food / travel

Meet Claude Monet's Master Gardener

Gilbert Vahé has devoted much of his life to the picturesque Claude Monet gardens in Giverny, a living legacy he not only preserved, but helped recreate.

The Japanese footbridge is the subject of some of Monet's best-known works (ohaoha)
The Japanese footbridge is the subject of some of Monet's best-known works (ohaoha)
Arianne Bavelier

How many gardeners would strip naked in front of their tomatoes to make them go red? If Gilbert Vahé had to, he would, without hesitation. This man, who has spent 35 years of his life recreating Monet's garden in Giverny, embodies the absolute devotion and passion that his unusual job requires.

Like Monet before him, Vahé goes to work in the garden every morning at 6 a.m. Dawn is the best time of day, he says, because it is "when the blue light of the night turns slowly into pink, shimmering on the dewy plants bordering the Seine and Epte rivers."

Vahé walks round the garden, pulls up a withered flower, watches the effects of time on short-lived flowers, and takes pictures week after week to follow the development of the garden's 56 flowerbeds. Simply put, he lives for Giverny.

It all happened quite naturally for Vahé, who has spent more years between the walls of the water garden and the Norman orchard, in front of Monet's pink house, than anywhere else. Ten times his wife has come close to divorcing him. She hates Claude Monet. Once she even booked a flight, to drag him away from the garden. But at the very last minute he chose to stay. "How can I do this job without giving my all? This is a question of honor!" he exclaims.

When Vahé arrived in Giverny in 1977, the impressionist master had been dead for 50 years. After visiting Giverny with the painter himself, Georges Truffaut described Monet's garden in his magazine Jardinage as "the most beautiful work of art by Claude Monet, a work of art that he savored for 40 years and which has given him his greatest moments of joy." When Vahé arrived, there was nothing left. The Norman orchard had become a forest, the bridge had collapsed, wisteria was piled up on the ground and the banks of the water garden were destroyed by coypus.

Gérald Van der Kemp, chief curator of the Château de Versailles at the time, was getting ready to leave Louis XIV's castle to revive Monet's garden himself. On a recommendation, he hired Vahé to help carry out the monumental task. Far from convinced, Vahé agreed to assist - for a while anyway.

"When Mr. Van de Kemp offered a me job in Giverny, I thought I would stay there one year," says Vahé, laughing. "What could I have to do with that royalist socialite? In May 1968 I'd been throwing cobblestones in the streets." He remembers their first meeting at Versailles. "It turned out that I loved working with him. Together, we created two gardens dedicated to Monet in Japan."

Van der Kemp has a passion for two things: painting and flowers. He gives free rein to both in his attempts to understand Monet's garden. Vahé learned how to read his impulses - and curb those he found inappropriate.

"Van der Kemp and Monet were separated by one generation. Van der Kemp wanted to plant double flowers, precious flowers, which fitted his dandy lifestyle but which did not fit the atmosphere that emanates from Giverny," says Vahé.

Looking for clues, trusting your gut

"He was constantly battling with me for three years because he wanted to wear a red carnation on his lapel every morning. I did not want to plant red carnations in the garden. I finally planted some in the greenhouses just so he would leave me alone!"

The decade-long job of recreating the garden was ruled by instinct. Without Monet there to instruct them directly, Vahé and Van der Kemp sought clues in photos, paintings and from interviews with the master painter's descendants.

"We found a description of Monet's garden written by Truffaut, letters written by Monet before going on a trip in which he gave details about what varieties should be planted and how. But our research was not very fruitful. We only understood that Monet's imagination was fueled by sensations," says Vahé.

Taming the water garden was easy. And today, visitors still take pictures of it. The mystery of Monet's garden is the Norman orchard: measuring 9,175 square meters, it features splashes of color, colors in relief, and light that changes throughout the seasons. Vahé defines it as "the painter's palette." The gardener recreates that palette in the flowerbeds, making cold colors move toward warm colors, blue towards yellow. He chooses cones instead of lines and adds light touches to shady zones.

Even if he has passed down his knowledge to 10 of his colleagues – some of them have been working with him for 15 years – Vahé is the only one to have such a thorough knowledge of the secrets of Monet's garden. At some point, however, enough is enough. On June 1, the master gardener will finally retire. Mostly he's tired of doing paperwork. And he is convinced that a gardener cannot just work 35 hours a day.

"Replacing him is certainly the trickiest thing in my career. Monet's garden at Giverny is not the gardens of Versailles or Vaux-le-Vicomte, drawings of which are kept in the archives," says Hugues Gall, director of the Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny.

Mr. Gall has chosen James Priest, a 53-year-old English gardener, to take over. Vahé will stay three more years as a consultant. "I hope that in the end he'll write a book, that he will put his unique knowledge about Monet's garden down on paper," says Hugues Gall.

Vahé is considering it distractedly. But he would prefer to take up painting. Before Monet, he used to paint.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - ohaoha

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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