When I landed in the Marseille airport, I had no earthly idea what would be in store for me throughout my first three weeks of travel in the beautiful and mysterious south of France. There was so much I had yet to learn. I didn’t know that there are €1 and €2 coins that replace small bills, nor could I have anticipated still finding them in my purse weeks after returning to The States. I also didn’t know just how challenging it would be to assimilate into French culture.
Many little things added up to produce that low hanging cloud of confusion that followed me around in the beginning: there was no ginger ale in any of the bars or restaurants, nor was there any brewed iced tea (the closest thing, to my disappointment, was peach Lipton in a can). In the little apartment that I stayed in with my host, the toilet and the shower were in separate rooms. Shop keepers expect a prompt bonjour upon entry, and it’s considered rude if you neglect to say so. Upon departing, you kindly wish each other bon journée. 99% of the time when colloquial phrases are forgotten or misused, the French will not fail to remind you. One common misconception in America is that bonjour means hello, even though it actually translates to “good day.” There were countless times that I forgot that small fact and stupidly said bonjour past 5 o’clock–at which point I was answered with a cheeky “bon soir!”and a twinkle of the eye.
Still, not all surprises were uncomfortable. To my endless amusement, the French actually do say “ooh la la” — in varying dialects ranging anywhere from Parisian to Marseillais. Most afternoons they sit for an aperitif, an afternoon nip of alcohol. In Aix-en-Provence where I stayed, this was usually rosé or champagne, accompanied by some bread or crackers and olives. Being so close to Italy, the olives are sublime. The ice cream, too, always gelato, is absolutely magnificent. Sadly, this prevents me from enjoying it in America to the extent that I used to. There were marvelous Provençal flavors like violet, amarena (a delicious blend of cherry jam and creamy, milk ice cream), and of course lavande, the smell of which seems to permeate the entire countryside.
Something I will sorely miss is the ease of communication the French have with strangers. People sitting close to each other in restaurants speak freely–even in the street, it is common to strike up conversation with passers by. Despite my unsophisticated French, I rarely felt nervous to ask questions of people I didn’t know. Not everyone was nice, but a majority were more than happy to speak with a foreigner. Some would even compliment us on our good French, even if there were a few grammatical mistakes mixed in.
If I close my eyes and transport myself back to Aix-en-Provence, I can still smell the roses as I walk down the streets of the La Vieille Ville, the ancient part of town that looked like it hadn’t changed in 400 years. I can hear the sounds of the little city: the mossy fountains bubbling with a steady stream of water, the pitted patter of French puppy paws on their promenade, the slow, mellow ring of the cathedral bell.