A couple months ago I wrote this article for a website’s travel writing contest. I got an email today from one of the founders of the website saying that she loved my article and would be putting it on the website on March 19th (find it here then: http://www.wesaidgotravel.com/stars-in-provence). She went on to ask me if I’d write something for the website about Brazil, since they don’t have much about it on there yet. She also said she had a few good contacts for teaching and traveling, and would I like her to pass my name along to them. I of course agreed to both. I love the support offered by the travel community. My friend Laura once told me about ‘trail magic’ on the Appalachian Trail, where what you need is provided for by people’s unexpected kindness. That idea extends to a broader field than just the Appalachian Trail, and I’m grateful.
Here’s the article:
Stars in Provence
On that New Year’s Eve, I climbed the winding stone stairs to my friends’ French apartment in a building older than America. I felt like an oversized Alice in Wonderland as I climbed further through a small stone opening leading out onto their balcony. The stars illuminated the surrounding terra cotta roofs and intricate ironwork encasing others’ balconies and windows. From this vantage point, the logic of the twisting maze of cobblestone streets and stone buildings almost made sense, though getting lost and finding new specialty shops and family-owned cafes was a daily treat. Night blanketed Aix-en-Provence, and not a soul moved but me.
Walking through Aix-en-Provence is like walking through a movie set. Black-cloaked people with liquid eyes and angular features pass, an air of ease and power to their step, all swishing coats and clicking boots. Women wear delicate heels on the crumbling cobblestone streets without getting stuck between the cracks, a feat I attempted once and failed.
Walking those streets is best during Christmastime. Dozens of wooden chalets are constructed in one day along the Cours Mirabeau. On this main street I found hand-carved cheeseboards, handmade lavender and olive soaps, and vin chaud, wintery spiced wine that I drank by the paper cup-full.
At the Cours Mirabeau’s end sits my favorite crepe shop. It’s in an underground tunnel, manned by the same gentle employees every day, and has every imaginable crepe filling: eggs, mushrooms, onions, spinach, Nutella, apricot and fig preserves. The hardest part was learning the French names for all 50-some ingredients. And of course, choosing what to order.
I began to notice not only the French that surrounded me, but also other words—names on place signs, buses, restaurants—that my French classes helped me recognize weren’t French. I learned I was living in the region of Languedoc, or Langue d’Oc, the language of Occitan. There was a distinction made by earlier peoples to distinguish linguistic areas of France by how they said “yes.” Two main regions existed: Langue d’oïl, for those who said oui to mean “yes” (which comprises all of modern-day France now that French has become standard), and Langue d’Oc, home of the lesser known Romance language, Occitan. One French boy told me only grandparents speak it anymore, and that he doesn’t understand it, a lost connection between generations that will never be repaired.
I attended my French classes with other transplants like me, where I met friends from Hungary, Scotland, Turkey, Spain, Brazil. We went to the boites, underground nightclubs encased in stone. (Because of the city’s sound regulations, all clubs exist below ground and give off the feeling of being in a particularly large wine cellar or bomb shelter.) Following the spiraling stone steps down and down, I found myself in a dark, humid sea of bobbing heads and thumping rhythm, a refuge from my quiet Au Pair life. Here I could let my mind wander, put no words to my thoughts, whether they wander in English or French. Releasing along with my energy and sweat any pent-up worries, I just danced.
On a whim I visited the nearby Mediterranean one winter night with two friends I met at a boite. We sped up narrow roads, down and around sloping hills, smelling the salt in the air as we neared our destination. We spilled out onto the beach, palm trees stoic and waving shyly to us in the breeze, the sound of the sea crashing in our ears. We ran laughing into the ocean, got our jeans wet and didn’t care, spun each other in circles, and finally fell onto the damp sand and had a staring contest with the stars.