Rollicking Road Trip Through France: Chapter 8
After a few busy and stimulating days in Burgundy, we headed south to Aix-en-Provence for the Provence portion of our trip. It was a long drive. We must have been a little tired because without deliberately deciding it, we ended up doing almost nothing here. And it was fabulous. We just existed (or should I say aix-isted).
I experienced (or should I say aix-perienced – sorry, I’ll stop that now) a lot of déjà vu as soon as we drove into the city – except (or should I say…just kidding) I had been here before. Several years ago, I came here with a friend but hadn’t remembered much from that trip. But from the moment we started driving down the street of our hotel, it all started flooding back. My husband booked our hotel and as we entered it, I realized that it was the same budget digs I stayed in those many years ago. Apparently, we have the same taste when going low budget. We went out for a walk that night and everything started to feel so familiar. He asked me to direct us based off of memory and I did a decent job. I remembered that there was a huge square with a huge fountain toward our left and once we passed it up, we would reach the main street – Cours Mirabeau – full of cafés, bars, and restaurants. Memories of walking that street, having pizza for lunch, and eating ice cream in the sun started coming back. Obviously, this palette of mine has always been quite refined.
Aix-en-Provence, City of a Thousand Fountains
Aix was much sunnier and warmer than Beaune. We picked out a few things to do, but largely just walked around and soaked up the sun and the slow pace of the city. It is nicknamed the city of a thousand fountains. I don’t know about a thousand, but they are everywhere.
This is a quick rundown of our very loose, lazy itinerary:
- Arrived in the evening. Walked around and skipped dinner in favor of a couple beers on Cours Mirabeau.
- Started day 1 with lunch at S’s pick. I’d give it a 2/4. The salad was the best part.
- Walked around the city and came across tons of fountains. The moss-covered ones are awesome.
- Checked out a few little shops and picked up some chocolate spreads and pastis.
- Visited Atelier Cezanne (Cezanne’s Workshop). This is totally overpriced considering you’re basically going to a single room, but it was so fun. It’s a beautiful location and it is so cool to be standing in Cezanne’s creative space. We sat on a bench in the room staring at the oranges and skeletons, envisioning what elements we’d want to retain in our own imaginary art studio.
- Had pre-dinner drinks at a cute, uber-red wine bar. As we sipped, we were trying to decide on dinner and finally picked burgers. We haven’t had a burger in forever. It just sounded so right. Small PSA here – it is possible to find good burgers in France, though they tend to be a little frou-frou. In addition to standard the standard bacon, cheese, lettuce toppings, others often include fried raclette, foie gras, etc. That’s nice every once in a while, but I’m more of a Five Guys kinda girl (the burger place, not generally speaking). They should really open one of those here. It would be a hit.
- Started day 2 by walking around and having lunch at M’s pick – Le Bouche à Oreille (Incidentally, this is the name of the two restaurants involved in the recent Michelin mix-up — but was not either of them). It was a 4/4. I’m not just saying that because I picked it. We had the best escargot we’ve had since coming here. And more significantly, I finally had frog legs (cuisses de grenouille). It’s been the source of a little distress for me that I hadn’t had any yet. And let me tell you – I don’t have the culinary adjectives ready at my disposal to describe this adequately. First of all, they delivered a nice, healthy portion of glistening thighs to me in a little pile. And secondly, though they seem like they underwent a simple preparation (I’d guess we are talking butter, lemon, garlic, parsley…), the sum is so much greater than the parts. Rich, flavorful, juicy. As I finished my last couple of frog legs, I was thinking that somewhere Peter Mayle was getting his wings (or thighs?).
- Ice cream break and Cathedrale St. Sauveur.
- Walking the steps of Cezanne. Aix-en-Provence – where Cezanne was born, worked, and died – is most certainly his city. There are reminders everywhere. Similar to the Owl Trail in Dijon, Aix has a self-guided pedestrian route marked by metal studs in the ground imprinted with the letter “C”. This path takes you to various places that were notable in his life.
- On the last day, we walked around to some of the outdoor markets in the city. I found a huge, gorgeous spice stand – always my favorite section. The markets we’ve seen in the south seem a bit better than those we’ve gone to in Paris. Seems like there is more variety and the produce looks better. I probably don’t have sufficient information to make that call…but I’m not really one to shy away from a snap judgement.
Everyone I have met that knows Aix loves it. It was the perfect place to do nothing in. And I think it says a lot about a city if you can enjoy yourself without agenda or expectation.
One of the best things about this whole experience is that I notice a lot more. It makes me think about and obsess over the most inconsequential of minutia. Which is totally fun.
We’ve noticed this French habit while living here that has really perplexed us. In France, if you order pizza at a restaurant, it will come unsliced. So you are usually presented with a sizable pizza, a fork, and often a pizza knife. What’s a pizza knife? Well, it looks more useful than it really is. The blade is generally bigger than a normal knife and it has a rounded edge — almost like it wishes it were a wheel. And you might think that the expectation is that the customer willy simply slice the pizza up himself. Not so much. Rather, they eat it in bites from one side of the pizza to the other.
