Sunday, April 15, 2007

One day at a time

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France
April 11, 2007


This morning, like nearly every other, we walked to town -- past the puffy white buds of the apple trees, beneath the sweet vines of fragrant, purple wisteria, through the throaty coos of the mourning doves. It was supposed to be cloudy, maybe even rain. But as usual, the sky broke blue, the breeze blew gently. Il fait du soleil.

Today, I tried to record our daily walk, stopping to take pictures of the gated estate with stepped stone walls beyond; the burning brush, smelling like a campfire, at the orange house on the corner, where a young family has moved in and is clearing the yard; the two yellow labs, collarless, who tracked us balefully as we walked past; the boys at Lycee Paul Cezanne, smoking out front, two playing hacky sack, a third twirling a spool on a string.

We walked past the signs, advertising concerts and cars and lingerie. (My favorite for its Frenchness, of a saucy blonde in skimpy pink underwear, leaning back in a provocative pose with the words, “avec moi, pas d’abstention,” had been replaced.) Past the Red Cross, where men and women milled around, possibly waiting for the gates to open to give blood. Past the city park and IS, the language school where we gained a foothold in French, and into Place des Precheurs, where the International Herald Tribune had sold out by 11 a.m., a sure sign the tourists are arriving now in growing numbers.

Our goal this morning was modest -- to mail a package to our two friends, the Lewis sisters in Switzerland. But a hand-lettered sign on a flip chart at the post office announced greve – strike – and a man, representing management said with an apologetic shrug, “perhaps tomorrow.” (An angry young woman, her black hair aswirl, remained unconvinced, muttering something like foues les facteurs, which I’m reasonably sure was “fuck the mailmen,” as she stalked away.)

We were less miffed, stuffing our packages back in the Sierra Club day pack that has come in so handy, and wandering off on our favorite daily task: poking around. We stopped in a leather purse shop – vent sauvage (wild wind) – where we picked out, but left behind for now, a likely graduation present for our niece. We stopped by the fabric store, where the sales woman reminded me that rond is round, not circulaire – a word I may have made up, and that nappe, not serviette de table is the right name for a table cloth. Whatever the name, we bought one for our outside picnic table at home, a rich Provencal blue with orange dots (bees? carrots?) and two fringed strips, one of daisies and lavender, and a second of olives, hanging below the table.

As we walked on, a pair of deep red, spiked high heels with ankle straps caught our eye; our older daughter’s birthday is only weeks away. And so Kathy squeezed into them because, as we explained to the seemingly bored, slinky blonde sales girl, her shoe size is presque to Betsy’s. A pres de, the sales girl corrected politely. (“She may be bored, but she’s OK,” I thought to myself. I love the way the French correct our many mistakes).

While Saturday is the grand market day and markets spread over three squares on Tuesday and Thursday as well, the market takes place every day at Place Richelme near city hall. And so on this day, a Wednesday, we couldn’t resist buying one of the season’s first Provencal melons. Nor could we simply ignore the nose-crinkling allure of the spice table, where a delightful young woman with a wide smile sold us 40 grams each of spices mixed specially for fish and omelets (they were two of about 20 choices there). And then, in French and English, she struck up a conversation of sorts, asking where we were from. She had visited New York, which, she marveled, had streets better organized than even Paris, streets on which she had walked and walked for miles. She had read about Boston, she said, but never been.

We told her that her spices smelled wonderful and she shrugged as if to say she hadn’t noticed, “I never lose the smell,” she said. “I go home and it’s my hair, in my clothes.”

We’ll seek her out again on market days: Another Provencal gem, like the man who earlier sold us an indoor table cloth and, when we tried to fold it, told us “c’est mon travail” and then, in English, “it’s my job.”

After the spices, we bought an International Herald Tribune at another stand, made one last stop to buy a baguette, and caught the 12:47 No. 4 bus up the hill to our apartment among the trees and songbirds. We ate a lunch of melted chevre on toast, fresh pears and white wine. And Kathy, her book folded open on her chest, fell asleep on the terrace as I sat down to write.

Just one more morning in this city of light and outdoor life, sun and grace, and – am I supposed to be too old to notice? – unending sensuality.

**********************************************************

The first round of the French election is just 12 days away and ennui – boredom – seems the watchword, at least in accounts in the English language Tribune. Nicolas Sarkozy, for the last four years the country’s interior minister, has emerged as a clear front runner in a campaign of many faux pas (an expression, by the way, that does not appear in my French dictionary) and little sustained substance. But 42 percent of the French remain uncertain who they will vote for, pollsters say, and the number rises to 56 percent among young adults. Sarkozy has steadfastly refused to appear in the poor and largely muslim suburbs outside of Paris, places in which he branded young militants as thugs when violence broke out in fall 2005. What’s interesting is that voter registration in those areas is up sharply. Still, he has led all along in the polls and seems likely to win.

The Tribune also ran the second day of a two-part series on the unquestioned dominance of English as the world’s second language today. This is bad news for the French, who both have enormous pride in their language and, at times, can struggle just as much with English as Kathy and I sometimes do with French.

We learned that not only in a series of conversations over our cousins' lost luggage but also in flipping through the pages of an upscale hotel directory: Chateaux et demeures de tradition.

This, word for word, is the entry for an Aix hotel in the directory. (It offers me hope of a return to France; I’m thinking of writing to the CEO and offering my services. )

Ideally located on the Cours Mirabeau our historic mansion reserves to you a marvelous framework of relaxation and userfriendly. The rooms, decorated by Roland Le Vevillon and Maurice Savinel will charm the lovers of the city. Our rooms offer to you sure cofort and rest with a complete bathroom jaccuzy or Turkish baths. You will appreciate air conditioned and soundproof. Our chef incites you to escape … His cooking inspires of savours. Of the world and married to the singing and scented accepts of Provence.

Bien sur. When I sell my services, the first question will be whether the chef incites you to escape before or after the meal.

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