Nowhere else other than Aix am I able to live so completely in the moment.
Perhaps it’s the 35-minute walk each morning down narrow streets to the international school at which my students are studying. It leads me past street signs with exotic names (we live on Avenue d’Indochine), past a restored chateau built for an Archbishop’s mistress centuries ago. Then, I walk past a fountain, across a busy street, over cobblestones, past mothers walking their children to pre-school, alongside colorful and fashionable window displays, through narrow passageways and ancient squares.
Perhaps it is the morning air that on a good day feels like silk brushing lightly across my exposed skin.
Perhaps it’s the surprises around almost every bend, the markets that spring up and break down daily in places named Place Richelme, Place des Precheurs and Place de l’Hotel-de-Ville; the sing-song of the vendors who can make “thank you, ” “have a good day” and “goodbye” sound like a French musical of sorts. Perhaps, it’s the costumes; people don’t merely dress in Aix — they dress for the occasion.
In some ways, Aix is such a small, familiar place that we’ve walked almost all its streets, angling off in every direction. Yet it’s also so vibrant and energetic that I always keep my senses on high alert, whether for the sight of a new street performer, the sound of laughter or music from behind shuttered doors and windows, or the serendipity of a small act of kindness.
Take today’s market. I paid what I thought was a bill for 2 euros 40 cents for some vegetables. But the vendor had said 2.14. So he handed me back 30 and shorted himself 4. Two minutes later, Kathy left an onion and a cucumber sitting on the vendor’s vegetable stand. A stranger grabbed the bag and walked over to give it to us.
Many Americans make the mistaken assumption that the French are unfriendly. They couldn’t be more wrong. This is a precise and perhaps in some ways a cautious culture. Send someone an email and you’ll likely get no response for a day or two until the person you’ve asked something of knows precisely what he or she wants to say. You’ll never get a, “get back to you soon” note. You’ll simply wait. But this is not rudeness. It’s a desire to be clear and correct. It’s simply different from the freewheeling style of many Americans.
We’ve been here but a week on this visit. And again, I feel very much at home even though much about Aix, and France, remains a bit mysterious. There’s the inevitable cultural dance (it took me three tries today to reserve a visit in Marseille for my students at the MuCEM of Mediterranean history). There’s the gauze of linguistic limitation, which on a good day allows me to comprehend perhaps 50 or 60 percent of what I hear. And there’s what I can only call the utter simplicity of the day, which can make a trip to the market a fulfilling morning activity and an afternoon walk to the park where Paul Cezanne painted more than enough to fill the rest of the day. (Well, not quite. A slow meal and a bit of wine are obligatoire, too.)
This was our day today, the walk in the company of a delightful student who is one of 13 from Emerson College whom I’ve led here this May. It couldn’t have been better. A piano trio spiced up the market with rousing renditions of “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Respect.” Kathy bought some new earrings, Devon got a new jump rope. I took photos, always a fun pastime in this land of ever-changing light. There’s a free concert tonight in front of the statue of Roi Rene on Cours Mirabeau. If I were here alone, I’d probably go. But tonight I’ll pass.
We just played a game of Uno. And tomorrow is another day. So why pack in too much?