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Max.M visuel

At the Méjanes Library in Aix, I catch an unusual performance. First comes the thrum of electric guitar vibrations, then the compelling beat of drums, then the voice insistent on keeping the rhythm, the tick tock—and the intent—of the words.


Trois mille six cents fois par heure, la Seconde

         Chuchote: Souviens-toi! Rapide, avec sa voix

         D’insecte, Maintenant dit: Je suis Autrefois,

         Et j’ai pompé ta vie avec ma trompe immonde!


(Three thousand six hundred times an hour, Second

Whispers: Remember! –Immediately

With his insect voice now says: I am the Past

And I have sucked out your life with my filthy trunk.)

Translation by Mylène Farnier, 2013


The voice is that of rock singer and guitarist Max, M. The words are from the third stanza of the poem “L’Horloge,” or “The Clock,” by the great and hugely influential poet– and iconic 19th century bad boy–Charles Baudelaire. Together, words and music comprise the first song of Max, M’s CD, “Tribute à Baudelaire,” although the poem was the last in Baudelaire’s work “Spleen & idéal.” It is also part of the repertoire Max, M plays live.


If “L’Horloge” is about the “sinister, terrifying god,” Time, and ends with the line “When all will say: ‘Die, old coward! It is too late!” other poems selected by Max, M reflect different baudelairean themes: sensuality, intoxication, voluptuousness, the corruption of the material world. These images are drawn from the ‘spleen’ side of “Spleen & idéal.” On the other side, are reflections on ideals of beauty, love and the symbolism found in nature.Baudelaire


Born in Paris to a well-off family, Baudelaire developed a taste for the exotic, and the dissolute, early. As a teenager, he discovered the pleasures of alcohol and prostitutes, and quickly went through his fortune, gaining a reputation as a free-spender and a dandy. Despite the revolutionary content of much of his work, he used a formal, traditional structure–such as the sonnet—to deliver his shocking messages in forms of classical beauty. At 36, in 1857, he published the first edition of his famous “The Flowers of Evil,” of which “Spleen & ideal” makes up the first part.


Max, M—short for Morena—is, on the other hand, a native of Nice, and a 21st century rock musician with a day job for the French national railways, where he is known as the “railwayman rocker.” Though he started playing music at 15 and has had a band for years, it is only recently that he connected with Baudelaire and put together his Tribute.


“In 2013,” he tells me, “I went through a bit of sadness and began reading poetry and found ‘Spleen’ on the Internet.” Not only did the poems speak to his state of mind, he says, “but I had the impression of reading songs—classic French songs. I added the music.” In that respect, he feels he is in an honored tradition of French singers—such as Jacques Brel, for example—who join music to a meaningful and poetic text. He also thinks if Baudelaire lived today, he would be a superstar songwriter.Baudelaire quote


Max M’s desire to go forth and sing Baudelaire now, in the 21st century, comes from his sense that the poet is very modern, up-to-date, and given the right beat, even hip. This is the poet who in one breath speaks of “the caress of serpents,” and in another extols “the language of flowers and of mute things.”


“With music from today,” Max M adds, “people are astonished to learn that these are actually poems of Baudelaire’s.”


Bringing people to that sense of astonishment and appreciation underlies his sense of mission: to take his tribute far and spread the melodic gospel of the “poète maudit,” or cursed poet, as Baudelaire was known, far and wide. He sees Baudelaire’s work as an important part of the French “patrimoine,” a word you hear often in France, meaning heritage. He would like to take his work out of the region of Provence, where he lives and works, and spread it throughout France—to high schoolers, for example, who struggle to learn French poetry– and eventually the francophone world, such as in French-speaking Africa.


He would bring them that baudelairean split universe of spleen, where, as in “The Death of the Lovers,” the lovers extinguish themselves “like a long sob”; or of ideal, as in the famous couplet from the iconic “Invitation to a Voyage,” in which lovers find themselves in a world where all is “Beauty and measure/Luxury, calm, and pleasure.”Max.M 1-Live


Meantime, he has his railroad work and plenty of music gigs and projects. He plans to make more CDs, a video, and continue to develop Baudelaire “songs” that fit well with a rock beat.


To find out more about Max M, his CD’s, and to catch many YouTube videos of him performing rocking Baudelaire (I recommend his rendition of “The Cat,” with his guest star feline), go his website: www.maxenligne.com, or contact him at max@maxenligne.com


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You hear it, bouk-een-bar, like a refrain, like a whisper lost from casual conversations across this gilded, sun-blest city of Southern France. And although the bookstore, Book in Bar, sports an English flag and a teapot as its logo, emphasizing its Anglophone literary bent—and its destination as a café—the accent is definitely French.

