The cafés in Aix are the city’s pulse. They wake up pouring espresso for the early-to-rise Aixois, serve lunch throughout the afternoon, hand out pre-dinner tapas with after-work drinks, and greet the night owls with cocktails into the wee hours of the night. They’re even open on Sundays, which alone is an accomplishment.
Besides providing a steady flow of caffeine and alcohol, the cafés allow the Aixois to pursue one of their favorite hobbies: people-watching. One large square called Place Richelme, for example, is home to five cafés, a daily a.m. farmers market, and three major pathways of pedestrian traffic. Most café customers sit outside, even in near-freezing temperatures, in order to best observe this slice of life (and to smoke legally). You could sit there alone from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. and have constant entertainment.
I still love the coffee shop culture of America — sitting in a comfy armchair with the latest New York Times bestseller or a MacBook — but I miss the social voyeurism, as well as the espresso, of French cafés.
2. Pavillon Vendôme
In Aix, where I got lost almost every day for the first month or two, I discovered new places all the time. But that’s the traditional form of discovery — the go-new-places-to-find-new-things discovery. The second, more unusual form is the open-your-eyes discovery. To achieve this, you don’t need to go anywhere new. You just need to look around a little harder.
On the days I didn’t feel like getting lost, I took a main road lined with stone walls to get to school. One day, I simply turned my head at a particular moment — a moment that had never before coincided with me turning my head. At this particular moment, I passed by a small wrought-iron gate. Behind it, I could see, was a huge Parisian-style garden: rows of manicured bushes, gravel paths, and a lush lawn. I felt as if I had discovered French Narnia.
Pavillon Vendôme is not, in fact, a magical world full of witches and talking lions. It is simply a mansion with a garden, constructed by the local duke who wanted to have secluded tête-à-têtes with a woman he was forbidden to marry. Almost as cool as Narnia, right? Today, the city carries on the tradition by forbidding park-goers to walk on the grass (see picture at the top of the post).
3. Thinking in another language
It’s hard to conceptualize this, but speaking a foreign language proficiently means thinking a foreign language proficiently. It’s more than knowing the vocabulary, because you can’t just translate a sentence from English into French word-for-word. You have to think in the grammatical structure of the language, which isn’t usually the same; you have to remember to correlate your adjectives with the gender of your nouns; you have to know which English words have connotations that don’t apply in France (for example, the common American word “excited” directly translates into French with a sexual connotation) and which French words are more common than their American counterparts. My mind misses being constantly stimulated by thinking in two different languages.
4. The beautiful people
The poise and the clothes of the Aixois inspired me every day. They proved to me that it is an art to presenting oneself in a tasteful manner, and that one should strive everyday to be a masterpiece. (Translation: no sweatpants or booty shorts.) I hope I continue to do this, even without beautiful people swarming the streets around me.
5. The philosophy of food
The French think that food should taste good, should be fresh, and should be appreciated. If Americans got behind this philosophy, everyone would be happier and healthier. And that, my friends, is a fact.