A Heart Divided



“Isn’t it so hard to leave Aix?”


“Are you happy to be back?California-Poppies-simplesojourns.com_


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?market Aix


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?15803529-tortilla-soup-mexican-cuisine


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.imagesK3E1BHOMfrench-style-basics-striped-top-distressed-skinny-jeans-camel-coat-black-pumps-ombre-hair-fashion-blog-the-august-diaries9


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.Mont St. Victoire

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.imagesU61B3KRD


Home is where the heart is, and it can beat in two places at once.

Mural from dining hall at Les Milles

Mural from dining hall at Les Milles


When at the local tourist office, upon first learning about the camp at Les Milles, barely outside my temporary hometown of Aix-en-Provence, I can’t say I wanted to go there. But I knew I would. Having been to Holocaust memorials and museums—having been to Auschwitz—I knew what I was in for. I also knew that since it was in my neighborhood, a visit would be compulsory. For those of us alive and well seventy-some years after the eruptions of World War II, the least we can do is to pay attention, to pay our respects.

So, along with my husband and French and American friends, I went. We arrived by bus, and walking along a dusty road of an old industrial area of Les Milles, found ourselves staring through a fence at a large, grim brick edifice. It had been a tile and brick factory from the 19th century to World War I, when it was abandoned. Then, in 1939, it found new life—and a new purpose—as a concentration camp, which operated for three years.

Camp des Milles

Sometimes called “the antechamber of Auschwitz,” it was intended first as a transit camp, until 1942, when it became a deportation center. After the war, like most such camps in France, it was destined for oblivion. But some thirty years ago, Alain Chouraqui discovered its existence, and led the long campaign to preserve it—to transform Les Milles from the site of unspeakable crimes to one of guidance toward a more humane future.

“We decided to fight to preserve this camp,” he said, “since we understood that this camp was in fact the last one preserved in France… We were interested in showing that the bad people were not only the Germans or Nazis, but they were French.

“The question of identity, racism, anti-Semitism ,” he also said, “are still very active and dangerous, and we want to show people how far it can lead societies.”

His point was abundantly clear when, as we approached the grounds, we entered a security clearing room one-by-one; offending objects such as pocket knives were removed from us, and a heavily armed soldier scrutinized from outside. Asked if this procedure had been in place long, he answered no, only since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in January, 2015.

There is no sugar coating the dismal immensity of a 19th century tile factory, the cold, the dank, the dust of it. When such a place becomes a holding pen for human beings without adequate clothing, bedding, sanitary facilities, or food, its wretchedness cries out over decades.

But still, what we discovered at Les Milles astonished us: That despite the deprivations and fear, for the extraordinary collection of artists, musicians, and intellectuals thrown together there—more than 10,000 internees from many countries over three years—creation was resistance.

The Camp of Painters

The Camp of Painters

Initially the detainees were Germans living in France, some Nazis, but in one of the cruel ironies of the war, many were anti-fascists who had fled the Nazi regime. Then the numbers began to swell with dissident artists and intellectuals: painters including Max Ernst, Hans Belmer, Ferdinand Springer;

Ferdinand Springer

Ferdinand Springer

writers such as historian Golo Mann (son of Thomas Mann) and Lion Feuchtwanger, who would live to write a memoir about the camp, “The Devil in France”; and Nobel-Prize winning scientists Otto Meyerhof,

Otto Meyerhof

Otto Meyerhof

who won the prize for medicine in 1922, and Tadeus Reichstein, who would win it in 1950 for his invention of cortisone. There were architects, sculptors, orchestra conductors, journalists, comedians, and political dissidents.

I felt as if we met them in the silent dust they left behind. In the former kiln, stacked with bricks to create a stage and seats, prisoners created a theater named “The Catacombs,” after a cabaret in pre-war Berlin that had been shut down by the Nazis for its political satire and “depravity.” The sounds of Goethe’s “Faust”, of orchestra music, still echo there, just as the stories of lost loves and lives and hopes still exist in the graffiti of hearts, faces, messages, a Star of David left behind on the walls. In all, it is thought more than 300 original works were created at Les Milles, most of them eventually smuggled out.

The most visible of what remain are the murals of the guards’ dining hall, which burst with humor, color and satire. It was hard for me to imagine the kind of courage it took to create comedy in the face of despair, and my first instinct was to withhold my laughter. But I couldn’t, not in front of the cartoon-like figures in blue carrying trays; not when seeing the ironic message beneath plates piled high with delicious food: “If your plates aren’t very full, let our drawings calm your appetite.”

"If your plates aren't full enough..."

“If your plates aren’t full enough…”

And certainly not in front of the large mural of a comedic “Last Supper” featuring a cowboy, an Eskimo, a Henry VIII-like king, and others all gorging themselves on the food of their countries, while a disdainful figure—supposedly the Vichy camp commander—looks down at them from above. I decided that the artist meant for me to join him in laughter, which, like food, is always better shared. He was most likely Karl Bodek, who was deported to Auschwitz.

Visiting Les Milles invites such connections—with the artists and what they left for us, with the horrors of what took place here, but also with its heroes. There was the security guard Auguste Boyer who smuggled out Jewish children and sheltered them in his home. He was fired for his defiance. There was the French camp commander who ordered a freight car to take endangered dissidents close to Spain. There was the American journalist Vivian Fry who helped smuggle over 2,000 refugees—some from Les Milles—to safety in America. And there was the American Vice-Consul Hiram Bingham who worked with Fry by issuing false visas. He was also fired for defiance.