Situated in the heart of the exclusive Quartier Mazarin, it occupies an unimposing corner in the midst of impressive neighbors—elegant 18th-century-mansions-turned-art-centers, the Centre Caumont across the street,

Centre Caumont

Centre Caumont

the Hôtel de Gallifet around the corner; the Lycée Mignet, where Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola became best friends, down the block; the famous Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins

Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins

Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins

two blocks further down rue Cardinale, named after Cardinal Jules Mazarin, minister to King Louis XIV, and brother of Archbishop Michel Mazarin, urban planner of the district.

But it is not  the ambiance of ancient grandeur and brilliance that draws you to Book in Bar; rather it is the opposite. The welcoming sign of a teapot, the enticing display of books in the window, the cozy warmth once you step inside, and the friendly greeting by manager Anne Conet, who is most often ringing up books at the cash register.

Anne Conet

Anne Conet

Anne, a native of Belgium, has been at the bookstore since the beginning, which she remembers well–September 12, 2001. She had already worked in another English bookstore in Aix, when she met Anne Philippe, who wanted to open a bookstore/café. Anne Conet persuaded Anne Philippe and her eventual co-owner, Luc Delmet, that there was a market for English-language books, and they combined their visions. The store moved to its present location eight years ago and offers not only a rich selection of books in English, but selections in Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French, as well as other languages. If you need a Japanese version of a Tintin book, for example, could be your spot.

It is also your spot if you, like I, find yourself in need of a perfect refuge from the rain when small children are visiting. They’ll love the snug children’s room and a cup of hot chocolate.

Tea? Coffee? Smoothie?

Tea? Coffee? Smoothie?

Or if you need a place to bring guests who want to peruse the International Herald Tribune while sipping tea, or meet friends, attend author events, participate in a writer’s workshop, a poetry corner or a book club. There’s one in English—and one in Swedish.


But best of all, it’s a place to find a moment of peace. Take a table or a stool by the window or a chair tucked upstairs, pull out something to read, and soon enough a cheerful waitress will take your order for a café, a croissant, a cookie or a scone. Payment is later, on the honor system. And while you’re sipping, and musing, you can also take in the other habitués of this literary nook: teenagers doing homework together; tutors helping students with homework in English or French; friends chatting over tea; folks discussing a book together; scholars of every stripe buried in pages, or, of course, laptops. Curiously, all speak in hushed voices, as if careful not to disturb anyone else’s muse.


A Reader's Spot

A Reader’s Spot


In a city of many cultural treasures, bouk-een-bar is definitely an addition. As American French teacher Ron Wallace remarked on a recent visit, “I never expected to find a bookstore like this outside of Paris.”

But there it is, in the heart of Aix—the 21st arrondissement of Paris, as some would have it. If you come to Aix, you’ll definitely want to visit– and to buy some good books for the journey ahead as you check out.

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M.F.K. Fisher’s Gift



fisher-portraitIn 1991, I visited M.F.K. Fisher in Sonoma County, California, where she spent her final dozen years in her lovely adobe “wine country” home, Last House. She was at the time bed-ridden, nearly blind and riddled with debilitating health problems. In fact, she died the next year. But I had come to interview her for an article to be published in dozens of newspapers, and she was up for the occasion. Charming, sharp, witty and ever the gracious hostess who directed her caretaker to serve wine, she concluded the interview by inviting me to visit her bathroom. There, in addition to tile floors and a huge tub, she also had large shelves to store her hundreds of books.

“Pick the one you want,” she directed.

I chose “Two Towns in Provence,” published in 1983 from two previously printed books. She signed it as best she could with a shaky hand, adding a little heart. It remains one of my prize possessions.untitled (5)

Of course I read it with pleasure, being an enormous fan of not only her insights on food, cooking, culture and life, but of her wonderful writing. The towns in question were Marseille, which I knew only slightly, and Aix-en-Provence, which I had never visited. But their characters, sounds and smells, the quality of their light and music were vivid to me as enticing portraits of exotic and foreign lands.

Now, seventy-some years after M.F.K. first spent time in Aix—and by her own admission, fell in love with it—I find myself living here and experiencing my own heady romance. Of course, I brought her gift to me along, and step-by-step, street-by-street, she has been my mentor and my guide.

