Now in our third week, we’re comfortably settled into the pace of life here. My morning walks are refreshing; we’ve had several one-day excursions exploring the region; we’ve had late dinners with friends, enjoying splendid conversations well into the evening. Most of all, we’ve enjoyed being immersed in the language and culture. And to keep up with the rhythm of being French, we speak French to each other. Each day, we pick up new conversational phrases that aren’t to be found in Flaubert or Zola. Evidence that our integration is taking hold is a paucity of media news of the United States. We’ve avoided for the most part reading the American newspapers online, preferring to get news from French television and newspapers. In the French press, and, I suppose, as it is elsewhere around the world, there is great interest in the Russian and Ukrainian crisis. Locally, the French press is focusing on election scandals of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. And there is practically no mention of the domestic situation of the current president, François Hollande. When President Hollande visited the White House recently, the American press seemed obsessed about his personal life. The French are fairly blasé, allowing the president to have his personal life without public scrutiny. What I find most refreshing about the news here is the extensive coverage of Africa and Asia. The American press gives little attention to these continents unless there is some crisis.
Life here is also a continual lesson in art and architecture. The buildings in the villages and towns dating from Medieval times have interesting stories to tell. The simplest to the most ornate constructions are works of art. Their durability, lasting through the centuries, affirms how the science of mathematics and the aesthetic arts merged to create the optimal practicality for daily living. In every place we visit, we are drawn to these structures. Each town has a plaza, and at its center is a church, a reminder of how integral the church was in the dictates of the political and cultural life of the people. From that simple little chapel of the penitents in Grimaud to the grand and majestic basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume to the equally imposing cathedral of Saint-Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence, stands indisputable evidence of the religious fervor of the congregations and the overarching power of the Church. Inside the larger churches, the tall stone pillars ascend toward the heavens, symbolically transporting the prayers of the faithful. Their towering height stands in contrast to the humbleness of the prayerful congregation. The Roman and Gothic architecture recall the engineering abilities and artistic tastes of the period. Engravings, sculpture and painting adorn the interior and educate the faithful. The walls of these damp and dark interiors are lined with beautifully detailed tableaux depicting the life of Jesus. Many of the artists of these huge canvases are little known or forgotten. I’m intrigued by a studied look at their composition, marveling how the artists use light, or lack of it, to evoke a sentiment or deliver a message. These paintings, often austere, can provide a light moment. At Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume I stood for a long time gazing at a retable, altarpiece, by the sixteenth-century artist, Antoine Ronzen,which depicted various New Testament themes. The various tableaux, darkened over the years, still illuminated rich, deep, coloring that added to the rich and intricate realistic portrayals by the artist. In a painting of the Holy Family in the basilica in Saint-Maximin, dating from the Middle Ages, the face of the baby Jesus was re-done in the nineteenth century to resemble Napoleon Bonaparte!
Of the two cloisters that we visited, the cloister at Saint-Sauveur was the most impressive with its decorative columns. At the top of each of the four corner columns were decorated reliefs representing a story in the life of Jesus as told by one of the four gospel writers. And only one column showed a realistic image of St. Matthew pointing the way to the sanctuary. Atop the other three columns were symbolic representations of the Mark, Luke and John. The cloister at Sainte-Marie-Madeleine was plain, void of any reliefs, but still architecturally beautiful with its graceful arches. Walking through these inner sanctuaries of monastic life brought vivid images of monks in silent prayer or singing together the evening’s vespers in the angelic resonance of Gregorian chant.
Earlier this week we visited one of the three Cistercian abbeys in Provence, Abbey Thoronet, dating from the twelfth century. Built in the Roman style of architecture, its plain design and its isolation in the surrounding hills announced a serenity of time and space. The beautiful stones with their geometric simplicity and clean lines reflected the austerity of the monastic life. The inner cloister recalled a life dedicated to prayer, made more chillingly apparent when, in the church, our guide sang a Gregorian hymn that resonated throughout the structure producing a sound that seemed to pour from the stones themselves. I closed my eyes in meditation, believing the cantor stood the whole time in front of me, when in actuality she was moving about the church. It was the purest sound of surround-sound music I’ve ever heard and a testament to the genius of Medieval acoustical engineering and architecture.
