I have been accused of many things in life (of which I am entirely innocent, I assure you), but most recently, a certain dilettante‘s delightful darling, Penny, has declared I’ve written too much lately on my own blog of death, destruction, and despair. Wounded to my core (dark and devious as it undoubtedly may be) I decided to deliver, dubiously dallying in a decidedly different genre, something sweet, slightly silly, and surprisingly sans a single gravestone.
I went to France to fall out of love.
Backwards, isn’t it? They call Paris “The City of Lights” and “The City of Love.” One of the most romantic places on earth, they say. So, I didn’t go to Paris. I went to a little town just north of the Porte de Marseilles. I don’t know what they say about Aix-en-Provence—probably not much. I’d never heard of the place until I got it into my head to go to France. Someone suggested it to me, maybe. Or I read about it in a book.
It was a hot, sunny morning. Everything smelled of the heat and the cigarette smoke and I looked around where the taxi set me down at the little cafes where the thin, angular men sat sipping their café filtres and smoking. Coffee and a cigarette, the quintessential French breakfast. I looked around for the address that matched the one scrawled on the back of an American receipt for soap, two bottles of wine, and a pack of gum.
The corner where the taxi set me fed into a narrow street that rounded a bend and dead-ended in a square where a fountain played and restaurants took up every slot in the lower floor of the buildings. It looked like it would be a lively place at night and already there was a comfortable sort of clamor. The chatter of French as the waiters and busboys cleaned the tables and set out the placards with the menus, the splash of water on the cobblestones. I saw that the address corresponded with one that sat above, of all things, an Irish pub. I walked over to one of the garçons. He looked me over with the frank, appraising gaze that Frenchmen have mastered after centuries of admiring women; I was not insulted.
He pointed me to the doorway with a smile and a little bow, he was enchanté to assist, he assured me. The staircase was narrow and I was glad I had only one bag, which felt much too heavy by the time I reached the landing. At somewhat of a loss once I reached it, I looked around the hallway, wondering if I had a phone number for Madame Berger. The door in front of me opened and I jumped.
“Mademoiselle Camille?” She pronounced my name in the French fashion—Cami—which I could not find anything but charming.
“Yes,” I said, unwilling to bring out my rusty French in front of my new landlady. “Madame Berger?”
“Mais oui.” She dimpled when she smiled. “Come in, come in. I will show you your rooms.”
The tour of the tiny flat complete in a few moments—after showing me the trick to get the bathroom sink to hold water—I gave her my thanks and began to unpack.
I put away a few dresses and reached a pair of shoes. I wore them the night I thought Eric would propose. I dropped them back in the suitcase, grabbed my new apartment key and took the stairs two at a time. The main boulevard of Aix is called the Cours Mirabeau—a quaint street compared perhaps to the Champs Elysées, but shaded with trees and lined with shops and cafes and bustling with people. The rotonde at the end is a massive fountain, beautifully sculpted women in Grecian robes encircle it and the cars go round and round, on errands all their own.
I walked through the town, past the Hôtel de Ville with its brightly colored flags drinking in the sunlight, blazing with reds and blues and golds. There was an open-air market; beautiful fruit nestled in baskets, the soft roundness of furred peaches and glossy grapes and apples—all decadently fresh. The sun was warm, but a breeze blew around the corners of the sand colored buildings and a statue of some saint looked down on me benevolently. I stepped aside in the narrow street to let an old couple, leaning on each other pass me by. Strangely, it didn’t cause me the pain I had come to expect. Maybe the French air was working on me already. I fell into a little café off one of the main streets and ordered a black coffee. I toyed with the long paper packets filled with sugar and the sun climbed overhead. I thought of nothing but the cool comfort of the umbrella and the warmth of the coffee spreading through my body.
I realized how long I sat when I heard the laughter of the students. I looked up from my coffee to see them spilling out into the square, filling the air with the sound of their voices and the smells of pommes frites and hot sandwiches.
“Excuse me, mam’selle.”
The voice distracted me from watching a young couple at a table nearby, their heads bent close together, ignorant of all that was around them. I looked up at the dark haired man. He stood several feet away, his hands behind his back, something almost apologetic in the way he hunched his shoulders towards me.
“Yes?” I said somewhat warily; he didn’t look like a beggar.
“You are American?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said again.
“Trés bien,” he said, smiling for the first time. “May I?” he gestured at the empty seat.
I nodded in spite of myself. The waiter materialized out of nowhere and the stranger ordered a glass of wine in rapid French before looking at me expectantly. I ordered the same, feeling flustered. I looked at the book resting next to my empty coffee cup, yet unopened.
“I am Grégoire,” he said.
I introduced myself and he smiled, far wider than he had any business to at such a simple introduction.
“Mais, Camille—that is a French name, non?”
“My mother read ever French novel she could get her hands on while she was pregnant.” I took a grateful sip of my wine, which had appeared at my elbow.
“She chose well, ta maman,” Grégoire said.
I found myself matching his absurdly delighted grin. He lifted his glass in a toast and I raised mine.
“To France, to fortune, and to une belle femme,” he said.
The clink of the glasses seemed to shiver in the air and I felt the familiar feather-brush of anticipation run down my spine. I came to Aix to fall out of love, but three smiles from Grégoire and a glass of wine into my first day, I realized the best way to forget the past hurt was to fall headfirst into the present moment. As destiny would have it, Grégoire was more than willing to catch me.