In many ways, the roughly five years she spent here with her two young daughters (coming and going) between 1955 and 1962 are very distant and reflect the era that was just emerging from World War II. The Aixois were in those years, she wrote, “basically defeated. Exhausted.” But they became younger every time she returned.MFKFisherTypewriter1

Much of what she describes appears unchanged—from those times and, indeed, from centuries before. So it is easy to walk past the Cathédral St.-Sauveur and expect to see her coming out. Or to follow the narrow, medieval street, Gaston de Saporta, and imagine coming across the bookstore of the larger-than-life Brondino, whose outspoken beliefs and left-wing views got him booted out of his job as a law professor. Whereupon he established himself in his bookstore and foisted his radical views– and art reproductions–on the students who still flocked to hear him.

It is easy, too, to picture M.F.K. in many of the rooms she let over the course of her stay. The tiny Hotel de France, which still looks down on the tiny Place des Augustins and its fountain, whose music is still drowned out by the noisy street life of students. Or to imagine the rooms she shared with her girls in the Hotel de Provence, no longer a hotel, on rue d’Espariat, with the back windows looking down on a riveting, if scary melodrama: the couple who started off Sundays with café and a meal by the laundry hanging in their open window, then progressed to drinking, to shouting and cursing, to his brandishing a knife, then, late in the day to her screams. “Ah, he will kill me, he will kill me…he is taking me.”
And, on the other side of town, in the heart of the exclusive Mazarin District, it is impossible to pass by the stately golden-toned walls of the 17th century mansion at 17 rue Cardinale and not see M.F.K. slipping out the richly carved wooden door; or the principal maid Fernande, given to “liver crises”; or the incomparable landlady, Mme. Lanes, with her “desperate nobility,” her worn, elegant clothes and perfect carriage, heading to the market near dawn to find the makings of the day’s meal.rue-cardinal-outside-our-appartment

One of M.F. K.’s indelibly memorable characters, Mme. Lanes embodies a whole era near its end: An impoverished aristocrat worn down by war, loss and deprivation, she was forced to open her home to boarders in order to keep it. And in her struggle to maintain her position, she nearly killed herself trying to preserve a way of life not just of the pre-war era, but, by M.F.K.’s account, to the standards of the 18th century. If Brondino was a Communist, M.F.K. wryly noted, Mme. Lanes was “a Tory”—a woman so bound to a dying class system that she once declared she would rather fall into the Cours Mirabeau, Aix’s elegant main boulevard, than be helped across by a well-meaning woman of the lower rungs of society.

It is on the Cours Mirabeau that I think of M.F.K. especially. For it was here, at the famous Deux Garçons Café, that the self-described “ghost-like” writer took breakfast every morning, lingered after her girls left for school, and spent “many of the pleasantest hours of my so-called life.” Nearing fifty, and already a well-known and popular writer on food, cooking and travel, in America, she was indeed invisible in Aix.

Although W.H. Auden once wrote of her, “I do not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose,” even she, author of several best-selling books including an acclaimed translation of Brillat-Savarin’s “The Physiology of Taste,” fell victim to the strange anti-Americanism of the day.

It was encapsulated in the rant of one hostess who invited her to lunch only to declare: “Tell me…explain to all of us, how one can dare to call herself a writer on gastronomy in the United States, where, from everything we hear, gastronomy does not yet exist.”

I still admire the sangfroid with which M.F.K. replied, smiling politely at the attack and holding her tongue. Only the next day did she reply, by selecting a gorgeous bouquet of flowers and having them delivered to the lady—in a box shaped like a coffin.

But if the celebrated writer made her appearance every day at the Deux Garçons, no one seemed to notice. Although anti-Americanism of her day has given way to an enthusiastic embrace of American pop culture in all its forms these days, the “ghost-like” figure seems still to be invisible. On the menu of Deux Garçons there appears a brief history of the café, dating from 1792.les-deux-garcons
Among the celebrated habitués listed are André Maurois, Jean Cocteau, Jean Giono, Blaise Cendrars, Edith Piaf, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sophie Marceau and Winston Churchill. Even Hugh Grant and George Clooney get a nod, to say nothing of those 19th century high-school pals, Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola. But M.F.K. Fisher is never mentioned.



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M.L. Longworth

M.L. Longworth


On stools next to a window of tiny Book in Bar bookstore, I sip coffee with mystery writer M. L. Longworth. As we chat, passersby stop to smile and greet her, as if she were a neighbor in this most exquisite of Aix’s many historic neighborhoods. Which for many years she was. Now, even though she lives in a rural village, her heart still belongs to Aix, while her identity has become multicultural—French-European with North-American roots. Born in Canada,, she and her husband left Santa Cruz, California, for a sudden job offer in Provence seventeen years ago and did what many ex-pats dream of doing: They stayed.

