Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Day in Our Life in Aix

The wealth of Aix was plentiful and varied: friendly people, a warm ambiance and relaxed culture, delicious food, plentiful wine, vibrant cafes, sophisticated restaurants, an abundant natural environment, exquisite art, elegant buildings, charming museums, Roman ruins, and thousands of years of history. But the standard script of our every day remained constant; our life in Aix was rewarding, sweet and simple.

Every morning at 5:45, we’re awakened by the chartreuse-uniformed workman who hoses down the rue Frédéric Mistral two floors below the bedroom window of our modern pied-à-terre. He power washes the street, as they do all over Aix, leaving it scrubbed and ready for the waves of day-tripping visitors that will soon swarm the town. Five minutes later, the church bells chime (inexplicably, at ten minutes before the hour) and I stumble out of bed while Joe sleeps in.

I put on the coffee, open the living room window and push open the heavy wooden shutters. Incessant birdsong greets me in the soft light of morning, the bold Provençal sun not yet having risen. I grab a yogurt from the fridge, sit down at the kitchen table, quickly check my emails and then review my homework for French class. I read what’s à la une -- in the headlines -- of L’Express online, find an interesting story I can share in class, carefully read it several times and scribble brief summary notes. By 7:30, the buzzing of the motocyclettes whizzing by on the street below has become consistent, marking the arousal of the waking city. I lean out the window, see that the sun has risen, creating sharp-lined shadows on the pale yellow walls and blue-gray shutters of the building juste en face – on the opposite side of the narrow street. By 8:00, Joe joins me for breakfast and we review our plans for the day.

At 8:40, I grab a water bottle and a piece of fruit and Joe walks me to school. It’s a beautiful walk and while we occasionally vary our route, we most often head straight across the Cours Mirabeau, through the Passage Agard that cuts through the row of golden hôtels particuliers and into the square of the Palais de Justice. We slowly weave our way through the open-air morning market, inhaling and ogling the irresistible offerings. We turn right on the rue Portalis which leads us to the Cours des Arts et Métiers and where I spend my mornings at IS Aix-en-Provence. The school is lodged in a two-storied building with tall thick-paned windows, small, cozy classrooms and creaky old wooden floors. Classes start at 9 and for the next three and a half hours I converse with my engaging teacher and nine interesting classmates. I revel in knowing I am the luckiest person in the world as I continue my French education.

On his way back to our apartment, Joe lingers in the markets, buying fresh produce from a list I’ve prepared and whatever else appeals to him. We’ll make our lunch from the bags of hand-wrapped goodies he’s brought home. On alternate days, he runs through Aix, doing his best to stick to the shaded parks including La Promenade de la Torse along the southeastern flank of town.

At 12:30 I say à demain to my teacher and classmates and head home, my head filled with new vocabulary and expressions I’m anxious to try on the locals. I amble down the pedestrian lanes and stop at our regular boulangerie to pick up une fournée, our new favorite variety of French bread. While all French baguettes are delicious, this particular loaf is made from whole-wheat flour, is especially crunchy on the outside and deliciously yeasty on the inside. Warm fournée tucked under my arm, I turn left down the rue Frédéric Mistral, ring the bell outside our apartment and Joe buzzes me in.

We spread out our lunch and dine deliciously on fresh Provençal fare as we fill in each other on our mornings. By this time the sun has climbed high in the sky, warming our unairconditioned space beyond comfort but our industrial strength fan manages to keep us cool.

Our afternoon itineraries vary but if there is no school excursion scheduled, they often include wandering around town to take in a museum, find a new park, watch the local men play boules or look for new, interesting restaurants. We pass by the luscious displays of fruit tarts and cream-filled pastries in pâtisserie windows (gorgeous to the eye but the way my palate swings, I more often yearn for creamy goat cheese on a toasted tartine). July is the month for huge clothing sales -- les soldes - in France, but since I have no more room in my suitcase and no more euros in my wallet, I can only fais du lèche-vitrine (window shop). I am so ready to burn my clothes, having worn the same things for 11 months, and I can barely even look at them no less put them on, but shopping will have to wait until we’re once again employed.

