Our landlady, Martine, is a native of Aix-en-Provence. Her grandfather built the house in which we’re living in 1936. So I listened intently during one of our periodic English/French conversations when she told me the real natives of Provence are by nature warm and open.
The longer we stay in Aix, the more I realize how much she’s right. I’m not talking about the fancy people who’ve relocated to Aix, the ones who wear just-so, all-leather outfits and hand-crafted boots all winter. I’m talking about the people who work in the markets, the stores and the parks. They like to banter. They like to laugh. And they’ll reach out with a kind word or helping hand without invitation.
We were reminded of their warmth this morning when we headed to the market bright and early to buy a few things for the last evening of my cousins’ visit here. We were off to Cassis for the day, but wanted to have dinner and breakfast in the cupboard and fridge when we got home.
And so we learned that there’s nothing much better here than to hang out in and around the market early, before it begins to bustle. At Boucherie du Palais, which usually has a line out the door, the aisle was empty. The sales clerk took a minute or two to explain to Kathy the difference between cuts of pork.
When we stopped at a new vegetable vendor (our usual one wasn’t quite set up), the man in the husband-and-wife team handed me the 2.40 euro bill on a slip of paper.
“I’ve been here long enough to finally figure out the numbers,” I told him in French, doing my best to sound self-deprecating.
His wife took that as a cue to engage, asking us where we were from, whether we had been to Aix before, how we liked it here.
“You speak French well,” she told me after a few minutes of back and forth (make my day).
“I’m trying,” I responded.
And yes, we may be changing vegetable vendors again.
Our lively and sometimes slightly loud fruit vendor, greeted us today with an almost familiar ca va (“how’s it going?”). She told Kathy where her wonderful strawberries are picked (Carpentras) and urged us to buy what she said were delicious asparagus (we did).
We arrived back at the entrance of our local “park,” the magnificent, 350-year-old Pavillon Vendome, with bulging sacks by our sides, at almost exactly 9 a.m. That is when the park opens. The head gardener looked at Kathy. She looked at him. He came to the gate unlocked it and asked us if we were walking through. When we told him, “yes,” he went back into his garden house, got a second key to the gate on the other side, and escorted us through, talking all the way.
“The flowers must have liked the rain Tuesday,” Kathy said.
“They did, but I prefer the sunshine,” he replied with a twinkle.
We learned that the grass has a watering system, that the sporadic spring rains are important because a long drought follows in summer and that, in his view, spring is the very best of seasons in Provence. This did not come as a surprise.
After walking us through the park’s two well-manicured sections and letting us out the other side, he said goodbye and locked the gate again, not quite ready for the day’s other visitors.
“We had such a fun mini-adventure,” Kathy said as we headed up our street. “We talked to the strawberry lady. The woman in the market explained the different cuts of pork. And we had a conversation with the head gardener of Pavillon Vendome.”
We sure did. And all, she might have added, were friendly and gracious. Living here, it’s hard for me to understand the American stereotype of the French as haughty and arrogant. All it takes for us as foreigners to engage is a little effort to speak the language. And all the people of Provence need in return is a little bit of time.