Along the way, their daughter grew up, Mary Lou began teaching and writing free-lance articles, landed a dream job teaching creative writing for New York University in Paris—and created the irresistible, passionate and quarrelling couple– handsome Judge Antoine Verlaque and gorgeous Law Professor Marine Bonnet–as Provence’s go-to crime-busting team. In 2011, Penquin Books published “Death at the Château Bremont,” the first in the “Verlaque & Bonnet Provençal Mystery” series. Coming out at the rate of about one a year, the fifth one is due in the fall.

Since they are mysteries, naturally the stories have intricate plots, which, Mary Lou says, she sometimes changes during the writing. “I think, hmm, it would be more interesting if THAT one were the murderer.” untitled (3)

But I was curious about whether she starts there, with plot, or with place or characters. “Both place and characters. Since I was writing travel pieces, the first one was based more on place” – the alluring château set near the hamlet of St.-Antonin on the way up to Mont-Ste.-Victoire. “But later, they are more based on characters…The only thing set from the beginning of the series was the relationship between Verlaque and Bonnet.”

“Which at first seems rather tortured,” I note.

“Yes,” she smiles. “But it keeps evolving. Getting better.” That is a nice feature, she goes on, of having a long story arc over several novels, giving the characters the chance to develop. “They are organic; they age.”

Since Aix and the surrounding country is rich in art, architecture, history and its timeless intrigues, Mary Lou evokes the past from a deep archive of knowledge. But the fun of reading these books, and what makes them smart and timely, is that they’re also very much set in contemporary Aix and its environs. The historic Cours Mirabeau, its famous café, Les Deux Garçons, the imposing Palais de Justice, Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, and all the surrounding cobbled streets come alive with tidbits of current affairs: the most fashionable tailor, the finest butcher shop, the best bookstore, or the great place for cheese on the rue d’Italie. And that doesn’t even get to restaurants, nor the wine and the food, those twin French obsessions.Aix-en-Provence-Espariat


No place better to learn what’s in and what’s out these days than from the crackling quips of the characters—the epicure Verlanque who often despairs at his brainy, green-eyed girlfriend’s déclassé eating habits; while Marine herself disapproves of her own mother’s predilection for shopping in—quelle horreur—supermarkets, and is easily led to drinking cocktails with her gal pal, sleek photographer Slylvie, whose own reading runs to gossip rags and fashion design…. The clues are endless.


So, I have to ask. With this rich array of characters and places, are they mainly “real,” or mainly made up?

Mary Lou laughs. “Both. Many are based on people I know, or mixtures of them. But people often ask if Marine is really me. No! Verlaque, who is tall, opinionated, sometimes a snob, loves Philip Larkin and fine wine and cigars—that’s based on me,” she says. And she reminds me of her membership as the only female in an exclusive Aixois cigar club.

“Marine, who doesn’t know she is beautiful, is refreshingly honest and is working on a book about the relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir– she is not me. But she does live in my old apartment.” That would be the one down the street from Book in Bar in the exclusive Mazarin Quarter with the music from the Fountain of the Four Dolphins in the background, and the sun reflecting its rose light off the façade of the neighborhood’s venerable church, St. Jean-de-Malte, onto the terrace.

I have to tell Mary Lou how much fun it has been to discover this present-day town and all its fashions through her books, what a great guide she has been to places I have also discovered, and to many I may never achieve. Her murders, echoing the kind of town Aix is, tend to take place in the most upscale venues: a château, of course; an exclusive vineyard; the palatial apartment of a retiring theology professor; a five-star hotel on a private Mediterranean island.

It’s hard to imagine what will come next. But I do know that it will be served up with flair, and champagne, like a feast fit for Verlaque. Red snapper ceviche shooters, for example, to be followed by roast bass in olive oil, mussels and cherry tomatoes; then a rack of grilled lamb, stir-fry summer vegetables, wasabi purée and cilantro-mint vinaigrette…Mary Lou snaps me back from a delicious scene out of “Murder on the Ile Sordou.” untitled (4)

“You wanted to know about the next one,” she says. “It’s called ‘The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne.’ It will come out in September.”

In September, I will read it in California, where instead of walking the streets of Aix with Verlaque and Bonnet, I will remember them with delight.

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Matisse Museum

Matisse Museum

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines absurd as “ridiculously unreasonable, unsound, incongruous.”

But on a recent trip to Nice, I didn’t really need the dictionary to see what absurd is. What else but “ridiculously unreasonable, incongruous,” could you call those red colors slammed against those yellows, oranges and greens? Those deep rose-colored walls framed inside a blue-that-cannot-be-named. Because this is the Côte d’Azur, after all, the Azure Coast.

