There is something even more magical about an already enchanting town when there are Christmas markets lining the streets.
I spent Wednesday night in Aix-En Provence, a charming southern French town just a couple of hours away from Montpellier by train. I had already visited back in June, but at that time I was sporting an arm sling and feeling a bit miserable, so I promised myself I would take my happier self back sometime before December. I’m so glad I picked Christmas market time.
There’s this strange contradiction about the markets – in one sense, they are gaudy and loud, lit with excessively bright white lights that hurt my eyes and overexpose the excited kids’ faces. There are metallic helium balloons and dodgem cars and magic shows and barbe à papa (fairy floss, lit. dad’s beard) which all make the centre of town seem like a bit like a warped, overcrowded yet lonely circus.
But then, the other end of the market street feels timeless and tasteful and… perfect. That’s the part with wooden huts adorned with holly and soft fairy lights, vast saucepans of steaming vin chaud (mulled wine) big enough to drown in, locals selling their hand-painted ceramics, wooden toys, bunches of dried lavender, boiled sweets, chewy nougat and marrons grilles (roasted chestnuts). This is the part where I roamed.
I sat on the edge of the water fountain, people watching, a sticky cup of vin chaud balanced wonkily between my knees and steaming bag of chestnuts perched on my lap. The heat of the bag scalded my thigh, but it was that nice sort of pain, and my hands were too occupied cracking open chestnuts to do anything more about it. Peeling away the shells, burnt flakes flew away while the furry, velvety bits slipped under my fingernails… and I was having a moment. The woody flesh – dense, nutty, the epitome of winter comfort. The vin chaud just as much so, spicy and steamy and sweet but tangy, the oil of the citrus rind coating my tongue, the woody cinnamon making my nose tickle.
Last night I experienced the click. That incredible moment when everything starts to make sense.
I was sitting on an outdoor patio in the great company of my friends (and language/culture coaches) Chris & Laurent. It was a perfect balmy summer night, we were enjoying Gin & Tonic coupled with lots of laughter while practicing my biggest weakness/most uneasy part of French: pronunciation.
Over the past few months I have suffered through many a humiliating café experience where it has taken at least four attempts for a waitress to understand that i’m asking for un carafe de l’eau (table water), after which said waiter has responded to me in perfect English and thus made my valiant effort seem all in vain. Chris explained to me that if I just speak confidently with the staccato rhythm / gusto the French do it will make all the difference, and Laurent explained to me that if i’ve got the vowels (which I do) the rest will come (even rolling those R’s).
As we practiced and laughed, I gained confidence and started to realise that I actually can pronounce things I had long ago convinced myself I could not, and moreover, finally got some perspective on how far I have actually come with the language. I had temporarily forgotten that when I arrived I barely knew how to say Bonjour. Yes, I have a long way to go, but damn I have made progress.
So this morning, equipped with a little more self belief, I took myself to Princesse Tam Tam to restore my current dismal collection of undies. I am ashamed to admit the few ones I do have here are now falling to bits and faded in colour, which seems to be almost as un-French as spreading Vegemite onto my baguette a l’ancienne (a deed in which I am a repeat offender.)
Almost effortlessly I requested alternative sizes/colours from my change room, and the sales assistant answered me straight away (in French!) with no four attempts necessary. This fluency continued right through the transaction process and bidding of a bonne journée. I exited the store with no shame, no embarrassment and a replenished underwear supply. Good times.
In other news, I am all packed and ready to depart early tomorrow for my next travelling adventure – Hej Stockholm. In the wise words of Elise, “Nothing bad has ever come out of Sweden. There’s Kikki.K, Ikea, ABBA, Absolut vodka, H&M…to name a few.” Touché, and considering this, I think i’ll be in for a good time. Let’s just hope they have a more inspiring repertoire of cuisine beyond those infamous Ikea Swedish meatballs.
(These photos don’t relate to my words above, I just took them with my little camera at an outdoor Tango bar last week and have been meaning to post since.)
I am still floating on a cloud from an absolutely enchanting, magical experience last night: seeing my favourite dreamy duo, Angus & Julia Stone, perform in the ruins of the ancient Théâtre Antique d’Arles.
I purchased this ticket many months ago when I heard they were touring in France when i’d be living there, and I realised that Arles is only about an hour’s train trip from where I would be based in Montpellier. To be honest, I expected it to be a pretty small event, in a tiny theatre or bar, in a regional, non-descript French town. I clearly had absolutely no idea of the treat I was in for!
The even better thing – Arles is a tiny town, and the Théâtre Antique is outdoors, so not only was I privileged to see the show, I actually listened to and watched them warm up in the afternoon. I had just checked into my hotel and made it to my room, when Julia’s sweet melodic voice swirled right in through my window. I wandered across the road to investigate, and sure enough… there they were! Julia started to sing the first lines of Hollywood, and I was suddenly overwhelmed with such an intense, beautiful sense of familiarity. Her whimsical voice reminded so much of everything and everyone I love and miss so much back home, and while i’m not usually a crier, suddenly the tears were flowing! I have never before been so profoundly moved by music.
Aside from that, I have absolutely loved my short stay in Arles. Forget being fascinated by the fact i’m surrounded by the streets, cafes and nature that inspired Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings; I have become completely transfixed on every single window and door here. Odd? No! Everything is so old, so decayed and i’m totally enamoured. There’s such an understated beauty to decay, and it is all I want to photograph. Every single window shutter tells me a story.
Gotta catch my train back soon, had better post this and pack up.
PS. Am realising i’ve got commitment issues when it comes to blogging. And it’s usually all or nothing with me, so maybe posting this will inspire me to upload the million photos from London, La Cote d’Azur and the many wonderful weeks in-between.
Or, maybe some lovely comments would inspire me too. Hint hint. Yes, you!