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Simple Pleasures in Aix-en-Provence

200904-a-pleasures-in-aix

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

The house we rented came with a rabbit, and of course the kids loved him. He was plump and brown, and lived in a rather elegant wood-and-stone–framed cage underneath the fig tree. We fed him carrots, and joked about eating him for dinner.

Our bedrooms were on the second floor of the 300-year-old mas, a solidly constructed stone building covered in vines and with terra-cotta–tiled floors. The kitchen was simple and spare, and had a long, zinc-topped table at its center and a door that opened out onto the graveled courtyard. In the morning I would walk out, say hello to the rabbit, and sit on one of the rickety chairs at the rickety wood-slat table, or on a creaking canvas lounge chair under the enormous plane tree, and drink my coffee. Who was driving into town, and how many baguettes did we need?

In addition to my grandmother and father, our group included my wife and daughter, and my childhood friend Adrian and his wife and son. The kids were both four, and spent half the time in the pool. We also had a stream of friends passing through—on the way back to Zurich from Spain, or on the way to Paris, or on vacation from New York. Our visitors stayed in the guest cottage, an adorable, slightly dilapidated little house out in the garden.

The grounds were magnificent—sprawling lawns; olive, apple, plum, fig, and unruly cypress trees; lavender and rosemary bushes all over—the lavender positively thrumming with bees—white and dark pink laurel, grapevines, and potted lemon trees; a pétanque court, a ping-pong table, a fabulous and overgrown herb garden—dry, fragrant thyme and sage, basil, lemon verbena, and three varieties of rosemary—a pristine pool and a pool house with a chimneyed charcoal grill and a large dining table.

We ate all our meals outside, carrying the heavy glasses, dishes, and silverware to the table in shallow wicker baskets. We ate tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, vinegar, and chopped fresh herbs at every opportunity. We grilled many lamb chops, marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and garlic, and made potato gratins with Gruyère, and gnocchi with butter and sage, and my grandmother’s awe-inspiring ratatouille.

Some combination of the dry heat and the easy back-and-forth from inside to outside—the screenless doors and windows were always open, with warm breezes, children, and the occasional grasshopper making their way in and out of the house—reminded me of California. My grandmother’s house in Sonoma, the house I grew up loving, had a similarly overgrown and carelessly beautiful garden, a row of tall poplar trees, a scruffy lawn, and flower and vegetable plantings overlooking the Russian River and the Pacific Ocean. Inside were cats and a dog, threadbare Oriental carpets, a large kitchen, and endless evening bridge games. M.F.’s house in Glen Ellen was a little more formal, a thick-walled palazzo set back from the road overlooking a field of grapevines, but both of them epitomized for me a sort of genteel, unpretentious, and yet highly sophisticated California style.

I always knew, of course, that our California life had a Provençal flavor, in the dishes my grandmother and great-aunt cooked, in the art hung on their walls. But it wasn’t until I arrived that I really understood how much of my family’s aesthetic and cultural DNA had its roots right here, in Aix.

Aix is a university town and former provincial capital, built around Roman baths and numerous churches. It has narrow cobblestoned streets leading through various plazas, and it’s built on a slope. And so the town seems to carry you gently but persuasively down the hill and toward its center, at least when you enter, as we did, from the north side, which was where the road from Puyricard deposited us. The streets were lined with clothing stores, cafés, gift shops, and patisseries. One day my wife and I stopped to buy some Provençal dishes to replace the ones my grandmother bought back in the 50’s and 60’s and which I still used (they ended up in my kitchen a few years back), even though they were chipped and quite possibly full of lead, i.e., poisonous. The dishes at Soulèo Provence were almost identical to the ones we had, beautiful medium yellows and dark greens, and the salesman assured me that they did indeed at one time have “the maximum amount of lead,” but no longer. We bought as many plates and bowls as seemed reasonable to carry.

As I say, the town pulls you toward its heart, its grand central street, the Cours Mirabeau. With two tall rows of plane trees and a series of fountains and cafés, it makes you slow down and exhale. M.F. described the Cours this way: “It is a man-made miracle, perhaps indescribable, compounded of stone and water and trees, and to the fortunate it is one of the world’s chosen spots for their own sentient growth.” I’m not sure I experienced “sentient growth,” but I wholeheartedly agree.

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