Taking Root in Provence
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As soon as my husband announced his early retirement in 1997 we started scouting for the ideal place to retire to. It would not be Washington where he had spent his entire career and I most of mine, but where long lunch hours and late dinners just don’t do well. Instinctively, we were both drawn to southern Europe, and after comparing northern Italy, Spain and mediterranean France we quickly agreed on France and ultimately on Aix-en-Provence, where we bought an apartment in the center of town. The city’s beauty, size, climate, cultural richness and relaxed pace were obvious attractions, as well as its proximity to the Mediterranean and to a big city. Life had to be wonderful here; and our expectations were high.
Today I can confidently say that we were not disappointed: Provence is wonderful. Aix held its promise and this is where we hope to end our days; Marseilles was a revelation and deserving of a better reputation; the diversity of the region with its beaches, mountains, ancient cities and hilltop villages, and the air of History that hangs over it all—it is more than we expected or deserve. On our earlier scouting trips we had noted that high culture (with summer festivals in Aix and Avignon) and low culture (with feasts to celebrate the local patron saint, the olive harvest, or the running of the bulls in Saint Rémy) flourish side by side and draw equally big and happy crowds.
I needed to share this with my American friends and started writing stories about the local festivities—saints, animals, harvests, they all are celebrated with day-long feasts complete with copious food and wine and a mass in provençal to get the party going (the chickpea festival is my all-time favorite). In summer, we never miss the opera festival in Aix, or the daytime theatre in Avignon, and when the heat becomes hard to bear we take in a matinee movie to enjoy the air conditioning if not the movie itself, or find our way to a friend’s pool for a refreshing dip and a snooze in the shade. The seasons determine our pace and we are happy to go with the flow. The year-long pleasures of our bountiful markets, the gypsies in Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer, the Camargue, St. Tropez, bullfights, Christmas in Provence, the focus on food, and so much more—it all had to be told and soon I had enough stories for a book.
My first attempt was a self-published book called Ten Years in Provence, which never quite satisfied me. Three years later, I have added 80 pages of new text, found an illustrator and a small publishing house, and just came out with Taking Root in Provence, which I am finally happy to put my name to. It tells the story of our integration into French society which, aside from the French driver’s license, we found easier than expected.
As part of our decision to move to France we had agreed that we would try to live like the French and blend into the local fabric as much as possible. We would speak only French, take on the local rhythm of life, do as “they” do whenever possible, and make this our home just as we had done in the United States where after 30+ years we were fully integrated. (My husband is Argentine, and I am of Dutch origin.) Today, thirteen years after our arrival in France, we have reached our goal and come to feel completely at home here. We have become “one of them.”
Of course, there have been a couple of bumps on the road to integration, but as Taking Root in Provence makes clear, our efforts have been richly rewarded. We have learned a lot, laughed a lot (ah… the joys of Franglais!), made lots of friends and acquired an enviable lifestyle in the process. We have even managed a bit of a cultural exchange since our French friends, culinary wizards one and all, have designated my husband Oscar as their official barbecuer, ooh-ing and aah-ing about his grilled sweetbreads. Who’d have thunk it—in France of all places?!
Anne-Marie Simons has written several articles for BonjourParis and Taking Root in Provence is her latest book.
Photo credits under Creative Commons License: Aix-en-Provence market © Jatdoll; Fontaine des Danaides, Marseilles ©faceMEpls; and Camargue wild house © Wolfgang Staudt
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