We arrived to Aix-en-Provence in the blazing heat of August. With the help of my new friends I lugged my heavy suitcases up three flights of stairs. Our building was pre-war, by the way our hot water would go out I assumed it predated all wars. This building was there in the beginning.
The ground floor was occupied by a fish market. My shoes often smelled of fish water, but I couldn’t be bothered. We lived on the second floor, my roommate and I, with whom I had a falling out weeks before our return to the states, never to be reconciled. Something to do with her not liking my boyfriend.
My room was yellow with a teal circle painted above my rickety twin bed. The circle reminded me of the ocean, of home, it was perfect. The room had no closet, just a few dressers where I folded my stacks of clothing, most of which I’d toss out before the year was over in exchange for more modern French attire.
My days there were, for the most part, simple. They were quiet, with lots of time for reflection, stillness, slow meals and deep conversation. When I wasn’t in class learning French—poorly—I spent my afternoons in the local tea shop, sipping Turkish tea and playing board games with friends. These afternoons went on for hours, with very little concern for the time.
Sundays were spent under the large branches of a willow tree. My favorite tree in my favorite park. I absorbed book after book in the warm afternoon breeze. Sunday evenings I’d worship at an anglophone church, whose Pastor hailed from Southern California. I drank wine, maybe too much, and sucked the marrow out of life. I visited the coast and neighboring countries. I ate, a lot, and made francaphone friends.
I often reflect on those days. I think about the relationships and friendships, about everything I did, but also about everything I didn’t do. In all the “doing” there was so much less “doing” and so much less stuff, clutter, both physical and mental.
My things—all of them—could be stored away in my small chest of drawers. I came to own very little; four pairs of pants, eight to ten tops, a winter jacket and a few pairs of shoes. My splurge items were all of my fancy dangly earrings which I purchased from a local boutique. An outfit could be transformed with a scarf, but really clothes didn’t matter. Here, I learned to embrace quality over quantity. My clothes were washed at the nearby Laundromat and hung to dry on a rack in the middle of my room.
My refrigerator, which was roughly the size of a small ice chest, was never full. I went to the market almost daily. While in Provence I never once ate processed foods, I didn’t own a microwave and only prepared what would be eaten fresh. Breakfast was fast, pain au chocolat and espresso. I’d often spend my morning classes yawning, a result of staying out too late the night prior. My kind Polish classmate took to bringing me an extra espresso on a near daily basis.
Those days I didn’t own a smart phone or a computer. I corresponded with friends and family via email, using the computers at my Université. I had a vodafone prepaid cell, which I used to text my local friends, but when the credits ran out I knew I could find them sitting around a small table sipping something in the center of town.
I didn’t know it then, but while I was living and studying in Provence I was learning more than just a new language. I was there to complete my French minor, that was my original mission, but as the year progressed I found that I was learning much more than words. I was learning to be quiet with myself. I was learning to walk in solitude and travel distances completely alone. I was learning to communicate with kindness. I was learning more about myself than anything else. I was learning to live on less and as I did I found myself enriched by the experiences and people around me.
As the year wound down, I found myself on a plane returning to the US. I wept the entire flight. It took me months to acclimate to my old life, to return to a schedule and to feel the need to update my wardrobe. Very slowly I found myself accumulating things and becoming distracted by all that which distracts.
When my world begins to spiral, as it so often does, I tell myself to return to Aix. Although I can’t easily hop on a plane leaving behind children and responsibility, I am able to return there in my head. My breathing slows. I see the Cour Mirabeau with trees arching overhead, I taste the mulled wine of winter, and listen to the music of a language that I only partially understand. It’s a wonderful way to reset, to be reminded that so much of this “stuff” doesn’t matter, that less is so often more, that life needn’t be lived at breakneck speeds.
If you, darling friend, ever get the chance to visit, go unscheduled, leaving itinerary behind. Eat the crepes, drink the rosé, walk from park to park, have a conversation with your eyes. Visit the market, do not touch the fruit, but then once the merchant has selected the ripest and most lovely for you, enjoy and savor.