Tag: Cours Mirabeau

Seven Months in Provence: Part Five

Somewhere in Aix
Photo by Victor Grigas

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. Here’s Part Five:

In the morning the room reeked of sunshine. It crept through the cracks in the shutters covering the window. I guess they weren’t really shutters, as they were on the inside of the window. I threw them open, looked out on a glorious day, and from directly below on the steps outside the caretaker arched his head to regard me.

“Good morning,” I said.

He smiled, like someone only just barely happy, and nodded.

I took a shower and realized that I wasn’t crazy about French showers. You couldn’t hang the shower attachment on the wall and just stand under it, revelling in it. You had to hold it in one hand and direct the spray across your body. It was too much work for what was supposed to be, in my experience, one of the more sublime pleasures of being human. Not everyone had showers like this in France, I would learn, but every shower I had occasion to use was this way. For the first three months of my stay, every time I emerged from the shower I realized that my right arm was still completely dry.

I now had a number of things I had to accomplish. Finances, finding a permanent place to live, even finding the school. On a less immediate but no less important note, I had to figure out how to use the phones. And I needed to find a laundromat. I hadn’t come across any the day before.

Serendipity stepped in on the telephone problem.

Shortly before I’d left for France a bunch of friends had taken me out for beers at the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto. That night my friend Claire De Visme presented me with “A Survival Kit for a Canadian in France.” Transplanted from Lyons, Claire had a pretty good idea what I might find helpful. Aside from the Berlitz phrase book I mentioned earlier, she’d included a Berlitz Country Guide, a wine tasting guide, a corkscrew, a cheese tasting guide, a paint brush, a few French Francs, and a Paris Metro guide. It was a thoughtful and, as it turned out, extremely helpful gift.

I was thumbing through the Berlitz phrase book when I noticed a section on telephones in France. I learned that the phones required something called “Telecartes.” You could buy them at the post office or in what they called les “tabacs”, which were basically little pubs that also sold cigarettes and other related goods. The Telecartes gave you either 50 or 100 local call credits, or you could get the operator for free, to place a collect call or use a calling card.

There was a post office located near La Rotunde, by La Grande Fontaine, where I had walked the day before. It was a large post office with many serving windows, but the place was jam packed, with lengthy queues of resigned-looking people snaking back from each window. Signs above each window described the function of each attendant. Naturally I was unable to determine the purpose of any, so I just joined the friendliest looking line.

I spent half an hour listening to the people around me speak French. I understood nothing. Off to my right a young couple struggled to wrap a large travel bag. They had a hell of a time with it but treated the experience as an adventure. They wore jeans and carried knapsacks and looked like they didn’t have a proper home to get cleaned up in; they looked like kindred spirits to me. On my left an old French guy frustrated everybody in line behind him by arguing loudly with his attendant. She didn’t look impressed. He didn’t appear all that angry. In fact, waving his arms every which way, he looked like he was enjoying himself. Finally he smiled broadly, turned away, and said something directly to me but I didn’t have a clue what. I shrugged and smiled, which may have involved wide, frightened eyes. He lost a bit of steam at that, but recovered quickly, and with one final pointed gesticulation at the attendant, shambled off in the other direction.

When it was my turn I said to the attendant, “Telecarte, s’il vous plait?”

He said, “Hein?” (Later, I learned that meant, “Huh?”)

“Telecarte!” I said again.

“Hein?” the attendant repeated.


“Ah!” the fellow exclaimed. “Un telecarte!”

I’d pronounced the word “tell a cart.” He pronounced it: tay lay cahrte, with the “h” I put in the last word there representing something very strange going on with the “R” in the word.

“Oui!” I said quickly.

He rattled off a bunch of French that might as well have been Martian. I gave him my best “I don’t know what the hell you’re saying” smile, so he showed me two different cards, one with 50 marked on it in big white letters and another with 100 marked on it.

I bought the first one, stuck it in my wallet, said “Merci” in my flat North American accent, and left.

I’d accomplished something. I was well on my way to overcoming the telephone obstacle. I felt empowered.

Sometimes the thought of all I had to do overwhelmed me and I wondered how I would accomplish it all. But when I managed to get one little thing figured out, I began to feel that hey, I’m no fool, I can do this travelling thing. I’ll get settled in here after all.

I couldn’t wait until the first two weeks were over. I figured by then pretty much everything would be settled. I pictured sitting in my first class, starting to enjoy the experience, with the money all taken care of, a place to live, and maybe even a laundromat located before all my clothes began to stink and I became a social outcast.

