Journals from AUCP Aix-en-Provence
2008-04-21 Oh, Gastronomy, how I love thee!
As per usual, vacations come and go in the blink of an eye. If you stay out all night drinking and you sleep all day recovering, they go even faster. Its how the cookie crumbles. And I am one tired cookie.
It seems that my dream of caf-sitting is harder than it seems. Its good for an hour with your friend after class, sure. Have a beer, have a chat, have a smoke, take the next bus, no biggie. But when youre all alone with a stack of homework and a dictionary, its not exactly warm and fuzzy. You start to feel like the old lady next to you with whiskers and musk " just waiting for someone to ask for the time, for directions, for a light. And like most people of her generation, she talks about the weather. Oooh, that gust was chilly wasnt it? Better switch sides so youre in the sun, she says.
Pardon? you ask, because her accent is strong and she doesnt speak very loudly.
Its chilly today isnt iteven in the sun. All these people here for the sun. Look over there, the bistro in the shade, no one, here its full because of the sun and were off. For the next hour and a half she talks " without stopping " and you cant get a word in edgewise. Theres no polite way to decline the conversation, and shes already pegged you for American, so now she feels its her duty to educate you in the history of the region. You put your face in your book, you nod, smile, and look away, and shes still going. You think to yourself, Now this is silly. Why am I ignoring her? Shes lonely, shes nice, and shes French. I really ought to profit from her knowledge and I am here to practice my French after all. If anyone has patience its a lonely old lady.
So you turn and listenand listenand listen. She knows an American who lives down the lane, he doesnt speak French and hes lived here for 30 years, and she lost her husband two months ago, and shes originally from Paris but he was a half-Italian from the south and he had an awful accent, and she prefers Marseille to Aix because Marseille is more cosmopolitan and you can hear all the languages but Aix is a bourgeois town full of snobs, and she likes languages and she teaches herself by listening to songs and reading old used books that she finds at the antique market the first Saturday of every month, and she can hardly walk any more, and shes tired of sitting in bistros and drinking coffee but she doesnt have much choice since she cant walk that much, and she takes the minibus around town, no she just rides it to get out of the house and see whats new in town, and she doesnt like the new quarter because it has no character, and wet cement isnt good for your health, a little humidity is good but not too much and you dont see female waiters often because it takes gusto to see to all those people and carry heavy trays and that waitress there, shes Spanish so she can handle it, and she doesnt care for King Louis XIV, as if she was alive in the mid 1700s, but the Good King Ren was good, and so on and so forth.
Now that your ears are numb, an hour and a half later, and you know everything there is to know about history and health, you pack up your bag while nodding and pay your bill while smiling and as soon as she takes a breath you thank her for the conversation and book it. She really was very kind, and I enjoyed the lesson immensely, but I have my limits.
Then of course, there is the nightlife. Vacation time suggests that the bars will be packed with college students while statistics show that 6% of French people spend their vacation skiing in the Alps. Those six percent are the bourgeois college students of Aix-en-Provence. Bye-bye! Leslie and I headed to one of the two popular Irish pubs for some pints only to find it dead. Maybe it was the Monday night thing, but the crowd present was just a hair on the old side of what we were looking for, so we moved on, around midnight, to a bar we knew to be pretty cool. It was overflowing with 20-somethings that were reveling in the freedom of Monday night. We sat at the edge of the terrace (read sidewalk with tables) and watched the crowd dynamic to find an approach. The music was good, the crowd pretty alt, and not a person looked at us. Not one. We got drinks, we smoked some cigarettes, nothing. Weve learned at school that the French are not as freely sociable as Americans, but for a bunch of drunk 20ish kids, they were being either aloof or shy. We resolved that wed have to be painfully American and just start approaching people if we wanted to make friends. We decided that Monday was not the night for such things and had almost gotten ready to leave when a guy, trailing a couple friends, approached and asked us if we had a white car. Of course we said no and he asked if we were sure. Yes, we were sure and why did he ask, and apparently they had seen a white car pass with two girls who were yelling obscenities or something but they didnt get a good look at them and was it us. Well no, but isnt that funny, and now weve made friends.
Tony, our fearless Frenchmen, had spent some time in the US and spoke adorably broken English, though much better than most of his friends. He invited us over to his table and we learned the cause of his friendship " save for one girl that was wasted (and clearly in heat) and the shy girl in the corner " we were the only girls amidst a sea of boys. There must have been eight or so guys with four girls. They were all very nice and we had a great time; each one in turn came up and talked with us, a bit in English, a bit in French. Then the bar closes and Tony invites us to find food and continue the party at his friends place. We get to the chwarma place and then realize that only three guys are left and were the only girls. One silent eye-movement conversation later, Leslie and I decide that the odds are not in our favor, exchange phone numbers with Tony and politely decline. We walk home safely, and I sleep all day the next day.
Not that we drank much " we didnt drink much at all " but we both felt it pretty hard the next day. But a li'l tabouli and some sparkling mineral water did the trick. Leslie and I met up and sought out the Muse Granet " the biggest and reportedly best museum in Aix. There were a lot of paintings some sculptures and a lot of stuff inspired by Czanne. Czanne, Czanne, Czanne. Whatever. Its not that I dont appreciate the time, energy and skill that went into these paintings. I know all too well that I couldnt think of or paint these things. I most assuredly relish the preservation of historical artifacts. But paintings are paintings are paintings. And after a while, they start to look the same. And then as soon as it looks different, its too simple, people say. Or I could have done that myself, to which I like to reply Ah, but you didnt, did you?
