An open love letter to the city of Aix-en-Provence

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

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.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

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.)

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

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?

Yuh think?

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.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

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.

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

Kevin Kiernan Copyright 2014

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…

Why do we love Europe so?

19007453Is it weird that Walt Disney, among his fantasia rides and fairyland worlds, also re-created Europe at one of his theme parks? I try to imagine what I would think if I found out that a bunch of Europeans created an amusement park where bears talked and pirates roamed, cartoon mice and castle princesses cast spells and in the midst of all this fantasy was a replica circa 1975 of my suburban neighborhood in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida. I think I might be a little insulted.

Is it presumptuous to think of another culture as our idea of an amusement park? I think some Brits and Europeans come to New York City on holiday and I’m not quite sure why. The bagels, maybe? It can’t be the history, like us with Europe. New York is, like, five years old compared to what they have back home. It can’t be the friendly natives or the pastoral vistas, the geological landmarks or the food. I’m frankly stymied. Is it just to be someplace different?39194840

The last time I visited London, I was disappointed to discover it looked and sounded a lot like the US. (Come to think of it, Paris last year felt a little too much like Epcot Center for my comfort too.) I found the charming English accents blunted by watching too much American television. I found the architecture modern and attractive—but hardly English. I found the pubs, for the most part, a strident attempt to be pub-like for all the tourists, and the department stores, although fun and attractive, devoid of everything that had set them apart—except for their names—from American retail.

I shouldn’t be surprised that the Internet is turning us all into one big homogeneous blob of diluted Americana. But I didn’t think it would happen this fast. The last time I was in Germany, my husband—who is fluent in the language—never found a single opportunity to speak it. Everyone spoke English.

37743092Even the bathrooms have done a tip of the hat to the Americans. A few years ago, one was always challenged, especially in France, with public toilets and usually had to take a moment to negotiate even hotel room bathrooms. No longer. Europe now out-Americans the Americans for modernized bathrooms. There even seems to be fewer and fewer bidet sightings.

Not that Europe’s charm was all in its bathrooms, but it did help make the whole experience feel foreign. And that’s partly the reason I travel—to jump outside my comfort zone, to struggle to order from a menu, to snap out of the somnolent death-march that marks much of my daily round in the States, and to find the unexpected around every corner.

Jeez. Is that too much to ask?

The places travel really takes us to

I write a lot about travel and how it affects us because of the perspective I think it allows us when we get away from our own little corner of the world. I always re-enter my daily round with a fresh way of seeing things after I’ve been outside the US. It’s easy to construct a simplistic mental picture of what “out there” looks like from the vantage point of our front porches and I think a lot of us do that because it helps to manage day-to-day stresses  if we can just compartmentalize and reduce the larger world. To that end, I find I often fall into thinking of certain countries in stereotypes in my mind—until I visit them again and am reminded how basically alike we all are after all.

One of my favorite memories, and one that I hope I will keep vivid in my mind until I’m an old bent-over crone with pins in my hips, is the forty-five minutes I spent in Venice between midnight trains one night many years ago.

The forty-five minutes is a bit of an exaggeration but not by much. I was traveling Europe with my mother and my paternal aunt and I’d miscalculated the timing between trains for our trip from Nuremberg to Prague. A five-hour layover in Venice was the result. Later,  I realized I should have just booked us a couple of rooms and gone with the flow but at the time, staying to our schedule seemed important.  I parked my elderly companions at the restaurant, where we later had a memorable pasta dinner watching the cold drizzle  (it was October) from our table, and trotted the half-mile back to the train station to grab tickets for the next train. It was only a few blocks but it was already dark when I left the restaurant and the fog had dropped heavily onto the streets like a wet drape.

