Today's Marilyn count: 4 throw pillows (one with pink glitter lips!), several printed canvas wall art pieces, a set of coffee mugs, and a fancy chair. To be fair, there was also an Audrey Hepburn chair.
Mme. Walker, our landlady, asked us to put down a rather serious security deposit on our furnished apartment, since their last tenant had moved out with a number of the Walkers’ posessions. Among the things he took was a large portrait of Marilyn Monroe. At the time, I remarked to Josh that if I ever met this prior tenant, I would thank him. We thought that was the end of our connaisance with Marilyn.
Since then, however, whenever we have been out buying things for the apartment, voila, there she is. In almost any home decor aisle in the south of France, there is at least one poster of Marilyn Monroe. Often the selection is wider, with both Warhol technicolored Marilyns and black and white photography Marilyns. I’ve seen her more often than pictures of Le Tour Eiffel.
So it was no surprise to see her staring at us out of the shop window of Bricorama. A store dedicated to bricolage (household fix-ups), it was the perfect place to find ourselves stuck on the only seriously rainy day since we arrived. After about an hour of gathering little things we needed (a hammer, nails, picture hangers, a candle that smelled like cat pee), we plunked ourselves down in the furniture section to wait out the downpour. We played 20 Questions and read cookbooks from the kitchen section while the giant red folding screen emblazoned with Marilyn had one vibrant eye toward us and one toward the sodden street. We stayed there about an hour or so before deciding to make a run to the FNAC (media superstore) down the block. A few minutes before we left, we watched one of the employees, on the phone with a customer, come over and measure the Marilyn screen and read the measurements into the phone. It sounded like he made a sale. Au revoir (until next time), Marilyn.
If the goal of the first part of our week was finding an apartment, the goal of the second part was making it livable. I’m not sure how close we’ve gotten.
Our apartment is in the “Centre-ville,” the medieval (or maybe even Roman) center of Aix. We’re a block from the cathedral, Saint-Sauveur. It’s not very big, but it’s very gothic—gargoyles, pointed arches, sculpted saints—the works. There’s even an older section dating from the 600s. We can hear the bells echoing in our little alleyway throughout the day.
Our apartment has one room and one window, but the window is tall, and has old-fashioned, paint peeling shutters that you have to lean out to open and close. The building was built before the advent of electricity, but after the late middle ages. We know the building predates electricity because of the wires tied to the outside of the building and running along the baseboards. We’ve fixed the earlier parameter based on the building across from us. It looks just like ours, but part of its first story wall incorporates a section from a medieval stone mansion. The man who lives on the third floor of our building started a conversation with us today as we were running out the door to try to get our cell phone plan before the store closed. We somehow got around to asking him what the old door across the street was. He told us that it was part of a mansion built by one of the Italian nobles in the retinue of the king of Naples, who was also king of Provence in the 1400s. They all lived here in Aix, a center of power and culture. Our neighbor then proceeded to tell us the entire history of the region, starting with the Greeks settling Marseille. We didn’t make it to the cell phone store. But, the medieval* link between Naples and Provence explains why our neighborhood looks so much like Italian cities I’ve seen. Those strong square blocks forming bases for stately rows of windows say, “Vasari wuz here.” It makes me miss my traveling buddies from my trip to Italy.**
*I use the word “medieval” loosely. Technically this building is from smack in the middle of the Italian Renaissance, but I’m not sure what date we use to signal the start of the Renaissance in France. You’ll know about it once I do. **Vasari was an Italian Renaissance architect.
So, we’re trying to make our apartment feel like home, and the place to get things at good prices is the grocery store. We can take a bus to a big supermarket called Carrefour, which we have done twice this week. We will also be going again tomorrow. “Why?” you may ask. “For the yogurt?” Ay, there’s the rub. Carrefour’s yogurt in no way compares to that of our first grocery store, Auchan. Carrefour store brand multipack has added fiber, tastes a little chemical-y, and comes in four flavors: pineapple, strawberry, mango, and PRUNE. Yes, prune. I did not come to France to eat anything prune flavored (although even the prunes are good here). So, why have we made so many trips to Carrefour?
Well, we noticed very quickly that our matelas (mattress) was not going to do the job. It was about three inches lower in the middle, which meant that we kept rolling into each other and waking each other up all night long. In our eagerness to settle on the apartment, we failed to realize that the bed was not a full, but something only just enough larger than a twin to make us think that it was intended for two people. We were obviously mistaken. The rolling effect made it impossible to sleep. We made our second trip to Carrefour to purchase a new matress. We will be making our third to return it. It turns out that French matresses are sold in sizes varying by ten centimeters. We purchased a 140 x 190 cm matress, while our tiny lofted sleeping space is only big enough to fit one that is 120 x 190. There is no way the new mattress can be smushed into the frame of the “mezzanine” (loft area) without us knocking out some vital support or wall. So, after paying 30 euro for this sucker to be delivered by truck, we are hoping that we can A) take it back on the bus, B) find a suitable replacement and C) manage not to buy more storebrand yogurt while we are there. We’ve gotten four eight packs so far because the price is too good to ignore.