I strolled down the Cours Mirabeau. I saw a few phones but they were all in use. About three quarters of the way down the Cours I decided to venture more into the heart of the old city. The way the city is laid out is you’ve got the cool old city with its narrow streets and three hundred year old buildings and mossy fountains dead smack in the middle of Aix with modern twentieth century suburbs of apartment building and hi-rises sprawling out from there in every direction. Actually, Aix is mostly these personality-less suburbs. Except that it wasn’t for me because the entire time I was there I spent almost one hundred percent of my time in the old city. The old city really served as the downtown for Aix. For the most part, everybody parked their cars outside the old city and then walked everywhere within.

For some reason I had no fear of getting lost, although I’d heard that French cities were not exactly well laid out. This was certainly true for Aix. You would think that one street would connect with another but then it wouldn’t, and if you weren’t careful you could wind up a fair distance from where you actually wanted to go.

I ventured down a little side street off the Mirabeau. Whereas the Cours Mirabeau was quite wide, the streets off it were often little more than alleyways. Yet they were bonafide streets, jam packed with tiny shops and sometimes big shops of all varieties. Apartments, too. And lots and lots of dog poop, I would soon learn.

After walking a ways I came to a little cross-section of streets in the midst of which were two payphones. Both were in use by a couple of girls a little younger than me. I decided to wait until they were free. There was an interesting looking store nearby called “Kennedy’s General Store.” I thought this was quite odd in the south of France.

One of the phones became free. I went in and inserted my Telecarte. I picked up the phone and dialed zero. Nothing happened. I just wanted an operator. At least I had a dial tone. When zero didn’t work, I tried nine. It didn’t work either. I tried several other numbers. Nothing worked. I tried to read the instructions written on the inside of the booth, but naturally everything was French and not at all clear to me.

I thought, what the heck, I’ll go into Kennedy’s General Store and ask them how to use the damn phones. With a name like Kennedy’s General Store I figured they had to speak English!

Kennedy’s General Store turned out to be a little grocery mart filled with specialty items from Great Britain. It was a little treasure trove, selling North American looking goods unavailable anywhere else. A tad pricy, though.

The cashier was a slim woman around forty years old with short, light-coloured hair. She was just wrapping up with a customer in French. Afterward, I approached her and asked if she spoke English. She replied in a British accent that yes, she did. We chatted briefly about what I was doing there in France (going to school to study French) and then I asked her outright: how the heck did the phones work here?

She told me that to get the operator you had to dial something ridiculous like nineteen, and that there were other special numbers you had to dial to get the international operator of the specific country you wanted. She had no idea what those numbers were.

I thanked her, told her I’d see her around, and returned to the phone.

I dialled the correct number to get the operator and got one who didn’t speak English. After gibbering with her for a minute, and mentioning Canada, she transferred me to someone else, who also didn’t speak English. Eventually the second operator transferred me to someone who did speak English, who transferred me to the correct international operator for Canada, who spoke perfect English.

“Bienvenu au Canada, welcome to Canada, can I help you?”

It was a beautiful sound. She explained exactly what I had to do in the future to get Canada. It was a six digit number! Then I had her place a call to home, using my mother’s calling card number.

I spoke to Mom for about fifteen minutes. I told her to call my girlfriend Lynda and apologize to her for not having called earlier, and to tell her that I would call Lynda that night. I filled Mom in on the trip so far and it was great to talk to her. I felt good talking to her, relaxed. I assured herthat the whole experience was the big adventure it was supposed to be. It felt cool to be calling home from so far away. After hanging up I thanked the woman in Kennedy’s and told her that everything had worked.

Then I continued wandering the streets of Aix.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

Le Cours Mirabeau: Seven Months in Provence — Part Four

Les Deux Garcons, along le Cours Mirabeau, the main drag of Aix-en-Provence

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. Here’s Part Four:

Cabs pulled up outside the Aix-en-Provence train station about once every ten minutes. I nobly let an older lady grab one before me while I checked out my Berlitz book of French phrases. It had been a gift from a friend at the CBC, Claire de Visme, who hailed from Lyons. She knew what it was like to be suddenly immersed in a foreign culture where you aren’t comfortable with the language. Although it’s my understanding that her English had been much better when she first arrived in Canada than my French was now.

I located and memorized the words, “Un hotel, bon marche!”

