Aix (and adventures) en Provence

Peter Mayle’s autobiographical novel A Year in Provence was published in 1989, ten years after I arrived in France to spend a year of college in Languedoc-Roussillon, the region à côté to the west.

During school holidays, carrying a backpack, my Eurail pass, little money and no credit cards, I traveled with friends to Spain, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, Holland and England. But aside from Paris, I didn’t travel much in France. I did visit Carcassonne and the beach villages of Carnon-Plage, La Grande Motte and Sête, but I never made it to nearby Avignon, Aix-en-Provence or the Luberon valley.

So when I read Mayle’s book (and later, the rest of his books) set in Provence, I was enthralled. Like so many others, and because I love the south of France anyway, I wanted to visit Provence. Someday.

That day turned out to be Thursday, July 5, 2012.

My husband and I arrived in Aix the evening of July 4th, after driving* west from Nice. That morning, I thought it would be fun to take the coastal route through Antibes, Cannes and St. Tropez. We would stop in some quaint spot for lunch, perhaps not until Hyères, and then drive on to Aix and arrive at our hotel in the centre ville in plenty of time to relax and have a cocktail. Then we would go to nearby Venelles for a dégustation (wine-tasting) and tour of a vignoble (vineyard)  to be conducted in French at Château l’Evesque. We would dine at La Flambée du Luberon, the Château’s restaurant.

We made it to Cannes on the congested coastal road, then decided to take the autoroute instead. We did have a wonderful lunch at a café in Hyères, then continued west and north to Aix. We arrived at Hotel Saint Christophe with no directions or help from our car’s GPS *, found the parking garage after two tries, wedged backed our car in a parking space in the garage and checked in. I called the Château to confirm our reservations for the evening and get directions (en français) from Jean Michel Escoffier (I had previously emailed Nathalie, his wife.) Then we decided to have that drink and take a taxi.

It was the right decision. We arrived on time and joined un petit groupe of ten French people for a tour of the vineyard and lavendar field, led by Jean Michel –speaking in rapid French and (fortunately for us) talking with his hands. Then it was time for the dégustation with Nathalie, who described the wines speaking almost as fast as her husband had. So far in France, I’d understood about 90% of what I heard, and had held my own communicating in the language that I’d been (re-)studying for a year. But comprehending the Escoffiers was a major challenge — and a highlight of mon voyage.

The following morning, on July 5th, we left Aix and ventured into the Luberon valley just to the north. We exited the autoroute at Cavaillon and drove to Apt, then followed a winding road through some beautiful petits villages médiévals made famous by Mayle (and that Madame Marie-Hélène**  had advised me not to miss): Bonnieux, Lacoste, Ménerbes and Oppède. There, we stopped for a leisurely lunch before heading to Avignon for the rest of the day and to Montpellier that night.

It was hard to leave the Luberon, and I kept thinking about Peter Mayle and his writing. A few years ago, when I was just beginning as a writer but after I had finished the first batch of revisions on my upcoming novel, I wrote a letter to Mayle asking for advice. I sent it to his publisher in New York, hoping that it would find its way to him somehow.

Mayle’s books and interviews reveal him to be a wonderful and kind man. In the spring of 2008, he wrote me back a three paragraph letter, typed on his personal stationery and signed in ink. His last line was:

“All I can say is courage, and don’t give up.”

* For more explanation about our adventures en voiture, see the post Le Tour de (Montpellier) France.

** mon prof de français

Exchange students: Les étudiants en échange

The Iranian hostage crisis began November 4, 1979, less than three months after I arrived in the south of France as a 19-year-old university exchange student.

I was part of a group from the University of North Carolina that attended a French university in Montpellier, France. We followed the crisis that gripped the world from the French perspective and read about it in Le Monde as we waited for it to end. But we went home to America long before it did.

I was a legal adult at the time, old enough to vote and drink alcohol, but much more concerned with my own life than with American security issues or the lives of the hostages. The crisis ended while I was still in college; a new president was elected, I graduated from UNC, found a job, married and raised a family. Then in 2006, I read Mark Bowden’s brilliant and suspenseful account of the story, Guests of the Ayatollah, told through the eyes of those who lived it.

