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What is it about France? A book lover revisits his past and celebrates the present

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I first traveled to France in May, 1968, just missing the student strikes and anti-capitalist protests in Paris’s Latin Quarter. For the next three months, though, my evenings were regularly whiled away in cafes and youth hostels, sipping wine and arguing about art, politics and revolution. Today, it all seems very long ago and almost sweetly idealistic.

A good chunk of that summer was spent in Aix-en-Provence, its plane tree-shrouded Cours Mirabeau then being one of the most beautiful main streets in Europe. Alas, that’s no longer the case, as I learned last month when I returned to Southern France for the first time in half a century. Victims of some invasive disease (one bitter Aixois told me it came from America), the trees withered and were cut down. Maples, of all things, have been planted to replace them. No matter. I could find little trace of Aix’s once languid charm in this now boutique-y tourist town.

Even 26 Rue de l’Opéra, where I lived next door to the building in which Paul Cézanne was born, has been taken over by a government bureau. At least the painter’s favorite subject — the mountain called Sainte-Victoire — still looms majestically unchanged. Back then I once climbed to its summit. Back then, too, I voraciously read Émile Zola’s early novels, which are set in a slightly fictionalized Aix called Plassans. To me, it has always seemed wonderful that Cézanne and Zola were childhood best friends.

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In 1970-1971, I again found myself in Provence, this time as an English teacher at Marseille’s Lycée Saint-Exupéry, named for the author of “The Little Prince.” Just out of college, I was then a devotee of troubadour poetry (largely because of Ezra Pound’s “The Spirit of Romance”) but also an admirer of Marcel Pagnol’s “Marius,” “Fanny” and “César,” a trilogy of 1930s plays (and classic films) set around Marseille’s Vieux Port. Not surprisingly, it proved a magical year.

On Saturday nights my flamboyant friend Paolo, who taught Italian, would throw roses to the streetwalkers as we drove through the red-light district to the Opera House. There we heard white-haired Arthur Rubinstein play Chopin to a sellout crowd; a few seconds into one piece a voice in the audience loudly shouted “Plus vite!”— Faster! The maestro ignored the suggestion. In those fairy-tale days I frequented a barber who was at most four feet tall: You would sit on a kitchen chair in a crudely excavated pit, which would bring your head to just the right level for him. While he snipped away, he would relate his latest erotic adventures or grouse about the capriciousness of women.

Half a century ago, the Marseille quarter where I lived was staunchly working-class and communist. Today, Lycée Saint-Exupéry has been enlarged into a polytechnic, the original school supersized with new buildings, while the surrounding neighborhood now looks a shambles. When my wife and I trudged down toward its main street, we passed a burned-out and abandoned car. The shops where I used to buy sugar-sprinkled brioche and issues of the Magazine Littéraire were gone. Many storefronts were boarded up.

However, downtown at the Vieux Port, the bars and brasseries were busy, partly because of the heat wave — “la canicule” — that roasted France this summer. Notwithstanding an ongoing program of modernization, Marseille in general still looked as tough and colorful as I remembered it, very much the city depicted in Jean-Claude Izzo’s classic of Mediterranean noir, “Total Chaos.” As I strolled last month along the famous boulevard, La Canebiere, I noticed gypsies and Middle Eastern immigrants, a bride and groom, in full wedding regalia, waiting for a bus, a sidewalk artist who had sculpted a lifelike dog out of sand and a tired busker playing the accordion, into whose bowl I dropped two euros.

Many of the flea market tables crowding the Canebiere’s shady side displayed books, from battered 19th-century editions of Victor Hugo and Jules Verne to pulpy San-Antonio thrillers. At one I paid 25 euros for Volume 2 of the Pléiade edition of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s complete works. It would serve to remind me of my old lycée and my old self: Saint-Ex’s “Vol de Nuit”—“Night Flight”— had been the first novel I ever read in French, back when I was 17. More immediately, this return to my old haunts allowed me to reconnect with Marseille friends from long ago, who laid out a Provençal feast that Julia Child would have envied.

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To avoid growing overly nostalgic, much of this recent trip focused on places new to me, including the island-city of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, where Petrarch wrote sonnets about Laura (the one beginning "Chiare, fresche, et dolci acque"— Clear, fresh, and sweet water — describes the Sorgue river), and Roussillon, the center of ocher mining. Driving between whitewashed towns like Gordes and Lacoste, which cling almost supernaturally to rocky promontories, you could look out on lavender fields forever.

One afternoon, we recklessly scrambled down off-limit trails into the Gorges of Verdon — France’s Grand Canyon — before heading north in our rented Peugeot, following the Grandes Routes des Alpes through spectacular mountain scenery. On our way to one hilltop B&B, we watched, gobsmacked, as a dozen wild boars ran in front of the car. At Barcelonnette, the roads were closed for the Tour de France, so we got to cheer the cyclists as they raced by. While in Davezieux, we visited a museum honoring the achievements of the Canson and Montgolfier families, which pioneered both modern papermaking and ballooning. And on the way back to Paris, we stopped at Beaune in the heart of Burgundy to drink expensive pinot noir and reminisce about the previous two weeks.

While my ’60s-era France will never lose its romantic aura — as Wordsworth once wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!” — it’s good to acquire new memories to look back on. One, in particular, now stands out: We were at Cassis, getting ready to hike the gravelly limestone trails of its nearby “calanques”— cliffs that overlook breathtaking views of the Mediterranean — when a bent old man suddenly emerged from a side street, burdened with two heavy shopping bags. As he raised his head and smiled, I could just make out that his T-shirt was implausibly emblazoned “Joie de Vivre.” Smiling back, I murmured to myself one of my own favorite sayings: “As happy as God in France.”

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.

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