For nearly five months now, my wife, Kathy, and I have lived on a most remarkable movie set, a place of music and laughter, outdoor life and ancient buildings, cobblestone streets and old-fashioned lights, suspended from metal stanchions. In a dozen days, the time will come for us to move to a new location, meet a new cast. But Aix-en-Provence, real and imagined, has gotten under our skin, crawled into a corner of our soul.
Call me a romantic. Maybe I'm just sappy. You be the judge. First, though, walk with me, and I'll show you what we've liked best about life in this city of Provence, a place first settled in 123 BC.
It's a walk we take daily, usually twice -- a walk that never fails to lighten my mood, peel away worries, ease the pressures of goals unrealized or time passing too quickly. The more we walk, the more time slows down.
Come with me first to the park, a misnomer really for this 17th century mansion, Pavillon de Vendôme, built, says Aix's official city site, so that the Duke of Vendôme had a country home in which to pursue "his passionate love affair with Lucrezia de Forbin Solliès called 'Belle of Canet.'" Today, a new generation of lovers -- along with guitarists, painters and dreamers -- sprawls on the wooden and stone benches across the well-trimmed lawns, looking toward the twin figures of Atlantis, one on either side of the massive doors, watching as the facade warms from yellow to orange in the late afternoon sun. We pass this gathering daily, three blocks from our apartment.
Through another gate, past a second garden of hundreds of roses, we enter a narrow residential street, barely a car's width wide, and wind past a few lively neighborhood cafes to and across the busy route that circles the city.
Now the set takes on more energy as we head toward the Place de l'Hotel-de-Ville, slightly uphill, past fruit stands and wine bars, stylish women's shoe shops and dress stores, narrow iron balconies and buildings boasting faded block letters with names from another era. There's an African clothing store, its colorful costumes spilling onto the street; a children's book store where the kids come for Saturday readings; an oddly out-of-place funeral supply store on the left. We dodge cars and crottes -- every set has its pack of dogs naturally and Aix's pack leaves its fair share of droppings behind -- and weave between the actors, sauntering in their seasonal best, issuing heartfelt French sighs, tugging carts for the market behind them.
And then we are in Place de l'Hotel-de-Ville, with its iconic 16th century clock tower, a figurine inside. This is a place photographed hundreds if not thousands of times a day. It has an arched doorway. And its stone, too, plays games in the afternoon's changing light, turning from shades of yellow toward rose. This is the site of the flower market, city hall, the post office. Come afternoon, it is filled with the sprawl of cafe tables, from which laughter and the music of the French language resonate against the surrounding walls. The old men gather around the fountain here, beside the newsstand. They banter in the mid-afternoon sun. And sometimes the organ grinder in white or the accordion player strikes up a tune. Movie sets are lively places.
We grab a free Provence newspaper, and turn right toward the next square, Place Richelme. Here there's a market every morning and a metamorphosis just past noon. Then, trucks pack up cartons of cheese and sachets of lavender, crates of honey and fish, lettuce and lots of other vegetables. City workers hose the square. And a small army of strong guys cart tables, chairs, umbrellas and, in cooler weather, heaters, into spaces where vendors once have been. (Every set needs its crew.)
Outside the yellow awning of Happy Days Cafe, the animated interaction of happy hour will soon replace the murmur and spoken music of the market, the exaggerated bon-jours, j'ecoute, avec ca, au revoirs, and, best of all, bon-ne jour-nees that are the vendors' trademark.
By Happy Days, we turn left past the patisserie with the cream puffs, a fish store, and then right on the cobblestones past the old jail, across from the Puyricard chocolate shop, through a narrow street called Riffle-Raffle, where a gentlemanly, smiling beggar often sits. We emerge onto Place des Precheurs, where the biggest market sprawls on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Here you can buy heaping plates of cooked paella for about $10. Here people line up for rotisserized chickens. Here shoppers wait patiently in line at Aix's best meat market, tended to by butchers in white coats.
Across the street, the courthouse commands the square. There, judges and lawyers stride up steep steps in their black robes, lending a more somber element to the scene.
If the market is a jostle of elbows and shopping carts, it, like its city, is a place of elegance, a place to see and be seen, a place to stop in mid-shop and chat, a place of buzz. In colder weather, leather -- pants, jackets, and boots -- sets the fashion trend. By spring, it has been replaced by sashaying skirts and sailor tops, hot pants and high heels, and always the scarves that finish the statement.
"Women here don't dress, they wear costumes," Kathy says.
The men settle for a slightly scruffy, less stylish look. Colorful sneakers, straight-legged jeans and T-shirts will do for the young and hip. For the more elegant, a lightweight suit or sweater with open shirt and slacks works fine.
No movie set is perfect, of course. Even in this sunny, compact and graceful city -- I mean, set -- reality does intrude. Beggars sit beside most churches and at other strategic corners, adding a little edge.
This has been our movie, our Aix, more than the Big Street, the tourist magnet named Cours Mirabeau -- graced in summer with its canopy of plane trees, guarded by the statue of King Rene and lined with fountains. But one must include a bit of Cours Mirabeau in our set, too. After all, it's where the hungry actors and crew -- and where we -- flock to Bechard, the prime patisserie of strawberry shortcake, petit fours and all things cream.
To return home, to our apartment, we retrace our steps, taking a few different turns, past other old churches, over yet more cobblestones. I can't help but think it is not an accident that Aix-en-Provence, a city of about 140,000 people, supports a dozen or more individual movie theaters in three complexes.
You see, the Aixois don't just love the movies, they live in a movie. And I for one will mightily miss their own special silver screen.