Another architectural detail that we’ve noticed peculiar to Provence is the open-air metal bell towers (les campanilles) atop the churches that allow the wind to pass through and carry the sound longer distances.
Appreciation of these centuries-old structures began in my interdisciplinary freshman year seminar in the humanities at Xavier University of Louisiana. There we studied the convergence of art, science, literature, religion and philosophy. What I learned in that course marked the way I viewed texture, form, structure, line, shape, and color, lessons that ultimately illuminated my approach to aesthetics and art. Once I retired, I sat in Professor Andrea Rusnock’s art history class to deepen my understanding of art and architecture. It was well worth the investment of time; I find myself re-thinking how I view art and more fully appreciating its effect on me.
The drive to Thoronet was also fascinating as we drove through magnificent countryside and through the most charming small villages. Along the winding ascending and descending roads were swaths of vineyards. In the distance were verdant hills varying in color from a forest green tint to a greyish green. One of the towns, Entrecasteaux, had a beautifully manicured French garden. In our search for faiencerie, we stopped in Salernes, noted for ceramics, but managed to find only a small tile to our liking. I’m confident that we find what we’re looking for before our departure.
This time in Provence is allowing us to do what many locals do, sitting or lunching in cafés. Two weeks ago we lunched in Aix-en-Provence with our friend from Granger, Cheryl Barker, and her family. Cheryl’s daughter and her husband, and their daughter, live in Fos-sur-Mer. Earlier in the week, we went with a friend to visit her daughter in a town adjacent to Cannes. We lunched at the port and then took a pleasant drive along the seashore in Cannes. There, mobs of people were on the beach; others walking along the shore. Traffic was horrendous, and it isn’t the summer season yet. We did manage to see the infamous red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival. There were no stars there, just another curious mob. Last week we lunched with Gabriel Popescu who is here in Toulon as an exchange professor. He’s giving a public lecture on Monday on geopolitics. Today we had lunch with two exchange students from IUSB. As we did with Gabriel, we lunched at a quaint crêperie we discovered in the old town of Toulon. Kudos to their French teachers at IUSB, Lesley Walker and Anne Magnan-Park, the students were quite comfortable in speaking French with us. Tonight we’ll pick up Gabriel and drive to Brignoles to dine with Karine Tournier-Sol and her family. Karine was an exchange professor at IUSB a few years ago.
Eating, and eating well, is important here. And we have certainly had sumptuous meals here, but we do eat modestly. In the evenings, we are often content to sit in our apartment with a bottle of rosé or muscadet, with a salad, bread with cheese and some fruit and dine royally. While eating may seem a pastime for the French, I’ve noticed that there is increasingly emphasis on eating healthily. Posted on the walls of the bus stops are cautions not to nibble between meals, and on the television there are rolling bands across the screen encouraging the viewer to eat five fruits and vegetables a day. In the States, I remember the strong reactions against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to limit the size of sodas in NYC and Michelle Obama’s efforts to get sweets out of the schools and her campaign against obesity. Some Americans viewed these efforts as an assault on personal liberty.
In a future blog I will write about the colors of Provence. Traveling across the highways and byways it’s easy to understand why the Impressionists like Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin were drawn here to paint. This sunny region of vineyards and olive orchards tucked among rolling hills and sea views offers a spectacular palette for the eyesight.
This is Melanie in italics again. We are really enjoying renewing friendships with professors and others whom we have met before. We’re able to talk with real French people about their everyday lives, from family concerns and worries, to how to travel most efficiently (the bus to this town because the parking is horrendous or the train because what you want to see is near the station or recommendations for cheap hotels or other places to see), to how to retire gracefully and happily, to where are the places to go ballroom dancing. It’s the real life here with people who live here that is so much fun. We’re going to the marché every Friday, discovering hikes in the area, finding the movie theaters that play films in the version originale (not dubbed), trying the flea markets and the yard sales. It’s really fun.
Little vignettes. When we went into the cathedral in Aix-en-Provence, Alfred gave a coin to the woman begging outside the cathedral. We got separated when leaving and I couldn’t find Alfred. I looked outside and then went back inside and didn’t find him. When leaving a second time, the woman begging at the door, noticed that I was looking and told me where Alfred was standing. A little bit of grace from an unexpected quarter.
