by Prissy Elrod | August 26, 2019

Panhandling: French Lemonade

When life gives you a series of lemons, you just might be watching friends cavort overseas without you.

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Prissy poolside near Toulouse, France
Prissy poolside near Toulouse, France at the home of Art Linson (producer of Yellowstone television series) and his wife, Fiona Lewis; Photography courtesy KMI Design Retreat

It was a Sunday afternoon when my neighbor pulled into the driveway. She and her husband were buying our house and wanted to drop by to measure our living room windows. 

As she was saying goodbye, she turned around: “I hated to impose on you but needed to wrap up all my loose ends. I’m leaving for France.”

With packing, moving and unpacking occupying my worried mind, I wasn’t paying close attention to the details of her impending trip until I heard the words design retreat with Kathryn Ireland (one of Bravo’s Million Dollar Decorators, not the supermodel). Then I perked up.

“Who’s going with you?” I asked.

 “Nobody,” she said.

Impressive! I thought. 

Didn’t she have packing? For Pete’s sake! The girl was moving into the very house where I stood.

 As I closed my door a bird graced the air and landed atop the water fountain centered in our circular drive. She perched there staring at me. I was too busy for bird-watching and slammed the door, then went back to packing more boxes.

According to my acupuncturist my brain is too busy. My massage therapist proclaimed me his tightest client in a 30-year massage therapy business. And Gina, my younger sister, calls me a street rat. She will text rat emojis when I don’t answer her texts or phone calls. 

So, basically, I’m a wound-up, busy-minded street rat. But rats are intelligent. If you catch one you can train it.

Touring with Kathryn Ireland, Chateau De Saurs in Lisle-Sur Tarn, France
Touring with Kathryn Ireland, Chateau De Saurs in Lisle-Sur Tarn, France; Photography by Eve Burrus

 I’m also an optimist, always trying to make lemonade from the lemons in life. But the summer of 2018 was different. Life was tart, and I was plum out of sugar. 

I’ll spare penning my descriptive drama and just say a death, a homicide, two hurricanes, two evacuations, a move, a renovation and more did me in. 

Later that evening my mind was revisiting the afternoon conversation with the neighbor.

She was going to France, and I had a crappy year. I’m the one who should be going to France. Heads up! Too much wine makes a person envious, convincing and way too brave.

I decided to search online and see if I could find something about Kathryn Ireland’s retreat. It didn’t take long to locate a Travel + Leisure article. My heart raced as I read it, then immediately called for more information. It was a California number, and I hoped the three-hour time difference would work in my favor and someone might answer. The first sign came when Caroline, Kathryn’s assistant, said hello.

“Yes, we do have one spot left,” she said.

“One spot—that’s a sign!” I squealed.

I believe signs and optimism are first cousins.

“It must be,” she said through a soft chuckle.

Cha ching! Sold to the lady with too much wine. I booked my trip to Tarn-et-Garonne, an hour north of Toulouse, France, before the clock struck midnight.

In my defense, I think my husband was to blame. He should have stayed up past 8 p.m. This kind of thing happens when a husband goes to bed too early and leaves a rat drinking wine. 

Buyer’s remorse set in when I awoke the next morning with cotton mouth and a headache. I decided to wait a bit to share my travel plans with my spouse. You know, it’s all about the right moment. I decided to tell the poor man in the car with witnesses surrounding me. Thankfully, he’s not a killer.

“Go have fun—you deserve it,” he said. In truth, he was probably glad to be rid of me.

Six weeks later, I was bound to a country filled with art and culture. It was a stone’s throw from Heaven.

There were eight guests who arrived: The seller and buyer of the same house on Bobbin Brook Circle were joined by ladies from Colorado, New York, California, London and Australia. Nobody knew anybody when we landed. 

We spent our days lounging on hammocks as the scent of lavender infused the air. The plants spilled out from oversized terra cotta pots scattered across the grounds. Some days we went antiquing to obscure flea markets, devoid of tourists.

There was a French cooking class with Daniel de La Falaise, ex-model and actor turned French chef, fresh off the pages of French GQ magazine. His food was almost as succulent as he was. 

We were entertained by a hands-on workshop with a flower designer from London, a painting workshop with an artist from Toulouse, and a private wine and museum tour given by the chateau owner himself. 

When my glorious week was over, I felt guilty, compelled to share the oasis with everyone I knew. I talked to Kathryn about recruiting clients to visit her bohemian-chic farmhouse—La Castellane—for future retreats. She loved the idea!

 In my earlier years, I escorted travelers abroad to places like Hong Kong and Italy, but never to France. I would put my travel consultant hat back on, but only if I could complete my ongoing Chasing Ordinary manuscript. I make the rules I live by.

