Sunday, October 17, 2010


My hands look like my father's in winter.  Fingers a deathly sort of white, nails an unnatural purple, backs of hands blotchy.  Granted, this is relatively standard for my hands in winter, too, but I'm certain it's my father's fault.

Here's the thing: it's not winter.  It's mid-October, the beginning of midterms, and it is a sunny thirteen degrees outside (fifty-five, for those users of Fahrenheit).  I am sitting at my desk in socks, corduroys, a t-shirt, a sweater, and a sweatshirt with the hood up.  I am considering changing into my new hiking socks because they're thicker.  I am only writing this post because I could no longer concentrate on my notes for the impending exams.  I am freezing, too freezing to study in this tundra of a house.

It rained last Sunday--not just a grey sky with the occasional sprinkle, but a real, dark, steady rain.  I took a break from homework to run to Proxi, the little supermarket across the street, for a 200g slab of dark chocolate.  Ève and I melted down most of this, along with 70g of milk chocolate, into some of the best chocolat chaud I have ever had.  While my host parents lamented the precipitation having canceled the weekly walk at Bibémus, I was quietly contented.  Rain is a comforting reminder that Aix-en-Provence is, in fact, a real place.  It's not supposed to all be perfect.

It's a real place where real time happens.  In the first few weeks here, I found it strange to realize that Oberlin autumn was still happening without me; now, I'm becoming conscious of the fact that time advances in Aix as well.  The plane trees are shedding their leaves, we've picked the last of the figs from the tree in the garden, and I can see my breath on my morning walk to school.  Christian built a fire last night, and the heat really, really needs to be turned on.  There are midterms, followed by a week of vacation, which marks the halfway point of my stay in France.

Despite my emotional overflow at the prospect of leaving, since my arrival in Aix, I mostly haven't gotten homesick.  It was a little bit like restarting college--I shed a few tears before my departure for Oberlin, but once there, I didn't look back.  I was too happy.  Lately, though, I've been finding that I miss the United States at the oddest moments.  The rain was one of them: it occurred to me when I stepped outside that the usual lack of precipitation and humidity here is profoundly unlike Oberlin, and my mind flashed to several beautiful rainstorms at the end of last spring.  I'd have given a lot to rewind back to those.

Last night, as I waited, shivering, at la Rotonde for the final bus of the evening, I watched as a car pulled up and two girls about my age hopped in.  I immediately recalled the sensation, the sight, smell, and sound, of getting into the icy backseat of my dad's old car after a winter night out.  Maybe we'd been at a restaurant, maybe to see the Christmas Revels, maybe anywhere; the image came with striking clarity but no identification.  That moment of nostalgia may have been the one and only time in my life that I have ever wanted to sit down on something cold.

France has taught me to sleep with socks on.  I've never had any tolerance for the way they rub against the sheets and twist around when fabric catches against fabric, but here, I've learned, out of necessity, to accept it.  It takes a while to construct my cocoon of warmth in bed, and socks make the process somewhat more bearable.  Not even socks, however, make it easier to exit said cocoon in the morning.  I dragged myself out today and headed for the bathroom.  As I reluctantly disrobed for a quick shower, I thought: it smells like winter.  It's impossible to describe the reason; there's no concrete smell of winter, like fireplaces or Christmas trees.  It's just a certain quality, an edge on the air, that's immediately recognizable even on the other side of the Atlantic.  Despite all my griping about the cold, this was a pleasant realization.

When I began this draft, it was early afternoon.  I've since studied some, gone to the pool (indoor and heated) with my host mother and sister, drunk a large mug of tea, and now I'm back where I started, freezing hands and all.  The sun has given way to clouds, and I think it's just begun to rain.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Appy Bersth Daye

Time's a funny thing. An hour and a half of class is interminable, but I'm not sure where the weeks go.  New buildings are constantly under construction to replace ones built fifty years ago, and yet there are Roman theaters and cathedrals and bridges still in use. It's Saturday night and I was ready for bed by about 9:30.