Living in a land of drought. Showers with very small water output. A rain barrel in the yard across the street. Toilets with dual flushes.
Talking to the English class of a friend about the American education system. A young music student in the class was chaffing under the French system of having to study only classical music and having to think and write only in prescribed ways. He wanted to go the Berkelee School of music in Boston and play jazz and broaden his horizons. Alfred, since we go often to Boston, offered the young man his email address. Our friend, the teacher of the class, remarked that this was a very American thing to do, offer friendship and access to one’s private contacts to a stranger.
This morning at the market. Our friend Mari-Thé had told us about the best cheese stall at the market. When we went there, the fromagier (cheese seller) smiled at us and said in French, “I hear we have an acquaintance in common.” So off we went asking him about the best cheeses that he would recommend. I asked how much our purchases would cost and an elderly lady waiting next to us hearing the repartee looked at us and with a big exaggerated wink and a smile said that the purchases were free.
At the Abbaye de Thoronet that Alfred described. The moving, mystical, otherworldly sound of the young woman singing the chants of Hildegard of Bingen. With my eyes closed I would have said that there were several people singing instead of just one because of the reverberations in the church.
We’ve been here a week and seem to have settled into the rhythms of daily life. Our neighborhood in Le Pradet is becoming our own. The center of town is full of little shops and cafés. We now know where to find the best bread and pastries (la patisserie et la boulangerie), where to get meat (la boucherie et la charcuterie) and the best place to find fruits and vegetables (le marché aux fruits et légumes). We frequent the nearby supermarket for other staples. The downtown square with the small church at its center is lined with shops and cafés, and always full of life. People gather to talk; they sit seemingly for hours in open-air cafés; they greet and chat in small groups. In the shops and on the narrow sidewalks neighbors greet each other, if only for a moment. There is vibrancy in this small village. In my daily morning walk, I watch the town awaken as merchants begin to open their shops. Tables and chairs are being set up outside the restaurants and cafés. The warm and inviting whiff of pastries and recently baked bread fills my nostrils. Mothers and fathers are dropping off their little ones to school, bidding goodbye with kisses on both cheeks (les bises). The bike path that runs through the center of town where I take my brisk walks is a thoroughfare of speeding bikes in each direction. At the end of my exercise, I often stop for croissants and bread at our chosen boulangerie, one of five near the central square, before climbing the hill homeward. Read More…
Since my retirement last June, I’ve been anticipating our two-month stay in Provence. Of the twenty-two regions in France, this is my favorite and the one with which I am most familiar. I first came here in the sixties as a student, spending the summer with a French family. Although my classes were in Avignon, I lived in a smaller village just over the river in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Each morning I rode a small scooter to class. I returned to Provence several years later as a Fulbright student in the early seventies while finishing my doctoral thesis. Then I was an American language teaching assistant at Lycée Thiers in Marseille. Oh yes, there was an English language assistant as well. Ian, my counterpart from Great Britain, thought Americans spoke a bastard English. I sensed by that he meant we did not speak a proper English, certainly not the highbrow accent he spoke. Nevertheless during our year together, we were pals. To be so, I had to brush aside his superior demeanor.
On repeat trips to France over the years, I’ve always gravitated to Provence. There is something special here. The mellifluous accent, the strong winds, the rosé wine, the scrumptious dishes, the reddish soil, the clear blue skies, the bright sun, the the varied colors in the gardens, the Mediterranean, the dusky landscapes lined with vineyards, all good reasons to return. And we have friends here. We’ll rent an apartment soon, but for the moment we are staying with good friends in their home at the top a hill with glimpses of the sea below. By chance, during a summer vacation in Brittany, Melanie and I took a side trip to Toulon at the invitation of a Fulbright scholar, who had spent the previous year at IUSB. Once here she introduced me to the director of international programs at her university. In a warm and delightful conversation he and I acknowledged quickly our mutual interests in furthering study abroad opportunities for our students. And several months later, when he came to visit our campus at my invitation, an exchange program between our two universities was born. For over ten years now, we’ve had students and faculty crossing the Atlantic in both directions. Just before my retirement, I spent five weeks at the University of Toulon-Var teaching a mini-course on Louisiana culture. And during this trip, Melanie and I will meet and spend time with two IUSB students and Gabriel Popescu, an IUSB faculty member, here for four weeks teaching a course in United States geo-politics.
