Now in our third week, we’re comfortably settled into the pace of life here. My morning walks are refreshing; we’ve had several one-day excursions exploring the region; we’ve had late dinners with friends, enjoying splendid conversations well into the evening. Most of all, we’ve enjoyed being immersed in the language and culture. And to keep up with the rhythm of being French, we speak French to each other. Each day, we pick up new conversational phrases that aren’t to be found in Flaubert or Zola. Evidence that our integration is taking hold is a paucity of media news of the United States. We’ve avoided for the most part reading the American newspapers online, preferring to get news from French television and newspapers. In the French press, and, I suppose, as it is elsewhere around the world, there is great interest in the Russian and Ukrainian crisis. Locally, the French press is focusing on election scandals of former President Nicolas Sarkozy. And there is practically no mention of the domestic situation of the current president, François Hollande. When President Hollande visited the White House recently, the American press seemed obsessed about his personal life. The French are fairly blasé, allowing the president to have his personal life without public scrutiny. What I find most refreshing about the news here is the extensive coverage of Africa and Asia. The American press gives little attention to these continents unless there is some crisis.
Life here is also a continual lesson in art and architecture. The buildings in the villages and towns dating from Medieval times have interesting stories to tell. The simplest to the most ornate constructions are works of art. Their durability, lasting through the centuries, affirms how the science of mathematics and the aesthetic arts merged to create the optimal practicality for daily living. In every place we visit, we are drawn to these structures. Each town has a plaza, and at its center is a church, a reminder of how integral the church was in the dictates of the political and cultural life of the people. From that simple little chapel of the penitents in Grimaud to the grand and majestic basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume to the equally imposing cathedral of Saint-Sauveur in Aix-en-Provence, stands indisputable evidence of the religious fervor of the congregations and the overarching power of the Church. Inside the larger churches, the tall stone pillars ascend toward the heavens, symbolically transporting the prayers of the faithful. Their towering height stands in contrast to the humbleness of the prayerful congregation. The Roman and Gothic architecture recall the engineering abilities and artistic tastes of the period. Engravings, sculpture and painting adorn the interior and educate the faithful. The walls of these damp and dark interiors are lined with beautifully detailed tableaux depicting the life of Jesus. Many of the artists of these huge canvases are little known or forgotten. I’m intrigued by a studied look at their composition, marveling how the artists use light, or lack of it, to evoke a sentiment or deliver a message. These paintings, often austere, can provide a light moment. At Saint-Maiximin-la-Sainte-Baume, I stood for a long time gazing at a retable, altarpiece, by the sixteenth-century artist, Antoine Ronzen, which depicted various New Testament themes. The various tableaux, darkened over the years, still illuminated rich, deep, coloring that added to the rich and intricate realistic portrayals by the artist. In a painting of the Holy Family in the basilica in Saint-Maximin, dating from the Middle Ages, the face of the baby Jesus was re-done in the nineteenth century to resemble Napoleon Bonaparte!
Of the two cloisters that we visited, the cloister at Saint-Sauveur was the most impressive with its decorative columns. At the top of each of the four corner columns were decorated reliefs representing a story in the life of Jesus as told by one of the four gospel writers. And only one column showed a realistic image of St. Matthew pointing the way to the sanctuary. Atop the other three columns were symbolic representations of the Mark, Luke and John. The cloister at Sainte-Marie-Madeleine was plain, void of any reliefs, but still architecturally beautiful with its graceful arches. Walking through these inner sanctuaries of monastic life brought vivid images of monks in silent prayer or singing together the evening’s vespers in the angelic resonance of Gregorian chant.
Earlier this week we visited one of the three Cistercian abbeys in Provence, Abbaye Thoronet, dating from the twelfth century. Built in the Roman style of architecture, its plain design and its isolation in the surrounding hills announced a serenity of time and space. The beautiful stones with their geometric simplicity and clean lines reflected the austerity of the monastic life. The inner cloister recalled a life dedicated to prayer, made more chillingly apparent when, in the church, our guide sang a Gregorian hymn that resonated throughout the structure producing a sound that seemed to pour from the stones themselves. I closed my eyes in meditation, believing the cantor stood the whole time in front of me, when in actuality she was moving about the church. It was the purest sound of surround-sound music I’ve ever heard and a testament to the genius of Medieval acoustical engineering and architecture.
Another architectural detail that we’ve noticed peculiar to Provence is the open-air metal bell towers (les campanilles) atop the churches that allow the wind to pass through and carry the sound longer distances.
Appreciation of these centuries-old structures began in my interdisciplinary freshman year seminar in the humanities at Xavier University of Louisiana. There we studied the convergence of art, science, literature, religion and philosophy. What I learned in that course marked the way I viewed texture, form, structure, line, shape, and color, lessons that ultimately illuminated my approach to aesthetics and art. Once I retired, I sat in Professor Andrea Rusnock’s art history class to deepen my understanding of art and architecture. It was well worth the investment of time; I find myself re-thinking how I view art and more fully appreciating its effect on me.
