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Simple Pleasures in Aix-en-Provence

200904-a-pleasures-in-aix

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

We shopped morning, noon, and night in Provence—we shopped for croissants, baguettes, newspapers, and cigarettes, for tomatoes, peaches, string beans, strawberries, eggplants, mushrooms, and lettuce. We shopped for legs of lamb and chickens, for cubes of beef for stew, and for pork sausages. We shopped for butter and milk and cheese, and for honey and cases of wine and Badoit mineral water. We shopped for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then we started over again.

For basic provisions, we went into the village—our house was in tiny Puyricard, on the outskirts of Aix. The town had an old stone church next to the post office, three bakeries, a little Casino supermarket, a butcher, and a café with vaguely unfriendly, pastis-drinking middle-aged men, the kind that can be found in every French village. Sometimes they played pétanque.

I never did figure out which bakery had the best croissants, and it didn’t matter, they were all good. We bought them eight or 10 at a time: not too big, buttery but not overly rich, satisfyingly crunchy but still tender and elastic inside. At the newsstand we’d pick up the International Herald Tribune and L’Équipe, the sports tabloid. We got to know the mom, pop, and son who ran the supermarket and who did their best to help find what we needed, with mixed success (dried red-pepper flakes?“…Non,” came the reply, heads shaking sadly). The butcher was hip and friendly, in his thirties but his close-cropped hair already going gray. His lamb chops were incredible.

And so it was that we developed a routine, a rhythm, a kind of easygoing daily schedule, loosely correlated to hunger and appetite. The main event was the farmers’ market in downtown Aix. On the Place Richelme, under the shade of a canopy of tall plane trees, this was a farmers’ market to end all farmers’ markets. Not that it was very big, or particularly fancy, but it was idyllic; the market was busy from early morning until just after lunch, full of sturdy matrons pulling two-wheeled carts and parents pushing strollers, the hustle and flow of commerce. The vegetables were beautiful—densely colored peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes, fresh garlic, yellow string beans—and the fruits were even more beautiful—small, sweet strawberries, baskets of red currants, figs, and apricots, all sorts of peaches, nectarines, plums, and melons. One man sold goat cheeses, aged to different vintages, and honey; another had hams and salami, including a heavy and rectangular aged lonzo from Corsica. We sliced our pieces thin, so it would last longer.

I have every reason to love the market in the place Richelme: I inherited a love for it, indeed, for Aix itself. My father lived here when he was a kid in 1959: my grandmother Norah Barr brought her three sons and rented a house not far from her sister, M.F.K. Fisher, who had rented a place just outside Aix with her two daughters. I grew up hearing about this epic trip, and an earlier one in 1954—from my father and uncles, mostly, about the boat ride from California down through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic; about learning French in school in Switzerland and then moving to France for the other half of the year, attending the same lycée Paul Cézanne had; about how my dad, at age 13, was able to distinguish the white wines of Switzerland by town of origin; about how they all rode around on Solex motorbikes and read Tintin comics.

M.F. by this point was a well-established writer, and she recorded the trip in subsequent years—in 1964 in Map of Another Town, for example, a book about Aix. She described the “green light” that filtered through the plane trees above the market at Place Richelme in an essay for The New Yorker in 1966: “Perhaps some fortunate fish have known it, but for human beings it is rare to float at the bottom of the deeps and yet breathe with rapture the smells of all the living things spread out to sell in the pure, filtered, moving air.

”Rereading her today, it’s often striking how little has changed. Fifty years later, the market is precisely as she described it, minus the “ducklings bright-eyed in their crates” and other livestock. Then again, in many other ways Aix has also changed completely—and so what if it has?I’m not going to pretend to be nostalgic about 1959—hell, I was born in 1968. But on this trip I was accompanied by my father and my grandmother, and I did want to see the city through their eyes—however momentarily, in whatever glancing, refracted way, to have a visceral sense of a past that lives on embedded in the present. But the strange thing is that’s not what happened at all. Or at least not the only thing.

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