This post will be as close as it gets to a travel blog. It’s my last day, so I decided to get a café in a little square outside the town hall and write in a journal. It’s broken jumble and disorganized musing and far too long, but sit with me. Enjoy with me, once more, an afternoon in Aix-en-Provence.
So here is a coffee. Un café. Stress on the un. An M on the tiny cup. In outdoor restaurants, I never know what the name of the place is. Maybe this one starts with M. Messy pens that have run out of ink from too many notes and too many more doodles. Shaky table because these streets weren’t built flat. 1 Euro 70 counted out in my smallest change because I had time to count it. The server smiled at me. I think she’ll leave me for a while, even though I’ve already sipped the sip that was my order.
There’s only one band in all of Aix. Not including the dudes in the Son de Guitar that one time. but no there’s one band because in any square at any time it’s this one guy and his friend. They’re not that great but they play the oldies and it feels romantic and I’ve forgiven them for approaching me for money every time I sit down here. Which I admit isn’t often. I left my phone at home because it’s better that way.
Maybe I’ll get another coffee.
Why is there only one kind of tree here? The best kind of tree and it’s all there is here and it exists nowhere else. The tree whose leaves dapple the light to the perfect Renoir dapple just so the light is always soft and always warm. They’ve dappled so much, these trees, that the dapples have seeped into their skin. Even in the darkness they have perfect little speckles of light. I wonder if there’s a French lady who sneaks out every night and paints on these perfect patches. Or a whole brigade. Maybe that’s how Cézanne got his start. With the Underground Society of Stealth Tree Specklers. I’m thinking not— but one can dream.
That’s the thing about France, isn’t it? You can dream because it feels like you’re already in one. My mind has been reprogrammed to think in burnt yellow, pale blue, and speckles. Blink once and your city streets empty of tourists and fill with Degas and Camus and motherfucking Napoleon. But that’s only sometimes. Usually my dreams are simpler. Like that around the corner is the love of my life. Or that around the corner is me a little bit more figured out.
I asked for another coffee and the nice server lady brough me water too. Ugh yes I love drinking coffee with water. Great coffee to make you thirsty, and sweet water to make you satisfied and soft and happy.
There are too many tourists here but I don’t mind. I see them as a little treasure hunt. In them I search for pieces of home. Like the American boys playing cards next to me at the cafe yesterday, not knowing I could understand them. I stayed there for too long— I’d forgotten how lovely it is to overhear conversations. I succeed sometimes in French, but the stuff I understand is usually “Where do you want to go for lunch?” “Are you thirsty?” “Come back here!” “Two beers please.”
The one musician in Aix is taking a break.
If I were to paint the scene in front of me, I would use pink, yellow, and brown. Then gray for the gristle and the pigeons. And then I would start painting and realize I got it all wrong because I’m not Cézanne and these colors are all purple or turquoise or something.
It’s quiet here outside the city hall. Maybe it’s because the French smoke too many cigarettes to talk loudly. And French greetings come with bisous and a “coucou.” And it’s like a little song and dance in a perfect little ballet and no one needs to exclaim or shriek or be American.
My server lady came and asked me for the bill because she’s going to eat lunch. What a wonderful thing to know that someone’s having lunch and asked you a question and smiled and didn’t have to repeat a thing because you understand completely and now you have a coffee and a favorite server!
Accordion man. He’s the other musician in Aix. And he’s just shown up to hang with the oldies guy. Or maybe just sit near him. They seem like they’re all friends. They share the streets of Aix, knowing that music is happy and two happy streets are better than one.
French shave their golden retrievers too close here. They start looking like labs. Don’t you know what you’re missing? Lab puppies are great but you’re really giving up your golden retriever puppy? Really?
French dogs are fantastic though. Maybe it’s just because every time they pass I imagine them with a french accent. But honestly they’re amazing. They’re so self-satisfied. They don’t pull on the leash, they don’t sniff at you. It’s more, “Pardon me, I’m going for my walk now.” as they strut with their teeny tiny paws down the street.
What I like about tourists here is that they’re families. They’re the retired husband and wife who haven’t looked each other in the eyes since the birth of their son in 1983 and now have to share a map because streets here go everywhere and nowhere. They’re the young dad who’s waited too long to talk to his toddler boys about what they want to do today or what kind of ice cream they like or what they want to be when they grow up. They’re the couple that probably shouldn’t have gotten so serious so fast. But are holding hands anyways because hey it’s France and this place is romantic. They’re the beautiful daughter who looks too much like her beautiful mother and has been on a diet since age thirteen but now is laughing with chocolate stains on her teeth.
