Travel and Transformation Silver Winner: A Wide-Eyed Schoolgirl

By Marianne Bohr

Stalking Cézanne and other Provençal pursuits.

I was born in the wrong country. There must have been some mistake. Then again, if I’d been born in the hexagon, my passion for all things French wouldn’t exist. I’d have been raised with the language’s romantic euphony, and the fluid succession of words would be part of my everyday world. Some other tongue and faraway culture would have caught my fancy—so perhaps, just perhaps, it’s fortuitous my birthplace was Fort Wayne, Indiana, and not Paris.

Passions are essential to a happy life. When we care about something, it shrinks the world to a human scale, breaking it into wieldy pieces to love and nurture. My passion for French shapes my world, yet why I love this lyrical language so dearly is an essential mystery I’ll never fully understand.

I love being a student of French, no matter my age, but on the first day of my conversation class in Aix-en-Provence, I’m predictably nervous, as I’ve been on day one of every school year of my life. I lay out my clothes the night before and imagine first days of school gone by: my freshly ironed plaid uniform, crisp white blouse, just-purchased navy knee socks with tags still attached, and newly polished oxfords. I pack a snack, just as I did in grammar school, and I’m ready to go. My giddy younger self emerges the moment I cross the classroom threshold, polished floorboards creaking, where I am once again a wide-eyed schoolgirl eagerly poised over a blank composition book, pencil sharpened and my ardor for the subject on my sleeve.

My class of ten includes students from Australia, Finland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden, none of us a youngster and all on an educational vacation in summertime Aix. I introduce myself and stumble on the choice of tense. Do I use the present or the future tense of “to be”? Do I affirm I am a French teacher, or do I demur and say I’ll soon be a French teacher? I opt for the former, Je suis prof de français. It bolsters my confidence with a frisson of pride.

My prof is Céline—gorgeous, funny, and particularly warm. I so wish I could be like her—une jolie française who speaks lovely French. As I walk home from class, it hits me, as it has so often before: yes, I am a newly minted French teacher, but no matter how I try, no matter how I practice, no matter how fiercely I study, I’ll never be French. I’ll never be française. I’ll never sound like Céline. I’ll forever be on the outside looking in, my face and palms pressed against the linguistic glass. I plunge into a microflash of depression. But I proceed across town, under soaring sycamores, content to have a passion I can call my very own.

The French often truncate words by dropping the final syllables and adding an “o.” Apéro, McDo, and resto have long been staples of my French vocabulary (“apéritif,” “McDonald’s,” and “restaurant”), but thanks to my classes, I add abbreviations to my repertoire: accro (“hooked on”), les actus (“the news”), un ado (“adolescent”), bio (“organic”), un dico (“dictionary”), perso (“personal”), and, my favorite, Sarko (Nicolas Sarkozy). Each week in class, we prepare presentations about les actus, and I do one on social media. “Twitter” and “blogger” have now entered the daily lexicon as regular “-er” verbs. We learn the quirky French term for “walkie-talkie” (talkie-walkie), that the expression vachement bien (“amazingly good”), which was very popular thirty years ago, is much less in vogue nowadays, and that it is très chic to say super (sue pair—accent on the sue), especially if you’re a woman. The café was super-bon; your dress is super-chic; he looks super. I imagine the French language police, the Académie Française, must be super-fâché (very angry) about all the new Franglais.

~ ~ ~

We’re now in the final month of our “senior year abroad,” and of course, we’re spending it in my beloved France, where much has changed over the past thirty-five years. There’s a new generation with kinder attitudes, more customer-service orientation, and lots of English spoken, so unlike the France of days gone by. Everyone wants to speak English, but I want to speak French. I’m bolstered by my husband, Joe, who always encourages, “Make them speak French, babe,” so we have uneven, lopsided exchanges:

“Good evening, madame.”
“Bonsoir, monsieur.”
“Would you like an apéritif?”
“Oui, je prends un kir, s’il vous plaît.”
“Very good. And you, sir?”
“Un kir aussi, merci.”

It’s initially disconcerting, but they eventually get the point and give us what we want. We really do appreciate the attempt to be accommodating and their eagerness to practice our language. If only Americans would exhibit the same passion for learning new tongues.

