In preparation for my trip, I’ve been reading Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, in which Mayle recounts his time spent living in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the charming countryside of Provence. While this isn’t specifically about Aix, it is about the region and (probably) the local culture. Last night, I got to the chapter which specifically mentions Aix, and now I present to you an Aixtract:
“There was one excursion which we were always happy to make. We both loved Aix.
“The corkscrew road we take through the mountains is too narrow for trucks and too serpentine for anyone in a hurry. Apart from a single farm building with its ragged herd of goats, there is nothing to see except steep and empty landscapes of gray rock and green scrub oak, polished into high definition by the extraordinary clarity of the light. The road slopes down through the foothills on the south side of the Luberon before joining up with the amateur Grand Prix that takes place every day on the RN7, the Nationale Sept that has eliminated more motorists over the years than is comfortable to think about as one waits for a gap in the traffic.
“The road leads into Aix at the end of the most handsome main street in France. The Cours Mirabeau is beautiful at any time of the year, but at its best between spring and autumn, when the plane trees form a pale green tunnel five hundred yards long. The diffused sunlight, the four fountains along the center of the Cours’ length, the perfect proportions which follow da Vinci’s rule to ‘let the street be as wide as the height of the houses’ – the arrangement of space and trees and architecture is so pleasing that you hardly notice the cars.
“Over the years, a nice geographical distinction has evolved between work and more frivolous activities. On the shady side of the street, appropriately, are the banks and insurance companies and property agents and lawyers. On the sunny side are the cafes.
“I have liked almost every cafe that I have ever been to in France, even the ratty little ones in tiny villages where the flies are more plentiful than customers, but I have a soft spot for the sprawling cafes of the Cours Mirabeau, and the softest spot of all for the Deux Garcons. Successive generations of proprietors have put their profits under the mattress and resisted all thoughts of redecoration, which in France usually ends in a welter of plastic and awkward lighting, and the interior looks much the same as it must have looked fifty years ago.
“The ceiling is high, and toasted to a caramel color by the smoke from a million cigarettes. The bar is burnished copper, the tables and chairs gleam with the patina bestowed by countless bottoms and elbows, and the waiters have aprons and flat feet, as all proper waiters should. It is dim and cool, a place for reflection and a quiet drink. And then there is the terrace, where the show takes place.
That building right there, with the three circle windows, is my FUTURE SCHOOL according to Google.
“Aix is a university town, and there is clearly something in the curriculum that attracts pretty students. The terrace of the Deux Garcons is always full of them, and it is my theory that they are there for education rather than refreshment. They are taking a degree course in cafe deportment, with a syllabus divided into four parts.
“One: The Arrival One must always arrive as conspicuously as possible, preferably on the back of a crimson Kawasaki 750 motorcycle driven by a young man in head-to-toe black leather and three-day stubble. It is not done to stand on the pavement and wave him goodbye as he booms off down the Cours to visit his hairdresser. That is for gauche little girls from the Auvergne. The sophisticated student is too busy for sentiment. She is concentrating on the next stage.
“Two: The Entrance Sunglasses must be kept on until an acquaintance is identified at one of the tables, but one must not appear to be looking for company. Instead, the impression should be that one is heading into the cafe to make a phone call to one’s titled Italian admirer, when – quelle surprise! – one sees a friend. The sunglasses can then be removed and the hair tossed while one is persuaded to sit down.
“Three: Ritual Kissing Everyone at the table must be kissed at least twice, often three times, and in special cases four times. Those being kissed should remain seated, allowing the new arrival to bend and swoop around the table, tossing her hair, getting in the way of the waiters, and generally making her presence felt.
“Four: Table Manners Once seated, sunglasses should be put back on to permit the discreet study of one’s own reflection in the cafe windows – not for reasons of narcissism, but to check important details of technique: the way one lights a cigarette, or sucks the straw in a Perrier menthe, or nibbles daintily on a sugar lump. If these are satisfactory, the glasses can be adjusted downward so that they rest charmingly on the end of the nose, and attention can be given to the other occupants of the table.
“This performance continues from mid-morning until early evening, and never fails to entertain me. I imagine there must be the occasional break for academic work in between these hectic periods of social study, but I have never seen a textbook darken the cafe tables, nor heard any discussion of higher calculus or political science. The students are totally absorbed in showing form, and the Cours Mirabeau is all the more decorative as a result.
“It would be no hardship to spend most of the day cafe hopping, but as our trips to Aix are infrequent we feel a pleasant obligation to squeeze in as much as possible during the morning – to pick up a bottle of eau-de-vie from the main the rue d’Italie and some cheeses from Monsieur Paul in the rue des Marseillais, to see what new nonsense is in the windows of the boutiques which are crammed, chic by jowl, next to older and less transient establishments in the narrow streets behind the Cours, to join the crowds in the flower market, to take another look at the tiny, beautiful place d’Albertas, with its cobbles and its fountain and to make sure that we arrive in the rue Frederic Mistral while there are still seats to be had at Chez Gu.”