Picasso put it this way: “If you run out of red, use blue.”.


I decided to take his advice, and through the work of artists—Impressionists, post-Impressionists, Fauves, Cubists, Surrealists— to follow the blue thread from paintings to views of the landscape to a Carnival parade.From the sea to the sky, you really cannot tell the difference, nor find the words that define a Picasso blue as opposed to the blue of Matisse,Matisse Promenade des Anglais whose work hangs in the absurdly colorful museum on the hill atop the city, as opposed to the blue of Chagall whose museum is perched further down the same hill.Chagall
But as the artists reflected what they saw in the brilliant tangle of colors, in the crazy, wonderful juxtaposition of shapes and moods and reflections, then took them apart and put them together again, they gave back more than a vision to viewers of their work; they offered an experience.
Call it summer in winter, call it jazz, call it dance, call it blues, call it absurd, call it joy.
jester's hat

Whatever its name, people come to the Cote d’Azur to find it. And so they do, in all its expressions during Nice’s Carnival parade. Shimmying dancers in feathers, raucous clowns, a monstrous purple tarantula, and flower floats in dizzying cacophony shift the limits of reality like multicolored confetti raining down from nowhere.blue ballon

And blue? How about the iridescent blue-green wing of the giant insect invading the street, the bulbous nose of a bubble-gum blue fat balloon creature, who seems to laugh at the world? bug parade
But then there is the giantess of a queen atop her mountainous dress, who is there to say, perhaps, if you run out of blue, use red.
Or the palette of the absurd is infinite.red queen

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pot au feu

So, I’m in Provence settling into our new house for the year, and especially our new kitchen. The space, the light, the view to the terrace, all are delights. And that’s even without the wonderful foods we are able to bring home by the basketful. But a tiny obstacle rises up— how to use the digital, sleek, glass-top convection stove top (to say nothing of the induction oven).
In simple terms, I needed to know how to boil water. Instead of enrolling in a cooking class, I begin thinking that I should opt for a physics class.unnamed (2)

My husband, much braver in these matters than I, plunged ahead pushing digital buttons like a whiz, and with great untutored success. But for me, the boiling water thing became an obstacle course, accompanied by blinking red lights, unexplained flashing letters, and sometimes a outright revolt: the stove shut down completely.

The day I actually cried over spilt, or rather burnt, milk in a ruined pan was the day I knew the time had come. I needed to read the instruction booklet, a task I’m happy to postpone in any language. The parts about the sensitive nature of the stovetop and how it would shut down with any helping of liquid on it (read condensed steam) I got, and why it started shouting and dinging if anything was placed on its surface inadvertently, I got too. Screaming alarms and proper venting, OK.burnedpotresized (1)

Then I settled down to the nitty-gritty of the control buttons, the need-to-know for the basics of cooking. The first level, 1-2, as any French housewife will tell you, is setting for “sauce hollandaise” and “omelette norvège.” But when you think about it, where else would you start? That, of course, is followed by levels 3-4, which are best for your “poisson à la vapeur” and your “viande à l’étoufée.” And level 5-6, it naturally follows, is what you would use for your “ragoûts.”

By this time, I was feeling the teensiest bit of panic, contemplating the error of my ways, and trying to envision the array of disasters that the wrong setting might produce. The wrong button and my Norwegian omelette might turn Spanish, my hollandaise turn into scrambled eggs, my “étoufées” blow right on into my “boeuf bourguignon.” And I didn’t seem to be anywhere closer to knowing how, exactly, I was to warm the milk for my morning coffee.

Moving on through the next settings, those for “cordon bleu,” cordon bleu“roux” and frying beignets,beignets to say nothing of those for your cooking your basic kidneys or making “galettes,” didn’t exactly reassure me, either.

All those years of Mastering French Cooking with Julia began to vanish as my eyes turned watery. The huge, illustrated “Best of Provençal Cooking” by Richard Olney next to the 500-page tome of “La Cuisine Française” stared back at me from the table like a reproach. Whatever happened to my old, worn volume of “The Joy of Cooking,” I wondered? What if the children came and they wanted mac and cheese, or, mon Dieu, a hot dog?

I glanced down at the last setting, number 9. Good for boiling water, it said.
After a celebratory cup of tea, I needed to regroup, find my élan again. “How about lunch in town?” I suggested to my husband.

Soon we were settled into a favorite little brasserie, and I began contemplating the day’s offerings of simple fare: veal in cream sauce with steamed rice, little steaks done up with shallot butter, spinach soufflés, sea bass stuffed with leeks and stuffed aubergines with parmesan—that sort of thing.

