One day last October I looked up to my bulletin board in my office where there was a telephone number that had been there for at least ten years. It was the phone number to a dream that I knew since my days of loving French class when I was a music student in college. I wanted to speak and write in French. I cannot explain this phenomenon except to say that French was beautiful to me, and I was intrigued by the idea of learning and living in a new culture. That phone number could connect me to a study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence where I could learn French, experience a new culture, and continue to engage in the arts. I went to a bookstore to study travel books about France. Some read like an encyclopedia with details of Roman ruins and recent political upheavals, while others had pictures of the beautiful blue Mediterranean sea, dreamy palaces, and poulet citron with a verre de vin that you could smell and taste before you even bought your plane ticket to France. I began thinking about what I could do to prepare for a trip to France. I started by saying my goodbyes to the gym, the supermarket, and the salsa dance club—the places that I knew so well but also made me feel lost in what had become an unconscious day to day routine. Then I said goodbye to family and friends. The time had finally come to buy a plane ticket to France.
Feeling confident with my new guide book and armed with a few freshly washed t-shirts, my favorite skirts, and my blue walking shoes, I took that first step onto French soil on September 5, 2019, at 10:35 am- and to me, it was more exhilarating than Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. I felt lighter than I would have walking on the moon and I had a new view of the world. I wanted to be more than just a space traveler; I was ready to be a student of French culture, French language, French art, French freedom, French philosophy, French music, and most of all—the French amour de la vie!
As a shuttle took me from the airport in Marseille to my new home in Aix-en-Provence, I remembered the words of a friend who had studied abroad in Aix back in the 1980s. “It’s easy to find your way around Aix-en-Provence—the centre ville is small and you can never get lost.”
On my tour of Aix the next day, I loved that there were cafés with outdoor patios on so many street corners and down every alley where clouds of cigarette smoke floating through the humid afternoon air could be inhaled and savored– not because I smoked, but because it was from French cigarettes, and being smoked by the French. I loved how fruit and vegetable markets painted the village squares with red peppers and green apples amidst the history told by old brick buildings. The experience of being there was so much better than a picture, better than anything in a guidebook and better than any stories I had heard. I loved saying bonjour to the beautiful shopkeepers standing by their street-side sale, and I loved absorbing into my heart every French syllable when they said words in their beautiful language back to me that I was only beginning to understand. I loved the music I heard when I went into little boulangeries and the songs of street musicians. Little did I know at that time but falling in love with this beautiful town would be the first step in getting lost in it. But could I get even more lost than I was before I came to France? Maybe the realization of being lost is the beginning of being found.
My first solo adventure in Aix was finding the art school I would soon attend just outside of town. I searched it on Google Maps and began my hike uphill into the nearby country where Cezanne had painted his famous masterpieces of Mount Saint Victoire. But when Google maps said I had arrived at the school I did not see a sign indicating that it was there. I would have never found it if it had not been for a biker who rode by and helped me out. I asked him in my best French, Ou est l’ecole des beaux arts? He cheerfully responded as though he had heard the question before. La-bas, he said as he pointed a hundred feet up the road where there was a little gravel path with an old wooden gate with no sign that led to a little cabin nestled back in the woods. That was the art studio. Merci I proclaimed as he effortlessly rode off up the hill. I had come so close to finding the art school on my own. I had been standing right down the road from it but did not know that it was there until the biker pointed it out. A flash of doubt in my navigating abilities bolted through my brain and then was gone. Being so close but not seeing my destination reminded me of the infamous and gripping expedition to the North pole that got frozen during a snowstorm seventy meters from the destination—it was right in front of them but they did not quite make it there. Was not finding the art school with Google Maps a second sign of things to come?
I arrived early to my drawing class on the first day of school. My art class was at 9:00 am in the morning about a forty-minute walk from where I lived and there was a park, I could walk through on the way there to clear my mind and prepare mentally to sketch and paint. Painting lessons were technically different than the music lessons I knew so well, but the philosophy and belief in the power of the arts were very similar—both believed in content, form, and the imagination of the artist. What an amazing coincidence that they played my old college Chopin piano repertoire while we were working on our drawings and paintings. After I sketched a nude model for a few hours I stopped in a boulangerie for a jambon et fromage sandwich and then stopped by a fruit stand for une banana et une pomme I had plenty of time before French class started, so I went to the clock tower around the corner from the building where my class would be, just to be sure I knew where I was. Then I decided to explore the centre ville of Aix-en-Provence.
I looked up at the conveniently located street signs on the sides of buildings. I am not completely sure that I could pronounce all the French names correctly, but I do know I began at the corner of Rue Gaston de Sparta and Placo Dei Cardaire near the highest building in town—the old clock tower. The clock reminded me of the gift of time I had to explore that afternoon as I stood there in the market square listening to the sentimental melodies and shifting harmonies of an accordion player. I felt his song guide me up the street like I had felt the Marches of John Philip Sousa parade me around the house as a toddler. I was surrounded by people listening to the accordion player while sipping their afternoon espresso as though time was standing still and there was nothing in all of Aix-en-Provence—nothing in all of France—nothing in the whole world—to worry about. How could anything go wrong? I started my exploration by heading South—or was that East? It did not matter, I was going to explore and see all that Aix-en-Provence had to offer. I began strolling down the rue and found myself surrounded by the scents of perfumed soaps, coffee, pizza, and orange-flavored madeleines where twenty people waited in line for the fresh ones right out of the oven.
