A few months ago, when I wrote about Julia Child, I highlighted one of my favorite quotes from her memoir: “The sweetness and generosity and politeness and gentleness and humanity of the French had shown me how lovely life can be if one takes the time to be friendly.”
Let’s revisit this now, because the longer I’m in France the more I know it to be true. From invitations for holiday dinners to a surprise Christmas party at school where the kids all gave me presents and homemade cards, I couldn’t agree with Julia more.
Our vacances de noël began today, and I got off to a running start with my friend Corinne. I meet with Corinne every week for English lessons, and we always end up laughing so hard we cry–be it from a translation barrier or a funny story. It’s always light, fun conversation, a lot about food, and I know I can trust her recommendations for good vendors around the city (and having a French resource for bread and cheese vendors is a necessity).
Corinne invited me to go for a walk with her and some friends this morning around Mont Sainte Victoire. Though it would begin early, I had been dying to get out to Sainte Victoire ever since I arrived in Aix–it was the inspiration for many artists, most notably Cezanne (I’m honestly surprised Aix as a whole hasn’t been renamed “Cezanne” yet). I catch glimpses of the mountain every once and a while during my commute, but up close it’s so much more majestic.
Even Corinne, who has lived in Aix for many years and goes on this walk weekly, said that it’s still breathtaking every time.
We walked along the paths with two of her friends, listening for the bells around the necks of the hunter’s dogs (it was a good thing my shirt was bright pink!) and admiring the mountain. We passed bushes of rosemary and thyme (yes I took some), a trove of olive trees and boxes of beehives. At the top of our hike was le Refuge Cezanne, a small stone house where hikers can sleep–though it wasn’t open this morning. At the top of Sainte Victoire, there is a cross–la croix de Provence–but closer to us there was another cross stemming off a stone hut.
On our way back from the mountain, Corinne spotted a sign for honey being sold directly from l’apiculteur (the honey maker), so we made a quick detour. We ended up in a tiny, tiny room where you can buy miel de lavande (lavender), miel de romarin (rosemary), miel de châtaignier (which usually has a very strong taste), as well as nougats and essential oils. The honey there wasn’t the same honey you would find normally in America: it is thicker, creamier, and often opaque (and let’s be real, so much more delicious). Corinne bought her miel de lavande and some nougat (one of the thirteen desserts of Christmas here in Provence!) and we headed back to Aix.
We made one other quick detour on the way back, this time to a boulangerie, La Fabrique à Pain, that Corinne swears is the best in the city. They use organic flour and everything in the shop just felt a little bit more chic than at other boulangeries. After tasting the pain d’huile (another of the 13 desserts!), I am very much inclined to agree with her! If all the boulangeries in Aix were that good, I’d have been 300 pounds by November. For all you Aixoise friends, the boulangerie is a little outside centre ville, but they come to the market at Place Richelme every Sunday.
We’re mere hours into the vacances, but I already feel so much more native (and fluent!) than I did just last week. This week will be filled with other traditional Provençal Christmas meals and markets, which makes me just swoon at the thought. Any culture that celebrates a holiday with thirteen desserts is definitely one I can get behind. ♦