Then a smartly dressed, lawyerly looking woman and a young man came in, sat next to us, and began discussing the plans for his upcoming wedding. With the tables only inches apart, it was hard not to hear. When the waiter asked for their order, and I heard her say, “Un Hamburger,” my ears perked up. The young man ordered the same.

Really? Good old American food—I was guessing setting 6—and offered a silent salute to Betty Crocker.

Then the waiter asked what she wanted with it. I listened for the familiar words: onions, pickles, catsup, mustard.

“Mais avec paté,” she said, “bien sûr.”hamburger

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Arriving in Provence in mid-October for a long stay, my fantasies reasonably included witnessing, if not participating in, some classy vendages, perhaps a barefoot crush or two—why not?–and tastings on sun-filled terraces in the family chateaux of superb domains. Of course, I would meet and befriend the winemakers whose lineages, like those of their vines, went back centuries. After all, this is what some of my friends had done; this is what I read about.

There was just one teeny problem with my vision. As I worked my way south across France, I noticed a small tickle in my throat and mentioned this to my friend, a pharmacist, in Brittany. As quick as you could say “Bonne Santé,” I found myself in a pharmacy (the first of many; there seems to be one every fifty yards) where I had a serious conversation with a serious young pharmacy assistant.  pharmacie

Since it was only a light affliction, I wouldn’t want to burden my body with unnecessary medicines, would I? Certainly not. Cram myself with possibly harmful chemicals? Mon Dieu, non. I’d certainly, therefore, want to follow the natural, homeopathic course, wouldn’t I? But yes, I wouldn’t consider any other.

And within minutes, I had in hand the first in what would become an impressive collection of French “médicaments.” As I recall, there were small, white, tasteless tablets for cough, and the first of many salt-water themed nose sprays as an accompaniment. But as I whizzed across the countryside in a fast train, spurts of sea spray began to blur with strands of wheat. I couldn’t honestly say what the overall “goût de terrain’ was, but I do know that by the time I arrived in Aix, my cough was thriving. I, however, was doing considerably worse.

Thoughts of mingling with winemakers vanished. Within two days, I had my first visit to the office of Dr. Martel. My condition had progressed to dry cough with slight rasp. A new round of medications was required for this. A new syrup, whose delicate color, like that of all the others I would come to know, was kept secret within brown glass. But what legs! What delicate hints of crushed hay and burnt sunflower seed, laced with licorice. It was a delight, I assure you, but got left behind as my condition moved onto a new phase.

I was now barking like a dog, and after more consultations with doctors, pharmacists, lab techs and people who only wear white coats, it was decided that I now had a “toux grasse,” roughly translated as a fat cough, and thus required a whole new arsenal. This meant new sprays, new instructions on breathing steam, a short course of antibiotics, and of course a new “sirop.” The Fat Cough Syrup had the same thick, slow, golden drip on the glass and the tongue that the others had, but what dashing notes of seaweed underscored by a “soupçon” of fricassed grapefruit pulp, what a surprise finish–that lingering after tone of virgin motor oil. I’m sure it had a fine nose, too, but by that time I didn’t, so could hardly say.

Each round of treatment, of course, was accompanied by different cough drops. And nights, when instead of sleeping (well, I couldn’t really) I began to have hazy dreams of perfect pairings.

The light lemony butter lozenges for the “dry but scratchy” phase syrup; the herbal ones smelling like wild French thyme definitely going with the homeopathic mix; and perhaps ripe sour cherries would be a perfect balance for “fat cough,” unless lavender honey would match better.

But mostly I was just hallucinating. I had by now made several more visits to people in white coats—all of them attentive, helpful, efficient and kind—but without noticeably better results. I had also moved onto a kind of breathing machine, filled with chemicals that at this point I welcomed. All I seemed to have achieved, though, was to leave behind the barking dog to resemble some other kind of rough beast. A leading rhinoceros in Eugène Ionesco’s play of the same name came to mind.    JoannaTakesGas

It seemed my visions of vineyards with names like Cassis, Bandol and Gigondas had permanently given way to other names—Rhinathiol, Hélicidine, Bronchokod–all now stored in the bathroom cupboard that had become my cave. Another visit to Dr. Martel’s office and a chat with a young doctor there had produced another round of questions and examinations, now quite familiar: breath in, breath out, cough for me, stick out your tongue, and the usual clucking sounds when she peered down my throat. She then produced a new batch of prescriptions–and pronounced the magic words: “one that will help you sleep.”

