Question for the week
Each day a different chapter from The Square Root of Someone is featured. Readers often ask if the essays are true. Every single one is.
Remember when you were a kid with your first box of crayons. Someone, maybe a parent or a teacher, explained that blue, red, and yellow were the primary colors, the ones on which all other colors are based.
The area in southern France known as Provence is a grown-upís version of that box of crayons. It is a classroom in basic sights and scents, primary colors, and uncomplicated desires. Itís a wonderful place to visit when you feel jaded and out-of-sorts or when you want a reminder about the true colors of life.
The basic sights in Provence include landmasses that are tall enough to be classified as mountains without being ostentatious. Saint Victoria is one such mountain. The mountain itself is devoid of trees and shaped like a triangle with one side standing straight up and another lying horizontally on the ground. You can climb the hypotenuse to the top without lessons in mountain survival.
Saint Victoria provided inspiration to the painter Cezanne on more than one occasion. It isnít known if he ever climbed it, but he certainly painted it. Today, there is a small museum-cafe-gallery-gift shop in the shadow of the mountain where one can compare Cezanneís interpretation of Saint Victoria on a postcard to the real thing outside the window. It may sound silly, but you feel as if you hold some of the inspiration for the artistís work in your hand.
Vineyards blanket Provence's landscape with an intensity that is palpable. Dark green and quiet much of the year, the vineyards blossom and come to life in early fall with workers who pick bunches of purple grapes to fill the backs of ancient trucks. The trucks, in turn, wobble down equally ancient roads to the local cooperative winery. You know itís September without ever seeing a calendar by the scent of color in the air.
The Mediterranean Sea licks the southern boundary of Provence and provides natural harbors in such cities as Toulon, Marseilles, or Martigues. Toulon and Marseilles, in particular, are commercial shipping ports to North Africa. But what strikes you most is the overwhelming number of sailboats and the almost complete absence of motorboats.
Of course, the harbors are deep enough to accommodate sailboats and the weather is favorable most of the year, except when the Mistral blows into town in October. Even then, in Martigues, the sailboats float up and down the inland canals until the Mistral abates.
Then there are the flowers. For every balcony there are at least two cascades of flowers tumbling over the wrought iron. Baskets and pots congregate in doorways and gather on patios. They collect on windowsills, each one filled with a particular fragrance. Violet, red, yellow, orange, green: the image remains long after the actual name of the flower is forgotten.
Vegetables in Provence refuse to be outdone by the flowers. So they line up in rows on carts that vendors push outside their stores, making the already narrow sidewalks even narrower. Olives and zucchini accompany peppers and carrots to present a palette of color.
Women of all ages carry hemp sacks or plastic ones through the streets. They study an eggplant here, a tomato there. They examine the mushrooms and lift the herbs to their noses. Nothing is prepackaged, so the mistress of the household chooses the ingredients one by one for the main meal. And, just as quickly as the vegetable carts appear in the early morning, around noon they disappear like tents in the Bedouin desert.
Every night the sunset provides a strange finale. It begins as a yellow ball; the sort Van Gogh would have grabbed easel and paints to capture. As the sun slowly descends, a pink aura surrounds it and spreads across the sky, making it the color of a young girlís blush. It lingers and then fades lighter and lighter as the night canvas moves into place. Stars begin to emerge in a connect-the-dot pattern.
Slowly this casual, comfortable life claims you. You forget to wind your watch. Instead you tell time by the vendors in the street or the color of the sky. Your head becomes clear and, with little conscious effort, you pinpoint the important things in life. The really important things. Whatever they are.
I came to Provence the year after my Mother died. It had been a long year, and her needs necessitated putting my own life on a shelf. When her estate was finally settled, my soul and my body went in search of respite. Provence in all its color was balm to both.
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