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 JO – les 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