The answer seems to be a resounding “Oui.”
Doug and I pulled into our beloved Aix-en-Provence a little over a week ago, and returning had the familiar feel of coming home after a long vacation. The traffic signs, the bends in the road,the first great embrace of spraying fountains. Except we didn’t exactly know where we were going.
This time, instead of going to the lovely country house with its shaded terraces 600 meters from the city limit where we lived last year, we were coming to a small rented apartment in the center of town. This time, instead of coming in fall when the honeyed light of summer turned the buildings golden and came to rest in the plump vegetables, we came in early spring, just at that season when the leaves seem to leap from the skin of empty branches.
This time, while the food markets are full of first strawberries and asparagus and the usual mounds of olives, cheese, bread, sausages and wonders as far as you can see, my eyes are drawn even more to the flower markets, where the scent leads me, too.
And even more, this time, instead of wandering, and getting lost in the winding medieval streets like the ingénues we were, we go purposefully through the maze wherever we intend, brushing past the newly arrived struggling with maps. We cross town by foot several times a day (it’s easy, especially since to Doug’s relief we’ve ditched the car), hop on the bus system we know well (I even had a valid ticket) and have plugged right back in to where we left off.
My first day back I tended to the essentials: I went to the fabulous Cité du Livre and renewed my card for the Bibliothèque Méjanes. Within minutes I had my hands on valued books I need to revisit. Next act—whip out my “fidelity” card, still valid, at the local Monoprix and save a few Euros.
But the main sense of being back, of belonging, is not so much in plugging into a well-functioning system as it is being back in the embrace of wonderful people. There are of course, friends, like our incomparable pal Maurice who rushed to meet us at Deux Garçons (see previous blog) our first night back, who comes to films with us, who had us to dinner, and who is ever ready to bail us out of whatever mess we might be in.
Then there are those who greet us like friends. Isa, manager at the nail salon who loves kooky sneakers and wears her hair piled up in rolls like conjugal snails, leapt to give me kisses on the cheeks, saying “Where have you been?” And, while filing my nails, coyly quizzed me as to whether I would say nice things about her in my next novel.
There’s Anne, the manager of the one-in-a-million bookstore Book in Bar (see previous blog), who came from behind the counter to give me a big hug and say, “I just sold one of your books two days ago, so I knew you must be coming.”
And there are all Doug’s hiking pals who arranged a “low-stress” hike just for him along an old Roman canal last Saturday because of his foot issue (7 ½ hours, but on flat terrain) and welcomed him like a long-lost member of the tribe. “You are coming back, aren’t you?” they quizzed him, knowing our stay here is a shave less than a month.
And then there are Alain and Alexis, the Click and Clack of brotherly love in the French wine trade. When we stopped by their shop for the first time (note this is on our regular route), Alain, who was about to leave, gave us both a bear hug. “Ah, c’est vous enfin,” he said, then immediately began pulling bottles from the shelves that he remembered we had liked. “Un bon Paradis,” he said, handing one to Doug before reaching for a white Cassis he knew I would like, then moving onto some highly recommended Côtes du Rhône. We chatted briefly—about his kids, who sometimes waited in the car when he made deliveries to our house last year—about the weather. “It’s perfect,” he said. “You have brought it from California.
When he left, we turned to chat a bit with Alexis behind the counter. He acknowledged that terrorism is up this year, and tourism is down. The state of things is not good. There are problems with the Euro, the terrible situation with refugees, a great cynicism about politics, and open talk about the break-up of the European Union. He had just been to a “dégustation” in Paris and the whole city seemed tense and afraid.
I nodded sympathetically, instantly tuning into that French pessimism that I know so well. “What is the solution?” he asked despairingly.
Then he gave the perfect Provencal answer, adjusted to the season.
“Drink rose,” he smiled. “What else can one do?”