In my next life I’d like to be born in Provence, where everyone seems to be smiling. Horns don’t honk, strangers not only explain directions but leave their shops or market stalls to escort you there, and all the women seem to be expert gardeners, cooks, and homemakers — as well as beautiful.
Music is everywhere and kindness and warmth from staff at hotel, restaurant, shops, and bus drivers are unmatched. In Aix en Provence, groups of university students on the street, partying adults, and buses and parks are decibels quieter than similar scenes at home. There’s a glow about the people I met — strangers, acquaintances, and extended family. One day on a public bus as some two dozen students boarded, each received a “bonjour” with eye contact from the driver; upon leaving said “au revoir” to each. There in the south, Parisians and others from big cities are frowned at, considered pompous. As one man at my hotel in Aix said, “they are full of themselves.” A French member of my extended family with whom I spent some time put it well when she said “sometimes France is said to be a gorgeous country, but that it could be even better without some of the French people … unfortunately it’s true mostly of Parisians.”
I had been a poster child for active, engaged seniors until several years ago when a fall due to a building violation changed my life. Only determination and hard work have kept me out of a wheelchair. I had traveled to more than 40 countries and visited most of the United States during my working life. I enjoyed active holidays in Egypt, India, China, South America, Costa Rica, and much of Europe and the U.S. But mobility and endurance have been fading, with spinal issues, problems with balance, and other complications that I try to put on the back burner as I live my life with an upbeat positive attitude, though a lot slower and much more wobbly.
I had given up on world travel because of the pace most trips require — packing and unpacking, early morning departures, very active days and nights. But I had not given up on reading travel brochures and when I stumbled upon “Living in France, a month in Aix en Provence,” I saw an opportunity to immerse myself in the place, people, culture, beauty, and history at a slower pace. My family and my doctors agreed: this sounded ideal for me.
I checked it, did the quick mental math to determine it would cost in the $5,000 range per person, but that was double occupancy. With the single occupancy surcharge it would be closer to $7,000. But when I read further, I was delighted to learn that this Smithsonian program would provide my own studio apartment in a newly refurbished hotel, replete with dishwasher and microwave where I could fix breakfast, snacks, and even entire meals if I wished; that it was close to the very walkable historic town, markets, cultural sites, and public transportation. I was sold.
When I arrived at the spacious sunny apartment, l found a welcome tote of starter foods — coffee, teabags, olive oil, pasta, chocolate, a jar of local ratatouille, spices, and condiments. There were enough shelves to stock a boutique, a full bathroom with towel heaters — handy for drying hand laundry.
In past years, on various trips, I had spent time in Normandy, Brittany, Paris, the Pyrenees, and other areas of France, but had never been to this area of the south.
Aix, home to one of the oldest universities in France, is a place to experience past and present with tradition and cosmopolitan flair. Ancient monuments mingle with bustling sidewalk cafes and museums filled with rich treasures. A maze of winding streets opens to beautiful squares and fountains where modern life is lived among the ancient and the new.
The city became the capital of Provence in the 12th century under the powerful counts of Anjou and blossomed during this golden age of art and learning. Later the Romans built a city here, and in front of the ancient Palace of Justice university students work daily on an excavation site of their civilization. On the majestic tree-shaded Cours Mirabeau elegant 17th and 18th century mansions stand beside tempting patisseries and restaurants. Beautiful fountains are everywhere and local markets overflow with fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, fish, condiments, and prepared foods. Market days also feature lavish street displays of stylish clothing, much imported from Italy.
My trip was mid-September to mid-October and my raincoat never left the suitcase. Every day was sunny and in the 70s. In fact, I had to buy two lightweight cotton shirts because I was prepared for more fall-like temperatures.
The Living in France program can be as structured or informal as you wish. While there are more than a dozen group lunches, dinners, and cocktail parties (included in the price), as well as excursions, wine tastings, and other events, these are not every day. You are part of a group, yet independent at the same time. There is ample time for tours and travel on your own, even for overnight stays if you wish, and for moving at your own pace. This is a new way: See it all, even do it all, with time for exploration and the opportunity to take it easy in between.