And that’s what I said to the cabby who picked me up. He didn’t have a problem with this, and before I knew it we were whipping through a crowded, festive looking Aix. He drove me through what I later learned was the Rotunde, around la Grande Fontaine, and down a wide, busy street to my cheap hotel. Hordes of people clogged the streets, strolling, relaxing in sidewalk cafes, everyone in shades and shorts.

I wondered briefly (as I always do in a cab in a strange place) whether the driver was taking me for a ride. Obviously, I was a foreigner. But because I’m generally an optimist and believe that most people are good, I decided that, nah, he was probably honest. I still winced at the end of the ride when it came to about forty francs. I was watching every franc I had until my bank draft came through.

We pulled up beside a one star hotel. “C’est bon marche,” the driver told me.

It was a dubious looking affair called Hotel Vendome, located above a pharmacy. You had to pass through a decorative arch and climb a set of stairs on the outside of the building to reach the hotel door. I paid the driver and thanked him, then wrestled my luggage through the arch to the stairs. I got my stuff up in two trips, pausing briefly in between to pat the head of a black cat that was resting on the landing. Afterward I tried the hotel door. It was locked. There was a note affixed to the door in French. I took a moment to decipher it.

It said “ouvert a 1600.” My French was pretty poor at this point but this was fairly obvious. It was currently three thirty, so I sat on the steps to wait until someone showed up. The cat did its best to make me feel welcome.

A heavyset man about forty years old showed up right on time at four. His looks, I would learn later, were typically Provencal—dark and swarthy. He nodded at me and I at him. He parlayed anglais assez bien. My fears around finding accommodation in Aix proved groundless (for me, at least). He had plenty of rooms free. He led me inside and around a corner. My room turned out to be quite spacious with a large bed and a huge window. It also included a shower, a bidet, and a sink and mirror. It had everything, was reasonably clean, but somehow still felt rather seedy.

I may have decided that because it was a one star hotel it had to be seedy. Or maybe it was the threadbare sheets and the dark and dusty hallways. If I’d had my druthers I’d have preferred to stay someplace else. But just then I was grateful that I didn’t have to spend the night outside on the street. Not only that but I’d managed to find the place quite effortlessly.

Here’s the embarrassing part. Checking out the room, I must confess that I was confused by the bidet. I realize that this is the classic (unsophisticated) North American’s mistake. Also I have no excuse having seen Crocodile Dundee 2 in which the eponymous Australian confronts a bidet, so I should bloody well have known what the thing was for. Just the same I didn’t recognize it. I just saw what I thought was a vaguely urinal shaped porcelain object resting on the ground beside the sink.

It gets worse.

As there were no other objects in the room resembling a toilet, I naturally concluded that this object must serve some purpose related to that. So, feeling the need, I took a whiz in it and the process seemed to go quite well. However, I couldn’t imagine number two going quite so smoothly. The hole seemed too small. The fact that you couldn’t sit down on the sucker (it was too low to the ground and had no seat) didn’t bother me; I just assumed the French were more than happy to squat (hey, I wasn’t completely ignorant). And how would you flush it? There was a faucet, you could run water through it, yet…

The mystery was solved shortly afterward when I returned to the hall and discovered a door nearly opposite my room. Behind it lay a small chamber wherein lay a comfortable, conventional toilet. Clearly then, my floor model was something else altogether.

I was bemused by the key to my room. It was a skeleton key, such a simple affair that I wondered about the security of my room. It seemed to me that the lock would be easy to pick.

I took a shower, which felt great. I had no shaving cream so I was stuck with about two day’s growth. But I looked fairly respectable with a black blazer I’d brought along, and it was thusly attired that I first ventured out on my own, in Aix.

Although I wasn’t particularly hungry, I hadn’t eaten a good meal for a couple of days and figured I’d better eat something to keep my strength up. As I walked, I kept an eye out for someplace where I could get a healthy dinner.

In the cab on the way to the hotel we had passed what looked like the main street of Aix, featuring a prominent fountain, which I recognized from reading about Aix before leaving Canada. I later learned that this street was the Cours Mirabeau. I judged it to be within walking distance, so I set out to find it.

It was late afternoon but still quite warm. It felt good to be walking somewhere while not lugging more baggage than I could carry. In fact I felt pretty good period at this point despite the thousand concerns still on my mind.

I noted that there was a large supermarket near my hotel. Walking up my street to what I hoped was the centre of town I observed bars, travel agencies, other hotels, shops with signs such as “Boulangerie” and “Patisserie” (bakery and pastry shops respectively).