The events of that year and the attitude of the time are relevant today, and the world is perhaps more dangerous. But more and more young people are choosing to spend time as exchange students in other countries, to experience another culture and learn a foreign language. Several colleges, including UNC, still offer a study-abroad program in Montpellier. In 2010, “Kim,” one of my American roommates in France,* sent me an article titled French Lessons by Aubrey Whelan, a Penn State student who attended the same French university that “Kim” and I had. As I read about Aubrey’s experience in Montpellier, I was amazed to learn that many things about life as an exhange student there hadn’t changed.

A month ago, my husband and I visited the city and Université Paul Valéry at the end of our week in the south of France. When I was a student there, costs were much lower, but still high, relatively speaking. Bureaucracy, a fact of life in France, was just as frustrating, and strikes just as frequent. The architecture of “Paul Val” was the same Soviet-chic, only a younger version, and class formats were the same. Like the students of today, my friends and I gathered at Place de la Comédie and at discos, and hung out at cafés and on the beach. Like Aubrey’s, our French skills fluctuated even as they improved.

And just like for Aubrey, my time in France was a life-changing experience.

In recent years, my family hosted two French high school students as part of a three week summer exchange program, and my teenage daughter was hosted by a French family on the same program. She hopes to study somewhere in France for a semester or a year during her time in college.

I think that’s une très bonne idée.

* “Kim” and I shared an apartment with “Lisa” during our year in France because there weren’t enough French host families for everyone in our UNC group of exchange students.

Américaine in Paris

A mon avis, it’s the most beautiful, most romantic city in the world.

Earlier this month, I marveled at la Tour Eiffel but didn’t climb to the top of it (though I did ascend the spiral stairs inside the Arc de Triomphe and the steps at Montmartre). Like the main character in my upcoming novel, I drank café crème ( café au lait) at petit déjeuner and, at times, beaucoup de vin at déjeuner andner. But unlike her, I only gazed at the pâtisseries.

If you follow me on Twitter (@MakeThatJulie), you may have seen other photos from my recent vacation in France, an anniversary trip for my husband and me. It was fun speaking français and teaching him some helpful phrases such as L’addition, s’il vous plaît  (Check, please). 

Though we enjoyed several lieux touristiques — monuments, museums and palaces — our most memorable moments occurred unexpectedly. Cocktails at the bar at Hotel Negresco in Nice. Lunch at a café in a petite village in the Luberon valley. Wine-tasting, explanations in French and a private dinner at a winery near Aix-en-Provence. Breakfast on the terrace at our hotel in the old section of Montpellier (and a nostalgic visit to the nearest beach). Exploring Lyon and nearby Beaujolais with French friends who hosted us for the weekend at their home. Laughing together as we figured out the Paris metro system (not that hard), and dinner at a tiny restaurant in Montparnasse that serves everyone the same (delicious) menu.

Our experiences were so different from those that I had as an exchange student in France, part of a small group from the University of North Carolina. I was on a tight budget and traveled by train all over western Europe (but not much in France) using my Eurail pass. Since then, university abroad programs have exploded – just about everyone goes somewhere to party study and experience life in another culture. My novel, to be released soon, is about a girl who spends a year of college in the south of France, her life filled with adventure, romance, and many unpredictable and memorable moments. Her story takes place in an earlier time, but her experiences are much like those of many of today’s young women.

And she dreams of going to Paris with the man she loves.

Le Tour de (Montpellier) France

I’ve never cycled in France. But a long time ago, I drove a moped there, and earlier this month, a car. My mobylette was blue, like this one:

I knew my way around Montpellier, the city in the south of France where I studied for a year, and I knew how to get to the closest village, Palavas-les-flots, where I lived in an apartment on the beach. My “bike” didn’t go over about forty miles an hour, but it only took about twenty minutes to get to school. In town, getting around through the narrow, winding streets was easy. When I wanted to call “the States,” I drove to the International Calling Center in the Post Office and waited for a booth.

During our trip to France earlier this month, my husband and I arrived in Montpellier one evening en voiture – by car – after visiting Nice and Monaco, Aix-en Provence and Avignon (with a side trip through the Luberon valley). Though our vehicle’s GPS was confusing at best, after three tries, we navigated the narrow streets to our hotel, located in the vieille ville, close to the Promenade du Peyrou and not far from Place de la Comédie:

We pulled up to the entrance and opened our car doors with difficulty — the voiture in the photo is much smaller than the one we rented. We unloaded our valises and were politely instructed to park in an underground parking garage about a quarter mile away. Le Guilhelm was a former 17th century coach inn and conveniently located just steps away from wonderful restaurants and cafés. 

