RETURN TO FRANCE
Summertime. A lush, fat sun shines down on me as I walk to the épicerie, the general store at the other end of the village. Arrived in France eight days ago, no longer jet-lagged, already taking my baguette with a casual chew followed by a slurp of thick, black wine from one of the local vineyards. The market town is just down the road from here, and fills the streets each Saturday, from eight to one, and you can hear most of the western European languages from Finland to Greece. The stalls are piled high with peppers, yellow squash, ripe tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, celery, onions big and small, olives in all colors and sizes, sausages that smell tongue-curlingly tangy. You swallow helplessly as you pass up varities from wild boar to venison to pork and beef, and those others that are punctuated with garlic cloves. You can find such exotica as stuffed pigs’ feet, a Provencal specialty, and all the sugared fruit your heart desires. All this down one main street, and off to the right and left along curving side streets, some of which were laid down by Julius Caesar’s builders. He liked this town, and it was known as Apta Julia, or Julius’ Apt. The name is several thousand years old, by the way, and comes from a tribe’s designation of the place as Hath.
If you’ve worn out Apt’s market, try the one at Reillanne, a little hilltop village with more rustic wares and dark crusty loaves of bread made from local wheat fields. The olives there are good, too. Or you can go further east, toward Italy, to the ancient settlement of Forcalquier, an old name for the limestone ovens that once baked the village bread. Years ago, I remember goatherds would bring in baby goats with their legs tied, looking sleepy as you passed by. Milk goats, mostly. Long snouts, floppy ears, a soft bleating noise calling for their mothers. All in all, we have outdoor markets to suit every taste and whim. And I’m never disappointed with the soft, runny cheeses and tart salamis I lug home for lunch. Slurp some Rhone wine with each bite and your eyes close with ecstasy.
We’re a long way from home in Vermont, where the news is like some grinding dirge from a wheezy church organ. Roe is dead, New York’s gun law is knocked down by the Supremes, the radical right contingent that now runs the bench as if John Roberts were just a custodian borrowing a seat on the dais. The three liberals left in the chamber are in a rage and write philippics against the right wingers, but it doesn’t seem to trouble the placid gaze of Clarence Thomas or any of his originalist brothers and sister.
But hey, I’m in France, and I just pulled the cork on a bottle of Gigondas from my favorite vintner, Raspaille-Ay. Tonight I’ll ease into my chair with a crossword puzzle, sip on a tiny glass of Ambassadeur, an herbal aperitif that slides down the tongue like some piece of velvet my mother kept in her sewing basket. Tastes good, too. I even know the family whose great uncle invented the concoction in Marseille back at the turn of the last century. At that hour of early dusk, the village settles down for the night. A wind may whisper in the eaves, someone may be out calling the cat home, or a child might skip along the narrow street singing some ditty learned at school. But night’s heavy cloak is slowly drawing over the rooftops and urging the streetlights to come on.
We arrived just as the second run of elections ended for seats in the Assembly. The fear among President Macron’s party was that they might lose their majority. And so it happened. The liberals won enough seats, together with Marine Le Pen’s far-right anti-immigration fanatics, to pull the mace out of the president’s hands. He’s been cozy with the banking elite for far too long, and the ordinary citizens are sick of being treated like forgotten people. So now the great chandeliered hall of the Assembly will begin to sizzle like an electric relay station with progressive legislation being debated among sweating, red-faced, enraged old-line conservatives and reinvented reactionaries eager to put up barriers to immigrants and refugees from Islamic states. I won’t get to see the fireworks, but I can well imagine how the government will weep with indignation at all those sweeping changes up for a vote. Let’s hope some reforms will come of it. The women are as angry here as they are in the U.S. Can’t blame them. Their wages are low, they have few representatives of their gender in power, and they are still required to look as svelte and stylish as movie stars.
