Gordes, a mountain village in southeastern France.
Click here for more from Patrol's 2009 summer issue.
IT CAME back to me one Sunday last month, as I sipped an iced coffee and kicked my feet over the dark, dirty water of the Annapolis, Maryland, city dock. Maybe it was the sun, slanting from the west over the back of my head. Maybe it was watching tourist families wander past me, calling out to each other or resting by the bronze statue of Alex Haley.
But something in the hint of summer that afternoon in Annapolis called me back to the sun-baked hills and valleys of Southern France, to the summer after my sophomore year of college, and to the cool, tile-roofed house outside tiny Pernes Les Fontaines, where fountains splash in nearly every traffic circle and shutters hide the souls of homes from the glaring Provencal sun.
Summer days in the south of France are dry and hot. Crickets sing in fields of gold wheat and brilliant red poppies. Bees hum around the few remaining cherry blossoms and the wild roses that cling to crumbling stone walls that once protected a medieval home. And each small town’s weekly market begins early in the morning and closes in time for a late lunch and long afternoon nap.
Our favorite market was on Tuesday, in an ancient town perched high on a hill and looking over a narrow valley below. Most days, when you walk through Gordes, past old watering troughs and the remnants of city walls or doors leading nowhere off the edge of a cliff, you feel as if you’re walking through a ghost town.
But on Tuesdays, Gordes comes alive. Gypsies set up booths of brightly-colored fabrics and strange, unearthly instruments; artists display watercolors, pottery, and simple pencil-drawing greeting cards. There are booths of tourist attractions: lavender soap, cricket paperweights, honey and spices. Then there are food vendors, with olives, or fresh fruits and vegetables, or—my favorite—the friendly man who sells greasy legs of roast chicken and sausage and rosemary-flavored potatoes roasted with fresh tomatoes. Everywhere, hovering vendors linger just inside their stalls, appearing suddenly to lure you deeper into their stands.
And we joined them. Dressed in peasant skirts and blouses and trying to blend in with the scenery as best we could, two sisters and I would set up our stand in a parking lot next to the post office, clothes-pin our worn-out music to it in case of wind, and play our recorders while a third sister, Aspen, chatted with tourists who stopped to listen.
Amber played a tenor recorder, Bonnie the alto, and I played the soprano. Most of our songs were, like the instruments we played, classical and medieval. But it fit, echoing between the stone walls of the houses and bouncing off the stone streets. Tourists often gathered around us, pausing for a moment. Weary husbands waited for their wives in the shadow of the post office wall.
Then we’d wander on, to an alley beside a quaint café on the steep road leading down the hill and out of Gordes. The proprietor was Canadian, and proud of it, and would pit cherries at a small table outside his kitchen door to listen. He always left us Euros when he went back inside.
You learn a lot about people as a street musician. German and Danish tourists tended to be the most stingy but also the most appreciative, standing around for several songs but leaving only a few centimes. American tourists refused to believe we weren’t French, but seemed to think a Euro was like one of our quarters. The weeks Americans came to Gordes, we always made more than enough for lunch and plenty to divide between us when we got home.
Most days, though, I spent at the house in Pernes, painting the house during the morning and sometimes in the afternoon; tanning in the tall grass on the other side of the plum orchard, a tall glass of iced coffee to one hand and the scratching of my pen on my omni-present journal blending with the crickets and the whisper of wind in the fruit trees. I can still smell the warm, sickly-sweet scent of crushed plums; taste the sweat that would slip down my face and stain the pages I filled that summer; and hear the sleepy voices of children just waking from an afternoon nap.
But after the heat, when the paint was washed from my hands and arms and legs, and when supper was served and wine drunk and the last dishes put away – those are the best memories. Restaurants and roadside cafes begin to open as the sun begins to set. Music pours out of open windows; voices fill the streets and mingle with splashing fountains.
One night we went to Avignon, and watched a street magician perform to an ever-growing crowd to the music of a carousel behind him. That night we lingered over a sidewalk book sale, and watched a middle-eastern protest against Israel march down a wide-main street.
Another night we visited a tiny café perched on the side of a cliff, just outside a tiny, one intersection town. There was a performer there, too, with a stage set up in the center of the town; boys set of firecrackers in the fountain and we hung to the outside, not completely sure what was going on.
But often I’d stay in Pernes, sitting at the Bar-Tabac on the main street, where a green awning spread out over several patio-tables. Often I would sit alone, sipping coffee from tiny cups the size of the tea set I had as a child. Some days I would read; others, I wrote, jotting down the people and scenes that unfolded before me.
That was the summer of the World Cup, when France and Italy faced each other in the final, championship game. I watched it there, at a chair near the back of patio. That was the first and only day I saw any nationalistic pride in France. Men wore soccer jerseys; girls wore beads and face paint. Everyone was screaming, laughing, talking, shouting for France, for “the blue.”
Every table was taken that night, all chairs pulled around to face the TV set up for the occasion. The proprietor and his wife hurried between tables, refilling wines, serving beers to fathers and orangina in short bottles to their children. I sipped a Heineken—the one beer I knew was universally served and could pronounce in French.
I left before the final shoot-out, when France lost to Italy. Perhaps that was best.
It’s been a few years since then, and I’m sure many more will pass before I go back. But often a taste or smell will remind me of those cafes and stone streets and dry hills. Like it did that one warm Sunday in May, when the feel of the sun and voices of tourists and the taste of coffee took me back to that summer after my sophomore year, and the cool, tile-roofed house outside the small town-of-the-fountains in Southern France.
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