~ ~ ~

The artists I’ve studied are those I’ve come to love, and such is the case with Paul Cézanne. I always found his ocher-toned paintings of Provençal landscapes and depictions of Mont Sainte Victoire pleasing. But now that I’ve lived in his town for a month, visited the seminal spots of his life, and walked in his footsteps, I feel as if we’ve forged a close personal bond.

Cézanne was Provençal through and through and, above all, a son of Aix. He was passionately attached to his hometown, in particular its perpetual play of vivid light on the countryside that so influenced his art. Cézanne’s work evolved over the years until it was perched on the precipice of cubism and abstraction at his death; thus, many deem him the father of modern painting.

Our quest for the true Cézanne begins at the Jas de Bouffan, the home west of town where he lived with his parents in the late 1800s. The verdant property with its straight, sycamore-lined approach is secreted behind high stone walls and an equally imposing iron gate. The rectangular manor house is where Cezanne completed his first paintings in the high-ceilinged dining room turned artist’s studio, using its walls as experimental canvases.

Next on our journey in the steps of Cézanne are the Bibémus quarries on a rocky plateau east of Aix where he spent significant time as a teen. It was while walking under towering pines with his friend Emile Zola (yes, that Zola) that he discovered his inner painter. The sandstone quarries were worked until the mid-1800s, but when Cézanne and his chum came upon them, they were abandoned and overgrown. The mustard- and molasses-colored rock retains the angular shapes cut by quarry laborers in sharp contrast with the soft green and brown lines of nature. Cézanne was drawn to the distinction, and the drive to depict it on canvas consumed him.

We follow the artist’s route on the fragrant pine needle–cushioned forest paths through the quarries to the stone hut with a red wooden door where he safeguarded his artwork and spent nights. It’s from a vantage point near the hut that Cézanne viewed and painted, obsessively, the dramatic, 3,300-foot Mont Saint Victoire against the Provençal sky. The famous mountain dominates the artist’s work, and nearly one hundred of his paintings feature the rugged, gray stone peak.

We make the hour-long hike down the ridge from the plateau to the shaded town of Le Tholonet, one of Cézanne’s favorite retreats. The village has two cafés, a pétanque pit, an abundance of trees, and a château that Cézanne painted. We choose Le Relais Cézanne for lunch and while away the afternoon on its cool terrace.

The artist’s studio halfway up the Lauves Hill north of Aix, which he customized for the practice of his art and to which he walked from the Jas de Bouffan every morning of the final four years of his life, is infused with Cézanne’s presence. The high-ceilinged central room he designed, with a huge picture window that bathes the room in natural light, has been left as it was when the artist was alive. His furniture, still-life objects, painting chemises, palettes, brushes, tools, overcoat, hat, and cane are as they were when he died in 1906.

We end our pilgrimage in the Saint-Pierre cemetery on a hill at the edge of town: the artist’s unassuming final resting place. Cézanne was born in Aix and died in Aix and is the town’s favorite native son. And during my time in his fair city, I’m an ardent Aixois, just like he was. Our wanderings among the places most important to him leave me with an understanding of the man and the work that drove him. “I almost feel like I knew him personally, you know?” I say to Joe as we leave the cemetery. He nods his head and wholeheartedly agrees.

~ ~ ~

The wealth of Aix-en-Provence is plentiful and varied: a warm ambience and relaxed culture, delicious food, vibrant cafés, sophisticated restaurants, an abundant natural environment, exquisite art, sophisticated buildings, interesting museums, Roman ruins, and thousands of years of history. But the script of our everyday remains sweet and simple: it allows for routine and repetition, the mark of residing, rather than just passing through, and my daily go-to-school routine helps connect us to the community.

Every morning at five forty-five, the chartreuse-uniformed workman hosing down the rue Frédéric Mistral, three floors below the bedroom window of our pied-à-terre, awakens us. He power-washes the street, leaving it scrubbed and ready for waves of day-tripping visitors to soon swarm the town. Five minutes later, the church bells chime, calling the faithful to morning Mass, and I stumble out of bed while Joe sleeps in.

I brew the coffee, open the living room window, and push open heavy wooden shutters. Incessant birdsong greets me in the soft light of morning. I grab a yogurt from the fridge, add cream to my coffee, sit at the kitchen table, and review my homework. I read what’s à la une—in the headlines—of L’Express online, find an interesting story I can share in class, carefully read it several times, and scribble brief summary notes.

