“Isn’t it so hard to leave Aix?”
Questions posed by friends (along with “Will you ever leave?”) at the moment of our uprooting from a delight-filled almost-year in Provence, to return to our home in Oakland, overlooking San Francisco Bay.
The answer is an unequivocal “yes.”
Yes because there is much we miss, and yes because there is much we are happy to find again.
Some pull-and-tug impressions upon first getting back.
Markets. Where are the glorious. colorful mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, the cheese seller, the succulent roasted hams and chickens, the array of fish on ice, our friend Alain, the wine guy who delivers, all part of our daily lives in Aix-en-Provence?
Answer: Not here. But what is here is probably the best selection of everything in the U.S. Although it was a shock to realize that even at our favorite grocery store, vegetables and fruit come fortified in plastic wrap, we know we can find an amazing array of high quality, pulled from the ground produce, grand cheese, supreme meat and fish. But it’s not there in tempting open-air stalls every day all year long. We have to search for it.
Cuisine. Provençal food with its variations on all things olive, its fresh herbs, grilled vegetables, its seafood and pork and goat cheeses, what’s not to miss? But finding our local Mexican restaurant again, with its fresh corn tortillas and chicken soup with avocado, its tamales and super salsa, what’s not to love?
Newspapers. Let’s put it like this: For the long flight home, I bought a copy of Le Monde Diplomatique to help pass the hours, which it did. I was particularly engrossed with a double-page spread on the latest thinking about our prehistoric historic ancestors; On our second day home, I picked up a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which a front-page story was dedicated to the latest innovation in combatting public impropriety. We now have walls, where, if you pee on them, they will pee back on you. Really? As a former journalist, I’ll leave it there.
Style. It was on an airport bus that it really hit me: Many of my compatriots dress as if they had just fallen out of bed, or were on their way to the gym (although by the looks of most, not really). T-shirts with weird logos, sweats, sneakers. This seems to be our uniform regardless of the venue—public transportation, a jog around the park, the theater, a nice restaurant. I remembered with a pang how stylish the French seem, not just the old couples with beautiful suits, hats, ties and gloves, but everybody, even the kids. Sure they wore jeans (sometimes with fashionable holes in them), but their hair was combed, even if long or buzzed, and they wore scarves around their necks. Sure I saw plenty of tattoos, piercings, and my young manicurist had spiky hair that went from pink to blue. Still, people appear to put themselves together in a way that says, “I care what I look like.” And it is a pleasure to look at them.
Roads. I could go on and on about the virtues of French transportation, which indeed deserves all kinds of hosannas. But coming back to roads, from Hwy. 50, the “loneliest road in America” across Utah and Nevada, to secondary roads and small, back ones near home that are actually wide enough for two cars to pass AND which don’t drop off suddenly into deep ditches with no shoulders, is a true blessing. As for signs that actually tell you what’s ahead and how far, as opposed to the “Toutes Directions” signs, which may not actually include all directions, especially the one you want: another blessing.
Appliances. Reuniting with a dishwasher that holds the dishes without the racks folding, that doesn’t leak, and doesn’t take one hour and a-half to finish; having a washing machine that takes more than a sheet, a pair of socks and two tea towels at a time and doesn’t take one hour and a half to finish; having a drier, period—I realize that somewhere in there, I’m just an American girl when it comes to household stuff that works.
Greetings. I’m back in the land of “Hello, I’m Veronica, and I’m your server”; and “Have a nice day, you guys.” And I distinctly miss the “Bonjour, Madame, Monsieur,” followed by “Bonne journée,” with no Happy Face written all over it.
Beauty. The patches of green and gold stretching down from the hilltop where Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire in the distance, the light playing over the red tile rooftops and the valley are there now when we blink open our eyes. This was our neighborhood, and the pine and laurel trees of our hillside, the church spires of old Aix, its winding, ancient streets with their endless surprises.
We have returned from intense heat to morning and evening fog, to a hillside lined with oaks and pines and redwoods, to an eastward landscape of hills and valleys rolling like the sea, and a westward view of San Francisco and bridges and the bay beneath. We no longer have a day and night symphony of birdsong, as we did in Aix. But on our first week home, a large buck with an impressive rack of antlers marched slowly up the street in midday, as if to greet us.
Friends and Family. We have left dining with Maurice and other dear ones on the terrace under the great, spreading fig tree, drinking cool Provençal rosé under the late light of summer skies. We have come here, to sit on the deck with friends and family, drinking pinot noir from the Russian River, and to toast the magnificent sunset arching over the Golden Gate to the Pacific.
Home is where the heart is, and it can beat in two places at once.