Upon my return from ten days in Provence the questions, of course, have been inevitable: Is it as much like Sonoma County as you said? (Yes.) Did you have a good time? (Yes.) What did you do? (Everything.) How was the food? (Wonderful.)
I try to speak but the answers, if they come at all, come more slowly than the questions, or else they come in a floodtide of words, of whirling verbal images, too many words to be spoken at one time by one person. I open my mouth and colors escape: the dazzling blues and mauves and fuschias of the Aix sky at sunset, the emerald greens and delicate blues of the Mediterranean; the astonishing liquid yellow of the sun.
How to say something so simple and profound as that I arrived home at last, without sounding romantic and hyperbolic, a silly dreamer?
I don’t really want to talk at all; I want to find another way to transfer my experience, to take this tangled web inside of me, this inner stew of feelings, scents, tastes, images, sensations all bundled together, this fierce convergence of desire and release, a great tumbling ball of human yarn, and hand it to you, let you hold it up and turn it in the light so that you, too, may know the astonishing beauty, pleasure, satisfaction, relief and longing that is my Provence. But alas, I am left only with the word, with inadequate human language, and a tale the telling of which is beyond me.
How to say something so simple and profound as that I arrived home at last, without sounding romantic and hyperbolic, a silly dreamer? Maybe I am specifically that; maybe that’s how I arrived at my destination at long last, after 21 years of failed attempts. Perseverance furthers, I recall from my old days with the I Ching.
I am a talker, that much is certain. If you know me, you know this. I speak easily and often, and probably too much, imposing a constant narrative overlay onto everything I do, think, and feel. But this time it hasn’t happened and what might someday be the story I tell myself and others about my time in Provence, the narrative of it all as it were, for now still flutters in the soft sea breezes, out of my reach. I have only images to offer you.
“Michele, are you happy?”
I am standing in a parking lot. A tall, thin man is shoving what looks like old, broken fence boards under a three-legged iron tripod, feeding a raging fire. On top of the tripod is a huge, battered pot into which the man, who has a cigarette hanging from his lips, dumps a couple of buckets of water, then a platter of different shapes, sizes, and colors of fish and shellfish, live, kicking crab, big round chunks of peeled potatoes all go plunging in. The water quickly turns orange with saffron; the air is filled with the scent of garlic; the temperature of the water slowly rises and finally, after an interminable amount of time, the crabs’ kicking slows and stops. I watch this for a while, the man feeding the fire and pulling on his cigarette, wonder what it would be like to share a bed with him, and then walk to the courtyard behind the house, where I am handed a glass of white wine.
“Michele, are you happy?” she asks wisely.
She looks up, our eyes meet and linger. We smile.
Another image: I am walking through narrow streets towards the center of a tiny medieval town. An old woman in a black sweater, long skirt, and golden beads is sweeping her doorstep. She is very old, older than I can ever imagine myself being (it is a great human flaw in all of us, that we have such difficulty imagining ourselves any other age than the one of the moment). She must feel me watching her; she looks up, our eyes meet and linger. We smile.
Briefly, I let myself lean against a nearby friend, needing the palpable sensation of another’s presence as I feel as if I will float away into the very ether of this land I’ve longed to see for an eternity.
Another day, near the end, at least for now. Overhead, the sky is the color of a peacock’s breast, shimmery, nearly metallic blue. Towards the east, the drape of night is beginning to close over us, highlighting the day’s lingering colors. The blue overhead fades westward into a dramatic periwinkle which in turn gives way to an intense lavender dissolving into a brilliant fuschia horizon. A few hundred yards in the distance, the great fountain, already lit by yellow lights, glows. The enormous ancient plane trees which line the Cours Mirabeau, in their stark winter nakedness just two days ago, are covered now with tiny buds, like stars in the fading light. Listening carefully, I swear I can hear the music of the fountains above the chatter of the clientele that lounge in café after café along the famous promenade of Aix-en-Provence. Briefly, I let myself lean against a nearby friend, needing the palpable sensation of another’s presence as I feel as if I will float away into the very ether of this land I’ve longed to see for an eternity. If ever I have been at home, it is at this precise moment.
Another image lingers. A late dinner—the best kind, to my thinking—with a friend has left me drowsy with contentment. The next day the group will depart for the states and I will go by train from Marseilles to Nice for my flight. Closeness dissolves into ever widening distances, both personal and geographic, and I snuggle deep into the large hotel bed, my nightgown as silky and black as the Marseilles night. The arms of Europe that opened so wide in welcome are closing around me, gently lifting me if not exactly home, then certainly back to the world where, inevitably it seems, I must live, at least for now.