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