By late afternoon it’s time to slow down and we often stop at a Cours Mirabeau cafe to enjoy a cocktail and watch the parade of passersby. While I love the look of the brightly colored drinks (tinted with mint & grenadine syrups) the French enjoy over ice in summer, I have no desire to try them. We stick to sipping kirs or rosé to pass the time before dinner. The days are long with the sun burning late into the evening. It remains light until 10 pm so eating at 8:00 feels premature, even for early diners like us. There is never a rush while eating out in France – you essentially own your table’s real estate until you take your leave – and the bill is never presented until requested. And so we enjoy our dinners leisurely, accompanied by heartfelt conversation, always under the stars.

We stroll home, hand-in-hand, during l’heure bleue, that romantic French expression for the twilight time between day and night when it’s not yet dark but no longer light. The daily tourists have disappeared and the town is back in the hands of the locals and the very-lucky temporary residents. The marché nocturne -- the evening market – is in full swing, but we’ve done our shopping for the day and will save any new purchases for the following morning. We turn on the télé and watch an hour of les JOles Jeux Olympiques – broadcast live from London. Yet again we hear the energized announcer pronounce Michael Phelps, with a thick French accent, “un champion exceptionnel!”

The sun sets on another day in our life in Aix. I watch the aerial evening dance of the swallows, take a moment and listen to the thin strains of their cries before I secure the shutters, drop into bed and close my eyes. It’s been one more day in paradise.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Stalking Cézanne

Most artists I truly appreciate are those I’ve studied either formally or casually, in college or on my own, and such was the case with Paul Cézanne. I’d always found his paintings of Provençal landscapes with their ochre tones and depictions of Mont Sainte Victoire pleasing. But now that I feel I’ve forged a close personal connection with him (after all, we lived in his town and over the course of a month visited all the seminal spots of his life), he’s emerged as one of my favorites.

Cézanne was Provençal through and through and above all he was a son of Aix. He was passionately attached to his hometown, particularly the perpetual play of its vivid light on the countryside that so influenced his life’s work. As I’ve now come to learn, Cézanne’s art progressed and transformed over the years until it settled on the precipice of cubism and abstraction leading many to deem him the father of modern painting.

Our quest for the true Cézanne began at the Jas de Bouffan, his family’s home just west of town. It suddenly and surprisingly materializes along a rather dreary stretch of road populated with car washes, chain hotels and mini-marts. The verdant property with its straight sycamore-lined approach is secreted behind high stone walls and an equally high iron gate entry, all of which sat alone on the route into town when Cézanne lived there with his parents in the late 1800s. The rectangular manor house is where he completed his first paintings in the high-ceilinged dining room turned artist’s studio and he used its walls as large experimental canvases. We took a look at at the residence’s gardens, backyard chestnut trees, statues, pond and potting shed and were able to identify them all in the artist’s many tableaux.

Next up on our journey in the footsteps of Cézanne were the Bibémus quarries on a rocky plateau to the east of Aix where he spent a lot of time as a teen. It was while walking there under plentiful pines with his boyhood friend, Emile Zola (yes indeed, that Zola) that he discovered the painter inside him. The sandstone quarries were worked until the mid-19th century but when Cézanne and his chum came upon them, they were abandoned and overgrown. The mustard- and molasses-colored rock retained the angular, geometric shapes cut by hand by the quarry laborers in sharp contrast to the surrounding, more gentle, green and brown lines of nature. Cézanne was drawn to the distinction and the urge to depict it on canvas consumed him.

We followed the artist’s route on the fragrant pine needle-cushioned forest paths through the quarries to the stone hut with the red wooden door where he safeguarded his artwork and slept. In the valley far below were rows of green vineyards and golden fields of wheat in juxtaposition to the red and orange clay of the plateau. It was from a vantage point near his cabin that Cézanne viewed and painted, almost obsessively, the dramatic, 3,300-foot Mont Saint Victoire against the deep blue sky of Provence. The famous Provençal mountain dominates the artist’s work and nearly 100 of his paintings feature the rugged, gray stone peak.

