The best travel days are built on serendipity.
They turn on small surprises that nonetheless pay big dividends. But always, I find, they require a little extra time and a willingness to stray.
All signs suggested that today should have been a bad day. I had an asthma attack last night and was awake from 1 to 3 a.m. I had to do my laundry. The forecast was for afternoon thunderstorms — again. And while my students headed to Nice and Cannes with my co-leader, Cathy Edelstein, I decided to nap, rest and get healthy. But first things first.
I got up early and walked through the market along Cours Mirabeau. In front of the main catch-all department store, Monoprix, two young 20-somethings, French I’m quite sure from their conversation together, were putting on quite a show. She had the rich voice of a blues singer who could soar, a young Janis Joplin. He could play a mean lick. I stayed for a song, then another, then two more. I continued on to the Tourist Office where the woman behind the desk engaged me in animated conversation, in French, about tonight’s activities, when there will be free music and the town’s museums will be open without charge. It is known as the Night of the Museums, one of my favorite days annually in Aix.
As we were finishing, she asked several times whether I had lived in France.
“Your French is really good,” she said. OK, it’s not true, but don’t tell anyone. She made my day.
I bought Kathy a birthday present [I can’t say publicly what] that I thought was going to cost 55 euros. No, the vendor said, that one was only 38 euros. He could easily have ripped me off. He didn’t.
At lunch I strayed. I’d planned to go back to a tasty place with a reasonable fixed price lunch menu named Bistroquet. But my time was a little tight because I had to meet someone at 2:30. And so, as I entered Place des Precheurs, I veered left. A few years ago, when Kathy and I were here on sabbatical, I wrote a piece for this blog and the Huffington Post about Fanny’s Bistro Gourmand, a tidy, welcoming lunch nook with delicious home cooking and a red awning and front almost matched by the healthy cheeks of its gracious owner, Fanny Jehanno.
Fanny had a connection back then with Emerson’s partner school in Aix, IS-Aix, and she took the time to sit with me for a longish interview despite my painful pigeon-French (it may be a little better now). Her English is excellent but we agreed she’d speak to me in French. Or perhaps she simply decided to stay in French. I didn’t challenge her because I was building up to interviews in French with possibly less sympathetic subjects.
Though I really liked Fanny and her restaurant, I lost touch. A year or two later, our language school, IS-Aix, moved to a different location. The restaurant is kind of off on a side street. And it just fell off my radar.
She beamed as soon as I entered, stopped by to talk while I was eating, and insisted — even though I promised her Emerson College was paying for my meals — on treating me. Best off, her fondant au chocolat remains the best dessert in Aix, or at least the best I’ve ever had.
It’s raining again; this has been one wet May for this typically sun-drenched city. And I do need that nap. But the clouds are supposed to disperse by 5. There are free concerts in at least three places tonight.
I’ll wager my day of serendipity isn’t over yet. But it’s already has been a special one because I had the time to linger and to wander. And that’s when travel works best.