Provence State of Mind
by KARA VANDERBIJL
When I tell people that I once lived in France, but not in Paris, their faces fall a little bit. It is as if I had announced that I once met Beyonce’s cousin, only they are not sure she even has a cousin. So when they ask, “What was life like in France?”, I know they do not really want to hear about my life in France; that would be as uncomfortable as a magician explaining his act while it is in progress, cheap truth overlapping the alluring illusion. People embrace a certain mythology about a place, and they want to hear it told over and over again. They want to hear silly stories about snobby mustaches and striped shirts and cowards running away from German soldiers. They want poodles and snails and Amelie Poulain and ooh-la-la. They want to hear how many times you have been to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
“None,” I reply, “I’m afraid of heights.”
“So where, exactly, did you live?” Their lips pucker in disappointment.
“The south,” I tell them, “In Marseille.”
Most people believe that the entire country of France was born in Paris like a dark blot of ink, losing color and definition as it eventually seeped in all cardinal directions. But before there was even a nation or a Paris to speak of, the Phoenicians settled into a tiny seaside port called Massilia. Here the Mediterranean, lapping at the limestone cliffs, was turquoise or cobalt depending on her mood. The hills smelled like rosemary and thyme. Far from powder or perfume, the original settlers were swarthy, olive-skinned, feasting on fish and dark strong wine. They were pirates.
Later, after the city had grown, after they’d dressed her in churches and cobblestones, Massilia festered with the plague and with Roman trade. Napoleon loved her and planted a fortress and a palace like kisses on her seductive cliffs. She sent volunteers to the Revolution lustily singing an anthem that was later named for them. She sent fish, and olive oil, and lavender wrapped in brightly-dyed fabric. She sent immigrants fresh off the boat from North Africa and her salty perfume up the Rhone. She sent us long sun-dappled summers and an August sea as warm as bathwater.
Marseille is known for a hearty fish stew called bouillabaisse. The dish contains at least three different kinds of fish, all originating from the sea around the city. It is a very strong, almost pungent dish, but done well, it’s complex, hinting at luxurious saffron and herbs of Provence. In the very old days, fishermen returning to port made the stew in a cauldron of seawater, using the small, bony fish that wouldn’t sell as well at the market, using simply sage and garlic to flavor it. As time went on, more ingredients were added, and bouillabaisse moved off the street into some of the most prestigious restaurants in the area.
The stew embodies the brine-soaked city in a way that nothing else can. It’s a melange of sights, smells, and cultures. It has its little moments of deep luxury, but for the most part, it is full of people and things you wouldn’t necessarily look at twice, that wouldn’t go for the asking price at the market.
My parents first visited Marseille in the summer of 1997. They had been accompanying university students on a voyage abroad, spent mostly in northeast Lyon. Marseille was blisteringly hot. A prolonged trash strike had littered the cobblestone streets with mounds of refuse that crawled with rats. What should have been a short day trip lasted three, thanks to the high-speed train service going on strike; with no change of clothes, my parents smelled no different from the leather-skinned old men who sat at the Old Port all day smoking, swearing, selling fish. My mother must have tried to make the best of it; she always does. In the end, she told my father,
“I will never raise my children in this city.”
Three summers later, we moved there.
Marseillais French has a distinct twang. The further south you go, the more the language transitions from a closed, nasal delivery to one of exuberance, vitality. Passions and tempers run as hot as the weather. At the same time, nobody relaxes as well as those who live in the south. France as a whole knows and enjoys and strives after pleasure more than any other country I have ever visited, but in Provence it is a religion. It is not difficult for this to be true when the the food is so fresh, when the weather is so good, when the sea is so blue.
The older inhabitants of the city are the best expression of this. They’ve been here for years. They vacation in nearby Spain or Italy, leaving the French language and food behind but never straying far from the coast. They are an unbridled expression of bliss and simple goodwill. On the beach the men wear Speedos and the women go topless. Their skin is like wrinkled brown leather; rolls of good-natured flesh overlap the nylon of their bathing suit bottoms as they sit, decked in gold necklaces and communion bracelets, on their towels with their grandchildren playing nearby. They laugh heartily from the belly. It’s a terrible and terrific sight. You cannot help but admire their spirit as much as you disdain their bodies. And why this disdain of their bodies? We all grow old and flabby. Why should the young and beautiful be the only ones to enjoy the freedom of their bodies?
