Seven Months in Provence — Part One

Back in 1993/94 I spent seven months in Aix-en-Provence, France, drinking red wine, eating les Calissons, and attempting to learn some French. When I got home I wrote about the experience. Thought it might be fun to post a few excerpts here. So here we go: off to France!

Part One: Off to France

October 1st, 1993 I was living in the apartment of a friend named Joram Kalfa. That night, around 8pm in the evening, I would be leaving for France.

I spent the day packing as I always pack at the last possible instant. I hadn’t done a wash in about a week and figured, well, I’d better do one here today, God knows when I’d find a laundry in France, so I scrambled around doing that as well. This was all good, as I was keeping myself busy, and that was good because I was getting a little nervous.

Joram came home from work and whipped up an ungodly supper for the both of us which consisted of basically every possible vegetable he could find in his refrigerator thrust into a food processor and turned into liquid mush. I believe the prime ingredient was beets and the result was a hideous reddish purple substance. I figured it would be good for me and it didn’t taste quite as bad as I thought it might, so I gulped it down. Joram had done a lot of travelling himself, and I’d done practically none, so I figured he was kind of looking out for me. I figured this drink was supposed to fortify me or something for the road ahead.

Joram commented that I didn’t really look excited. I had been quite excited, over the summer and in fact ever since I’d first planned this trip to France, but now it had been replaced by nervousness. Keeping busy packing and doing laundry I’d manged to keep the nervousness at bay, but the end result was that I wound up feeling nothing. I didn’t know what to tell Joram. I felt as though I should feel excited, but I just didn’t. So I felt the way I felt and told Joram as much and waited for my ride to come and take me to the airport.

My friend Ron Koperdraad had generously offered to perform the role of chauffeur. When he arrived I plucked a bottle of Olde Jack from Joram’s refrigerator. The specialty beer was a going away gift from a friend at work, Mike Danchyshyn, which I’d been saving for just that moment. Ron, Joram and I drank a toast to the forthcoming year, and I was off.

On the way to the airport we ducked into a pharmacy briefly to pick up extra supplies of contact lens solution. At Ron’s suggestion, I also stocked up on some gravol.

I was no longer feeling nothing. I began babbling to Ron about the nature of nervousness. What was its function in nature? An unfortunate evolutionary fluke, I supposed. Just when you should be at your physical and mental best nature provides you with the uncontrollable urge to vomit. Ron, struggling with early Saturday evening traffic, and perhaps fearful that I would provide him with a graphic demonstration, provided few insights.

It was an overcast, chilly autumn day. This pleased me as I imagined the weather would be much more agreeable where I was going. I didn’t know much about my destination, Aix-en-Provence, located in the south of France, but I was pretty sure that it would be much warmer than Toronto, Canada.

At the airport Ron helped me lug my bags inside. I had one large, overstuffed backpack, and one small, overstuffed knapsack. Ron, like Joram, had also done more travelling than me. He took a look at my backpack and the million or so loose straps dangling this way and that way and told me that was bad. You never knew what could happen in the cargo bay of a plane. The next thing I knew he was down on his knees tying every strap together so that they wouldn’t get caught on anything and in such a way that they wouldn’t come undone. He was very thorough and I was impressed to have such a knowledgeable and helpful friend.

Soon we were shaking hands and then he was off and I was checking my bags and I was surprised to discover that my nervousness had largely disappeared. I looked over my fellow passengers and wondered if they were French or Canadians or maybe both. I located a seat by my Gate and dug out a book I’d stashed in my small carry-on knapsack.

I found I couldn’t concentrate to read it, though.

I worried a bit over my tickets, checking the one over for the train from Paris to Aix. I was a bit concerned about finding the train station in Paris, the Gare de Lyon. Then I checked my hotel voucher, and wondered if I would find it okay, the Timhotel Italie. I had plenty of maps so I wasn’t too worried.

Most of the passengers seemed quite a bit older than my twenty-eight years. Not too many students among them. I wondered what the odds were that another student on the way to the same school as me in Aix might be on the same plane.

After a while a skinny young kid dressed head to toe in black (with pitch black hair to match) came and sat in the seat opposite me. He plugged a walkman into a pair of ears only slightly smaller than those you might find on Ferengi from Star Trek. The kid stood out from the other passengers because his youth. He looked to be just shy of twenty. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, which, together with a haircut singularly devoid of any style that I could see, made him look rather bookish (it takes one to know one.)

He might not have made quite such a lasting impression on me had he not wound up sitting beside me on the Air Canada flight for the next six and a half hours.

It wasn’t long until we got talking. I’m afraid I don’t recall the kid’s name. He was travelling from California, heading for a town in the north of France where he lived with his family. He had been visiting his brother in the States, in L.A, and had done Disneyland and so on and had had a good time. I learned that he was finishing the French equivalent of high school, and was about to go to college to study sound recording. Naturally I was quite interested in this, as it happened to be my day job at the time.

The kid was quite friendly. Near the end of the flight I told him that if all French were as friendly as he was then my year in France would be a good one. He seemed embarrassed by the praise.

He wasn’t the only one embarrassed during the flight. Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean I managed to embarrass myself by spilling an entire glass of orange juice on myself. I just knocked it off the tray and splashed most of it over my crotch. Fortunately the flight was a long one so I didn’t have to get up before it dried off. My French seatmate politely turned a blind eye.

When my French friend and I weren’t talking, I watched a bit of the inflight movie, The Incredible Journey. You could watch it in either French or English. I flicked it to the French for a while, but it was no use. I understood practically nothing, and I reflected a bit on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of going to live in a country where for quite some time I would understand nothing. But I was encouraged by the young guy sitting beside me, who had told me that his English had been nothing to speak of before his trip to the States. He’d been there only a month or so, he told me. His English seemed pretty good to me. On perhaps eight or nine occasions I had to rephrase something that he hadn’t quite understood, and I understood all of what he said to me. One time he found himself utterly unable to express something, and after I couldn’t guess what it was, we just let it drop. But I felt that if I could get my French up to even his level of English by the end of the year then I would be doing quite well.

Talking to him reduced my nervousness to almost nil. I caught a tiny bit of sleep and, except for the unfortunate incident with the orange juice, enjoyed the trip over.

Next up: Paris

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One


  1. Nancy

    Hi, I love this blog description of your time in Aix-en-Provence. In 1980 I spent 7 months in Aix at the same Institute, and it was the first really great period of my life. I was 23.

    Today I was trying to find out what the name of the “credential” I got for my on-line “CV” (I’m a professor). I ended up settling on “Certificate en Études Françaises.” (if that’s grammatical [yes, I’m a *linguistics* professor]).

    I was so delighted to read your blog posts. BTW, another task for today is to postpone for a year a trip I have planned to go back to Aix for a visit. I was going to leave home on October 20, 2021, but I will postpone it to September 2022 because Covid.

    I have never replied to a blog post before. I don’t know what to expect. I’m Canadian (now) too, by the way.

  2. ilanderz

    Hi Nancy,

    So glad you dropped by! I’m honoured that your first comment on a blog was for one of my posts. 🙂 I think you also have the distinction of being the first person to comment on one of my posts about Aix. As I’m sure you can tell, it was a very memorable time for me, one of the best years of my life. I’ve never been back, but I’d love to return one day. So great that you’re planning on going. Hopefully Covid will soon be a thing of the past and we can all get on with traveling again!


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