For the second installation of my Toussaint vacances, I came to Aix-en-Provence. Aix was actually the only French town I had previously visited back when I was studying abroad in Orvieto, and I wanted to return to its warmth and charm. I also had a friend from undergrad currently studying here, and I would never pass up an opportunity to see a familiar face on this side of the Atlantic.
After a 7 hour bus ride (highly recommend Flixbus if you're traveling on a budget), I arrived.
Aix was just as beautiful as I remembered. Like Orvieto, it's this tangle of streets, each one just as romantic as the next. I could never find whatever cafe or shop I was looking for, but I enjoyed stumbling through the web. Each day featured vegetable markets, flower markets, clothes markets, and plenty of sunshine. I read on church steps, ate cheap produce, drank espresso on café terraces--all the things I hope to do on vacation. I also got to visit the Musée Granet, where I saw a Cézanne expo, and then visited Cézanne's studio, tucked away in the hills above the city.
While I certainly found all the charm in Aix, I saw this quite differently after living in Soissons. The town where I live is not charming or beautiful, but it's extremely real. The markets are for the locals. The foreigners in my town are immigrants, not tourists. In Aix, I saw the production of it all, the sheer amount of English in shop windows and restaurants. I was a bit baffled by how much English I heard, and disappointed to hear Americans refuse to even order their coffees in French... I entered a café and was greeted with a hello before I could even try to speak French. Aix is beautiful, of course, but I could not imagine living there. I came to France to be among French people, to speak French, and I would not have it otherwise.
I spent a good deal of my time strolling around the city and picnicking with my friend Alex, who was actual my student in a freshman writing course I TA'd for while in undergrad. I knew her a little bit, and was thrilled to find how much we had in common. I met tons of other girls from her school program (there's 2 American universities in Aix!), and thoroughly enjoyed the American company. I even met someone who went to the same Texas summer camp as I did--small world indeed!
I stayed with a Couchsurfing host named Oliver, a British guy currently working in Aix as an English teacher. This was my first time couchsurfing, and mostly I was thrilled to have a free place to stay, but Oliver was a fascinating chap. He had just finished his PhD in Philosophy of Film, and now he's working as a teacher on the side while he tries to publish his work. He mostly writes about violence in film, and the psychological draw/effects on the viewer. I like Couchsurfing because you get this incredibly clear and intimate window into a stranger's personal life, just for a few days, and then you leave and carry on.
As a new English teacher myself, with zero training, I was extremely grateful to talk with someone candidly who has undergone extensive training, and has years of experience. Oliver gave me tons of advice for working with the students, and how to present material in English while supplementing with images, body language, hand gestures, etc.
On the other hand, Oliver was also quite argumentative. If you're familiar at all with the Enneagram, I'd place Oliver as a class-a 8. An example of our conversations: Oliver would complain about his long workday, I would reply something in agreement like "That's brutal," and Oliver would frown and say something like "It's not really" and then go on to explain to me how his work day is not actually that long. Every conversation seemed to last ages because he would reject every effort I made to tie anything up ("Well that's good" "No it's not really..." and on and on).
I actually expressed all of this to Oliver on my last day, jokingly relaying my observations. He was self-aware (but would use Meyers-Briggs to describe rather than the Enneagram), and told me he has had a lot of trouble in his life connecting with more emotionally-invested people. He said, for example, he regards film from an expert perspective, rather than a fan perspective, but his audience tends to be film fans who bristle at his critiques. In conflict, he wonders "Why aren't we understanding each other?" whereas someone like me might wonder "Why don't I like you?"
It's been months now, and I don't keep up with Oliver, but I think about him. A huge part of my experience abroad so far has been crossing paths with people so different than me, who process and express in ways I can't fathom. I feel a sense of boldness in approaching them, knowing our time together in a shared space is short and soon to end. I let them go, and simultaneously carry them with me.