Sunday, December 08, 2013


Hello Kitty is making a comeback in France. It wasn't so obvious until I looked through my photos for the day. 

DSC06326 - Version 2
(at the Christmas Market in Aix en Provence)

DSC06387 - Version 2
(also at the Christmas Market)

When did that happen? What drew little girls yet again to that pouting cat face with the ribbon adornment somewhere near the cat ear?

DSC06399 - Version 2
(on the metro in Marseille)

What else have the French adopted as their own? The American Santa. He's everywhere, just as back home. Goodbye gaunt old man in blue robes who stood in for St Nick in the past. Hello jolly fat guy in red, who comes with reindeer and probably demands wine and cookies for his sleigh ride on Christmas Eve.

DSC06359 - Version 2
(at the Christmas Market in Aix en Provence)

And a clarification: no, it's not cold at all here, in southern France! During the day, it continues to be sunny and in the mid fifties. If Ed were here, he'd be in a t-shirt. I do not know why women and men alike are bundled as if ready for a blast of Arctic air. The French relationship with a scarf is, in any case, a complicated thing. True, a French person wears it magnificently, while we only wear it adequately, but surely that's because the French have more practice in knotting, flipping, twisting and tying the thing.

DSC06346 - Version 2
(on a sunny day in Aix en Provence)

DSC06362 - Version 2
(a scarf and a long coat, Aix en Provence)

DSC06351 - Version 2
(scarves and an accordion player, Aix en Provence)

And I should again affirm that dogs here are treated with the tenderness we reserve for newborns. Not a small number take their pooch out for a walk like this:

DSC06378 - Version 2
(in Aix en Provence)

Odile, my landlady, has three dogs (and one cat). Their beds are luxurious. Their lives -- without worry. Sometimes she has a stern word for one of them, but she doesn't mean it and they know it.


One last generalization, okay? The French people - they're an expressive lot. For instance, if we don't like conditions of work, we complain to colleagues who are equally positioned in the office hierarchy. When the French don't like conditions of work, they strike. Over the years, I've come to believe that conditions must be particularly disagreeable for city transportation workers because encountering a shutdown of city buses, for example, is not uncommon.

I've hit such a strike here, in Marseille. City buses haven't moved since I arrived here and though Odile checks each morning, so far there has been no progress.

For the most part, this doesn't affect me. I use the metro, which is in service and I walk. But in wanting to go a little outside the city, I need the bus.

This morning at breakfast, Odile is shaking her head again. Not today, she says, as she slices bread with figs and a Christmas cake, and puts out the traditional holiday sweet tray of figs and dates.

DSC06319 - Version 2

DSC06318 - Version 2

Well then I'll have to take the train. It's a limitation, but not an odious one. I can go, for example, to Aix en Provence.

Aix is to Marseille like Michael Bloomberg is to a Walmart employee.  If Marseille is poor (it is, in fact, France's poorest city), Aix is pompously not poor, even if it cloaks it these days by filling the crevices with student types: for a very small city of 150,000 it boasts three major universities. Other than on a Sunday in December, when all of French humanity pours into Aix to celebrate pre-Christmas, English is often heard on the streets. A number of American universities have exchange programs with Aix universities.

Shops in Aix are a mixture of Provence and Paris. One will have lovely linens, or jars of delicious olive tapinades, or boxes of those incredible melon-almond-honey cakes called Calissons...

DSC06354 - Version 2

DSC06375 - Version 2

...another will be a branch of something I'd expect only in the major cities of France and not in tiny Aix, which I can cross from one end to the next in the space of twenty minutes.

A dozen years ago I took a small group of Americans (strangers: they paid me to do this) to Provence and we stopped for the day in Aix. They liked it. I liked it. Okay, today I will go to Aix.

And so, right after breakfast, I run to the metro and run into the train station (I found on the Internet a 10:08 train and it is now 10:00) and people let me budge the line because they're not in such a hurry and then boom! I find out I'm at the wrong train station for that train.
11:05, you can go on the 11:05. Here's the ticket. That'll be 5.5 Euros (about $8).

So I have an hour to kill. I pace the station. I admire the view from the terrace.

DSC06323 - Version 2

That took all of five minutes. I pace some more and... what's this? Ah, the bus terminal. It should be empty. Why is there a bus with an Aix en Provence sign on it?
Are the buses running to Aix?
Yes. Today it's every twenty minutes. 5.5 Euros. Pay on the bus.

Would you sacrifice 5 Euro (spent on a train ticket) and hop on the waiting bus to gain an hour?

I hesitate, but only for a minute. To get there before the morning market shuts down, before the tourist office closes for lunch, before people hunker down for the biggest meal of the week in France (Sunday lunch) -- yes, it's worth it. But it's a waste -- an annoying one, because I wasn't thorough in checking all options from the get-go.  Ah well. I will most certainly use the train ticket on the return.