The swirl of change blows against the roofs here, as they do elsewhere in the developed world. But that doesn’t mean the great inertia of tradition doesn’t hold this vulnerable country together. The gardens prosper, the hollyhocks sway along the stone walls, the kids are still instructed in rote learning. Little pampered dogs prance along ahead of an aging master or mistress, gazing to the left and righty out of bug-eyes and carefully coiffured heads. Restaurants may not be what they were once upon a time, but they pretend to cater to the high standards of a mythical past. The artisanal bakeries put out delicious pastries, and the apparel shops are bristling with the latest fashions from Paris and Milan at frighteningly high prices. The more that things change, the more they stay, well you know. Oh, and I shouldn’t neglect to mention the flower stalls in Apt, with their bouquets drowning us in old memories of love, and the pots all loaded with bright blossoms and ferns.
We’re not in a drought, not yet. The larches and pines are all green, with lush canopies over them, spread out like the umbrella pines of Cap d’Antibes. If you go down to the coast, as far east as Cannes, you might join a slow-moving procession of cream-colored Rolls Royces, or the sleek black many-layered enamel bodies of Lambos and Maserati’s. Inside are those aging elites seated in the back seat with a glass of bubbly, Armani suit or Chanel plain black dress with pearl necklace, while a chauffeur from Zambezi carefully maneuvers the limo around slower traffic on the way to some lavish roof-top party at a villa cut off from all traces of the mortal world. I don’t often get down to the coast, but I used to go with my family to a little condo building just outside Cannes where we would eat on the spacious balcony, and then drive into town to scrounge up free tickets to the new movies. We even ogled the celebs once going up the red-carpeted stairs followed by paparazzi clicking their Haselblads. But you needn’t waste your time on the rich and glamorous. There is so much to admire just gazing up at the blue remoteness of Mont St. Victoire, Cezanne’s muse in his middle years. Or follow the cobbled streets of Aix-en-Provence, literally the waters of the Province, with its thermal baths still extant for those who can afford a nice soak in the hot mineral springs. Off the main street, the Cours Mirabeau, which M.F.K. Fisher, the great food writer, called the most beautiful avenue in the world, the town suddenly becomes veiled and sleepy, as if it had not yet woke up from a time before the French Revolution, when only elegant little hansom cabs clip-clopped along among the great houses. But I prefer to loll about in our cool stone house, and go off at five or six to sit at the bar and order a pastis or a vin rose, with lots of ice cubes to ward off the heat of the sun.
Back in France is a magical phrase, a kind of mantra. I’ve been dragging my aging bones here for nearly half a century, and after a few days’ recovery from the insomnia of the all-night plane ride, wake to the still crisp air of mid-June and smell the coffee from my neighbor’s window. Time to get up, to slather a croissant with butter and jam, and take my first sip of coffee from a favorite cup. Ah, yes. France is humane, balanced in its psyche, with a soul large enough to carry the wisdom of Roman pleasure in its conscience, and delicate enough to grasp the subtle nuances of the Greek love of beauty. When you have those credentials, you can understand where Manet, Matisse, the Monet of Giverny come from, and from which stream of antiquity they have drunk the sacred waters of imagination.
I have roamed a good part of this planet since I was twelve years old, thanks to my dad, who had a certain wanderlust of his own. I have peered into the murky corners of the Arab imagination when I lived in Lebanon, and beheld the fragile, almost evanescent sensibility of Vietnamese art when I turned eighteen in Saigon. And fell in love with Italy after teaching there for a semester in Tuscany. I may have fallen in love with Malaysia after discovering the food stalls of Kuala Lumpur and the creamy fruit of the durian. All in all, the earth is, as Leonard Cohen once called it, a spice box. He was right. So was Anthony Bourdain, who savored every exotic food he could find, including the durian! But France always called me back, like a lover. And I come, suppressing my eagerness for as long as I can, until I burst with affection at the sound of a cork being pulled by a solemn waiter, who waits politely while I sink my liver into a pool of forgetfulness at the first sip. For a brief, and mortal summer, I am back in my second home, a devout hedonist, a pious believer in Mediterranean values, a man with his heart on his sleeve, and a napkin on his lap.