My parents were friends with a couple who had both been working in the same French bank for many years. Both of them had accrued ten weeks of vacation time per year. Ten weeks. That’s a fifth of the year. That is two and a half months of time during which their place of employment pays them to do whatever they want, as long as it is relaxing, as long as it doesn’t take place in the office. You say, “And then people wonder why the French economy is in the toilet,” and I don’t disagree, but I also say, “The American economy is in the toilet. And we’re enjoying it a hell of a lot less than they are.”
The scrubby limestone cliffs on the coast smell like rosemary and thyme. Rosemary means “dew of the sea” in Latin because in many places this little plant requires nothing other than the humidity carried to it by the sea breeze to live. I grew up similarly. It was enough most mornings to walk out and smell the salt air in order to be reassured of a greater order and purpose. Even when she churns in discomfort at the hint of a storm, the Mediterranean is much less frightening than any ocean. Twice my mother has been gifted with special waters: the first time, a student brought some of the Dead Sea back to her in a used bottle. Another time, a friend visited Lourdes and bought a small vial of Mary’s blessed liquid.
We looked casually for jellyfish and other creatures as we floated during the summer. I swam to a spot deep enough for my lower body to be in cold water and my upper body to be in warm water. I knew I was two people, one who had always been in the sea and the other who was just visiting.
I really dislike the idea that becoming more like a certain culture and less like your own will be better for your health or well-being. There are pros and cons to every mindset and way of doing things. You must learn to take the best of the worlds you inhabit and create your own culture. That’s why it is such a wonderful thing to be able to live in a foreign country when you are young and your mind is still elastic. If you can only see things that are different when you’re traveling, whether you think they are “better” or “worse” than what you are used to, then you must exercise your ability to see people as needing and wanting the same things across time and space and simply trying to get them in different ways.
Over the past few years my bookshelves have taken on a few “cultural self-help” books, as I call them: thin, brightly-colored volumes that aim to introduce Americans to foreign cultures, to expose what differentiates them from their peers overseas and to teach them how to be more.... whatever it is that the author deems is missing from the American way of life.
Even some expat memoirs fail to delve deep into their cross-cultural experiences. It is always more interesting, more sensationalist, to tell those you’ve left behind how foreign, how different, how difficult to understand everything is. These travel pieces are interesting but they are limited to a sort of crude voyeurism. Let me see how I can paint a picture of this people in a way that makes them seem backward or odd or fetishized.
I have often fallen into the pitfall of portraying my experience this way to people. I have fed into the stereotypes that, while they are not fully untrue, do not encompass the French people or their culture. If I were to tell the absolute truth I would say that it was no different for me to live in one country or another. I think that it is possible to live outside of the culture you live in, even if you never leave it. It must be possible to constantly renew your experience so that you are taking the best of everything you know and don’t know and making it apply to your life.
The French are fiercely jealous for their language and culture. In the south, the constant mixture of nationalities and backgrounds causes friction. It’s not unlike the immigration debate here in the United States, except that it takes place in much smaller streets and neighborhoods and cities. The borders between minorities are thinner and less defined. In a port city like Marseille, most quartiers combine the flavors of each culture. The melting pot lets off a strong fragrance of blurring identities, of old colonial tensions. You’ll eat a croissant for breakfast and couscous for lunch.
In France, I was resistant to being known as “the American girl”, and now that I have returned to the States, I am resistant to being known as “the girl who lived in France”. Yet it is difficult for me not to fall into easy patterns, to embody the things I loved about my experience overseas in order to differentiate myself from my peers. It is the hook in my personal history, the thing many people refer to as “the most interesting part of Kara’s story.” On an objective level, I don’t disagree with this statement. Next to many, I had a rogue childhood, a home built out of moving boxes.
But I believe the most interesting part of your story is what you choose to do with what you have experienced. It is the one state of mind you adopt after you have visited all of them. You plant your flag there in courage or cowardice and you wait for the crowds to come visit. It is the country you make of your heart.
"Cannons" - Youth Lagoon (mp3)