It turned out I was seven or eight minutes from the Fountain. Hanging a left from the fountain put me on the main street, the Cours Mirabeau, which is famous as one of the most beautiful, breathtaking main streets anywhere in the world. Don’t feel bad; I hadn’t heard of it either. But it is quite something. Bordered on either side by stately plane trees (I didn’t know what they were either—apparently before they were planted along the Cours Mirabeau it was all elm trees, but they died, so the city fathers replaced them with plane trees). Plane trees look similar to Maple trees when they have leaves, but look gnarled and strange when they don’t have leaves, in the winter. The Cours Mirabeau itself is a street bordered on one side by cafes, restaurants, a fast food restaurant called Quik, a record shop, more cafes, a department store called Monoprix, a bank or two, and more restaurants and cafes. On the other side is mostly large, stately bank buildings. At one time many of these buildings had been the homes of the French elite.

I walked up and down the length of the Cours Mirabeau three or four times, thrilled to be there. The street was packed with people. Everyone seemed carefree and happy.

Menus for the restaurants were placed outside on the sidewalk so you could peruse them before going in. Very few people sat inside the restaurants—almost all of the patrons sat around tables arranged outside, crowded together so that you could barely move amongst them. I examined each menu as I strolled past the restaurants, trying to glean from what might as well have been hieroglyphics to me what exactly was being offered and for how much. Each menu offered a plat du jour (I understood that much). But when I finally settled on one for 55 francs at Les Deux Garcons I had no idea what I was going to get.

All the tables outside were full so I went inside where there was plenty of room. A black and white uniformed man with a thick black moustache served me with what I thought was an air of slight disdain.

“Le Plat du Jour, s’il vous plait,” I ordered, with what had to be among the worst accents he had ever heard.

But he understood me and soon I was eating a dish of lamb, served with a thick, sweet sauce. Although it was delicious, I had absolutely no appetite and had difficulty finishing it. I forced myself to finish it anyway. I drank water with it because I didn’t want to spend too much. I just ordered the water in English because I didn’t know how to in French. The waiter had no trouble understanding me.

On my way back to the hotel I checked out a phone booth because I’d been meaning to call my parents and my girlfriend to let them know that I was okay. From outside, the phone booth looked fairly North American. Inside, the phone itself was slightly different. The main difference lay in the fact that it did not take money. I was surprised and dismayed to see this. There was a slot that accommodated a card of some kind. I thought, okay, it takes credit cards, maybe. But I didn’t try it at the time. I was eager to get back to my room to see whether anyone had broken into my room and stolen my stuff. A little paranoid, maybe, but I figured that with the way the locks were it would be easy enough to do. I wasn’t really worried but the possibility crossed my mind, and I was in a bit of a “worst possible case scenario” frame of mind during those first few days.

But when I got back everything was cool. All my stuff was untouched. I reclined on the bed and read a book I had brought along: a fantasy, The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan. It was the fourth in the series, so I was familiar with the characters and the general storyline, and I liked it well enough. It helped me get my mind off my fears, so I was glad I had it.

After a while I got up to find a convenience store or somewhere to buy shaving cream to get myself cleaned up. I found a gas station down the street with a little store where I bought some. I shaved back at the hotel, then went out again to try the payphone.

I still couldn’t believe it didn’t take change. I just wanted to get a hold of an operator to call my folks and my girlfriend using their calling card numbers, or failing that, collect. But it needed some kind of card. There was a grey display panel on the phone that produced words in black letters when you took the phone off the hook. I didn’t understand any of the words. There were operating instructions on a sign in the booth, again all in French, which I didn’t understand.

I tried my credit card. The panel told me to “decrochez.” I took the phone off the hook and the panel told me to “raccrocher.” I dialed numbers but got nowhere. In the end it was all a bust. I thought, I’m stuck in the south of France, I don’t know a bloody soul, my money will run out, I won’t be able to get any more money, somebody will steal all my stuff, and I can’t even figure out how to use their damn telephones to call home and say “help!”

I went back to my hotel room and read some more Robert Jordan. When I tried to go to sleep, I lay awake some time wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. I wasn’t as scared as I’d been the night before in Paris—I wasn’t feeling physically ill anymore—but I was still kind of panicky. Whenever I thought what’s the worst case scenario here, it kept coming up DEATH. I’ll have no money, I’ll have to sleep on the street, I’ll have no food, I’ll simultaneously freeze and starve to death. To make matters worse, the pillow on my bed was strange and uncomfortable. It was hard and round, about half a foot around, and ran the width of the bed. It was not an acceptable pillow.

I managed to get to sleep anyway.

Back to Seven Months in Provence: Part One

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