It was quite cold, but brilliantly sunny the day we all, Mom, Dad, husband, daughter, sister-in-law, brother, nephew and I, set out to visit Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. The mistral, a bitter, dry, strong wind common to the Provençal region was making its presence known, and cozy in our jackets, we all huddled deep into the seats of the tour van. As we sped through the French countryside on our way to the city, I had the bizarre sense we were hurtling along in a time travel machine. Yoann, our engaging tour guide, provided various bits and pieces of information about the south of France and French life as we watched the breathtaking countryside spin by. When we arrived in Aix and de-vanned, we were instantly captivated by the charm, the bustle in the center of town and the welcome sensation of our American perceptions coming face to face with those of a small city in France.
Aix-en-Provence is one of those time-out-of-mind kind of places that made me want to buy a magical little pied-à-terre, move there, do nothing but shop at all of the wonderful markets and cook 24/7. From the moment I caught my first glimpse of la Fontaine de La Rotonde, I wanted to purchase potted red geraniums for my balcony, a market basket and one of those funny little cars with only one wheel in the front. Surely, I would need a bicycle, as well! I have read about this enchanting corner of the world all my life in books, food and travel magazines, but absolutely nothing prepared me for falling in love with the south of France even though I have seen A Very Good Year at least ten times! I was ready to pack my bags, and become the Provençal version of David Lebovitz, albeit female, and with a decidedly less impressive resume!
There was quite a bit of traffic in the main area of town near the “fontaine”, and since Yoann had no hopes of parking in the vicinity, we took to the cobblestone streets on foot while he searched for a temporary home for our van. As we ventured deeper into the city, the streets narrowed and the traffic lessened. The noise quieted and the pace slowed. Here, all was unhurried and dreamy. The softly worn, mellow and pale color of the ancient buildings added to the general ethereal atmosphere of the town. While there was quite a bit of pedestrian activity, fellow tourists seemed just as affected as we were by the tranquility, and seemed more than willing to resist the temptation to move with any urgency that might, in some way, resemble life at home.
After we wandered bemusedly down several streets, our reverie only occasionally interrupted by a random, tiny three wheeled delivery vehicle gently nosing us out of the way, we turned a corner and came across the Place Richelme market. I stopped dead, completely enthralled. The colors and the vast array of produce and flowers literally took my breath away. I made my way to the tables that were set around the courtyard. I could not decide what was more fascinating, the food itself, the colors and the shapes, the fresh aroma of the fruit gently drifting in my direction or the gentle murmur of French conversation that floated in the air. There were cherries, melons, lemons, oranges and a dizzying arrangement of cheeses and sausages. Tomatoes, peppers, radishes lettuces, dried meats, fish, and eggs were part of the assortment, and, of course, flowers. It is difficult to believe that so many shades of red exist in nature until one is close enough to compare the passionate scarlet of the Coeur de Boeuf (ox heart) tomatoes, to the delicate crimson of the strawberries and the rich ruby flush of summer cherries. It was, in fact, a foodist’s art gallery. So much better than graphic art, for of course, how could such vivid shades, found only in nature, be replicated in any way? The shapes and patterns of the each table were beautifully displayed, and it almost seemed that the vendors had intentionally coordinated the setup, carefully piecing together each gastronomic puzzle in order to create a seamless appearance. One could almost imagine Monsieur or Madame numbering each fruit item at market’s close so that the overall scene might be rebuilt “précisément” the next day!
Suddenly, something completely unexpected occurred. While wandering from display to display, I saw myself, as a figment of my own imaginary, but fantastic French life wearing, instead of jeans and a jacket, a red dress and sandals. I was carrying a market basket from which, the end of a paper wrapped baguette and the neck of an unidentifiable bottle of wine, peeked out.
I watched, from a distance, as I chattered to the fromager in flawless French and smiled as he passed me a taste of creamy looking cheese. I added my purchase to my basket and tugged at the scarf around my throat. Carelessly, I wound the silk through the handles of the basket, pushed my sunglasses up into my hair and paused to carefully inspect an array of woodsy scented chanterelles. Beef in brandy sauce, I decided, would be lovely with the chanterelles as an entrée for the meal I had planned for that evening. When my market basket was full to bursting with food, herbs, bread and flowers, and I was finished chatting with friends and proprietors alike, I climbed into my funny little car with only one wheel in the front, and drove home toward, what could only be, according to the wildly exotic terms of my fantasy, a little pied-à-terre with a profusion of potted red geraniums on the balcony.