In my previous post on this subject, I left you all gripping the edges of your seats as I was waking up to my first morning in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. You may recall I was feeling a certain trepidation about the upcoming year, after my first startling glimpse of Europe.
I awoke that first day on the floor of an upstairs bedroom in the home of our missionary friends. I had no idea what time it was, or what day it was even, but I got dressed quickly and went in search of my mother and friends. They were all gathered around the dining room table, eating what appeared to be lunch. I was greeted by our friend (who was an American) and introduced to his French wife and five children. I sat down next to my mother and felt shyness wash over me.
I don’t remember what our first meal in France was, but I do remember being offered a glass of wine by the host. I gave a sideways glance at my mother and my surprise must have shown on my face, because they all laughed. Embarrassed, I said I didn’t really care for the taste of wine. His wife then offered me a bubbling cider. It was alcoholic as well, but less so, and she informed me that it was a good way to start developing my taste for alcohol. It was how they had started teaching all their children to appreciate good wine.
‘When in France’, I thought, and accepted the drink. It wasn’t half bad. Perhaps it helped loosen my tongue, because my shyness was wearing off, and I started asking questions of the daughters of the house, who all spoke good English. I figured it was never too soon to start learning the language, of which I knew the words ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci’.
“How do you say ‘water’ in French?” I asked eagerly, pointing to the pitcher in front of me.
The girls looked at each other.
“Oh,” one of them replied.
“How do you say ‘water’?” I repeated more slowly, thinking by her answer that she hadn’t understood the question.
“Oh,” she said again.
I looked puzzled.
“The word for water is Oh,” she elaborated.
“How do you spell that,” I replied, feeling foolish.
“E-A-U” she said.
I stared. How on earth could you get the sound O out of those three vowels?
“Unless it is plural, ” she continued. “Then you add an X at the end.”
“Oh, so then you pronounce it Ohx,” I went on, more confidently.
“Non, non,” (both girls giggling) “you never pronounce the X.”
“So how do you know when you are talking about plural or singular?”
They shrugged. “You just do.”
I went on, trying to sort out the confusion. “So I thought you pronounced the X in Aix-en-Provence, but you never say the X?”
“Oh,” (more giggling) “Of course you pronounce the X in Aix.”
“So how do you know when to pronounce a letter or not? ” I asked.
” You just do,” they finished, maddeningly.
My trepidation was mounting once again.
Later that day, we were taken to see our new living quarters by our missionary friend. Since he had an unusually large family, by French standards, he drove a Volkswagen Bus. I remember the terror I felt as he zoomed confidently through ridiculously narrow streets in his overlarge vehicle, narrowly avoiding other cars. I had an impression of tall, austere, gray buildings, interspersed with small fountain-filled plazas as we flew along. Before long, he was pulling up the driveway of the Faculte Libre De Theologie Reformee,(or the Fac, as we would soon learn to call it) -the seminary where we would be living for the next nine months. It was a long rectangular building, 4 stories high, and it was covered with a pinkish colored plaster and studded with tall, mint green shutters- an interesting combination.
Our room, when we saw it, was on the second floor- the first door on the right of a long hallway. It was large and bare, with a few odd pieces of furniture, three single beds, and an old sink in the corner. There was a common bathroom down the hall, for men and women to share- yet another shock for this prudish American. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the room, but I fell in love with the enormous windows that you could fling wide open to welcome the day.
Right below our windows was a concrete slab that served as a sort of porch roof for the story below. I thought it would be a nice place to read or study and get a bit of sun in the future. The driveway was lined by tall trees with a strange, spotted, gray bark that I had never seen before. I was told they were called Platane trees.
As we took an exploratory walk towards the center of town, I noticed that these trees grew all over the city, right out of the stone, it seemed. They even looked like stone, except for their big leafy boughs overhead. It was not a large city, and our walk into town took about twenty minutes. We passed lovely, mossy old fountains shaped like dolphins, and glimpsed cathedrals down side streets.
People in dark clothing walked swiftly and silently past us as we sauntered along, absorbing our new home. My apprehensions about the language and the people and being on our own, that had been crowding my mind since I first got on the plane, were beginning to fade as I took in the richness of the architecture around me, and when we finally reached the Centre Ville, I forgot them completely.
It’s hard for me to describe how I felt when I first saw the Cours Mirabeau- the main boulevard running a quarter mile through the heart of Aix. Falling in love might be too strong a term, but it’s the only one I can think of. The way the the entire boulevard was lined with enormous platanes arching high overhead, lacing their branches to form a green canopy, through which the sunlight filtered, dappling the cobblestones in a soft green light. The way the tunnel-like trees directed your gaze to the end of the avenue, where a huge fountain danced in the distance. The charming cafes, the sculptured buildings, the smell of the boulangeries and patisseries, all combined to root me to the spot with my eyes wide, as I tried to drink it all in.
“I’m going to love it here,” I smiled to myself, “Whether I figure out the vowels and the exes or not.” And linking arms with my mother, we entered the enchanted green tunnel.