Aix en Provence and I go back more than twenty years to a time when I was living in North Carolina, raising three kids, and working with a team in La Gaude, France. The first trip I made to the tiny village of La Gaude in the Côte d’Azur, Pat couldn’t join me, so my mother-in-law came instead. After finishing a week of work, we set off on an escapade across Provence. The first evening, we found ourselves circling Aix on a maze of one way streets until finally, we stumbled upon our hotel. Any lingering frustration melted as we walked past decorative fountains, an ancient stone clock tower, and a centuries old market square.
Aix shaped my idea of a perfect European city during a perfect European vacation. For twenty-two years, I have remembered Aix as a magical place.
Then last week, Pat and I took the TGV from Paris down to Aix. It was my first return. During the three-hour trip, I downplayed the city to Pat, wanting him to enter Aix as I had. I imagined a look of unadulterated joy on his face.
That never happened.
Instead, I marvelled at the crowds (I had previously gone in January) and the endless parade of European-chain stores (Lush, Etam, Mango, Carrefour). I kept asking myself: When did European cities all begin to look the same? And how much cheap underwear can one continent consume?
Sure, I witnessed the Roman influence and walked the streets of Cezanne. The market still sold olives, spices and local produce, but so does the market I frequent around the corner from my apartment. On this trip to Aix, I noticed cigarette butts clogging the cracks between the cobblestones.
I returned to Paris disillusioned and have remained in a funk these last few days.
Then I posted a photo of the market on Instagram, and a young woman who studied writing with me in Paris commented that she studied abroad in Aix and adored it. Another friend closer to my age commented how much she loves Aix.
These comments forced me to confront the unimaginable: Has Aix changed? Or have I?
A fear had started to stir in me a few weeks ago when I had drinks with a woman I met in a writing group here in Paris. She came here from Sweden thirty years ago to study, fell in love with both Paris and a man, and never left. “Now, this city gives me hives,” she laughed. She rued the French bureaucracy, her sons’ elementary school system, petty crime, life in general. She went on to share that she plans to return to Sweden as soon as she retires.
That evening, I recalled an article I once read that asserted you should never make your happy place your home, because it will no longer be your happy place. I discounted that advice at the time, because I had made Colorado my home and proceeded to love it for fourteen years. But now, I began to wonder: Have I stayed in Europe too long?
Of course, I reacted to my disappointment with Aix the way I often react to travel disappointment. The night we arrived back in Paris, I booked a return trip for late June. Pat will be in Ireland, so I will go alone, taking the TGV to Avignon and taxiing to the hilltop village of Gordes.
There, I’ve rented a room in a house from a man who assures me I can come with no car (grab an Uber from the TGV station, he advised me, which sounded so American I had to laugh). I’m going for one simple reason, at least on the face of it, to see the lavender bloom around the Sénanque Abbey (it’s an hour walk, my landlord assures me. I’ll show you the trail).
I’ve seen a hundred photos; now I need to see this abbey floating in a sea of purple for myself. I plan to hike down before dawn, before burning sunshine and swarming tourists conspire to ruin my mood.
Sometimes, when I return to a place, I am trying to find a love that has eluded me. Take Venice, for instance, a city I stalked until I became smitten. I’m still searching for the elusive Prague that delights so many, and after several trips, I’m starting to feel a flicker of attraction.
But this time, returning to Provence feels different. I get a lump in my throat as I write this blog and analyze my motives. Am I trying to rekindle a lost love? But if so, why does it feel like goodbye?