Defiance. Creativity. Resistance. This is where the visit ends, with a “Reflective” exhibit tracing not only the genocide of the Jews, but of other holocausts. Armenians, 1915-1916; Gypsies, 1939-1945; Rwandans, 1994.

The Scars of Rwanda

The Scars of Rwanda

It invites—challenges—each person to resist in large ways and small. To be intolerant of hate speech, to act against group pressure and stereotypes, to help stamp out racism wherever it’s found.

One picture is blown up to make its own powerful statement as a mural. It shows Germans at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin all standing to give the Nazi salute. But one man, who remains quietly sitting, arms crossed over his chest, resists.

Lone Dissenter

Lone Dissenter

As my companions and I left across the dusty yard to the exit, we were all pretty silent. I know what was on my mind, and later my husband said he was lost in the same thought. One of the many ways democracy can give way to authoritarian regimes, according to a display in the Reflective section, is when laws and governing principles protecting freedom and human rights are eviscerated and turned on their heads under a false veneer of legitimacy.

The display did not mention the American Patriot Act, nor the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision, allowing unlimited and anonymous spending in political campaigns. Nor did it pose the question, “If you had been here at Les Milles, what would you have done?”

What it did ask, though, was far more difficult. “Who are you, really? And what do you intend to do now?”


The Fireside Angel, Max Ernst, 1937

The Fireside Angel, Max Ernst, 1937


Cave Hand

You leave the hot sun of Southern France, the hills now heavily forested and rolling into the distance, the nearby limestone cliffs and gorges, gouged by time and the Ardèche River. You step inside the Chauvet Cave, or rather its newly opened replica, 6 kilometers from the real one near the Pont d’Arc,le pont d arc adjust your eyes to the dark, your skin to the cool damp, and quickly know you have become a time-traveler. You have entered the world of Cro-Magnan man and the oldest-known example of cave art, dating back some 36,000 years.

You are struck first by the sensation of it, the dimensions, the unfolding chambers defined by low ceilings and icy looking stalactites and stalagmites, which catch the cave light and glow with a shimmering beauty. Then there is the floor, its scattering of bones, many of them accumulated and piled together by the cave’s earliest inhabitants, cave bears, who also left many footprints and claw marks on the soft earth.

Then you not only look up, to the walls, but you begin to see. They are suddenly alive with animals—huge, mostly predatory, dangerous animals—mammoths, lions, wooly rhinoceroses, reindeer, bison, ibexes, horses.cave lions

From chamber to chamber you follow them, sometimes in single images; sometimes in pairs; sometimes copulating; sometimes fighting; sometimes in full gallop across the steppes which were then outside. You will learn that the cave has 450 animal pictures showing 14 or perhaps 15 different species.cave rhinos

You will learn a dizzying number of other facts, too, about paleontology, geology, speleology; about carbon dating, theories of evolution, and the family tree of early man. But you can’t, just yet, take them in because your eyes are still swimming with red dots, the burst of them like a balloon sellers’ display, which caught you near the entrance.

And then you have seen it, the first hand outlined on the wall. It is the artist’s hand, a signature, a hand very like your own. It is followed by other, some full-on handprints colored red, some “negative” prints, done in outline. One artist, with a markedly crooked little finger, displays his—or is it her?—signature print in many places throughout the cave, making it possible to trace his/her work. Then, many hands come together for a full–blown painting of handprints.Chauvet hands

The artistry is dazzling, the techniques amazing: the use of charcoal, and natural pigments, such as ochre; the artists’ ability to paint with brushes and fingers, to scratch images; their mastery of depth and dimension by incorporating rock surfaces into their work; their astonishing depiction of movement—like early cinema—by painting several “animals” side-by-side in motion, which, especially when viewed by torchlight, actually represent one animal running.

Once you have seen this art up close for yourself, you will be eager to understand what it means. What was its intent? You will learn many theories, postulated by many experts. They run into each other with words like ritual, animal spirits, magic, shamanism. No doubt the words hold pieces of the truth, but no one can say for sure. That is also true for all art. You can become learned and informed and knowledgeable, but you can’t really know what it means, you can only feel it, in your heart, in your bones.

In 2010, Werner Herzog made a film entitled “Cave of the Forgotten Dreams,” about the Chauvet cave and its art, which was discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet. But the result of Chauvet’s spectacular find was to create the replica, which took dozens of experts and artisans, many years and 55 million Euros to make. So the dreams created in this cave were hardly forgotten; they were merely resting in their own dream state until the homo sapiens sapiens of your time—like yourself–could pick them up to stir inside the dream field where these Cro-Magnan mothers and fathers left them.

Was that their intent? Before experiencing their art, that would have seemed a far-fetched question. But when you have felt its power, its connection to you– even though its world of steppes and wild beasts has long vanished—the millennia between their time and your own seem erased. Little as you may understand about who they were and how they lived, the one thing you know here is that this tribe of hunting and gathering artists is your tribe. They exist in you; they are you.

This is what happens when you see great art. It makes you rethink everything.images (4)

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


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.

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.




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.

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

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

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.