When we left England, I thought the hardest adjustment for T. would be leaving behind our washing machine. I can’t say if that’s true, but laundry has become a big part of our lives. We seem to spend a lot of time checking whether our hosts have a washing machine, figuring out how to use the machines, and finding laundromats. I haven’t spent so much time in laveries since my grandma looked after the Lakeside Laundry ca. 1980.
At the packing stage, I planned on having a week’s worth of clothes. Inevitably, though, we have not been doing laundry every seven days on the dot. If we can’t get to a machine, the laundry may have to wait a day; if it’s so hot we’ve sweated through all the sleeveless shirts, it happens more often. I’m equipped to hand wash things in a sink occasionally, but laundry, like eating, has become a function: we do it when we have the opportunity. I have never thought so much about food, clothing, and shelter, those basic necessities of life. Not because I can’t afford them, but because I constantly have to find them someplace new.
So we’ve slowed down. We can’t be hitting the road again every two or three days. Ireland still felt like vacation—“two weeks till our ferry to France; let’s go everywhere we can.” France, by contrast, feels like a good place to reside, or at least stay in one place for more than a few days. To eat, to drink, to live.
Plus it was 36 degrees C in Provence.
Some things didn’t change between Spain and France. One was the sex positivity—condom machines on street corners and, on the road into both Barcelona and Narbonne, billboards advertizing sex toy shops. Perhaps related was the heat. Aix-en-Provence was filled with people from many places; T. remarked that if it had had the sea, it would have been overwhelming.
But no sea, and no sea breeze. Brilliant scenery, to be sure. The parc naturel of the Camargue, and Arles, were both striking from the road, but neither compared to the charm of actually being in Aix-en-Provence. Its beauty, and that of the nearby mountain, Sainte-Victoire, inspired the native son of Aix, Paul Cézanne.
|The distinctive ochre color of Aix's buildings comes from the nearby quarry.|
Probably Paris. After all, Provençal was the standard and literary language from the 12th to the 14th centuries, before Parisian French was imposed on everyone. Provençal is the most important of the Occitan dialects spoken in the south of France, and is closely related to Catalan. As with the Basques, there are Catalan speakers in France as well as Spain who would like a greater Catalunya, centered in Barcelona. You can see from the street signs in Aix that Provençal’s spelling and grammar are closer to Spanish than French.
We learned a lot about Cézanne on this walk. His big contribution to painting, and what his contemporaries didn’t like, I guess, was to paint what he felt, rather than realistic representations. This was explained to us as a necessary innovation in art, because Cézanne’s life coincided with the invention of photography, and so painting had to do something new. He painted colors side by side instead of drawing in line. Picasso, among others, revered “Monsieur” Cézanne.
Inspired by his paintings of the mountain, we set out boldly to hike Sainte-Victoire ourselves. It is two months until I set out up Kilimanjaro (see sidebar), and I need all the practice I can get. So we got information, got a bus, and started off for Lac Bimont.
Unfortunately, it was 36 degrees, and a dry heat. Meaning fire risk. Meaning, as sometimes happens in other places I’ve hiked (Arizona), the trails were all closed. We could not even hike down to the lake! Nothing to do but catch the next bus, which was driven by a man wearing a bolo tie and cowboy hat (speaking of the southwest). In the village of Vauvenargues, I snapped a picture of the Provençal lavender fields.
Of course, we also did laundry. The laundromat was pretty hot, as they get in such weather, so while waiting for the clothes to finish we crossed the street to a bar called Kremlin. It was even hotter inside, but it was worth it. A little boy with glasses, who appeared to be guarding the door, shouted “Maman! Il y a des gens!” She came to see these people and that is how we ended up with beers in a vodka bar. Every other container of vodka seemed to be shaped like some alarming military implement: a missile, a machine gun.
Maman was not Russian, she told us, though her husband is from Belarus. She is Portuguese, but her son (I’m not sure which of them was prouder to tell us this) is French. “Il est né ici,” she said, and the little boy laughed. He laughed at everything. When he said he supported the Portuguese national football team, and T. mentioned her erstwhile fondness for Cristiano Ronaldo, I thought he was going to go into fits.
We left Kremlin for the relative cool of the laundromat, and I reflected on how friendly everyone we met in France seemed to be. Some, like the staff of the Kremlin or the hairdressers, we spoke with only in French; others heard us speaking and volunteered English, like the woman in Vauvenargues who suggested another place we might walk (it was closed too). At our last lunch in town, the man at the next table made suggestions (in French) as to how T. could take an artistic photograph through a glass of kir, which is possibly the most French thing anyone could make suggestions about.
There were tourists, but it wasn’t a tourist vibe. It was more a vibe of people living together, short- or long-term, and buying fresh bread every morning at the boulangerie just like our neighbors. I’ve mentioned my fondness for the bonjours and au revoirs that lubricate every social interaction; I was thrilled that, even with my haircut, even wearing a hat, they still always called me madame. These people are just clued in somehow!
Part of what made Aix so rewarding is how much we weren’t on vacation. En vacances, people look forward to eating out every day; we liked not having to forage, being able to eat as well as you’d expect in Provence, whether on the go or “at home.”
This isn’t a restaurant-recommendation type of blog, but I do want to say that we treated ourselves to Le Petit Verdot and it was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever had in my life. (And not that expensive either, in terms of value for money.) I’d read mixed reviews but decided to go down the unprepossessing side street and try this place that uses old wine crates for tables. They found one for us outside when we said indoors was going to be unbearably hot. They presented (literally, introduced) the menu to us in English, although we hadn’t asked them to. And a pichet (jug) of any wine was the same price, so I chose the most local red they recommended, which also happened to be the most expensive by the bottle. It was so good even T. had a glass.
On the way home one night we came across Saint-Esprit’s church (18th century). It was open to worshippers only, as they were having a service. We didn’t go in, but I paused, and was genuinely thankful for all my blessings, especially the opportunity to travel and share stories with the rest of you.
And to eat well, of
I was sorry to leave Provence, as anyone would be. But the Côte d’Azur is a good bit cooler and not a comedown at all. I’d been to the Nice area before, but only in winter, so enjoying the seafront is new to me.
|Interior of St. John of Malta church, 12th century|
Some things the different places we’ve been in France have in common. They like square pillows, much as the Spanish places tended to one long cylindrical pillow the width of the bed. They like their meat saignant, literally “bleeding.” They don’t seem to like toilet paper holders very much.
In other ways, the Côte d’Azur is very different from Provence. Cagnes-sur-Mer is small, but it feels touristy in a way Aix didn’t. Not that people are unfriendly. The guy in the laundromat still talked to us.
When we aren’t doing laundry, there’s a pebble beach just across from our balcony. It feels like a family beach, much more Bakio than Barcelona. But the absence of surf means I can actually swim. And I am swimming, for as long as I can.
Have to get that fitness training in somehow.