As a group we visited Marseille, Arles, Avignon, and other sites of interest in the south of France. Meals in typical restaurants of Provence usually included several courses and wine on every table. There were two wine tastings, one held at our hotel and another at a well-known regional winery.
Three optional language programs were available but I chose to not be structured so didn’t enroll. Those in the French track were up early several days a week for three-hour sessions; others in the cultural track toured museums — most of which I did on my own — and other sites. The folks in the culinary track visited markets and food shops and enjoyed hands-on culinary experiences.
Our charming, patient tour leader, Charlotta, was with us on all the group activities along with an experienced and energetic guide, Stella. On unscheduled days Charlotta was available in the hotel lobby for several hours to help with planning individual travel, and outings, and to provide general information. Her shopping cart in the luggage room was handy for trips to the nearby supermarket.
The mostly older group of couples and singles, who often traveled with other singles, included those with a multitude of replacement joints and a few canes but also some very fit septuagenarians who climbed “Cezanne’s Mountain” with Charlotta more than once. One woman, a yoga teacher in Washington State, held occasional classes in the hotel’s garden.
What seemed to amaze most people who heard about my plans was that I was going alone. This was never an issue to me because I live alone and am pretty outgoing and have learned that when you are alone, you meet interesting people in and out of your own group. People are happy to engage if you are friendly and open. I had wonderful experiences in halting English and almost non-existent French.
The first few days offered many opportunities to get to know the others on our trip — group breakfasts, a walking tour of the city, and a welcoming cocktail party and dinner.
Throughout the trip, having the nucleus of the group, chatting with people in elevator and lobby, recognizing them in town, and sharing an occasional meal or walk or glass of wine added to the comfort zone. I don’t think I’d just go to a place alone and check into a hotel for a month. This was like being part of a family with a parent (Charlotta) available for problems, questions, travel planning, tickets to theater, concerts, and other events, and emergencies.
I will admit that before I left New Jersey, I had some anxiety and sleepless nights, but not because of fear or of not being OK on the trip. Mostly I worried about packing properly for a month of unpredictable weather and whether my house here would spring leaks or have other problems: I can’t carry heavy luggage and would have to go at my slower pace through airports.
My belief is that every problem has a solution and while a wheelchair is readily available if you request it in advance at airports, I’m vain and stubborn enough to not want to be the old lady in a wheelchair. I have the person who drives me to and from the airport bring my suitcase up and down the stairs at home and see to my curbside check-in at Newark Airport. While I’m gone, she also checks my house regularly and waters the plants. And instead of a heavy carry-on to drag through airports, I take a small backpack on wheels and a knapsack. I do have a cane that I use to maneuver in crowded spaces. The cane was handy on hills and uneven terrain such as cobblestoned streets and helped me to keep up with the pace when out with the group.
Some entries in the journal I kept throughout the trip:
Travel is hard work with, among other travails, long schleps at airports, endless passport lines, upset sleep schedules. But many wonderful people helped me en route. There was the flight attendant who told me not to dare walk way back to bathroom from my second row economy seat but to use the business class loo over the curtain. She even gave me a gift on landing that is reserved for business class passengers and told me to keep traveling. Men and younger women always offered to take my carry-on up stairs, of which there are plenty. At the baggage claim in Newark, a gentleman recognized me and said “you’ve come all the way from Marseille” — he had been on the flight and when my bag came around on the turntable, he retrieved it.
Yesterday enjoyed outdoor food markets, bought some basic food to have in apartment, saw wonderful Sisley exhibit in museum that is 18th century mansion with gardens and original rooms, wandered the streets. Catching up on deprived sleep with great OTC drug recommended by our leader, Donormyl. Interesting and compatible group, most scheduled their time with the optional programs and are running around more than I. Happy to be unscheduled with enough programs to provide group feeling. Politically and culturally seems like we’re all on the same page.