Don’t make me leave because this woman in lace has come with a music book and a mole and I want her to sing jazz or something sassy with the one musician in all of Aix.
There’s this fountain here and I just love it, you know. It’s a little refuge for tourists who just now realized there’s nowhere to sit if you get takeout in this city.
The woman in lace is Annalise. I’m ready. She has an acoustic guitar. Lay it on me. She stands alone and introduces herself in French and broken English.
And it is so lovely. And sad just like I like it. She has hands like my mom’s. That’s bizarre. I guess I miss my mom’s hands. Even though they’re covered in BandAids because she refuses to stop using them and they refuse to stop cracking. She sings like my mom too. And she has my mom’s hair when my mom had a perm. People didn’t clap so when a boy dropped money, she told him to clap so he clapped and we clapped and she smiled. I think she’s older than her voice sounds. I’ve just noticed the wrinkles that stay even when she’s not emotionally scatting.
I should go about buying presents for people. Isn’t my coming home present enough though? Don’t they know I was thinking of them even if I don’t duck into a macaroon shop?
Maybe a cool shirt for mom. But then every time I take it back. So a shirt that I know will look good on my mom and not me.
Though let’s be honest— everything looks good on my mom. She just doesn’t see it. She doesn’t get how many people want to have a body like hers that stays strong and slim and freckled and beautiful and a face that stays tan and young and bright.
But I guess we all have to decide the stuff that doesn’t look good on us in order to feel like we’re looking good today.
Oh that this is my life
that I sat in the South of France for an afternoon
that there was a tiny cup of coffee
and then another
and a change bag with little Euros
and speckled light from speckled trees
and a city hall with 3 flags flying
and a favorite server no longer on break
and a French novel open on my table
and a bell ringing once
and summer wind with summer heat and no one minding
and everything was yellow
and I was slowly falling in love with a faceless French man around the corner
and a boulangerie I don’t go to anymore because they’re not nice
and a boulangerie I do go to because the bread’s worse but they smile at me
and the faces in walls and faces in fountains and faces looking at faces
and happy French people with happy French friends
and mispronounced American lyrics
and perfectly pronounced melodies
and Orange and Paul and places tourists think aren’t chains
and cigarettes between delicate fingers and painted lips
and leaves that shouldn’t be falling
and sweat that hasn’t stopped since June
and children on shoulders
and cameras across torsos
and Cézanne in the shadows
and poetry washing down the streets with petals from the flower market
and a text on my phone about dinner with French friends
and sand between my toes from last night’s picnic on the beach in Marseille
and opinions about Marseille being beautiful depending on where you go
and these buildings who watch it all happen and hold up scooters and cigarette smokers
and baguettes in brown paper in soft hands
and finished coffee and finished water and growing shadows and summer slipping into the back streets and behind shutters that aren’t just for decoration.
I know I should go home, of course. But “Vous voulez encore une?” she asks with my mother’s hands. “Oui oui oui!” They call.
“Like the legend of the Phoenix, all ends are beginnings.” Fine then. She sings “Up all night to get lucky” and I will have to slip this journal back into my bag that smells like cigarettes and start walking home. Or get a quiche lorraine first.
I don’t want to stop writing because things like this don’t happen often. Because this writing isn’t for my blog readers (reader… Hi mom.) or my future nostalgic self. This is for me right now to know everything as much as I can before I start living again with my eyes on my phone and my feet on my pedals and my tires on the way to the quad.
So that’s my film reel for the afternoon. Une vie en rose of a romanticized France that makes you forget that real life exists and you’re a real person with real obligations and a seat on a plane leaving at 10h30.
I dig my fingernails into these pages and try to not let go to a summer that changed me just enough to mean something.
Here comes Annalise. She’s starting to circle and I simply don’t have change to give her. I’m sorry, France. You gave to me, and I leave without anything in return but an afternoon of words.
She’s at my table.
“Désolée— j’ai que les petites…”
“C’est pas grave. Tu l’as aimé?”
“Oui. J’ai remarqué que tu as les mains comme ma mère.”
“Elle joue aussi?”
“Oui. Donc je l’ai aimé beaucoup.”
She smiled. I smiled.
I guess that was enough, wasn’t it?