We had hoped to make the demanding trek to the top of Mont Sainte Victoire after our visit to Bibémus, but since the summer Mistral can fan a flame from a spark or cigarette butt carelessly tossed on the scorched terrain, the mountain park is closed in July and August. We settled for the brief but beautiful hour-long hike down the ridge from the plateau to the small, shaded town of Le Tholonet, one of Cézanne's favorite retreats. The village has two nice restaurants, a large pit for playing pétanque, lots of trees and a lovely chateau painted by Cézanne. We chose Le RelaisCézanne for lunch and wiled away some of the hot afternoon on its cool terrace.

The artist’s studio halfway up the Lauves Hill north of Aix, which he customized for the practice of his art and to which he walked every morning of the final four years of his life, is infused with Cézanne’s presence. The high-ceilinged room with its huge picture window that allows the room to be bathed in natural light has been left just as it was by the artist. His furniture, still life objects, painting chemises, palettes, brushes, tools, overcoat, hat and cane are as they were when he died in 1906. On the crest of the hill up the road from the studio, the city of Aix created what they call the Terraindes Peintres (Painters’ Park). The circular, terraced garden on the ridge from which Cézanne often painted, faces Mont Saint Victoire on the eastern horizon and presents lacquered reproductions of several paintings of his most beloved subject.

The Granet Museum was right around the corner from our apartment in the Quartier Mazarin. Cézanne studied drawing there in his early years when the building housed an art school. This gem of a gallery is considered one the finest in France and owns nine of Cézanne’s paintings as well as a set of his watercolors. Also on display were a collection of works by Corot, de Staël, Picasso, Pollock, Rubens, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. Who knew such a little town like Aix would house such masterpieces of the art world?

I ended my pilgrimage in the Saint-Pierre cemetery on a scenic hill at the edge of town: the artist’s unassuming final resting place. Cézanne was born in Aix, he died in Aix and has long been the town’s most famous native son. My wanderings among the places most important to him and what they taught me about his art left me with a much better understanding of the man and an appreciation of the work that drove him. In the end, I felt like I knew him personally, if only just a bit. It must have helped that during my brief time in his fair city, I was an ardent Aixois, just like him.


Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Friday, August 24, 2012

A Night at the Opera

Attending a performance under the stars in the ancient Roman theater in Orange, France was a bucket list item for me. I was well aware, and he reminded me often, that the experience hadn’t made the top of his list, but Joe agreed to be my date, good sport that he is.

The ThéâtreAntique d'Orange, considered, without a doubt, to be among the finest remains of the Roman Empire in Europe, is a semi-circular stone auditorium, which seats 9,000. Built in the 1st century, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the internationally known summer opera festival, the Chorégies d’Orange. It is about an hour’s drive north of Aix situated in the Rhone valley and therefore subject to the whipping winds of the Mistral. The theater’s audience faces north and the original blind stage wall with its back to the notorious wind remains intact, thereby bestowing performances with protection from the elements and outstanding acoustics. Festivals of all variety of performing arts have been held at the Théâtre Antique since the middle of the 1800s but in 1969, the Chorégies became dedicated to opera alone, leaving theatrical works to migrate to Avignon.

Our long-awaited evening began well. It was a typically sweltering evening in Provence and even the shadows of a sinking sun brought little relief. So it was with great gusto that we gulped down liberal goblets of the refreshing house aperitif at the outdoor cafe at which we dined: grapefruit juice and rose wine over ice. Perfect for a hot, dry pre-opera evening.

We took our seats in the well-preserved theater, amazed that we were sitting on the same quarried stones graced by Roman derrieres some 2,000 years ago. The sun had set, the performance soon started, the orchestra was brilliant and the setting was spectacular. All was going perfectly when the unfortunate episode with the leading man took over and the evening ended in disappointment.

I have history with live opera, bad history in fact, and with the performance in Orange, my misadventures persisted:

1.  December 2011: Attempted to get tickets in Milan for Don Giovanni at La Scala. It was opening night and they laughed at us.

2.  May 2012: Got tickets for La Bohème at La Fenice in Venice. There was an earthquake that morning and the theater sustained damage so the performance was cancelled.

