Delights in Provence

September 27, 2017

Spending a week in Provence recently felt a bit like a homecoming. Although it has been many years since my semester abroad in Aix-en-Provence, it was a treat to be back.

There is something deeply reassuring about wandering among buildings that were built in the eleventh century, then added onto in the thirteenth century, and perhaps again a century or two later. You can easily discern the difference in architecture (once they are pointed out)—the rounded Roman archways, and the more pointed Gothic ones, with its more elaborate additions and curlicues. Not only are they beautiful, often a glowing smooth yellowish stucco, but the idea that they have been there for a millennium, or in some cases almost two millennium, confirms long continuity of history. Through hundreds of years of changes, wars, political strife, famine and fashion, people gain perspective about cycles, and are much less ruffled by surprises. Everything is one more step in an enormous circuitous chain.

They embrace and celebrate life by spending time with one another, lingering literally for hours over meals, and taking the time out of their mid-day to support this. Businesses closing for two hours around lunchtime are declaring their priorities. Yes, some large stores may remain open during this time, but many others are clearly demonstrating their preferences for enjoying a leisurely repast over making sure they are capturing sales.

The French are almost caricature-like in their passion about food and wine, and for good reason. It is thrilling to be served food that is tended with care to every detail. Exactly which type of cheese, which wine, how they are made, how they combine. They are excited to share their expertise and welcome discussion and challenge.

The senses are further stimulated by driving through the countryside: green and rolling with narrow streets in its small towns and flowers drooping from the smallest of homes. The scent of lavender sometimes wafts through the air. One cannot help but appreciate the pride that exudes from the decoration of their dwellings.

As a visitor, it is particularly welcoming, belying the reputation of standoffishness (although in the south, people are known for their friendliness, as seems to be true in many countries). I recall how I found the extreme opinionatedness of the French to be charming. Their insistence about viewpoint reflects the depth of feeling about whatever it is—politics, laws, the head of foam on a latte. I’m sure it could become tiresome, but I found it to be engaging and entertaining. And I love the language itself. Although obviously rusty from lack of use, words and phrases popped out at (mostly) appropriate times. More time there would enhance my laborious attempts at communication. How satisfying to make oneself understood in sounds so alien to the ear, but so pleasing!

The air, the coffee, the crepes and chocolate, there is so much to recommend about France. I breathed deeply during our week there, delicious in part because it was vacation, but also reconnecting with my early experiences of living in a foreign country. Becoming familiar with new customs, cobblestone streets, walled cities, and at that time, learning that I could get along in a country not my own was so vital.

One week was enough to rekindle my love affair with this beautiful country, rich in history, steeped in culture, color and sound. I don’t even mind the extra pounds that take time to unload; they were such a delight to earn. I must now turn my attention to when to return.

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