Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The black and white side of Provence

I am now, firmly and properly, in Provence. Aix-en-Provence is everything what one might expect the land of Van Gogh and Cezanne to be - sun baked, with shabby but so elegant and airy buildings of ochre, yellow and light brown. And the shutters and the little breezy balconies and unexpected fountains that create such dreamy views when you walk down the shady narrow streets..

I am on my own now, and for the first time in my life am actually travelling completely independently and with no one to accompany me (J is back to 40B to continue holding the fort). This means that I am constantly getting lost (does anyone know of short intensive courses on map reading for especially geographically challenged??), and that I can think about food even more frequently and for longerJ

Yesterday I had a day I'd like to savour the memory of for years to come. I arrived from Montpellier in Aix early in the morning. Unlike the rest of the week when I've arranged to stay with various couchsurfing people (on that later), I decided to book a cheap hotel room in the centre of Aix, which very fortunately for me I managed to do fairly easily. After a couple of hours of ciesta , now such an everyday habit for me, I went wondering the streets of the town...

The place was buzzing with people - it is the beginning of the French holiday season after all - but it was also a Monday; and so many places were closed, which meant I could explore the area without seeing it through crowds. I then had an aperitif of kir (I got manically used to having various pre-dinner drinks whilst in France, as well as acquired a waist-thickening habit of having cheese after meal! Only having lived in this country for a few weeks I understood this tradition; which had puzzled me so much before. Two factors differ from what I saw in Britain: 1. you have the cheese course after a fairly lengthy and relatively light meal, 2. you have small quantities, sometimes just a slice, of beautiful and often regional cheese) in one of the cafes in one of the numerous squares, easily imagining myself a wealthy 'ahead of her time' lady at the turn of the century, alongside poor but very promising painters and writers..

I then abandoned the comfort of the Lonely Planet and traced back to a little, stuffy corner restaurant that I had spotted during my circles around the town. In spite of it being Monday evening, it was absolutely packed with people - both foreigners and locals - and the owner didn't even have a place for my lonely persona, so I sat next to a middle-aged, very eccentric looking, lady.

The next 2 hours I spent slowly going through the 4 course meal - unimpressive, but cheap and soulful, and talking to this fascinating woman opposite me, well mainly listening and asking questing in broken French. She was called Marie-France, she was 65, she wore bright blue eye shadows, laughed gingerly, covering her half-empty mouth, and she has been coming to the Restaurant le Garillon every day for the last 10 years...

She looked quite properly drunk to me at first, but then I realised that unlike many of the customers, including myself, who were drinking cheap caraffes of rosé, she was sipping very slowly some good local red, which she buys in a bottle and leaves behind the counter during the week.

In the usual British manner I asked her what she does, she giggled nervously, looked at me almost in a surprise and said 'rien' (nothing). She then mumbled something about doing pottery and told me her life story..

She came from a very well-off family that had a beautiful grande maison near to the restaurant. She was a child of the 60s (I also told her about my parents, who would have been the same age as her now; their travels through Crimea and the rest of the USSR), and traveled autostop from France all the way to Sweden with her cousin once. She has also spent a lot of time in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. I think she never got married, but her family (she has 5 sisters!) was sufficient for her for many years. Some 10 years ago her parents died, the beautiful big house was sold off ('to some Americans who turned the place into an American centre') and all that Marie-France was left with was a tiny (she circled her thumb and her index finger to emphasise its smallness) studio '8 kms from the town'. There is no really kitchen in the flat (and no one to talk to you either I guess), so she has been spending 7 evenings a week, every week of her life sipping wine and slowly devouring meals at le Garillon. This is my home, she said sadly. There are no more places like this in Aix - I knew immediately what she meant about the place. Even though the food was nothing special, it was served in such an honest and real way by the couple who has been running the place for the last 50 (!) years that people keep coming back (a little later I realised that many customers were in fact middle of the road habitants of the town, who knew the owners and Marie-France of course. There were also some young Americans, speaking quickly in French, so probably students, living in the city for some town). The menu was extremely simple - you pay 11 euro for such delicacies as crudites de saison (which included canned green beans and tough tomatoes), aubergines au gratin (which was more like a pureed vegetable with sprinkled cheese) and out of the can peches au sirop. But the food was good and the service by the owner - a white haired guy in his 60s - was what I'd imagine French houses were like some 40 years ago..

The restaurant is to be closed down in December, Marie-France told me melancholy; the owners are to retire and their children what to do different things. What are you going to do?? I asked..she's been looking for a replacement, and she thought she may have found it and was going to try it in August whilst le Garillon is going to be closed down for the annual holiday (isn't it amazing that some places in FRance still close down in August, even though they could have made more money in that one month than in the whole year?!). I sincerely hoped she would find a new home..

Marie-France also told me about doing psychoanalysis for 30 days (4 days a week until she run out of money), and how she used to spend weeks in the 'Living theatre' in Morocco, in Essaoura..There were many other half words and sentences that I could have probably understand but I didn't. At the end she told me proudly that she is planning to open an email account and asked me for my 'internet telephone':) I gave her my address and made her promise to write to me as soon as she manages to open hers (never, most likely). She smiled at me, half-toothly and so kindly. But I had to run out of the restaurant as I was being late for a film.

The end to my evening was very different, although bore a similar melancholic and old-fashioned light. I went to see a 1988 'Let's get lost' - a black a white film about Chet Baker ('the best trumpet jazz player in the world'). A beautiful piece starring Chet himself, as old, lonely, with life behind – full of talent and waste…At midnight I slowly wondered off, thinking about life, age, talents, hopes...the morning would bring colours and smells of the markets, it would be young, lively and full of promise, but for a couple of hours, the warm street of the town, empty and lit by long bodies of yellow lamps, had the shadows of lives already gone..

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