If you have physical difficulties, you have to know your limitations and observe them. In Marseille many climbed the 1,000 steps to the gorgeous Notre Dame de la Garde, the city’s highest point — but I was happy to enjoy the view from halfway up. After the extensive guided tour of the city’s highlights, most in the group sat for two hours in a restaurant sampling the bouillabaisse, a local specialty. I grabbed a Mediterranean salad and used that valuable time to explore pier and docks, watch the cruise ships come in, and even talk to the fishermen selling their catch.
While markets, museums, cafes, historical buildings, and most everything in Aix can be easily reached on foot, I was happy to learn of a fleet of electric vehicles with three different routes covering the entire maze of wandering streets. Five Euros buys you a 10-trip ticket, with each ticket good for an hour of on/off riding. And it hardly seemed necessary to own a car in Aix, for a fleet of buses goes to all neighboring areas, for a bargain price of $10 for a 10-trip ticket. I used those buses to visit Cezanne’s studio and a futuristic museum devoted to the father of Op Art, Victor Vaserely.
Cezanne’s studio, up a flight of stairs, with gardens outside, is as he left it, with equipment, clothing, material for still lives, and an ambience that brought him to life. And at the Vaserely, one walks through salons featuring 42 huge colorful paintings, each five meters wide and eight meters high, giving the visitor the feeling of what an LSD trip must be like. All two-dimensional, none appear that way. Cubes pop out at you, lines play tricks with your vision, and shapes create optical illusions that fool your senses. As a bonus we also saw two new-age visiting shows; one on the evolution of writing machines on which art is created by computer programming and the other a demonstration of how waves from outer space can be translated into individualized messages.
I also used public transportation on my own to spend an afternoon at Cassis, a seaside resort where I enjoyed a walk on the pebbly beach followed by a boat ride on the Mediterranean through the scenic Calanques, narrow inlets framed by gigantic limestone cliffs.
I befriended a recent widow who was traveling alone for the first time in her life and was uncomfortable about it. After a little mentoring, she lost some of her trepidation and was able to ask for directions and reach out in conversation with people who were nearby. This is a woman who has been running the business her husband left so it wasn’t too difficult to give her a few tips on assertive travel behavior which would enrich her experience.
It’s rare for a traveler to be invited into local homes and get an inside view of a different way of life. I was fortunate to spend an overnight in one and an evening in another. Ten years ago my son, Adam, met a French woman, Guillemette, who had a successful career in Baltimore. I met her parents, Emmanuelle and Jean Marie, at the children’s wedding and stayed in touch via e-mail. Originally from Lyon and retired recently to Aigues Vives, about an hour and a half south of Aix, the parents arranged to drive down to Aix when we had some free days, take me out sightseeing, and then take me home where they had a dinner party with some English speaking friends. Next day, after another day of sightseeing, they delivered me back to my apartment in Aix.
Reached through a locked solid metallic gate on a rustic road, the house Guillemette’s architect father designed features sleek modern design and materials, beautiful and functional but understated and unpretentious, opening in back to rustic gardens and a pool. Their dinner guests arrived with dozens of oysters from their second home near the sea. In five minutes the two men had them all opened; it would take any Americans I know an hour if they could do it at all.
They do all their own gardening — abundant plantings of fruit, vegetables, and flowers — and have no household help. Although well educated, beautiful, and cultured, Emmanuelle says she enjoys doing it all. After we three were out all day she served a meal fit for a king’s table. “It’s not difficult,” she said. “I love my life and I love my husband.” And you can see it when they’re together.