The drive to Thoronet was also fascinating as we drove through magnificent countryside and through the most charming small villages. Along the winding ascending and descending roads were swaths of vineyards. In the distance were verdant hills varying in color from a forest green tint to a greyish green. One of the towns, Entrecasteaux, had a beautifully manicured French garden. In our search for faiencerie, we stopped in Salernes, noted for ceramics, but managed to find only a small tile to our liking. I’m confident that we find what we’re looking for before our departure.
This time in Provence is allowing us to do what many locals do, sitting or lunching in cafés. Two weeks ago we lunched in Aix-en-Provence with our friend from Granger, Cheryl Barker, and her family. Cheryl’s daughter and her husband, and their daughter, live in Fos-sur-Mer. Earlier in the week, we went with a friend to visit her daughter in a town adjacent to Cannes. We lunched at the port and then took a pleasant drive along the seashore in Cannes. There, mobs of people were on the beach; others walking along the shore. Traffic was horrendous, and it isn’t the summer season yet. We did manage to see the infamous red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival. There were no stars there, just another curious mob. Last week we lunched with Gabriel Popescu who is here in Toulon as an exchange professor. He’s giving a public lecture on Monday on geopolitics. Today we had lunch with two exchange students from IUSB. As we did with Gabriel, we lunched at a quaint crêperie we discovered in the old town of Toulon. Kudos to their French teachers at IUSB, Lesley Walker and Anne Magnan-Park, as the students were quite comfortable in speaking French with us. Tonight we’ll pick up Gabriel and drive to Brignoles to dine with Karine Tournier-Sol and her family. Karine was an exchange professor at IUSB a few years ago.
Eating well is important here. And we have certainly had sumptuous meals here, but we do eat modestly. In the evenings, we are often content to sit in our apartment with a bottle of rosé or muscadet, with a salad, bread with cheese and some fruit and dine royally. While eating may seem a pastime for the French, I’ve noticed that there is increasingly emphasis on eating healthily. Posted on the walls of the bus stops are cautions not to nibble between meals, and on the television there are rolling bands across the screen encouraging the viewer to eat five fruits and vegetables a day. In the States, I remember the strong reactions against Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to limit the size of sodas in NYC and Michelle Obama’s efforts to get sweets out of the schools and her campaign against obesity. Some Americans viewed these efforts as an assault on personal liberty.
In a future blog I will write about the colors of Provence. Traveling across Provence it’s easy to understand why the Impressionists like Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin were drawn here to paint. This sunny region of vineyards and olive orchards tucked among rolling hills and sea views offers a spectacular palette for the eyesight.
This is Melanie in italics again. We are really enjoying renewing friendships with professors and others whom we have met before. We’re able to talk with real French people about their everyday lives, from family concerns and worries, to how to travel most efficiently (the bus to this town because the parking is horrendous or the train because what you want to see is near the station or recommendations for cheap hotels or other places to see), to how to retire gracefully and happily, to where are the places to go ballroom dancing. It’s the real life here with people who live here that is so much fun. We’re going to the marché every Friday, discovering hikes in the area, finding the movie theaters that play films in the version originale (not dubbed), trying the flea markets and the yard sales. It’s really fun.
Little vignettes. When we went into the cathedral in Aix-en-Provence, Alfred gave a coin to the woman begging outside the cathedral. We got separated when leaving and I couldn’t find Alfred. I looked outside and then went back inside and didn’t find him. When leaving a second time, the woman begging at the door, noticed that I was looking and told me where Alfred was standing. A little bit of grace from an unexpected quarter.
Living in a land of drought. Showers with very small water output. A rain barrel in the yard across the street. Toilets with dual flushes.
Talking to the English class of a friend about the American education system. A young music student in the class was chaffing under the French system of having to study only classical music and having to think and write only in prescribed ways. He wanted to go the Berkelee School of music in Boston and play jazz and broaden his horizons. Alfred, since we go often to Boston, offered the young man his email address. Our friend, the teacher of the class, remarked that this was a very American thing to do, offer friendship and access to one’s private contacts to a stranger.
This morning at the market. Our friend Mari-Thé had told us about the best cheese stall at the market. When we went there, the fromagier (cheese seller) smiled at us and said in French, “I hear we have an acquaintance in common.” So off we went asking him about the best cheeses that he would recommend. I asked how much our purchases would cost and an elderly lady waiting next to us hearing the repartee looked at us and with a big exaggerated wink and a smile said that the purchases were free.
At the Abbaye de Thoronet that Alfred described. The moving, mystical, otherworldly sound of the young woman singing the chants of Hildegard of Bingen. With my eyes closed I would have said that there were several people singing instead of just one because of the reverberations in the church.