In May 1968 -- a glorious month to be 19 -- I passed through Paris on my way to Aix, where I was going to spend the next six weeks. So began an idyllic summer that included visits to Les Baux, Cassis, Avignon, Arles and other poetic places in Provence. In Aix I lived in a room sublet from Madame Wytenhove, in a building next door to the one in which the painter Paul Cezanne was born. Years later, when I read M.F.K. Fisher's little book about the city, Map of Another Town, I learned that Fisher had lodged with Madame Wytenhove too, some 15 years or so previously. I like to think that we slept in the same bed.
Aix possesses one of the finest main streets in Europe -- a wide boulevard canopied by plane trees, lined with cafes and bookstores on one side and sweetshops selling les calissons d'Aix on the other. There are fountains every block or so, and narrow, winding streets lead off toward the market square, the cathedral and one particular restaurant where I would eat steak-frites or a slice of pizza from a wood-burning oven. During the day I would attend classes in the morning, read in a cafe at lunchtime and sightsee in the afternoon. One sky-blue weekend Madame Wytenhove's son took me to see the dam built by Emile Zola's engineer father, and then drove me by the original chateau that served as the model for Le Paradou in the author's novel about sensual awakening, La faute de l'Abbe Mouret (The Sin of Father Mouret). Another Saturday I laboriously climbed to the top of Mont Saint-Victoire, the mountain pictured in so many Cezanne paintings.
And naturally I went to the Festival d'Aix, where Teresa Stich-Randall sang in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro -- and there I met a dark-haired Canadian girl named Yaga, with whom I sat up half the night in a cafe talking about life in the South. At the Universite d'Aix itself, I discovered, some students were still occupying the college buildings, where the walls were plastered over with placards inscribed "L'imagination au pouvoir" -- all power to the imagination. Later, I traveled with a group of them to Avignon to see the Roman aqueduct, and there, at twilight, we sang in situ that classic song of first-year French, "Sous le pont d'Avignon." That night, we marched through the ancient streets belting out "The International." Eventually, I hitchhiked along the Riviera, making my slow way to Florence, where I arrived late at night and glimpsed swans sleeping on a small lake near my cheap pensione.
One cannot easily shake the spell of Provence, and two years later I returned -- to teach for a year in Marseille. Back in 1968 the 32-year-old Gabrielle Russier had been an instructor at my school, the Lycee St. Exupery, when she fell in love with one of her students, a bearded young Maoist. In due course, Russier was sent to prison, then released, only to kill herself in despair. Her love letters became a national bestseller. During 1970-71 I taught the brother of the boy involved; and the movie based on this Gallic tragedy -- "Mourir d'aimer" (To die for love) -- opened while I strode the halls in which forbidden passion once burned.
Many writers have testified to their love for the South of France -- besides the work of Fisher and Peter Mayle, Ford Madox Ford's Provence is one of that prolific writer's most appealing books, and Marseille itself provides the backdrop for Marcel Pagnol's bittersweet series about Marius, Fanny and Cesar. Lawrence Durrell set his last novels in Provence, and readers of French know the work of regional novelists Henri Bosco and Jean Giono. In my own memory the Provencal weather is always perfect and I am hurrying along, a copy of the Magazine litteraire under my arm, to my favorite bar where a croissant and a cafe au lait await, and all the world seems filled with sweetness and romance.