In my mind, Aix-en-Provence is a city created for the way people should live. Should really live. I am finishing up a too-fast week in Aix but I feel pretty confident in my statement. Now it’s true I’m probably inadvertently, unavoidably comparing it to the city I’m currently living in back in the States. (A Facebook friend posted on my timeline yesterday the fact that north Florida was experiencing three digit temperatures and an outburst of yellow flies. She kindly didn’t even mention the humidity.) I’m not sure there’s even a word in French for humidity. (Well, I guess there’d have to be because of Tahiti.) The weather for mid-summer in Aix is probably described most aptly as pleasant, warm and breezy but more succinctly as perfect. I sat out evenings here in weather that just didn’t exist. It wasn’t hot or cold, wet or dry. It was exactly right. It was so perfect you didn’t have to think about it. It just was.
I’d have to say the key reason I think Aix is a city made for how people should live is because of the daily food markets. The idea that you can wake up and take a quick (and gorgeous) walk to an outdoor array of the freshest, best possible choice of seasonal food—is something we Americans have largely given up on and the French wisely would never.
When did we Americans decide that we don’t need fresh-baked bread? Or to have strawberries that taste like strawberries? Or vegetables in season? When did we accept the fact that the way food should taste—succulent and specific—was something we could live without? (I have a French friend who did an internship at the advertising agency I worked at and she used to bemoan the fact that all American food tasted basically the same—like it was coated with a light caramel coating: sugar and salt but no real distinct flavors. Live a week next to an open air produce market and you’ll know exactly what she means. I feel like I’ve rediscovered my palate this week.)
Not surprisingly, I haven’t seen a single seriously overweight person since I’ve been here. Could the availability of delicious, fresh food ingredients combined with a beautiful walking city have something to do with that?
Okay, so now Aix has seen to it that you’ve gotten your cardio in such a way that you’ve window shopped and wound around and through ancient alleyways and streets. It’s de-stressed you by insisting you stop every now and then in your daily round to sip a cup of coffee (which everyone knows is good for you) and maybe nibble on a hand-made pastry (balance! Everything in moderation.) It’s made it practically impossible to find processed foods so you’re stuck with the real thing—ten kinds of olives harvested from the area, olive oil so pure it will make you weep even if you use only a dribble on your salads, tomatoes plump and red that make your plate look like a work of art (this is France after all) and that really taste like tomatoes.
Now on to the social aspect of this city. As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone. When I finally break away (or come up for air as my husband puts it), I go to the grocery store or drive to a restaurant to meet with friends for an hour or so or maybe wander around St Augustine to find an art gallery.
In Aix in the summer time, because it doesn’t get dark until after ten o’clock each night, and because the city is made up of French people, the city markets are taken down and the cafes are re-erected so that people can come together—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to talk. It is such a healthy, amazingly fun, exquisite way for people to commune and connect that I literally found myself longing for anything similar in my life back home.
How can you not relax and unwind in a café setting? You’re outdoors, the waiter is unobtrusive but ever-there, all the food tastes better, the warmth of the day has hardly dissipated but the most soothing of breezes has been added, and you’re surrounded by your friends. As I watched café life from my own café table, I noticed over and over again how people in the café were joined unexpectedly by friends or family members wandering by (usually with ice cream cones or Nutella crepes in hand). I couldn’t help but think how it would change a person to be enjoying the evening air with the expectation that they might well see, unplanned, a loved one or friend.
Community. Food. Beauty. And on that last note, I have to add one more thing: I travelled with two men this trip and one of them a photographer. I am sure he’ll be doing his own page about the beautiful young women of Aix but even I could not help notice them. I loved watching all the city life saunter by my café table—or balcony—but the exquisite Aixoise in their inimitable fashion and style, their confidence in their beauty and youth added a intensified sense of panache to the trip. In a phone conversation with my ninety-year old mother, she asked, “Are the French women still beautiful? (We lived in France in the sixties.) How do they wear their hair styles? Their clothes?” I was happy to tell her that while plus ça change, the facts were clear when it came to French women and style that plus la meme chose too.
I leave you now until next time, mes amis. I am off Googling immigration possibilities…
12 thoughts on “An open love letter to the city of Aix-en-Provence”
You are making me want to pack up and move to Aix-en-Provence! Love this post. How do you think we can change things in North America? One thing I know helps is when I invite people over to cook together and watch movies together rather than going out all the time. It seems to really help build connections, rather than just to experience dinner and a movie together. I also question how “socially healthy” suburbs are, where everyone dives into their houses and don’t interact that much with each other. But as someone told me, it’s not the setup that counts as much as the way it is used…
It’s so true, tho’, about the suburbs. We’ve recently moved into a new neighborhood and when I walk the dogs, I swear it looks like nobody lives there! I see no kids on the sidewalk, no people hanging over the back fence talking (they’re too high) and no community at all. Well, there IS a Facebook community but it sure misses something as far as fellowship is concerned. Thanks for jumping in Sahar! Let’s move to Aix!
I do think though that suburbs can be great with regards to being a real community. I guess we have to think about things like design of houses – I’m thinking of houses with front wrapping porches, community farming, stuff like that… But yeah, we need to learn more about this in Aix 😉
I would like to visit the city for myself!
Do it, William! As far as I can see, it only gets better and better with time. Summer was awesome but I love it here in the autumn too. Probably just about anytime of the year is magical.
I loved that city too, and was mesmerized by the museum.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? When were you here last?
It sounds absolutely heavenly…I have always wanted to go there. Maybe someday! Thanks for sharing your impressions. Viva la France!
You’re welcome, Jeanne! I can definitely recommend it. In fact, I’m already planning my next trip there! 🙂
Too long ago–but at least I’ve been there–1990.
It looks a fantastic city. I’ve been in the north of France but not the south. And that was rather too many years ago.
I’m targeting the north of France v soon. I’m pretty much a sucker for all-things-franco. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Matthew!