More walks in sunny Provence with old friends
21.05.2009 30 °F
The timing of my trip to Aix was perfect. It was Frances's last week in France (I know, confusing) before flying to the DR Congo for a month of humanitarian work. Then she’d return to her home in Australia where visits would become more difficult. As my term had just finished, Frances’ last week worked out to be the best time for me to get down to Aix for a visit. The added incentive to me was that it would be my last chance to visit Aix with Frances in it, a condition that was pervasive in my experience of the place while I was there and my memories of it while I’ve been away.
We met early on in the semester while setting up our bank accounts. It was an instant friendship as we soon discovered that we shared a special love for Mont Sainte-Victoire. Over the next six months we would refer to it as “our mountain.” We climb it any chance we got.
View of Sainte-Victoire and the chateau of Vauvenargues.
As my hiking, travel, chai tea buddy and sister in Christ, Frances was indispensible to my sanity while I was living in France. She was always there when I needed to rant about the hypocrisies of French culture or the difficulties of living abroad and learning a new language. She was there, also, to share in my joy of living in such a beautiful place, of being blessed enough to have such an opportunity.
It’s been my impression that friendships formed while living abroad are friendships of the moment, friendships of necessity. Because they are shorter and more concentrated, they can be intense. They’re formed quickly and then, just as abruptly, they're relinquished. But because the bonding that goes on during this time happens to coincide with one of the most transitional and challenging times in a person’s life, they seem to me the kind of friendships that endure. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s been the importance of finding and maintaining community -- that includes family, old friends, new friends and strangers. For six months, Frances was part of my life-saving, sanity-preserving community. I knew I couldn’t let Frances return to Australia before we climbed the mountain one more time together.
We climbed Sainte-Victoire sure enough. It was a little bit like going home, but also like how I imagine little Iowan children must feel when they seen mountains or ocean for the first time. Imagine their sense of wonder, the novelty of it all. I imagine there must also be the feeling of "what else have I been missing all this time!?" We climbed from the north face of the mountain this time, from the picturesque village of Vauvenargues where Picasso lived for a spell. It’s more forested on this side of the mountain. From the top you can just about see the Plateau of Vaucluse, a ridge of mountains that includes bald-head Mont Ventoux that overlooks the Luberon valley. Vauvenargues does not present the most striking view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, all white and severe, that one sees from Aix and in Cézanne paintings. The mountain is still a picture, nonetheless, the way it stands guard over the faithful, red-roofed buildings of Vauvenargues. This gentler view of Sainte-Victoire perhaps makes the climactic view from the top all the more stunning.
After an arduous two hour ascent from Vauvenargues, you know you’ve reached the top when a wave of wind greets you like an effusive Italian mastiff greets its master. You crawl across the crest of the ridge, dazzled by the views of the burnt ochre landscape laid out in front of you, and then suddenly, you stop. You can go no further. Below a wall of bleached limestone falls like a sheet of ice down the mountain’s southern face.
I’ve had a bit of a love affair with this mountain for going on a year now, as many of you know. I even spent the past semester working on a nonfiction piece solely about the mountain for one of my classes. This latest climb was the perfect adieu: painfully beautiful, final, but always hoping.
It was a week of closure in many respects. As it was Frances’ final week in France after a long and turbulant year learning the language, we had to make time for certain unavoidable housekeeping tasks. One of these tasks was to close her bank account. As it was, Frances and I met in September while opening our bank accounts, so, as she commented at the time, things seemed to come full circle. It might seem silly, but I think it's important to give the psyche certain landmarks and momentos which it can latch on to in order to make change a little less traumatic. It's a big step leaving a place you've devoted so much energy into making a home, foreign though it is.
