It’s a giddy feeling, almost like looking forward to a college reunion when you’ve heard an old girlfriend is on the list of those coming. More than once during this long and bitter New England winter, I’ve endured by scrolling through our stash of photos of Aix-en-Provence, triggering memories of sunshine; of shades of pastel colors, ever-changing in the warm afternoon light, and of the fresh smells and murmur of the markets that fill the city’s squares almost daily
Now, soon, I’ll be setting foot on the slow, springtime squares of Aix once again. Just for two weeks, mind you, and this time with a group of 10 Emerson students in tow. But it will be fun to share with them this city I love. To sit and sip a slow espresso In Place des Precheurs. In Place Richelme. In Place de l’Hotel de Ville. Along Cours Mirabeau.
It’s been nearly five months since I stormed out of a French class at Boston’s Alliance Francaise, fed up with a teacher whose idea of teaching a language was to have us silently read passages in class so he could quiz us on new vocabulary. I’d been spoiled by the lively, laughter-filled, international classes in Aix-en-Provence at IS-Aix, where my students will now study. The rather dour group of middle-aged, if talented, New England business types at Alliance didn’t quite match the student body I was used to in Aix either. There we met a couple from Calgary, Canada, who had biked more than 2,000 miles around France and who, on my birthday last month sent a box with Canadian maple cookies and books, in English and French. We met a Brazilian entrepreneur who on his last day brought us some remarkable chocolates; a young Swiss veterinarian, improving her French before taking her first job; an Australian woman who would become my bridge partner and a retired Irishman with a penchant for quoting from poems.
Now, as the time ticks toward a return, I must come to terms with the fact that my French, never all that good, is rusty. I’m trying to scrape away the cobwebs emailing the school to plan my students’ schedule, meeting once a week with a smart and delightful French graduate student at Emerson with whom I swap tips in English for those from her about her native tongue.
This will not be a slow-lane landing. Two weeks. Thirty-nine hours of French classes. The chance to share with my students a taste of Provence. We’ll journey back to France’s conflicted World War II history with visits to the Resistance Museum in Fontaine-de- Vaucluse and Camp des Milles near Aix. We’ll visit the luscious Sunday market at Isle sur la Sorgue, the mighty fortress of Les Baux and the majestic Palace of the Popes in Avignon. And on one of France’s 14 May holidays (forgive me, I exaggerate) we will walk past the studio of Aix’s favorite son, Paul Cezanne, to the site — now a park — where he painted Mont Sainte Victoire so many times.
We will all live, individually, with French families, too, breaking bread with them for breakfast and dinner, sharing in their routines. (And, bien sur, sharing their language.)
What, I wonder, will it be like — to go back for just two weeks, this time alone, without my soulmate and lifetime traveling companion, Kathy. I asked the same in January 2014 when Kathy and I landed six and a half years after an earlier sabbatical. The answer then was “wonderful.”
All travel, I think, brings serendipity, if we are open to it. Though this blog has lain dormant for most of the past year, I received an absolutely lovely letter from a reader late last week. Philip LaBerge wrote that he had inherited a small apartment in Cavalaire-sur-Mer, some two hours from Aix, from his father in 2004. Now retired, he visits the place, which he first set eyes on three decades ago, more often and for longer stretches of time.
“The first few times that I visited Cavalaire, I thought I had seen most of the area,” he writes. “Now, after going back for 30 years, I understand that each trip is a new adventure, adding upon the past experiences, and enriching the new discoveries….and that I haven’t even begun to see it all.”
For me, his words resonate. After two five-month stretches of living in Aix and four shorter visits, I, too, realize there is so much more to see and experience.
I’ll keep you posted as this latest adventure unfolds.