Alright. I'm in Aix. The skies are blue, the buildings are golden yellow, I'm charmed!

DSC06330 - Version 2

And I do catch the tail end of the market.

DSC06333 - Version 2

Ah yes, the French pooch.

DSC06343 - Version 2

And could it be? A mushroom stand! And yes, inside that jar, guarded with a vigilant eye are the riches of the Luberon forests: truffles.

DSC06340 - Version 2

I don't buy any. Not I nor anyone else back home gasps with pleasure at the sound of the word "truffle!" In fact, most of us have now grown to associate it with the dark chocolate candy that actually was made to resemble the real French mushroom that's hunted by pigs and men with sticks.
But it is a sort of a dreamy thing to be in southern France right at the incongruous moment when truffles are in season (early winter). And so I smile and smile and I am sure the guardian of the precious treasures thinks me to be somewhat batty or worse.

Other highlights? Well, there are the sun-dried tomatoes, which are really dired in the sun -- they have that much of it here.

DSC06335 - Version 2

And as I wander off into the side streets, I begin to think of lunch. Odile gave me a handful of addresses, but she warned me that she hadn't been at any of them for a year or more. One does look rather pretty.
No, c'est complet madame. We have no more tables left. 
I push it. Not even for one and if I come toward the end?
No madame. We are full.
I try a different tactic. What other place would you recommend then?

It's like asking the waiter for a food recommendation. Who knows what motivation is behind the words -- that one... you must eat that one!

Madame hesitates, but only for a minute. Go to "Just en Face." Right there, across the square.
I walk over and the waiter there puts me down for 1:45. Nina, okay, Nina. See you then, Nina.

DSC06350 - Version 2

This gives me plenty of time to window shop. And go back down to the Christmas Market. And back up again. And down again. And back again. The produce market has long packed up and moved on. They've washed the square where vendors once had tables loaded with foods. They've even put up other tables -- of restaurants on the square. A lot can happen in Aix in the space of two hours.

DSC06377 - Version 2
after the produce market

DSC06356 - Version 2
Aix has a scattering of attractive fountains

DSC06361 - Version 2
the main street (Mirebeau), set up this month for the Christmas Market

DSC06365 - Version 2
a favorite French kid activity at holiday fairs: bungee bouncing!

 It's 1:45. I'm at the restaurant. There is a line and I wait patiently to check in, but the waiter sees me and waves me over. Nina! This table for Nina! People step aside, I in my travel weary clothes and shoes and without a touch of lipstick (forgot, as usual) move forward.

French waiters can really make you feel special.

So who's eating here on this beautiful pre-holiday Sunday afternoon? It's a casual place. Paper place mats and chalk board menus. And still, it's the kind of restaurant where a couple comes in -- she looks to be about nine and a half months pregnant and he looks like he is sacrificing with her and therefore, with a sigh, ignoring the wine list. I don't quite see what she orders, but I know that he has the duck breast. His eyes trace the progression of the plate as the waiter sets it before him. He cuts it right away and peers intently to see if it's pink inside. He calls over the waiter. I'm curious:  not pink enough? Too pink? Too crisp around the edges?

Could you bring me some Camargue fleur de sel please? (Those special salt crystals -- remember? I spoke about them when in Slovenia --  that people sprinkle lovingly over their meats or salads.)

I mean, who back home would think that his meal would be more perfect, more complete if only he could have some delicate "flowers of salt" sprinkled on top his duck breast? I have brought back Camargue salt from near Marsaille, I have brought back Banyuls salt from near Sorede and no one ever uses it! Ed and I love our foods, but we would never think to reach for a very special Camargue or Banyuls (Indeed, I saw Ed once grab an old container that had the label of "popcorn salt" on it and I know it was salt and nothing more than that, but the image was all wrong. In any case, you can see how unfocused we are on issues of salt crystals back home.)

Myself, I order two of the small dishes -- a herring and a creamed cucumber. The herring is excellent, the creamed cucumbers are just okay. Heavy.

DSC06367 - Version 2

For a main course I pick what I think is a proper Sunday lunch dish -- stewed chicken (three small drumsticks) Provencal. Now that's really exquisite!

DSC06370 - Version 2

Dessert? I ask for suggestions (!). I'm offered an orange creme brulee. Perfect.

DSC06374 - Version 2

It's not an expensive meal by any means but it is intensely satisfying. It leaves we wondering if there is a place to take a Sunday afternoon nap. Retired people can get away with these things, no?

Instead, I walk out and move (much more slowly) in the direction of two Aix museums. Cezanne lived and painted here. It would be nice to see a little of his art.

There isn't a lot of Cezanne, but there is quite a lot of Picasso as the former collector was on good terms with the painter. So I finish the day with looking at art, moving at a snail's pace from one room to the next, from one museum to the other and now I really do feel that I have done enough here in this pretty little town of such great stateliness and warm hues.


Such a great day it was.

I catch one of the frequent evening trains back to Marseille.