Already expecting to have difficulty with the French beaurocracy system (extremely strict return policies at stores, miles of paperwork and red tape), I have not been disappointed. To get a telephone you need an electric bill. To get an electric bill you have to call the company. To get an apartment you need a French bank statement. To get a French bank statement you need a local address. The high point of this all was finding that our apartment did not exist. We rented number nine. The street has only even numbers, and everyone else in our building gets their mail at number ten. The post office had never heard our address. We have to go back to all the places we set up accounts and re-order things (phone service, checks, etc.). The only organization that had no problem with our address was the store that delivered the matress.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m doing a lot of complaining, and that’s because I am. Moving to another country is not like taking an extended vacation, at least not yet. But there are a few bright spots, and their names are Kim, Emilie, and Swann. Kim is an American woman we met at church. She’s a student in the program I’m going to be starting next week, and she’s been over a few nights for Josh to help with her homework. She’s also bummed around with us on some of our grocery excursions (and she made me buy a rug which does WONDERS for our linoleum floor). It’s great to know someone else in such a similar situation, to share discoveries and cold remedies. Swann and Emilie are our upstairs neighbors. We’ve just come from dinner in their apartment (multi-rooms. So jealous). And they’re so funny, and fun, and nice. As we let ourselves back into our apartment tonight, we were like, “Yeah! We’ve got friends!”
We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but we’ve been too busy to stop and take pictures so far. Hopefully by next blog post we’ll be able to show you what our new town looks like, but in the mean time, here are about a thousand words. :)
We left Harrisburg on Tuesday afternoon and flew Air India out of Newark. We weren’t sure what to expect from our flight, since we’d heard mixed reviews from friends who had flown with Air India back in the day. But the experience was a good one. The plane had the feeling of a sari, with red and yellow patterned seats, stewardesses swathed in gorgeous fabrics, and yummy food. We took a break from watching The Darjeeling Limited (a movie about a trip to India) to eat our curried lamb and felt like something had gone right.
Our plane landed at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris (we could see le Tour Eiffel from the air), and then we took a train to the south. Josh managed to get us first class tickets on the upper deck of a double-decker car, and we made the most of this wonderful sightseeing opportunity by sleeping through the majority of the three hour trip to Aix. We did wake up in time to get our ridiculously heavy and bulky suitcases down to the exit of the car before we reached the gare (station), and in time to see the craggy mountains of Provence sweep into view. The countryside here is great. It has the feeling of a dryer, rockier Pennsylvania, with welcoming, homey mountains that don’t look too big to climb in an afternoon, and lots of rolling hills of scrubby green trees. My idea of France was of snug little black-and-white timbered houses, but I think that must be the north. The hills of Provence are filled with square buildings made of stone or blocks, mostly a peachy-yellow color, with tiled roofs. It feels a little bit like Italy and a little bit like Mexico. We got to form most of our ideas of the countryside today driving around with our landlady, but that part of the story comes later.
After we got to Aix and dragged our suitcases to our hotel, we set out to set up. We combed the apartment classifieds, visited the bank (multiple times), started setting up cell phones, and tried to find a long-term hotel in case it took more than a few days to find an apartment. I’ve never traveled like this before: this is going to be home, which means we don’t feel like we have a limited amount of time to enjoy it here, and we can take it in and experience it a little more slowly and deliberately. On the other hand, it’s not home, so we kindof resent the things we do enjoy, because they don’t make up for the comforts we’ve just left. Anyway, hopefully we’ll feel settled in and less conflicted soon.
Aix, the town we’re staying in, is beautiful—I think. Mostly I’ve been looking at it with appraising eyes, trying to find the best grocery stores, the best places to live, and the best places to buy shoes and tablecloths. It’s a lot dirtier than I expected—a little bit like a slightly rough-around-the-edges version of the Williams and Sonoma catalogue. We repeatedly stopped in our tracks to just smell the air—rich, buttery smells (I’ve figured out which one is croissants), seasoned meats, the foods from cafes, and in between, the smell of France. In three days, I’ve forgotten what it smells like, but when we first got here, I kept smelling “France.” Weird how noses work. Anyway, our first morning walking around was Thursday, which is market day in the Cours Mirabeau, the sort of central plaza area of town. We mostly rushed by stalls swathed in bright fabrics with olive, floral and cigale (cicada) patterns, but I’m looking forward to indulging my passion for quality textiles.
After a lot more running around trying to set up various things you take for granted once you’ve lived in a place for more than a week, we headed up to the north of city center to look at the only apartment that wasn’t rented yet when we called the lessor. It wasn’t quite what we were used to in our “luxurious” suburb of Philly, but we took a walk after seeing it, sat in the little square across the street and saw the green-shuttered houses, the medieval cathedral, and the gourmet Swiss ice cream stand, and turned around and put down a deposit. We can live in one room for a year. :) I’ll blog more about our aparment once it’s something other than a depressing mish mosh of suitcases and grocery bags, but in the meantime, our landlady. She was completely aghast at the idea of me showing up in a foreign country, knowing no one, and not knowing where to buy a set of bedding. She kept referring to me as la pauvre (the poor thing). As we were signing all the paperwork, she volunteered to drive me to an Ikea knock-off and the super amazing mega grocery store near her town, 40 minutes away. She said she couldn’t bear to see me carrying heavy grocery bags and looking bewildered. (At least I think she did. The majority of our conversation with her was in French.) So, we spent today power shopping for our new little (LITTLE) place. Afterward, we packed into Madame Walker’s tiny Peugeot convertible and zipped around hills and villages as she brought us back to Aix on the back roads.
One more thing, and then I will be just past my thousand word mark. Puddings. I said multiple times that I was excited about the pudding aisle in French grocery stores. I’m adding yogurt to that. We got a big multipack of store brand yogurts for two euro, and the flavors are lemon, mango, coconut, and litchi. They taste like they’ve come right out of the cow. How can I be so homesick when I have such dairy products?
PS: a funny story: We were buying that gourmet Swiss ice cream (creme brulee flavor), and a guy about our age heard Josh say that I was an American and didn’t speak French. He came over to us and started up a conversation. It turns out that he works at the “American Institute,” a place for Americans studying abroad. After he and Josh chatted a little bit, he gave Josh a knowing look, and told him that if the two of us stay together, Josh could end up getting a US visa. I knew there was a reason he’s put up with me for so long. . .