In our first two weeks in France, we have never sat in a car, never taken a train, only once boarded a bus.
So what gives with the name “France in the Slow Lane?”
As we walk to language school each morning — dodging la crotte (dog crap); watching the high school students walk past, puffing on cigarettes and acting cool like kids everywhere; passing workers who sip espresso at stand-up, open-air bars; squeezing past umbrellas and their owners on sidewalks but a foot or two wide — I concentrate on the moment.
This is a land of philosophers, and I’m starting to realize that “slow lane travel” is much more a state of mind than a particular mode of getting somewhere.
No one can stop time. But Kathy and I are learning again in Provence how to embrace each moment, how to absorb the sounds, scenes and scents of daily life, how to live wholly, or as nearly as possible, in the present. To me, it is as extraordinary a change in daily routine as was the moment this week when I realized I was taking notes in French for the first time in my language class. Little moments can bring big surprises.
As Kathy and I attempt to live in the slow lane, it certainly helps that this is a place where the act of daily existence is something of an art form. People live outside, dress to the nines for the Saturday market, pause in the market squares to plant kisses on both cheeks of acquaintances and then chat as though time holds no concern. Vendors and their customers sign off in the elaborate, sing-song street music of merci, au revoir, and bonne journée. Though the weather is far better later in the year, it is in these winter months, before the tourists overwhelm markets and restaurants, that the pace is most leisurely.
The natives here seem to know what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote 170 years ago, that those who miss the present miss much of life. Of course, Emerson made this point with far more eloquence, writing:
“Man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”
Helped by the simplicity of our daily routine, we are trying to do a better job of living “above time” and with fewer of the constant distractions of this 21st century. We have bought the cheapest dumb phones available, safeguards to call each other in an emergency. No texting. No WiFi. No web. In fact, the phones are usually off. We’re putting off the cost and hassle of a car for at least several more weeks. We walk everywhere. We shop in bits, buying something small as we meander through the daily vegetable market at Place Richelme – yesterday a head of lettuce, a zucchini and four mushrooms. We buy a baguette for dinner on the way home from school. We arrive home, throw open the shutters. Read a little. Study some. Puzzle our way through the French in another show on the television. Go to sleep. A movie? Now that’s a big deal. Maybe this Sunday. (We have snuck out for a few meals. This is France.) As for mornings, as I write, the church bells peel. It’s 7:30 a.m. Until now, a bird has been serenading me.
Once again, I pinch myself. Is this real? Aix-en-Provence almost seems a mirage in a country struggling under the burden of roughly 11 percent unemployment. Certainly the city’s affluence helps hold its sense of joie de vivre. There’s no doubt of that. But so does its familiarity (it doesn’t take long to navigate a compact city of 140,000); its ancient, narrow streets; and its sunny, open squares, to and from which tables, chairs, and food stalls appear and disappear each day as routinely as dishes and wine glasses from nearby restaurant tables.
Yes, I think my French really is starting to come around. I am a bonafide intermediate “B2,” a designation that means I don’t need to stand dumbfounded when I have some idea of the context of a conversation. Let’s call it a start. But just as important for us here in the slow lane is the back-street restaurant we’ve found, le Bistroquet, where the mid-day main meal, or formule (main course, glass of wine and delicious dessert), costs about $20, tip included. Just as important is our little hole-in-the-wall lunch place that sells a marvelous slice of spinach quiche for $3.20. Or the shortcut we’ve discovered to the bakery on Rue de Republique, the one with buttery croissants.
Why look for more? Too many tourists measure travel in the number of places they’ve been, checkmarks on their bucket list of life. But to learn from the world, don’t we also need to take the time to know where (not to mention who) we are?
If I have learned anything in 64 years, it is that life flies by. But here in the slow lane of Provence, with its scents, its sounds, its style and its sense of time passing slowly, that blur at the very least takes on shape and color. Perhaps that’s the best we can expect.