Losing yourself in Provence

Posted: Sunday, May 17, 2009

There's a reason the average French lifespan is 80 years, while ours in the states is 78. Thirty-seven - that's the average number of vacation days in France, compared to our country's measly 13.

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Courtesy Of Carol Prentice
Courtesy Of Carol Prentice

Since France's official two-week spring break fell during my month-long stay in Cassis, where I was visiting my husband during his five-month residency fellowship, we decided to try a bit of the French "joie de vivre" for ourselves. Being American rather than French, we limited ourselves to one week.

I couldn't resist spending our week exploring the back roads of Provence. It sounds a bit clichéd, like trying to create a mini-version of Peter Mayle's "A Year in Provence." But, in truth, it didn't feel that way at all. With no particular agenda in mind, we selected our route day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour. More often our route selected us, as we entered the lost and found world of the Bouches-du-Rhone and Vaucluse.

Driving in France is its own adventure. French roads are organized around a system of roundabouts, with destinations diverting off from a directional circle. On the departmental roads, where we spent our time, roundabouts popped up every few kilometers. Rather than listing route numbers, the signs list the next town located in a particular direction. Charming as this is in concept, finding a match between the towns listed in the roundabout and the unfamiliar names on my map proved a challenge.

"Found one!" I shouted out, like a child discovering an egg on Easter morning, when I managed to make a match.

Losing our way was inevitable. So we elected to meander, accepting what came our way.

One treat that came our way was Mathieu's olive farm. Following a sign, we took a dirt road to a small shop where Mathieu and his wife sell olive oil under their own label. Monsieur Mathieu didn't warm up to us until my husband started speaking with him in French, at which point he thawed a few degrees. Discovering we were from Alaska, the temperature rose considerably. When I had trouble identifying a particular word on one of his labels, he led me to his garden, picked a sprig of thyme and held it out for me to smell. He then sent us on our way with advice on a picturesque route and an oral history lesson about the local towns, along with our purchases of olive oil and tapanade.

We came across the quaint village of Maubec, where we walked through the remains of the medieval town church and bell tower, with no other tourists in sight. We shared Alphonse Daudet's windmill (made famous by his book, "Letter from a Windmill," about Provencal life in the 1800s) with a handful of tourists, as well as the 12th-century Senanque Abbey. But that was okay.

Our final day, we were making our way to Aix en Provence, a short 50-mile drive. Almost immediately, we found ourselves completely turned around.

"No problem," we agreed, winding our way through the low mountains of Les Alpilles. Though we had driven to the north, south, east and west of this mountain range, we hadn't actually been right smack in the middle of it. I targeted a town called "Eygalières" to guide us. Every few kilometers, as we approached a roundabout, I scanned the towns until I saw Eygalières.

"There it is!" I pointed. The road to Eygalières took us through someone's chicken farm and down country lanes so narrow that one car had to stop as the other inched past.

"It's funny," I said, consulting my map. "I think we should be to Eygalières by now."

Caught up in the beauty, we hadn't noticed the ninety minutes it had taken us to drive fifteen kilometers. We pulled in at yet another charming village, Aurielle, to sort things out.

"Here," I said walking to a corner filled with directional signs. "Egyalières." The sign pointed left.

"No, here," my husband said. The sign pointed right.

For just a moment, we felt like Dorothy when she asked Scarecrow for directions to Oz. "Of course, some people do go both ways."

Closer scrutiny revealed the mystery. One sign read, "Eygalières," while the other read, "Eyguières."

Two letters. Two hours. When you are in the countryside of Provence, believe me, it really doesn't matter. I'm sure those two hours of vacation added at least two weeks to our lives.

• Carol Prentice has a regular Neighbors column, Caught in the Middle, which appears on second Sundays.

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