Lady statue basking in the sunlight on my backyard garden path
Lady statue basking in the sunlight on my backyard garden path; Photography by Britton Robinson

I flew home rested, restored and ready to tackle my self-imposed challenge to finish my manuscript. I’m a disciplined rat so I wrapped up the writing only six weeks later.

Summer turned to fall and then the holidays rolled in. We moved from a rental house into our renovated house, a week before Christmas. Listen up—don’t ever do that!

I was so happy when 2019 arrived. It had to be better. Lordy—optimism is not for the faint of heart.

In January, I turned my attention to the farmhouse in France. Kathryn and I circled around the best dates, knowing my book would release in April. We chose June. 

I made a list of friends and whetted their appetites to see if they were hungry: Turned out they were starving.

As my best friend Gayle says, “Prissy can sell fleas to a dog.” I oversold the trip in two days and had to add another week. A one-week trip turned into three weeks for me. I would tell my husband I’d be gone for the month of June on our next car ride … again, with witnesses.

As April’s spring shined above, 2019 was turning out perfect. Which brings me to the beginning of my story. Remember those lemons, lemonade, rats and cages? Sometimes life puts us to the test—but only after blindsiding us.

Fields of sunflowers, Verlhac-Tescou France
Fields of sunflowers, Verlhac-Tescou France; Photography by Caroline Mann

 It was a beautiful Saturday night, and we were going to a dinner party at our friends’ house. I wore my favorite white jeans, a funky pink top and my khaki wedges that made me taller. Once there, I meandered into the kitchen where I was introduced to Rita, another author. We clicked and talked about our writing. I saw the sun setting over the lake, so I headed outside to photograph God’s beauty. I strolled back indoors to run my mouth and grab more wine but realized I’d left my phone outside. I slipped out to retrieve it. 

One false step and my size 6 foot let me down. I heard a crack, snap and pop and fell on my cushioned fanny. I was dazed in the dark. In shock. I heard a whisper and felt someone squeeze my trembling hand.

“I’ll get help,” she said. 

It was the author I’d been talking to in the kitchen. Only later did I learn Rita (the author) was really Rita Coolidge (the legend). The ambulance arrived as diners sipped wine and gazed at the state of me. I was hauled off. Even hospitalized. Four days later surgery was performed to mend my multiple breaks in one tiny ankle (plate, screws, rod). It wasn’t enough. Soon, cellulitis, a UTI and shingles jumped on board to keep me company.

I never got back to France. But everyone else did. They oozed love from afar with pictures, calls and texts to make me feel I was with them. In a way I was, after my friend Rhonda turned a picture of my head into one of those fan-sticks. She carried my chiseled smile everywhere and even stuck my head in empty wine bottles. It was the quietest I’ve ever been in my life.

As I type this column, it’s been three months since my accident. Yet my ankle is still unable to bear weight. We’re never prepared for the unexpected in life. I should know this better than most. After all, I wrote Far Outside the Ordinary based on this very truth. But we tend to forget, until life knocks us flat.

 Regardless, I choose to believe that things happen for reasons beyond our understanding. 

You see, I really am one of those lemon-lemonade people. But not in a preachy, sappy way. It’s more like a realistic acceptance of circumstances. What’s the upside of being positive? Everything.

This busy rat was flitting around everywhere and seeing nothing. I had to be slapped down in my cute high heels and caged.

Although 2019 let me down, I’m focusing on the bigger picture.

First, I’m getting better, even if it’s happening slower than I want. 

Second, I found a new friend named Rita. Had I not fallen, we might just be two authors who chatted at a party. 

Third, I don’t need to fly across the pond to inhale the euphoric scent of lavender. It’s in my own backyard, where abundant beauty thrives. It’s a tour-worthy oasis. Yet I never noticed it until it was all I had to look at.

And that bird bathing in my fountain I ignored because I was too busy? It followed me to our rental house and to my current home. It was only when I stayed still long enough to notice and cared enough to study the traveling bird that I realized she wasn’t just any species. She was a red cardinal, just like the one perched on the branch outside my mother’s window as she lay dying in her hospice bed.

It’s been said a cardinal represents a loved one who has passed. When you see one, it means they are visiting you when you need them most. Call me crazy, but I believe the red cardinal is my mother. It makes life easier.

As for France, Kathryn and I are already planning the next retreat. But before you head off on your own vacation, why not circle around our own beautiful state where beauty abounds? Or gaze outside into your own backyard. Try to remember what this rat learned the hard way. In stillness you become aware. Not to mention so much wiser. 


READ MORE FROM FLAMINGO‘S “PANHANDLING” COLUMNIST PRISSY ELROD.