I might be forgiven for being skeptical, especially when I examined that puny, non-descript half bottle that didn’t even have a colorful descriptor, like Fat Cough, on the label. It was only the next morning, however, that I woke with a peculiar sensation. I Had Slept Through the Night. I wasn’t hacking. The dark hours had turned to light, and I had turned the corner.

There, dwarfed by the other exotic bottles, which had proved to be only so many variations of “vin ordinaire,” I had found my own “grand cru” of cough syrups. Move over Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe; I only have eyes (ears, nose and throat) for Toplexil.

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Aix-en-Provence, the little city where I currently live, has been in its time a capital—for the Celtic Salluvii, for the Romans who succeeded them, and for the kingdom of Provence in the Middle Ages, before it became part of France. Now, some say, because of its sophistication, warmth, charm, intellectual life, its cafes and restaurants, it is the 21st arrondissement of Paris, 500 miles to the north.

A stretch? Perhaps. But if Paris is the City of Lights, Aix is a glittering jewel of its own, and never more so than during the Christmas season, which stretches from the end of November to Three Kings Day on January 6th, when it lights up end to end. Then with that celebration comes an official end to the festivities. And the lights come down.

This year the dark fell swiftly on January 7th. 10479749_10152774181664355_8579170353259851394_n

With the attack in Paris on the cartoonists and staff of the beloved satirical publication, “Charlie Hebdo,” and the subsequent bloodbath, France is experiencing what Le Monde has called “The French 9/11.” The French everywhere are in shock and mourning.

But to live in the shadow of its ancient walls and towers and spires is to understand that the light is always born of darkness. Here in Aix, every corner, every stone tells such a story. From the Celts slaughtered by the Romans, to warring fiefdoms, the reign of the Caliphate, the Religious Wars, the Revolution, and World Wars of the 20th century, to say nothing of plagues, famine , and persecution of Jews, Aix has seen much darkness. Yet it has emerged as a little capital of art, learning, tolerance and grace. Of light.

Our experience of Christmas here followed a similar arc. Our first festivity was to attend what is now part of the season in Aix, a night of traditional Swedish songs beginning in the St.-Sauveur Cathedral. In the dimly lit gothic nave, the cathedral suddenly went completely dark. Then, bearing candles, Scandinavian youth of the city, dressed in white robes, marched to the front and lit the hallowed darkness with their candlelight and song.
Afterwards, a procession filed down a cobbled street to the town square of the Hotel de Ville for cookies and glogg. D&M Fountain2

There, as everywhere in Aix, the trees, balconies and shops were a blaze of brightness against the night sky. And the fountain, like others in this city of fountains, overflowed not with water but with dazzling light.
From the smallest lanes to the famed main street, the Cours Mirabeau, lights festooned and blazed.bonbecstall

Rides and shops meant to delight children blinked, whirled, circled.ride2

When dark came, it fell quickly and hard. The lights even went out on the Eiffel Tower.

The end of the Christmas season was one nobody foresaw. But we gathered again in front of the Hotel de Ville with our fellow aixois. Hundreds came at night, at noon. In silence they carried or wore black signs or buttons with the new mantra of solidarity and defiance on them, “Je suis Charlie.” And they waved not candles but pencils in the air to signify that the right to freedom, and freedom of expression—light—will prevail.

Paris Attack San Francisco Vigil

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Approaching Thanksgiving with the prospect of family coming to visit in Aix-en-Provence, including young grand-daughters, was, I admit, a delight. It was also overlaid with memories of another Thanksgiving spent in France, in Paris, a half-a-lifetime ago.

I had been young, a student, and living as a pensioner with a ferocious retired professor of cuisine who was relentless in her drive to teach young barbarians to understand the basics of French cooking, and the requisite use of utensils to properly eat it. She was also, in my view, an unabashed zealot in her anti-Americanism, based primarily on her opinion that all that was wrong with America (plenty) stemmed from our primitive if not laughable preferences in food.

In my naivete, I decided the way to correct these obviously erroneous assumptions was to produce the ultimate delicious American feast and to invite French and American friends to enjoy it. With good will, pumpkin pie, and the pièce de résistance, a perfectly roasted, stuffed turkey, what could go wrong? I leave it to you to imagine what did (beginning with the fact that the French did not at that time really eat turkey, and finding one that was at least partially plucked was step one on the road to disaster).

Now decades later, the kids were coming and we contemplated what to do about Thanksgiving dinner. Echoing my long-ago experience, I began by investigating where to find our seasonal fowl. Although various turkey parts were available in various markets, I couldn’t seem to find one completely assembled. This was because, a friend finally informed me, you can’t buy one of those until Christmas. But never mind: Even if a turkey had been magically available, my oven was too small to cook it.

