Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Return to Provence

A tiny apartment with a red tile floor and a palm tree outside the white-shuttered window still appears in my dreams from time to time even tough I last lived there three years ago. Mont Sainte-Victoire invades my thoughts with her weirdly jagged from, and I can still walk the narrow streets of the centre ville simply by closing my eyes. I recognized then the beauty of the place without realizing just how deeply I had fallen under its spell. After a less-than-enchanted semester in Madrid, it became clear that the feeling was not a simple love of traveling or the thrill of becoming foreign, but I persisted in attributing it to something internal, some greater theme or turn of mind. Finally, after three years with neither an adequate description nor explanation for that magical spring, I made plans to return to Aix, fearing all the while that I would find it somehow different and thereby ruin my fondest memories.

I arrived in the rain, which was unusual but did nothing to spoil the view of Mont Sainte-Victoire greeting me at the train station. Climbing on the shuttle into town, I discovered the driver singing along to Louis Armstrong and a gospel choir on "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and couldn't hide my amusement. I took refuge from the drizzle at Book-in-Bar, a British bookshop and café before finding a small hotel with sufficient vacancy to welcome me and proceeded to spend the evening wandering near-empty streets still wondering what had brought me back.

The next morning, I buzzed the door to 15, rue Cardinale and strolled into the Vanderbilt-in-France office unannounced. At that moment, I knew that I would always belong in Aix: bisous from Maité and Manu preceded a long chat about Morocco, foreign affairs, the current students and life in general. The Vanderbilt center had been my home once before, and I found them willing to welcome me still with arms wide open. I stepped back onto the street with the familiarity of an Aixoise rather than the trepidation of a foreigner and set about rediscovering my heart's true home.

It is all still there. The majesty of St. Jean de Malte, the curious patchwork of the Cathedral and the imposing oak doors to the Institut des Études Politiques remain landmarks on my internal map. A slice of of mozzarella from Pizza Capri tasted as deliciously gooey as ever, and the sheer pleasure of staking out a bench on the Cours Mirabeau to people-watch is still an unequalled pastime (especially when done with a lemon-sugar crêpe in hand). I wandered the markets, saw a movie, window-shopped the winter sales and slipped naturally back into my French self, even in my quietest thoughts. The only break in the spell came each night as I unlocked a hotel room instead of my cozy palm-treed apartment.

I plotted to stay. I envisioned running a restaurant, a hotel, a bookstore; asking Book-in-Bar to hire me as a clerk; begging Maité to find something for me to do at the school. Visions of a life in Aix taunted me with the promise of golden sunshine and the freshest fruits, a small French dog and the familiar winding streets of the medieval neighborhood. What I fool I would be for leaving! Who needed Morocco, or for that matter, graduate school?

Eventually, the time came to leave and I made my departure quietly, on the same shuttle with the same gravelly-voiced gospel. I spent the train ride to Grenoble reminding myself of Plan A, and by the time I stepped into Sarah's apartment I felt comfortable thinking about other places again. It's been over a week now and I'm no longer on the same continent, but I still feel myself wanting to throw everything else aside and run away to Provence...I can't explain the magic, but its hold on me is forever strong.

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