Couchsurfing in Provence

12 Jun

There’s no one at the bus terminal to meet me when I arrive to Aix-En-Provence, and there’s no way I can call my Couchsurfing hos, Fathma. The Bus Terminal does not have Wi-Fi.

The kind, elderly woman from Chicago whom I met on the bus is concerned.  “You can use my phone,” she offers, and so I dial Fathma’s number.  However, it tells me that there’s an error.

“No worries,” I tell Chicago lady.  I will work it out, and so I step out into the 90 degree heat with my enormous backpack.  People stare at me when I walk through the town, and some shout, “big bag!”

After stopping by four different restaurants, I finally find a hotel that has Wi-Fi.

Fathma apologizes for not meeting me and promises to come get me.  Apparently, she misunderstood and thought I was arriving much earlier.  Either way, I just want to put down my bag.

Fifteen minutes later I’m standing in Fathma’s small but lovely apartment, hurrying to get ready to go out.  Her two children are with their Father and Fathma tells me we’re going to one of her friend’s birthday party.

I can tell that she’s ready for some fun, and is a continuos whirl of activity.  She’s either on the phone, in the kitchen, running late, forgetting something or accidentally burning herself.

She takes me to what looks like a bar, but I’m told it’s not always that.  Some days it’s for children’s events and other days movies are screened there; however, tonight there’s a French Algerian band and children are sitting all around the stage.

To me it’s strange to see children out past ten with drunken people dancing behind them, but this is how France is.  Parents lives don’t stop because they have children – they include them, and there’s a communal tolerance for child-like interruptions at adult events.

Fathma’s friends don’t really know any English, or Spanish, so I go inside and listen to the band.  There’s a cellist, bongos, a singer and a guitarist.  They play amusing French duets, upbeat Arabic songs and mournful French ballads that the entire bar knows.

When they switch to the Arabic music people begin to dance, and so I join in, making up my own Middle-Eastern moves.  Suddenly, there’s a circle around me and people are clapping out the beat.  I blush and stop, but am strongly encouraged to go on.

“Of course,” I think because somehow when I dance circles always form.

Soon I learn it’s assumed that I come from Kabul and that my made-up dance actually has roots in that city.  Fathma explains to the others that I don’t know any French or Arabic and that I’m certainly not from Kabul.  I see disappointment in the other’s faces but someone randomly gives me their card.

The next day Fathma takes me to a picnic in a beautiful Provence park.  All of the guests are about 10 years older than me and again very little English is spoken.  There are bottles of Rose wine that are both before, during and after lunch drinks.  I drink very little because I’m starving, as I had not eaten dinner the night before.

To my dismay, there’s only baguettes, cheese and pates, and so I eat about a loaf of bread, and then end up having to pee behind a bush because there are no bathrooms.

I get about 15 mosquito bites when I’m in the bush and it’s 95 degrees.  I try to drop hints about leaving, and Fathma agrees with me, but then decides to take a nap.

I watch guests attempt to walk the tightrope that is tied between two trees and proceed to eat some of the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life: a rosemary, peach crumble, a decadent chocolate brownie and a plum, cherry tart.  Bottles of champagne are opened, but I refrain because I do not want to revisit the bush.

Four hours later Fathma finally agrees it’s time to go.  We are both wrung out by the heat, though there’s no time for me to nap, as I have plans to meet other CouchSurfers.

This is how I end up watching the sunset, on a mountain, by an aquamarine lake, Pastiss in hand.

The mountain is called Saint Victoria, and I’m there with two Couchsurfing San Franciscans, three Italian students and 10 French students.  The San Franciscans are vaguely awful, totally drunk and talk like they’re text messaging hashtags; however, everyone else is interesting.

I meet a sweet French couple who I am meeting in Lyon, and an adorable, bearded French student who invites me to his parent’s mansion somewhere in France.

After the setting sun we pile into cars and drive back into town.  We casually agree to get more food and then meet at the Rotonde, which is a large, stone circle in the center of town.

Through bad luck, I end up with the San Franciscans who I promptly ditch, but then no one shows up to the Rotonde.  Just as I am about to grab a cab back to where I’m staying a man approaches me.

“I noticed you walking around by yourself and now you’re standing alone.  I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t think the people you’re meeting are showing up, and I can’t let a nice girl stand alone by herself.”

We have some banter, as I’m defensive toward strange men, but we end up having a glass of wine by the Rotonde.

Pierre is 34, owns a Marine Consultant & Surveyor company and is from Marseille.  We talk for hours.

To my surprise, he is polite and charming.  He makes sure that I safely get back to my apartment and invites me to take a drive through the Provencal countryside the next day.

I spent the morning having a lovely breakfast with my host family, chatting in English with Fathma and working on the balcony.  Pierre promptly arrives at three and we depart.

Every moment of the drive is a cliched postcard of Provence, and I love it.  The flowers are vibrant purple, the fields are green straw and the houses are made of stone.

We go to the Medieval town of Goult and to one of the most gorgeous rivers I have ever seen.  It is emerald, cold and clear.  It is everything that I pictured when I imagined my time in Provence.

While I want to stay until the sunsets, Pierre has work the next day and so we drive back into town.  Again, to my surprise, he is a gentleman through and through, and I think how sad that this is surprising.

Per my request, he drops me in town and we say our goodbyes with promises to keep in touch.  I stroll through the town one last time, have a glass of Rose and return to Fathma’s.

The next day Fathma and I have quiche and a salad made of crab, mushrooms and tomatoes.  She stands there smoking like the chic Frenchwoman that she is.  An ambulance pulls up in front of the apartment building.

Fathma, glances down and says, “My neighbor is nice but very old,” and continues smoking.  I think only the French can be this blase.

After lunch she takes me to the bus station, and I depart for two days in Marseille.


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