19212830I slipped down an alleyway that looked to me to be a short cut to where I remembered the train station was and when I came out of it, I saw I was standing in front of one of those arching stone bridges that crisscross back and forth over Venice’s canals. I took one step onto the bridge and stopped, for what reason I can’t imagine since I am nothing if not single-minded, needing constantly to be reminded to look around me. I realized that I was totally alone although it wasn’t late. I stood on the bridge, stopped in my mission and just needing to pause and look into the murky fog that blanketed the water below. As I watched, a single gondolier emerged from the mist—his back straight, his hat at an angle, the pole fluid in his hands. He began to pass beneath me on the bridge and just before he did, he looked up at me and languidly blew me a kiss.

Then he disappeared beneath the bridge and back into the mist.

If I hadn’t  continued to stare after him as he retreated, I might have convinced myself I imagined it. The feeling that that gesture evoked in me—so cavalier, so Italian, so romantic—registered an emotion in me that made my heart ache.

I’ve thought about it so many times since then. Why did it affect me so? Was I longing for love? Was I needing an affirmation of my youth? My attractiveness? And more than just what I felt when he did it, what about why he did it? Who was he? He certainly wasn’t expecting me to throw him a tip. I couldn’t see that he did it for any other reason than just the fact that we were both alive and the night was young.

I used to try to imagine who he was. Was he a complex man? Did he have  a wide range of deep emotions? Could he be the sort of complicated  individual who could have a fight with his wife that morning, maybe worry about paying an electric bill in the afternoon and then coast through the eerie mist and spontaneously blow a kiss to a lone woman on a stone bridge? Or was he simple-minded? Did he blow kisses to everyone he saw?

GondolierI honestly don’t know why the experience arrested me so. Or why I still think of it to this day. I just know that sometimes when we travel away from our own streets and subdivisons, we can find ourselves  mindful of the world around us in ways that we aren’t normally, and magic—unexpected and potent—can come drifting by in front of us where, for once, we actually see it.

Belonging Starts by Leaving Home

I have lived at 35 different addresses in my life. 13 of those addresses were before I turned 18. The 22 apartments and houses since then are the legacy of an ex-military dependent who spent the bulk of her childhood moving, saying goodbye, saying hello. My husband, who spent his entire childhood and adolescence in one neighborhood and in one house, is resigned to my relentless restlessness (eight of the 35 moves were with him.)

It’s my belief that the feeling of belonging and travel are not mutually exclusive. I think, to a certain degree, we travel in order to feel like we belong. Not only does travel give you a glimpse of the rest of the world, and therefore a snapshot of your place in it, it also helps you to see that we are all a part of one large human family.

In fact, the expatriate experience—one that you’d typically think of as apart or separate from the collective group—is really a definitive exercise in belonging. Nowhere is the feeling of belonging more strongly felt than when you live abroad and happen upon a fellow American. This could be someone you might not bother to cross the street for back home, yet in this context—say one where they are the only American besides yourself in a room of foreign nationals—they are met with real pleasure and enthusiasm.

Think of all the expatriate clubs and organizations in Paris, for example. First, there are an astounding 165,000 Americans living in France today (50,000 in Paris, alone) so they have no problem getting a taco party together to watch American gridiron or feeling like “they belong.”

Then, of course, there’s the technological revolution and how it’s affected the expatriate. When my husband and I lived overseas—he in the late seventies and me in the mid-eighties—contact with family and friends was expensive and slow. A letter to New Zealand from the States could easily take two weeks to get to me. The phone calls—expensive and infrequent—had serious quality issues, (like a humpback was squatting on the cable that threaded along the ocean floor from Jacksonville, Florida to Auckland, New Zealand.) My husband and I often remark how much easier it would be to live in a foreign country today, with skyping, and the instant gratification of cell phone contact. During the decades that he and I lived overseas, we felt truly and completely separated from our support group of friends and family back home.

The plus side, of course, was that it added to the immersion effect, for us, a large part of the reason we were overseas in the first place. He was living in Germany at the time and the lack of home contact probably aided in his mastering the language that much faster.

Like all travel, living abroad tends to give you perspective. It gives you a different point of view either of how you live back in the States—or how you want to live. Have you ever come back from a trip overseas and then made a drastic change in your life? I would love to hear how a trip or travel in general has changed you.