The next day, we tooled around the city, visiting the university I had attended and the village where I lived. I thought I’d be able to figure out how to get to both, using our quirky built-in GPS and drawing on memories over three decades old…since I’ve always been good at directions.


We chose la mauvaise route – the wrong way – many times. Without meaning to, we saw more of the city and its environs en voiture than I ever had en mobylette. Guessing at each turn, we made sure not to enter streets with the red and white interdit sign (“do not enter” or more literally, “forbidden”) and finally found a road I recognized (faintly) called Route de Mende. When we found the university, I was struck by how different it was from what I remembered. It was older, of course, and had changed quite a bit.

Following signs out of the city, we made it to Palavas using the road I had traveled many times; it seemed much wider. We had lunch at a café on the beach, close to the apartment I shared with two other American girls. Later that afternoon we returned to Montpellier, parked our car in the garage and set out to explore the centre ville, à pied – on foot. Much that we saw was just as I remembered.

The following morning, it was time to drop off our car. We were taking a train to Lyon, and fortunately the car rental drop lot was located at la gare – the train station – not far from our hotel. I had driven to la gare, or by it, through town on my mobylette many times, but by car, it was necessary to take a roundabout route. We gave ourselves an hour to get there.

Which turned out to be a smart decision. We had decent directions, but, malheureusement, when we approached la gare, we couldn’t find the entrance. We circled around and around the station, always keeping it in view but never able to approach it. Finally, I asked a Frenchwoman for help, and her instructions (given en français) provided our solution.

Comme toujours: Montpellier, en mobylette ou à pied, ça va, mais en voiture, c’est impossible!

When it’s out there, reader – le jugement

Now that I’m back from les vacances en France, it’s time to travailler – work – again. As the French say, Faire et refaire, c’est toujours travailler. 

The suitcases are unpacked, the clothes washed, the photos sorted, and the memories treasured. Talk of another future visit – someday – is happening, with a slightly different plan, and preferably, not during l’été – the summer. But it was a fabulous trip, a welcome break from routine and a wonderful time to share with the love of my life. We spent a lot of time together, spoke French (well, I did, and he did un peu), and saw sights both famous and little-known, the latter just as impressive.

We started in Nice and ended in Paris, visiting many other villes, villages and a chateau in between. With sporadic access to wi-fi (in French, it rhymes with leafy), we stayed “dark” for the most part – only a little frustrating, and actuellement quite liberating. And neither of us “worked.”

At the end of week one, we traveled to a city in the south, Montpellier, and had lunch at a nearby Mediterranean plage – beach – in a town called Palavas-les-flots. It was a nostalgic stop on our journey – the place where I spent a year as a college student, where my boyfriend (now my husband) sent me letters and flowers. Visiting it with him after so many years together was indescribably romantic. Since my novel takes place there in an earlier time, our voyage to Montpellier and Palavas doubled as research; when we got home, I did a final fact-check review of the story and tweaked just a few lines, as necessary. But even though much has changed there since 1979, much is also the same.

Now, chez nous, it’s time to blog again, tweet and work on my next book, as I prepare au meme temps to release the first. Which brings me to the subject of today’s post: the fact that once “it’s out there,” my novel will no longer really be my own. It will belong to the reader, who will judge it and its characters. Much of the story is based on true events, but much is not. Memories from my time in France long ago are imprecise in some ways, but clear in others. But it’s not the specifics or any incongruities that worry me.

It’s le jugement.

Because even though it’s popular to claim that we don’t judge – and even say, “don’t judge me,” in truth, we do make judgments all the time. We form opinions and justify our positions. When we read fiction, I think we almost feel we own it; we decide what’s good, bad and neutral; we judge the plot, the writing and the ending. All of this is fine and well, and it’s what we as authors know as we write.

But now when I read someone else’s work, I read not so much as a reader but as another writer. I think about what led the author to write the book. I think about the travaille, the brainstorming and the planning, the edits and revisions. I think about the author choosing the title. Having grown as a writer, I’ve changed as a reader. When my book is “out there,” of course I hope that judgments are good and reviews, positive.

A bientôt.

[Note: above photo is of The Conciergerie in Paris: once a palace, it was converted into a prison during the Revolution and became a symbol of terror. This was where Marie Antionette was imprisoned  before her execution.]

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