I skipped out on an excursion to la Camargue today in favor of rest and catching up on homework, but neither of those things happened (almost--I did read Eugène Ionesco's La Cantatrice chauve, which was about all the absurdity my brain could handle for the day). This morning, rather than sleep in and laze around, I dashed off into the city to find a longtime friend who's studying in Nice for the semester and was briefly in Aix on one of those much-loved whirlwind multi-destination bus tours. After a few frenzied phone calls and texts, we finally found each other in the middle of the flower market in front of the hôtel de ville. I walked with her group until they got back on their bus at la Rotonde, and had a few realizations:

1. I felt a funny sort of pride in being the one who knew Aix. It's my city.
2. While it was perfectly natural for me to speak English with my friend (don't tell my program director), it struck me as strange that this group of American students were speaking English quite openly, not only amongst themselves but also with their fast-walking Parisian teacher, who responded in kind. I'd almost say there were little mental alarm bells. Congratulations, AUCP--I've officially been conditioned.
3. While I've known this friend basically since birth, today, here in Aix, was the first time we'd seen each other in over two years. It doesn't seem like it could possibly have been that long, but it has.

The hours in a single day may seem to drag, but this morning was evidence that even years aren't very significant units of time. It was last weekend, though, that I encountered the real proof. Another one of those buses took us to Arles for another day of tourism, a day of marveling at sculpted stones several times older than our home nation.

Cities like Arles are concentrated history. Before we even set foot in the city itself, we visited the Arles museum of antiquity, where we tried to balance half-listening to the torrent of information being spouted at us with looking at the multitude of artifacts (or, in my case, the half-inch-high angry bear found in a scale model of the Arles Roman forum).

I suspect I may have spent the bulk of the afternoon open-mouthed, either because I was seeing some grand historic site or because I was having a fabulous picnic by a fountain in front of the hôtel de ville. Several of us had had our first cooking class the night before, and our leftovers plus fresh (still hot!) bread were roughly equivalent to heaven. Post-lunch, we were led under the hôtel de ville into the cryptoportique that runs below what was once the forum.

Our next stop was the théâtre, followed by the amphithéâtre. While the liberty with which we use the word "amphitheater" in English today might suggest that the latter was the less impressive, this was not the case. Think of the Coliseum in Rome, scale it down a bit, and you've got the Arles amphithéâtre.

From there we moved on to the Roman baths and, finally, a beautiful cloister. With each site we visited, I was increasingly awed by the simple fact that structures like these exist. The manpower, skill, strength, and time that must have been put into them are unfathomable.

Last Monday was the one-month mark. I've been in France for one month and five days, and can't decide whether that sounds far longer or far shorter than it's felt.

I also turned twenty on Tuesday, and I'm not quite sure how I got to this age. Regardless, it was probably among the best birthdays I've had, not least from a culinary standpoint. A friend and I went out to lunch and talked linguistics over pie (can't get much more perfect), and my host mother prepared a fantastic dinner complete with champagne, wine, and a gâteau au chocolat.

It was really my host sister, however, who made my evening. She took it upon herself to make sure there was really a fête with decorations and games. When I first saw the many balloons strewn across the living room floor, I thought they were merely decorative, but no--they were there for my humiliation. Ève had hidden almonds in one of the balloons, and between dinner and dessert, it was my task to find the almonds by stepping on the balloons to pop them...blindfolded. I'm really not a fan of popping balloons, but I played along, and stomped around blindly, mostly missing the balloons and making contact with the bare floor. I have rarely, if ever, heard my host mother laugh so much.

The crowning jewel of the fête, however, was probably my birthday banner. On Monday night, Ève had come into my room twice to ask me about my favorite colors and the spelling of "burst." Having correctly deciphered this last as "birth," I knew she was up to something, but I didn't know it would be this:

It's bizarre to think that I'm no longer a teenager. I remember so many past birthdays so well, and there's no way it can possibly have been a year since the last one...right? Like I said, time's a funny thing--or at least our human perception of time.

At any rate, turning twenty in Aix was the appiest of bersth dayes.