But before that happens, we are beginning to do the necessary chores to integrate ourselves to the rhythm of daily life. Groceries are high on the list, and we spent the early afternoon at the local supermarket where we even signed up for our faithful shopper card. And no shopping in France is complete without a visit to the local patisserie where we bought a baguette for the ham and cheese sandwiches that we hungrily ate for lunch. While in town, we pulled into a gas station that was also a women’s lingerie boutique, a new experience for us. Later we will stop by Orange, a telecommunications boutique, to have our French phones re-charged. Tonight we’re having dinner with friends on the beach at a restaurant that we know well. Tomorrow we will go downtown to reinstate our bus passes and senior discount pass for the trains. Once we’ve completed these necessities, we’ll begin exploring Provence. As an artist whose gallery we visited in Brittany, and from whom we bought a small painting that now hangs in our family room, told us, “Il faut découvrir la Bretagne profonde.” In other words, he encouraged us to venture out and discover the Brittany countryside. The sunny weather with its cool crisp air is just right for exploring the Provençal villages and towns. The magnolias are in bloom and lemon and orange trees have fruit. And although I’m anxious to ensconce myself in new surroundings and learn new things, sitting in quiet places with a good book is very much part of my agenda in the next few weeks.
Wherever I travel, I like to fit in the daily flow of life and live like the locals. That way I can soak in the infinite possibilities that any region has to offer. But with those rewards come challenges. Already three days into our Provençal adventure, we’ve had our share of mishaps. Before leaving the United States, our flight from South Bend was canceled because of mechanical problems pushing back our journey one day. And when we finally landed at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris, a false bomb alert kept us, and hundreds of other passengers from across the globe, penned behind the customs barrier. After an interminable wait in a stuffy room with little air, we were finally permitted through customs. Then there was chaos in trying to find our luggage among the dozens of conveyor belts in two different halls. Our seemingly phantom flight did not appear on any of the flight monitors. The delay in finding our luggage coupled with the wait at customs erased the hour and a half early arrival of our plane. Luckily, we had ample time to catch our train to Marseille. The TGV, the high-speed train, is a marvel. During the three and a half hours of our journey, we zipped by beautiful and changing landscapes of snowcapped mountains and pastoral vistas.
Once in Marseille, our rental car was waiting. Dusk was approaching. And foolishly, we programmed our GPS to avoid the toll roads. Ordinarily, this would have been a rational decision that would take us along beautiful vistas along the coast through charming little villages. However, darkness settled in quickly. In the empty black night, there was nothing to be seen along the unfamiliar curving roads on the cliffs; and the pleasant journey we anticipated added stress to an already tiring day.
And, today, in our effort to maximize time, we decided, before meeting our friends for dinner, to drive into town to have our French phones reactivated and to have minutes added. Again, not a wise decision; the rush hour traffic was horrendous. After several attempts around roundabouts, and taking a wrong turn toward oncoming traffic on a one-way multi-lane avenue, we abandoned any hope of finding the parking lot of our desired location. We went instead to the Lido, a restaurant on the beach we know well and frequented often, to meet our friends. We got there an hour early and thought we would have an apéritif while waiting the arrival of our friends. No, that was not possible either. We were informed that the restaurant did not open until 8 o’clock and were directed by the waiter to a café across the street. Instead, we waited in our car. But the evening ended perfectly with a delightful meal of cabillaud, a white flaky fish similar in texture to cod. And the wine, of course, added to its delicate taste. A delicious crème brulée made the evening more special. As for the phones, we’ll try again later today, this time by bus. It’ll be awhile before we dredge up the courage to drive downtown again.
To all my New Orleanian family and friends, Happy Mardi. The good times are rolling. And here, nearby in Nice, floats and maskers will greet happy revelers as well. But not us, we’re content to stay put.