The other look into French domesticity was at the home of our excursion guide, who invited us for cocktails before our farewell dinner. Stella, extremely fit and youthful, would bound up huge staircases never holding the railing and seemed full of energy at the end of our busy days of touring. It was hard to believe that she and her handsome husband have been married for 46 years. Charlotta met us at the hotel to lead us to Stella’s home just a few blocks from our hotel. We were on this dim street of old plain and frankly dingy buildings when Charlotta stopped at one and rang the bell. Inside was a modern, functional dwelling in the same style as Emmanuelle’s and Jean Marie’s, also opening to a garden and pool. They’ve added an elevator to reach the upper two floors and have a separate garage. When I asked if the other houses nearby were similar inside, they shook their heads no.
When I later e-mailed Emmanuelle about Stella’s home, she replied, “It is great you’ve been invited to one of those special houses of Aix. Our old towns are full of jewels like this one but it is not so easy to be invited in. This was really an opportunity to understand a certain French way of life.”
On a warm Saturday afternoon the winding streets of the old city were packed with strollers, shoppers, those sitting at outdoor cafe for hours with one espresso or glass of beer. As I walked I heard the kind of smooth melodic jazz I love and followed the sound to a huge square in front of the city hall where restaurants surrounded the square. Here French couples were celebrating the civil part of their weddings and as wedding groups waited outside for their turn to enter, I was treated to a changing fashion show of beautifully dressed wedding parties — pretty brides, handsome men in suits, beautiful gowns, and lots of kissing on both cheeks. And all with a background of the terrific jazz, which played for hours in the square.
I sat perched on the edge of a fountain and started a long conversation with a young woman sitting next to me with “weddings always make me cry.” She was a landscape architect who lived in Aix and we spent a delightful hour just chatting about her career as a professor and landscape architect and about life in Provence and in the U.S.
Impressive that afternoon, despite crowds rivaling Times Square, were the quiet, decorum, and order. Only one American couple got up and danced to the music as little children sat quietly tapping their toes and smiling. Think of the Palmer Square Jazz Festival where the kids and grow-ups are gleefully and noisily up on their feet!
In Avignon we visited the Papal Palace where the popes held court during the 14th century. It is said that when Louis XIV visited and saw how large it was — 118,403 square feet — he then built Versailles, which is twice as large. The palace is built on many levels and we walked 350 steps over an hour’s tour. Some had no railings and the stone steps had larger intervals than normal steps at home. Someone was always ready to lend me an arm on those treacherous, for me, places.
At Pont du Gard we marveled at the three-level Roman aqueduct built to provide water to neighboring areas and the three-level Roman bridge over the Rhone. Some in our group walked down a steep slope and over a wide flood plane to wade in the river. The Roman amphitheaters we visited in Arles and in Rimes featured “vomitoria” exits that could empty the huge stadium in five minutes.
Our excursions took us through a variety of landscapes, from “Cezanne’s Mountain” to the flat sheep and cattle country of the Camargue, which is said to have the best grass in France.
My favorite museum in Aix was the New Granet museum, in a 17th century church restored into a three-story gallery with the historic natural wood buttresses setting off the (to me previously unseen) Picassos, Van Goghs, Roualts, Monets, and many other moderns from a private collection of one-time art dealer and collector, Jean Planque. On another day, I took in a Sisley exhibit at the beautifully restored Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix, a lavish 18th century home converted into a sumptuous gallery space featuring decor and furnishings of the period.
The museum in Arles features a large statue with a moveable head — so the image of the leader could be replaced as history changed. Van Gogh spent two years in Arles, creating a community of artists and painting many of the scenes that we can see today.
On the culture scene, in the Grande Theater of Aix, I heard the Lyon Symphony orchestra play Mozart, Wagner, and Verdi with Israeli conductor Lahav Shani and Welsh baritone-bass Bryn Terfel. And because I’m a film lover, I caught the only movie showing in town in the original English language — Victoria and Abdul — in the posh Renoir Theater on the Rue Mirabeau. I found a book fair in front of the Hotel de Ville one weekend afternoon and was able to buy some kids books in French for my California grandson, who is now in a French kindergarten. He’s now enjoying Heidi, my favorite children’s book, a Trip to the Moon, and an illustrated book of construction machines.