I had a to do list of my own while in Aix. The first was, of course, to climb the mountain. Next to that all others shrank. We managed to get our hike in my very first day, with only a few menacing hours of rain in the morning to keep us respectfully on the edge. The rain actually worked out to accommodate several of my other goals: go to the market, buy local provençal honey, have a café at my favorite terraced café that overlooks the fish market, and eat a pain au chocolate and a pain aux raisin from Béchard, the best patisserie in Aix. I’m happy to report that we accomplished every one of these tasks. During the week also ate our weight in ratatouille and cheese and nutella and coconut crepes from Crepes a go-go.
French markets probably are the hugest cliché in travel books, blogs, photo albums ever. But let’s be honest, they really are just [i]that[i] amazing. On the superficial level, I love them for their colours. The multi-colored spice baskets laid out to season in the sun, the inky purple aubergines, the ruby red beouf tomatoes, the spiraled green cauliflower, the creamy cheeses, the floury cracked brown breads resembling the calloused hands of the boulanger who baked them. Then as I draw closer to the festival of colour, I come to my second reason for why I love French markets. Every time I go to one, I find a fruit, vegetable or animal product that I never knew existed. Round zucchini. Spiral, purple cauliflower. Baby artichokes. Golden plums. My discovery on this latest trip was green and red zebra tomatoes. The green ones were even a bit firm like green tomatoes. But the grocer assured me that unlike the green tomatoes I was accustomed to, which you have to fry to make edible, the zebra variety could be eaten raw. Delicious.
The final item on both Frances’s and my wish lists was to visit the Luberon valley. All semester (for me, all year from Frances), we’d planned to visit this famed region in Provence, the values of which we’d heard praised by our professors, friends, tourists and classmates alike. The valley lays one hour’s drive north of Aix and there are, as we discovered, several buses that go that way. At the time there was always another time we could get out there. We needed to spend our time traveling farther distances, seeing places we’d regret never visiting once we’d left. (But there will always be those places, no matter how much you travel). And so we’d yet to visit the Mesopotamia of Provence.
Just when we thought we'd missed our chance, we discovered that we had a free day in our week together. After researching the area, we found several villages that were well connected via bus and had several walks jutting out into the surrounding countryside. We decided on Bonnieux, a lovely village just north of the too-cute-for-its-own-good village of Lourmarin, where Albert Camus is buried. As it was May, it was still too early for the hordes of tourists expected to flood the honey-coloured cobbled streets of Bonnieux and other Luberon villages later on in the summer. So we had the village, for the most part, to ourselves.
We started with a coffee at a terraced café overlooking the Petit Luberon. Every day in France must begin similarly. Mont Ventoux’s bald head peaked at us from across the valley.
Revived by the caffeine, we set out to explore the village (taking all of about 10 minutes).
We were in one of the poshest rural areas in France, so the village, small as it was, was peppered with swanky art galleries and real-estate shops advertising 500,000 euro country cottages. This is Peter Mayle country (of A Year in Provence fame). Angelina Jolie and hundreds of wealthy British and American retirees have summer homes in “fixed-up” country cottages that better resemble McMansions than the modest farming houses they once were.
But the Luberon has somehow managed to resist overdevelopement. It is still rural, painted with all the colours of a fertile land. It is the bread basket of Provence, just as it always has been. And if you venture out into the countryside, you are more likely to meet a salt of the earth paysan d'oc (southerner) than you are a celebrity. We saw (and tasted) the fruit of the valley at every step of our 4 hour walk through the countryside.
Our walk took us through lavendar fields, olive groves, and wheat fields sprinkled with poppies. Ours was a leissurely, ambling kind of walk, allowing us to photograph every butterfly, every flower and every landscape that present itself (and they were legion). On the way back we chanced to pass a local bee keeper tending to his hives which were scattered under cherry and almond trees. I now have several images I can't wait to try my hand at painting when I get back home this summer. Painting party anyone?
Frances and I ended our day in Bonnieux the same way we ended every trip we took together; with a glass of pastis for me and a rosé for Frances. Always at a terraced café with a view. I will miss those sun drenched afternoons.