What, then, to do with the family coming for Thanksgiving? The only logical alternative took shape in the best Francophile corners of my mind: Book tickets on the fast train (TGV) and go to Paris.
Whizzing north from Aix, the girls were wide-eyed and inquisitive about what we were going to do—and particularly what we were going to eat.P1030666 (1)
They’d quickly embraced the French food they’d encountered so far. Justine was quite enthusiastic about pain au chocolat, while Bridget favored palmiers, and neither could have too many bowls of hot chocolate with steaming milk in the morning. Crêpes, baguettes, potage St.-Germain, golden Provençal apples and dark muscat grapes, all thumbs up. And that doesn’t even get to the artisanal treats we found in pastry shops.

Bridget did have one lingering concern, however. “We don’t have to eat snails, do we?” She asked her ritual question again on the train, and I thought of Madame, who had terrorized me all those decades ago in her fashionable 7th arrondissement apartment as she demonstrated how to correctly hold a snail. And I laughed.

Within hours we were comfortably settled on the most delightfully touristy conveyance I could find, a bateau mouche. The adults were happily sipping champagne and eating paté, while the girls ate a fine chicken in cream sauce, and watched, dazzled as we passed the Eiffel Tower, bridges over the Seine, and wondrous palatial buildings all blazing in lights. And after a sampler of tarts, a taxi ride, a hot bath and a night in a hotel, worries about snails—and what to do about a turkey—were easily forgotten.

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The next day, they played in the Roman Arena, fortuitously full of lycéens in Roman dress who were making a video for school, and wandered the ancient streets with shops full of color and wonder.

Paris in full regalia, what could be a better holiday?

All the same, once back in Aix, we stuffed and roasted a large chicken, cooked potatoes and green beans and remembered all we have to be grateful for by clinking glasses filled with fine Provençal rosé (and grape juice). Instead of pumpkin pie, we finished the feast with a platter of irresistible goodies the girls chose from a patisserie in town. 608x304_photo1112286

Where is it written that Thanksgiving requires turkey, anyway?

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When you move to a new place, of course it is a beginning. But when you move to a new place while at the same time moving into the end of the natural year, there is a sense of beginning at the end. So, arriving in Aix-en-Provence as my husband and I did, in October, we expected to be greeted with a feeling of fall.

We were wrong. This year, of all years, summer lingered into the early territory of winter. It wasn’t just the glorious strands of light filtering through the avenues of plane trees, nor the light clinging with blinding white vigor on the  rocky heights of Mt. Ste. Victoire, nor the light of the clean blue sky playing over a blue  sea—the famous Provencal  painterly light.P1030471

It was the sense of summer the light carried. People sitting long and leisurely in shirt sleeves and light-weight skirts in cafes; kids running free and playful in that holiday mood; crowds pushing into the streets in the mornings on market days and into the dark after dining in restaurants, or leaving the theater;unnamed (5)

even throngs in bathing suits and towels dusting themselves off as the sun set over the beach and the boats in the harbor and the wine sippers in bars beneath the dramatic cliffs of Cassis.unnamed (2)

Surely, I thought, this can’t last. For even as summer seemed a permanent guest on the terraces with geranium-filled pots outside our new home for the year, inside told another, cooler story. We soon learned what the people of Provençe all know: that stone houses with tile floors are meant to keep the cold inside, even while walls and stones and pavements harvest the light.unnamed (6)

I looked for the shafts of light falling straight as church steeples into open spaces, public squares, and the glow of orange, pink, yellow and rose tones—the colors of Provence—on buildings as the last light of day hit them. It seemed I should do something to save the summer light, too, to put something up before the storms and rains, and the Mistral came in earnest.

Then I went to the market and saw the mounds of multi-colored vegetables: baskets of peppers and zucchini; mounds of tomatoes, onions and garlic; stacks of purple-skinned eggplants. Then I knew: I could cook summer light where it was stored, in these vegetables.P1030431

Our friend Maurice was coming to dinner, and I decided to make my best ratatouille and a favorite Provençal dish. As the scents of the vegetables, olive oil and herbs simmering in the heavy pot invaded the kitchen, Maurice wandered over.

He looked over my shoulder and finally said in French, “You know, that looks something like ratatouille.”

I turned to look him in the eye. “But it is ratatouille,” I said.

“Ah,” he answered. “But it is a dish made in summer, with summer vegetables.”

I did not tell him I committed another heresy and put some away, for winter, in the freezer.

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