Now, if you’ll permit a short detour, it’s likely this custom originated from Italy. True Neapolitan pizza wouldn’t be served sliced either. It can be eaten with cutlery; it can be sliced, folded, and then consumed (comme NY); it can be folded up whole like a crêpe (how friggin awesome is that?); but probably most often starts off with cutlery (while it’s super hot) and then is finished with the hands after it cools a bit. A knife and fork also makes sense for this type of pizza because the dough is really thin and soft and typically has a soupy center.
My issue is that none of these conditions really seem to apply to the pizza we’ve had in France. They’re sturdier pies that could easily withstand some slicing. So I’ve come to believe that the French are sticking to this whole knife and fork thing because it aligns better with their cultural sensitivities.
Admittedly, I didn’t have much to go on to really conclude the above until the other day at the burger joint in Aix. We placed our order and were sitting and waiting for our food. I am a people-watcher so my gaze naturally turned to a couple of guys toward the front of the restaurant. Their food comes out. They eye it. I eye it. It looks delicious. And then it’s like we’re all transported into a slow motion film as I gradually start to realize what is about to happen. The guy on the left picks up a knife. Then the fork. The guy on the right mirrors his friend. I want to believe that they are just cutting these burgers in half. That the burgers are just overflowing with so much goodness that they have to tame these unwieldy delicious beasts. The guy on the left starts carving a bit of his burger. I’m waiting impatiently to see what emerges. Sadly, when he’s done, he doesn’t put his utensils down. Instead, he raises his left hand bringing the fork to his mouth. And right there, at the tip of his fork, sits a triangle shaped slice of burger – bun, innards, bun. It makes me so sad. It happens with the fries too. He violently pricks a mound of fries with his fork, dips them into sauce, and then eats them. It’s almost cruel. He is eating his burger like it’s a steak, and his fries like they are a side salad.
I have never witnessed this myself, but read recently in a blog (of an American living in France) that this happens with Barbecue too. As in ribs. That’s just a travesty.
I’ll Have the Chicken Curry, with a Side of Angst
These eating habits really stick with me because I have come to have fairly defined opinions about eating with your hands. Because of my upbringing, I have had strong, but mixed feelings about it over the years and have become hyper-aware of it in any context. I’m not eloquent enough to describe how something so small can be such a source of cultural angst for someone. But it was for me and I suspect it is for a lot of immigrants or children of immigrants; it’s just one more weird thing to have to negotiate. So over the years, I loved it, loved it but hid it, hated it, liked it but was never sure when it was OK to do, and finally now – love it and have settled on a good set of guiding principles.
Guiding Principles (or When to get your Hands Dirty)
These are not Miss Manners approved, so use at your own risk.
- There is a right tool for every job. Sometimes it’s a fork, sometimes a spoon, sometimes bread, sometimes a hand. It depends on the food. And often there is some history or context that’s worth understanding.
- Indian Food. Eating with your hands is the THE way to eat Indian food. It absolutely tastes better. Moreover, it’s a skill. You can be good at it…or not. It’s not undignified. But aside from that, the hand is the best tool for the job. Creating the perfect Indian morsel often requires mixing elements in the right proportions: the right ratio of dal to rice, the perfect portion of meat and gravy with chapati, a small bit of veg, a dollop of curd, a schmear of hot pickle. A fork can’t do this work better than a hand. But to me, it is totally weird to do this in public unless you’re a bonafide Indian who could give a crap what anyone thinks OR you’re at a good Indian restaurant surrounded by 15 other Indians doing the same thing who can offer you some cover. If you are ordering in or cooking at home (or coming over to our house), you really should let loose and give it a go.
- Burgers. I think we can all agree that when you are eating a burger, you want to get a little bit of everything in each bite. Well, it is simply too tricky to keep the bread and innards stacked and aligned correctly without your hands. Aside from the sheer inefficiency of using a fork and knife, this method will undoubtedly result in widely inconsistent bites. And after all, the bread is really there as a little edible package for all the goodies inside. Gotta go big here and use both hands.
- Fried chicken, Ribs, Boney things. Hands. No brainer. It’s also a lot less wasteful.
- Pizza. Maybe the approach should vary based on the style of pizza. But honestly, unless you’re sitting in Naples at a pizza joint eating true Neapolitan pizza (which by the way requires an extremely stringent set of criteria to be met), let’s slice these puppies up. It’s so much easier to transport into one’s hungry mouth.
FYI – I am writing this while I’m listening to This American Life episode Americans in Paris. The first act with David Sedaris is so funny. The part where Ira Glass asks David if his experience in Paris is one of humiliation or adventure is so funny – it really makes me think. I recommend it for any of our American expat friends, American expat wannabes, and David Sedaris fans.