Since my retirement last June, I’ve been anticipating our two-month stay in Provence. Of the twenty-two regions in France, this is my favorite and the one with which I am most familiar. I first came here in the sixties as a student, spending the summer with a French family. Although my classes were in Avignon, I lived in a smaller village just over the river in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Each morning I rode a small scooter to class. I returned to Provence several years later as a Fulbright student in the early seventies while finishing my doctoral thesis. Then I was an American language teaching assistant at Lycée Thiers in Marseille. Oh yes, there was an English language assistant as well. Ian, my counterpart from Great Britain, thought Americans spoke a bastard English. I sensed by that he meant we did not speak a proper English, certainly not the highbrow accent he spoke. Nevertheless during our year together, we were pals. To be so, I had to brush aside his superior demeanor.
On repeat trips to France over the years, I’ve always gravitated to Provence. There is something special here. The mellifluous accent, the strong winds, the rosé wine, the scrumptious dishes, the reddish soil, the clear blue skies, the bright sun, the varied colors in the gardens, the Mediterranean, the dusky landscapes lined with vineyards, all good reasons to return. And we have friends here. By chance, during a summer vacation in Brittany, Melanie and I took a side trip to Toulon at the invitation of a Fulbright scholar, who had spent the previous year at IUSB. Once here she introduced me to the director of international programs at her university. In a warm and delightful conversation he and I acknowledged quickly our mutual interests in furthering study abroad opportunities for our students. And several months later, when he came to visit our campus at my invitation, an exchange program between our two universities was born. For over ten years now, we’ve had students and faculty crossing the Atlantic in both directions. Just before my retirement, I spent five weeks at the University of Toulon-Var teaching a mini-course on Louisiana culture. And during this trip, Melanie and I will meet and spend time with two IUSB students and Gabriel Popescu, an IUSB faculty member, here for four weeks teaching a course in United States geo-politics.
But before that happens, we are beginning to do the necessary chores to integrate ourselves to the rhythm of daily life. Groceries are high on the list, and we spent the early afternoon at the local supermarket where we even signed up for our faithful shopper card. And no shopping in France is complete without a visit to the local patisserie where we bought a baguette for the ham and cheese sandwiches that we hungrily ate for lunch. While in town, we pulled into a gas station that was also a women’s lingerie boutique, a new experience for us. Later we will stop by Orange, a telecommunications boutique, to have our French phones re-charged. Tonight we’re having dinner with friends on the beach at a restaurant that we know well. Tomorrow we will go downtown to reinstate our bus passes and senior discount pass for the trains. Once we’ve completed these necessities, we’ll begin exploring Provence. As an artist whose gallery we visited in Brittany, and from whom we bought a small painting that now hangs in our family room, told us, “Il faut découvrir la Bretagne profonde.” In other words, he encouraged us to venture out and discover the Brittany countryside. The sunny weather with its cool crisp air is just right for exploring the Provençal villages and towns. The magnolias are in bloom and lemon and orange trees have fruit. And although I’m anxious to ensconce myself in new surroundings and learn new things, sitting in quiet places with a good book is very much part of my agenda in the next few weeks.
Wherever I travel, I like to fit in the daily flow of life and live like the locals. That way I can soak in the infinite possibilities that any region has to offer. But with those rewards come challenges. Already three days into our Provençal adventure, we’ve had our share of mishaps. Before leaving the United States, our flight from South Bend was canceled because of mechanical problems pushing back our journey one day. And when we finally landed at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris, a false bomb alert kept us, and hundreds of other passengers from across the globe, penned behind the customs barrier. After an interminable wait in a stuffy room with little air, we were finally permitted through customs. Then there was chaos in trying to find our luggage among the dozens of conveyor belts in two different halls. Our seemingly phantom flight did not appear on any of the flight monitors. The delay in finding our luggage coupled with the wait at customs erased the hour and a half early arrival of our plane. Luckily, we had ample time to catch our train to Marseille. The TGV, the high-speed train, is a marvel. During the three and a half hours of our journey, we zipped by beautiful and changing landscapes of snowcapped mountains and pastoral vistas.
Once in Marseille, our rental car was waiting. Dusk was approaching. And foolishly, we programmed our GPS to avoid the toll roads. Ordinarily, this would have been a rational decision that would take us along beautiful vistas along the coast through charming little villages. However, darkness settled in quickly. In the empty black night, there was nothing to be seen along the unfamiliar curving roads on the cliffs; and the pleasant journey we anticipated added stress to an already tiring day.
And, today, in our effort to maximize time, we decided, before meeting our friends for dinner, to drive into town to have our French phones reactivated and to have minutes added. Again, not a wise decision; the rush hour traffic was horrendous. After several attempts around roundabouts, and taking a wrong turn toward oncoming traffic on a one-way multi-lane avenue, we abandoned any hope of finding the parking lot of our desired location. We went instead to the Lido, a restaurant on the beach we know well and frequented often, to meet our friends. We got there an hour early and thought we would have an apéritif while waiting the arrival of our friends. No, that was not possible either. We were informed that the restaurant did not open until 8 o’clock and were directed by the waiter to a café across the street. Instead, we waited in our car. But the evening ended perfectly with a delightful meal of cabillaud, a white flaky fish similar in texture to cod. And the wine, of course, added to its delicate taste. A delicious crème brulée made the evening more special. As for the phones, we’ll try again later today, this time by bus. It’ll be awhile before we dredge up the courage to drive downtown again.
To all my New Orleanian family and friends, Happy Mardi. The good times are rolling. And here, nearby in Nice, floats and maskers will greet happy revelers as well. But not us, we’re content to stay put.