly stark and our choices for a bite to eat were few and far between. But it felt like our own private town.

Every night, the bistros (those that remained open) filled with locals. There was raucous shouting in French as a small TV was wheeled out to watch a nearby soccer game. All eyes were riveted toward the screen, patrons standing up and pulling their tables and chairs close, closer, so that it was almost impossible to walk around or get up safely to find the bathroom without tripping over someone’s foot or falling into someone’s lap.

But it was congenial, and the atmosphere contained a sense of camaraderie that is usually absent in these tourist haunts. My partner and I felt as though we had stumbled upon a big secret, that we were seeing the village for how it really was, and not with the glittering cosmopolitan and expensive facade it wore when the sun came out and holiday-makers arrived in droves.

And so, we traipsed from one village to the next, visited one landmark and then another, villas and gardens and perfumeries and vineyards. And every place was its own little treat, small sleepy places that would be unrecognizable come warmer weather. At a wine tasting, a chef from a Michelin-starred restaurant dropped in to share a glass or two from the bottle we sampled. At one bistro, our server sat down at the table next to us, had a glass of wine and chatted on her phone in nimble French for ten minutes before even bothering to put in our order. We found a fishing village and ate oysters until I was sick, and then became lost outside a horse farm, with seemingly no internet service anywhere, our only guide the water in the distance that hugs the whole of Southern France.

It wasn’t the scene that one usually thinks of when imagining this place. The mega yachts were not yet in residence, the lifestyles of the rich and famous had not yet arrived for the season. But in our eyes, it was … perhaps, better? More private, surely, and in some ways it felt more exclusive. We were seeing “behind the curtain” as it were, and we were privy to the coast’s secrets. When there was no one to impress, these extravagant locations were not only affordable, but quaint and quiet. The streets were bare, the locals sunbathed (mostly nude or nearly) in any weather at all that offered sunshine. It seemed like the off-season was the time when they were able to reclaim their town from visitors, make it theirs again. And so, our time on the coast felt a little clandestine, a little special, and all ours.

So here’s to the off-season – perhaps our favorite time to explore.

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