I sought out the synagogue one day, located, of course, on Jerusalem Street. I asked a woman on the steps if it is open and she ushered me in and introduced me to Daniel Dahan, according to his card Grand Rabbin d’Aix-en-Provence. Rabbi Dahan explained that after World War II the Jews who replaced the removed and murdered Jews were Sephardim from North Africa. The new building seems quite plain and utilitarian, but he told me that a much older historic synagogue had lacked support and was sold to a church group a long while ago. The Nazis didn’t destroy the older temple, he said, because it was very close to the lovely Rue Mirabeau with the history and artworks they wanted to preserve.
There are beautiful parks within the city and a short bus ride outside where students and families enjoy what all people enjoy in parks, and I spent several afternoons people watching and relaxing outdoors.
French supermarkets were a new experience — especially the produce department where you put your purchase on the scale, then press “fruit” or “vegetable,” next press the kind of fruit or vegetable, and then see a list of varieties of apples or potatoes or whatever, and press on the one you have and — voila — out comes the label with weight and price.
I’m still high on the trip, although I’ve been home since mid-October. Although I’ve been to more than 40 foreign countries, with three or four days or even a week in one place, this was the first month-long immersion in another way of life. And it was ideal for me, since I could mostly live at my own pace. If there were a small problem (there weren’t any large ones for me) Charlotta, our patient, tireless tour leader was always there to solve it, be it the right bus route to Cezanne’s studio or a ticket to the Symphony. It was lovely to not feel rushed to fit in everything I wanted to see, to have plenty of time to wander the maze-like streets aimlessly instead of always having a destination, as in the quick stopovers of past travels. What I loved:
The markets, watching people buying their produce, meat and other provisions out on the street, frequenting the same stands so that they’re known.
The lack of rushing and outward stress, the positive, upbeat, smiling, helpful attitude of everyone I came in contact with — from bus drivers and hotel staff to tour leaders and airport personnel.
Seeing older fit couples walking hand in hand, a frequent sight.
The appearance of parents and baby strollers around 5 when the day care centers must close and they are ubiquitous on the streets.
The willingness of people everywhere to engage in conversation. They all said they spoke poor English, but we did just fine. A young woman bus dispatcher I engaged in conversation during a long wait between buses told me she had a degree in Museum Management and we talked about the museums of Paris, New York, and Princeton.
The late dinners. One evening I appeared at a highly recommended restaurant at 7:20 and was about to leave when it was totally empty. “Oh, we don’t open until 8,” I was told. By 8:15 I was fortunate to have a seat — the crowds had arrived.
My apartment, a spacious studio, had just about everything that’s important in my two-story townhouse in Plainsboro. Aix is a town of culture, history, good food, welcoming people, great weather, parks, and easy transportation within and without the city. (For a $100 a year pass, seniors can take unlimited rides). One can travel far without an automobile here and if you do own one, the lack of honking horns and rude drivers — even in rare traffic jams — would be another bonus.
Aix is the most “civilized” place I have ever visited. I would like to do something similar again and am looking into other possible opportunities. Stay tuned.
If You Go . . .
While the Smithsonian’s 2017 “Living in France” program was four weeks, in 2018 the program has been changed to 23 days. Prices next year for the basic program — double occupancy without airfare and the optional programs — start at $4,290 per person for the studio apartment and $4,690 for a one-bedroom apartment. The single supplement is an additional $1,590 for a studio. All tips are included for tour guides and drivers, group meals, and hotel staff, and a comprehensive insurance package is included.
Airfare — you will need to connect to Marseille — is additional and the Smithsonian will make these arrangements from your departure city. This year the additional cost was about $800.
The Optional Enrichment Tracks for 2018 are $995 for language; $495, culinary; and $675, art and culture. Departures are April, July, September, and October. The Smithsonian offers a similar program that enables you to live in Florence, Italy. For information: www.smithsonianjourneys.org or 855-330-1542.