And after a day of rest, we go out again. Clearly, we had already hit on a sweet spot, but its always good to diversify. So we head down the street to a bar that wed heard a lot about " IPN. And we head down the narrow stairs to a hot, humid, and EMPTY? basement. Okay not empty, but six people does not a bar-full make, and its already Wednesday. And what do we see but beer pong. Yes, friends, beer pong. Google it. Now there is nothing more amusing than skinny European boys playing beer pong on an undersized table in a tiny basement bar. Perhaps another time. So we head back to our hot spot and text message our friends. Packed again, the Sextius Bar (as it is called) has blues night with a live blues band, and many of the same people as Monday night. We sit alone and though we see one of our friends (who comes over for the obligatory cheek-kissing) he is pre-occupied with a group of French girls. Leslie and I dig the music and have found a much cheaper combination of beverages. While at ease, laughing a bit, I accidentally make eye contact with the man sitting alone behind Leslie. Hes not scary, but hes nothing extraordinary. He continues to try making eye contact. This is how American girls get in trouble. When things get awkward, we look them straight in the eyes with a firm hello to clear it up and leave it at that. But in France, hello is an invitation. So I say nothing. But, as soon as Leslie gets up to go pee, flirty eyes is in her seat chatting me up. Cool.
Hes shy. He talks softly, and he cant think of much to say. I felt kinda bad for him. And he was alone. So we let him sit there and listen to the conversation, throwing him the occasional bone. So hes half Spanish, listens to the Iglesias family music and a little Ricky Martin, prefers football (read soccer) to Rugby and hes a P.E. teacher. Did I mention that hes not my type? When the bar closes, we head for the chwarma place and turn to say goodbye to shy guy only to see that hes coming along. Hmmm so we get to the chwarma place and I send Justin a text please callhelp. And, being the best boyfriend in the world, he does. I get on the phone, rattle off ooey things in English, and Leslie explains how my boyfriend is really cool and extremely jealous and very big and intimidating and all kinds of stuff. So when I get off the phone, I tell him we have to go, it was nice meeting him, see ya round, and he insists on a phone number. I changed the last digit without thinking twice. Leslie was impressed.
The next day, the girls went on a mini-trip to Nme, where denim (de Nme) comes from, and Avignon. I, on the other hand, had another epic voyage with my host family. We left at 8am for the Spanish border to do some shopping. Rosaline, Martines friend and co-worker, came along. We stopped for gas and coffee from a machine (which is still better than most American coffee) and reached the Spanish border by noon. With everything at half-price you do pretty well, but our shopping list was mostly olive oil, booze, cigarettes, anchovies, and bath products the essentials. So twenty minutes later were done and sitting just on the French side of the border on a terrace having lunch. Lunch was an immense buffet of seafood, paella, champagne, ros, sangria, and flan. Three kilos later, they dumped me in a wheelchair and pushed me out Seriously though, it was delicious. Then we continued our trek and drove through the glorious southwest to Carcassonne.
Carcassonne is one of the best maintained medieval castles in Europe. The cit is a large walled area, with a chateau, a cathedral, and a whole medieval town (read tourist trap). Theres all sorts of cool history about the town, but thats what Wikipedia is for. We did the obligatory tour and passed by the place where we planned to eat. Chez Dame Carcas is a quaint little place that serves the acclaimed cassoulet of Carcassonne and the region. Cassoulet is a spicy bean stew with bits of meat. Its served in its own Dutch-oven crock thingy, and a single portion serves an army or one of my brothers. Apparently theres also a magnificent pat but I opted for the salad with warm bread and chvre (goat cheese) and fresh cold tomatoes followed by a lamb chop and rice. As Didier says, the French only ever think about eating. If you overhear a conversation, chances are youll hear people talking about this restaurant or that one, this dish or that one, and whatre we eating for dinner tonight.
That night, I shared a hotel room with Rosaline. Shes a fiery southern woman who speaks Provenal, which is a dying language that is rather like a gutteral mix of Spanish, Italian, and French. This is not to be confused with Basque or Catalan, but all three are part of the Langue dOc. Anyhoo, she has a fantastic accent and she says the damndest things in Provenal (mostly swear words). My favorite was Lou souleilo mi fasse canta, et tou mi fasse caga! In French, its Le soleil me fait chanter et tu me fait chier! and it roughly translates into English as You know, the sun is lovely today but you piss me off. Its a lot funnier in French and hysterical when a tiny little woman mutters it under her breath in Provenal. So we had a good time while she taught me bad words until midnight. The next day, we had breakfast and took off for Montpelier, where we had moules frites (read mussels and French fries) in the square by yet another castle bit. A note on moules frites " its my favorite dish in the whole wide world. I already love mussels, but they make them in this big crock thing with cream, white wine, garlic, and herbs of Provence, so when the sauce leftover cools and thickens you can throw your huge bowl of fries in and sop it up. Then you explode because its impossible to digest. But it sure does taste good And moule, in French, can also be used as a derogatory term for a ladys private parts (thanks Pierre). Now, after a delicious lunch, we went to the zoo (pronounced zoh) to see the onlyanteater? in Europe. Its a fat hairy thing but terribly cute. And there're a lot of birds, some really big spiders from South America, bats, and I think an armadillo. It was pretty cool. Then we made our way home. And here I am.
Wanna know what I love about La Vie Franaise? You eat, you go for a walk, you have a drink, get a buzz, eat some more, drink some more, walk to work off some of the food, then as soon as youve digested and your buzz wears off, its time for another drink and another meal. Glorious. Oh, Gastronomy! How I love thee!