I went left on one street and right on the next. I went up one street and down the next. I hopped in and out of a dress store and then in and out of a shoe store. I walked quickly on cobblestones and slowly through crowds of international tourists. I skipped and hummed where the streets were not as busy. Sleek black motorcycles roared by and minivans with their company names plastered on their sides squeezed through the narrow streets. I began to breathe in the Provencal atmosphere more deeply as boulangeries, coiffeurs, fromageries, and chocolateries kept popping out onto the sidewalks. Strangers smiled at me. I found wine shops and restaurants that represented Vietnam, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, and France. I made a mental note of all the places I was going to go back to—wouldn’t they be easy to find again? Then, I glanced down at my watch. A little more time had passed than I had realized, but that would not be a problem– I knew the way back– for sure. I was good at finding places– I had done orienteering in the boy scouts, I had explored many cities before- Paris, Buenos Aires, and Athens. This was just Aix-en-Provence, and I would not be late for my French class. I love the French language and did not want to miss a second of the phrases I would learn that would help me as I continued in my exploration of France. I was motivated like any explorer who believed that treasures could be found in the unknown, and like any student dedicated to studying abroad. I turned around to go to my class. I started walking quickly, but trying to look casual. Aix seemed like a casual place, where families and lovers were strolling around in no rush to get anywhere in particular and the shopkeepers were friendly and unhurried– even as they swept the sidewalks in front of their shops and washed the windows to show their shoes and dresses made in France and Italy. I could feel some beads of sweat forming on my forehead and chest. I looked at my watch again. A few minutes had passed.I tried to go backward—retrace my steps. I went left on one street and right on the next. I went down one street and up the next. It all looked so familiar—chocolateries, fromageries, coiffeurs, boulangeries. “Yes, this must be the way,” I thought to myself. I began to breathe more quickly. Pardon I said, as I bumped into a man standing on the side of the street. Pardon he said back to me– the word not having as much magic in it as bonjour. I began to dodge in and out of crowds, and leap aside just in time as the motorcycles passed. I thought I would see the clock tower that this adventure had started at every time I turned a corner. But I didn’t. Where was the music of that accordion player now? I looked at my watch again. A few more minutes had passed. It had been a beautiful sunny day in Aix-en-Provence, but inside my mind clouds had begun to form and the Mistral had begun to howl. The confidence I felt in traveling, that had been like the enduring brick coliseum and theatre that the Romans had built in Arles was starting to crumble. I began to question things: am I going to be late to French class? Where did I put my passport? Is my phone battery dead yet? The sweat of frustration began to run down my forehead and into my eyes. The stinging sensation blurred my vision and created bigger questions: was coming to France a good decision? what would I do when I returned home? As I looked around at the old city walls closing in on me, I began to question my whole life. Mon dieu—I think I might be lost. I saw window signs on every street that said croissants, crepes and croquettes. But as good as this food sounded, somewhere in the back of my mind I was longing for something that I needed even more– complete comfort and something familiar. I thought about the familiarity of the hiking trails I knew so well back in the Pacific Northwest, taking a hot steamy shower and my mom’s beef stew with fluffy white dumplings. These familiar things are so much easier to think about than facing that I was lost. But I was not going to let this situation destroy my belief in living a dream. I was going to continue searching for my French class because of the peace of mind and happiness one earns for not giving up and not giving in when pursuing something one believes in. Discovering the streets and shops of Aix-en-Provence was beautiful just as discovering the music of an accordion player had been just a few hours ago. Was I really that lost? I looked at my watch again, a few more minutes had passed. I began doing calculations in my mind– if I figure out where I am within two minutes and it takes three minutes to find the clock tower, thirty seconds to get to the University building, and one minute and thirty seconds to go up the elevator I may make it in time to interrupt the student introductions that always begin a new class. That would be embarrassing, but not too bad. If it took me five minutes to figure out where I was, or if the elevator was too slow, then a grammar lesson might have started, and I would be counted absent. This would hurt. I would feel shame in the eyes of anyone who had ever done any exploration–Admunson, Shackleton, Percy Fawcett. And mon dieu– I would feel shame in the eyes of my French professor for the rest of the semester; late for class the first day—vraiment? I stopped walking for a moment to gather my thoughts and try to accept the disparity between my identity as a good traveler and the desperation of this situation. I felt defeated, out of place, disoriented, frustrated, and dumb—like the universe was plotting against me to destroy my adventure in this French town. It felt like God had proclaimed, “You are lost!” But then, in my moment of despair, I found a kind of salvation. It was an old friend, a force in this universe that had guided me through darkness and confusion before, a memory and a love. It was a melody that came to me in an accordion player’s song– a song that drifted in the air like a street sign from the universe that I thought had betrayed me. The music sounded like a newfound freedom and a paradise rediscovered. Could that be the accordion player I heard as I started my afternoon exploration? Wait a second…was this even possible? I followed the music around a corner and down a little street. There it was—the clock tower and the accordion player. Finding the clock tower and the music meant that I was just around the corner from my French class with a few minutes to spare. I stopped sweating, stopped moping, and stopped questioning the essence of my existence. Instead, I smiled, I hummed, and I said bonjour to everyone who passed me on the street as I casually, very casually, strolled to class–as though I had lived in Aix-en-Provence my whole life. I took a few deep breaths in order to regain my self-respect and identity as an explorer. No one would ever need to hear about the inner panic and loss of identity that I had just felt. I began reciting in my mind like a mantra—I was never lost– I was never really lost– nope, I was never–ever–ever lost. How could I have been lost when the music of an accordion player on the streets of Aix-en-Provence had never stopped playing?