A Pinch of Provence

By Rachael Warecki Photos courtesy Lori Howard ’81

Lori Howard ’81 kept a place in her heart for France following her study abroad experience at Oxy. Now she’s curating custom holiday experiences for a growing clientele in the French countryside

For Lori Howard ’81, a typical summer week may outwardly resemble a dream vacation: ambling through lavender fields, picnicking near an ancient Roman bridge, or shopping at a quaint village market. In her line of work, however, knowledge of these places is important. As founder and sole proprietor of the tour company Pinch Me Provence, her goal is to provide clients with their ideal holiday in the French countryside, from plein air painting classes to touring vineyards and tasting Provençal wines.

Lori Howard ’81 and husband Pascal Peron in Cadenet, France.
Lori Howard ’81 and husband Pascal Peron in Cadenet, France.

Guests “love walking in my footsteps,” Howard says. “Those are the kinds of experiences where travelers walk away saying, ‘Never would I have seen Provence in this way had I not toured with you.’”

Based out of the small town of Lourmarin—one of France’s designated Les Plus Beaux Villages—Pinch Me Provence’s tours cover the western part of the region made famous in Peter Mayle’s bestselling 1989 memoir, A Year in Provence. From spring through fall, Howard offers clients a variety of customized small-group itineraries, including self-guided tour packages, themed getaways, and an all-inclusive experience in which she accompanies guests every step of the way. (She also helps visitors navigate some of the less picturesque realities of travel across the southern French countryside: crowded beaches, narrow roads, and the occasional railway strike.)

But Howard, who majored in diplomacy and world affairs and minored in French, is happiest when sharing parts of the region that aren’t always promoted in guidebooks. Drawing on her local knowledge and community connections, her itineraries often feature hidden gems, such as her favorite bakery, a lesser-known historical building, or a spring stroll among lanes of cherry blossom trees.

“I enjoy meeting local people who are investing in the heritage here, renovating an old family chateau or bringing back a winery from years of neglect,” Howard says. “I can visit the same place 12 times a season, but because I see it through the eyes of other people, I see it differently every time.”

Lori Howard ’81 and Pascal Peron, then and now
More than three decades after they first met, Howard and Peron rekindled their romance over college reminiscences.

Pinch Me Provence is the natural culmination of Howard’s long-standing desire to explore and experience lesser-known regions of France, a determination that influenced her decision to attend Occidental. “I didn’t want the ‘expat abroad’ student experience in Paris or another large university city with many Americans,” she says. “I wanted to get to know the French.” During her college application process, Howard was drawn to Oxy’s program at the Université of Perpignan in southern France, near the Pyrénées mountain range that borders Spain, and ultimately studied abroad there as a junior. Thirty years later, her decision would have a profound, if unexpected, impact on her life.

“Little did I know then how perfect that program would be,” Howard says. “I wanted to immerse myself in French university life and it worked. There were no other American study abroad programs there except for Oxy’s, so I was able to integrate into the French community. I made some best friends and fell in love.”

Although her French paramour, Pascal Peron, visited Howard at Oxy during her senior year, he returned to his home country and Howard moved to Arizona after graduation. Over the course of her career there, she ran a French bakery, earned an MBA and an MHSA, worked in healthcare-related marketing and education, and oversaw a foreign exchange program for high school students, but she always cherished fond memories of her study abroad experience. “I kept a place in my heart for the hope that somehow, at some point, I would live in France,” she says. “But I wasn’t sure how that would ever materialize.”

Shawn (Lovell) Hanson ’83 and Pete Hanson ’82 in Bonnieux, France.
Shawn (Lovell) Hanson ’83 and Pete Hanson ’82 in Bonnieux, France. 

The opportunity presented itself when Peron reached out to Howard more than three decades after their initial meeting, and the two rekindled their romance over college reminiscences. They dated long-distance for several years and, in 2015, they were married in France, where Howard relocated. She worked part-time as a project manager, university English lecturer, corporate English trainer, and adult English tutor, all while hosting groups of friends and family members eager to explore the rolling vineyards and lavender fields of Provence. Howard took her visitors to her favorite places, markets, and farms where guests could taste wine and cook traditional French food together.

“I became an accidental tour guide,” Howard says. She estimates that, in the first five years after her move to France, she and Peron provided informal tours to approximately 45 groups of guests.

The experience encouraged Howard to turn her accidental role into a professional reality. She created a holiday planning website, commissioned a logo from graphic designer Linda Warren ’81, and formally launched Pinch Me Provence in January 2020. Ten weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated global lockdowns and severe travel restrictions. She credits her loyal social media following and the desire for virtual, vicarious experiences with keeping her business alive through the worst of the pandemic.

“Guiding social media followers around Provence in the virtual realm—that’s when people started to believe that they could tour with me and walk in my steps,” Howard says. “A lot of my business is still that kind of word of mouth.”

Carol Hadley Fricks ’81, right, and daughter Kaitlyn Murphy in Gordes, France.
Carol Hadley Fricks ’81 and daughter Kaitlyn Murphy Cooke in Gordes, France.

Since tourists were allowed to return to France in 2021, Pinch Me Provence has flourished. In 2023, Howard hosted four groups of Oxy alumni, including friends, couples, and a mother-daughter pair. “It was magical to get a window into their lives since Oxy, meeting spouses, children, and friends while sharing our memories,” Howard says. “We had a great reconnection.” She’s also visited California to reunite with two other Pinch Me Provence groups.

“I don’t just guide and shut the door,” she says. “I leave people with a wonderful memory, and that’s the most important part.”

Her business isn’t the only way in which Howard stays connected with Occidental. In 2014, she and her “eight Oxy besties” endowed the Sister Circle Class of ’81 and ’82 Scholarship, which provides financial aid for one or more students each year, with preference given to women who are the first in their families to attend college. The inspiration came from Howard’s family: Her grandfather, who never attended college, and her mother, who was the first in her family to attend, founded and managed the Leonard Tingle Foundation, which funded a variety of educational programs; Howard managed the foundation after her mother’s passing in 2009. When Howard moved to France, the foundation was dissolved, and Howard seeded the Sister Circle scholarship’s initial endowment with her portion of the foundation’s final grant.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to give back,” Howard says. “It shows that you don’t necessarily have to be a big benefactor, and it demonstrates the beauty of Oxy, which is that people stay connected.”

Howard hopes to become even more engaged with the College now that she and her husband are splitting their time between Provence in the spring and summer and Phoenix in the winter.

“I credit my time at Oxy for the amazing chance connection that led me to my life today,” she says. “Being brave in 1979-80 and again in 2015 were the richest decisions of my life.”