By seven thirty, the buzz of the motocyclettes whizzing by on the street below is constant, marking the arousal of the waking city. I lean out the window and see that the bold Provençal sun has risen, creating sharp shadows on the yellow walls and blue-gray shutters of the building juste en face, on the opposite side of the street. By eight, Joe joins me for breakfast and we review our plans for the day.

At 8:40, I swing on my backpack and Joe walks me to school. It’s a picturesque, unhurried stroll, and while we occasionally vary our route, we most often head straight across the Cours Mirabeau, through the Passage Agard, which cuts through the row of hôtels particuliers, and into the square of the Palais de Justice. We weave our way through the open-air market, inhaling and ogling the irresistible offerings. We turn right on the rue Portalis, which takes us to the Cours des Arts et Métiers, where I spend my mornings in class. The school is in a two-story building with tall thick-paned windows, small, cozy classrooms, and planked wooden floors. Classes start at nine, and for the next three and a half hours I converse with my teacher and classmates, reveling in being the luckiest person in the world as I continue my French education.

On his way home, Joe lingers in the markets and buys fresh produce from the list we’ve prepared, plus whatever else appeals. He then gets his daily exercise by running through Aix, sticking to shaded parks, including La Promenade de la Torse, along the southeastern flank of town.

At twelve thirty I say à demain to school and walk home, my head filled with new vocabulary and expressions I’m anxious to try on the locals. I amble down pedestrian lanes and stop at our regular boulangerie to pick up une fournée, our new favorite variety of French bread. While all baguettes are delicious, this particular loaf is made from whole-wheat flour, has an especially crunchy crust, and is deliciously yeasty inside. Warm fournée tucked under my arm, I turn left down the rue Frédéric Mistral and ring the bell on our apartment building’s doorstep, and Joe buzzes me in.

We make lunch from whatever hand-wrapped goodies Joe has brought home this day and dine on fresh Provençal fare as we fill in each other on our mornings.

Our afternoon itineraries vary, and if there is no school excursion, they include taking in a museum, discovering a new park, watching the local men play pétanque, or looking for interesting restaurants. We pass the luscious displays of fruit tarts and cream-filled pastries in pâtisserie windows, all so gorgeous to the eye. July is the month for clothing sales—les soldes—in France, but since I have no room in my suitcase and few euros left in my wallet, I settle for lèche-vitrine (window shopping). I’m so ready to burn my clothes, having worn the same things for eleven months, that I can barely even look at them, much less put them on, but shopping must wait until we’re once again employed.

By late afternoon, it’s time to slow our pace. We stop on the Cours Mirabeau for a cold drink and watch the parade of passersby. While I love the look of the brightly colored drinks (mineral water tinted with mint and grenadine syrups) the French enjoy over ice in summer, I have no desire to partake. We stick to sipping mineral water to pass the time before dinner. The days are long, remaining light until 10:00 p.m., so eating at eight feels premature, even for early diners like us.

“I love that there’s never a rush while eating out in France,” I often remark to Joe. “Once we sit down, we own our table and no one ever rushes us to leave.”

He adds, “And they never give you the bill until you ask for it. How civilized.”

We eat dinner leisurely, accompanied by heartfelt conversation about the children, current events, and rebuilding our lives back home, always under the stars.

We stroll home hand in hand during l’heure bleue, that romantic French expression for twilight, the time between day and night when it’s not yet dark but no longer light. The daily tourists have disappeared, and the town is back in the hands of the locals and its very-lucky temporary residents. The marché nocturne—the evening market—is in full swing, but we’ve done our shopping for the day and will save our purchases for the morning. We turn on the télé and watch an hour of Les JOLes Jeux Olympiques—broadcast live from London. Yet again we hear the energized announcer pronounce Michael Phelps, with a thick French accent, “un champion exceptionnel!”

And thus the sun sets on another day of our life in Aix. I watch the aerial evening dance of the swallows over the roofs across the street, taking a moment to listen to the thin strains of their cries, before I secure the shutters, fall into bed, and close my eyes on one more day in paradise.


Marianne C. Bohr, freelance writer and editor, married her high school sweetheart and travel partner. With their two grown children, she follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives outside Washington, DC where after decades in publishing, followed her Francophile muse to teach middle school French. She is the author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries.

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