3.  July 2012: Attended Turandot at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Orange. It was a beautiful performance but the lead tenor’s voice gave in to a virus in the third act and he was unable to sing the show's signature aria, and my forever favorite, Nessum Dorma.

I think I give up. No, I know I give up. I was able to cross the item from my list – live opera under the stars in Orange: check. But from now on, I'm planning to stick with listening to Andrea Bocelli on my iPod.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

Royal Sycamores and Plebeian Manners

There’s something magical about the sycamores of France. Les platanes in French, or plane trees, are majestic, soaring, 100–foot tall giants that line country roads, create stylish boulevard approaches to myriad villages and are essential to the charm of Provence. They are found all over the hexagon but especially in southern France. Their thick, flat-leafed foliage provides umbrellas of much-needed shade from the summer sun for town centers, village squares and family gardens. Napoleon should be thanked for the profusion of Provençal platanes since he planted many of them to help protect his files of foot soldiers from the sun’s punishing heat.

One of our favorite Aix pastimes is sitting under the dense shade of sycamores, their green canopies arching over squares filled with appealing little bistro tables. As is a pleasure all over France, you can get the most amazing food on these open-air terraces outside what appear to be little one-room, cubbyhole cafes. Where do they stash all the fresh ingredients they transform into generous plats du jour: bright salads overflowing with vegetables, fruit, ham, sundried tomatoes and thick slices of cheese? There must be well-supplied kitchen compartments hidden behind the unassuming facades; I’m convinced of it.

The unique mosaic of the sycamores’ peeling bark intrigues us -- uneven patterns of pastel yellows, tawny russets, avocado greens and dull grays. We nibble on olives, sip chilled wine, dine leisurely on local specialties, linger over coffee and sit listening to the pleasing Provençal accents of the Aixois. We overhear the daily chatter of university students on their lunch breaks, the local women after their mornings at the market and the retired gentlemen not occupied with playing pétanque (the particular Provençal version of boules) who sit under umbrellas playing cards.

People-watching under the platanes is wide-ranging and never-ending but from time to time we identify types: the Chinese couple with dueling iPhones taking serial pictures of each other as they stroll down the Cours Mirabeau; the middle-aged English couple, all dressed up in their white, blousy, south-of-France holiday outfits but looking rather bored with each other; the tall, lithe, Swedish teens in flowered sundresses, straw hats and flip-flops, their loosely braided blond plaits draped over their shoulders; the American backpackers lugging oversized packs, sporting well-worn sneakers and apparently famished as they look longingly at the cafe fare in front of us; the Japanese honeymooner in her platform sandals, the fact that they’d ne’er before been worn betrayed by bloody bandages beneath the heel straps, limping through town as she clings to her new husband. We marveled at the locals dancing the tango on the Place Richelme as they do every summer Sunday at 9pm under the sycamores, and bemoaned, as my Dad does, the largely lost art of dancing among the young (almost anyone under 70). Watching the couples move through the sensual steps of this romantic dance is heartbreakingly beautiful.

But every once in a while our idyllic interludes under royal sycamores are marred by the manners of plebeians. One morning while enjoying cafés au lait and croissants in the outdoor shade, an Eastern European quartet of two overly tanned Moms and their matching daughters, each one more rude than the other, marched onto the terrace, upsetting the drowsy morning ambience of the place. All were similarly clad in skinny jeans, patent leather stilettos and Jackie-O shades with “spoiled” plastered across their mascaraed faces. Upset that the cafe served no food for breakfast and when politely urged, as we had been, to run up the street to the local boulangerie for croissants, the most vocal of the four retorted brusquely and loudly, “What, the French don’t eat breakfast?” We would so like to have witnessed her wobbling up the cobblestoned hill in search of pastries in those heels. Rather than rebuke the vocal twenty-something for her behavior, her mother then snapped an order for freshly squeezed orange juice. The OJ not forthcoming, they settled for espressos and insolently picked up their Blackberries with corresponding pouts. Bad mannered people come from all corners of the world and unfortunately they sometimes choose to sit next to us.

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com