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One Woman's Opinion

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French Connection, Part 3

by Mary Wakefield Buxton
Part 1Part 2

Urbanna, Va.— Two of my favorite French artists painted in Provence, France—Van Gogh and Cezanne. (A famous writer, Emile Zola, friend of Cezanne, also went to school in Aix au Provence.) In spite of having zero painting skills, I ached to paint the bright red and yellow apples of Cezanne or capture Van Gogh’s splendor of the “Starry Night.” My art classes in France gave me an opportunity to use the same rich splashes of colors . . . ochers, reds, yellows, blues, greens . . . to reflect the beauty of Mediterranean landscapes just as they had done a century ago.

I first visited the Granet Museum to feel inspiration from viewing their paintings, but the museum only had eight early Cezanne works (most Cezannes are in New York!). I feasted on their beauty and also saw many works of Picasso, who was greatly influenced by Cezanne.

Sufficiently “itching,” I was ready to try painting like Cezanne. I headed off with my instructor and my trembling paint brushes to the nearby “Place de Vendome” to paint flowers and shrubs in the garden of a French mansion now turned public park.

How sad! My work showed no signs of a late-blooming artist. Not to be discouraged, the next week we headed off to the same site Cezanne had painted his many famous “Mt. Ste. Victoire” paintings. Perhaps my French garden was drab but surely I could paint a mountain!

It would be easy, I imagined, just splash my paints every which way according not to what I saw of the mountain looming in the distance, but how the mountain made me “feel.” Oh, what a sorry mess I created!  

Our group of 14, which met for lunch and dinner at least three times a week, also made two day trips via mini-bus each week to tour the surrounding cities and rural villages of Provence. Our first excursion was to Luberon Valley where we walked through several medieval villages.

It was very hot and it seemed the towns were always on top of a steep hill. They had been built that way, we learned, in order to seek protection from attack, which was all fine and dandy, but I soon found jet-lagged as I was and walking up hill in the heat was more than I could handle. We ended up in a village with a plaza built around a large rectangular lake stocked with goldfish and studded with sycamore trees that offered welcomed leafy shade. We sat outside and sipped wine and ate French cuisine (cheeseburgers!), and I thought how nice it was to rest after the long hike and to throw chunks of bread to the goldfish.

Provence is known for its fine herbs, olives, grapes, mushrooms and local wines. They also grow many varieties of flowers, fruits, vegetables, produce cheeses and cure their own meats. We saw numerous fields of bright yellow-flowered crops of rapeseed (used to produce canola oil) and purple lavender. Three times a week the farmers brought wares and produce to market on the “Cours Maribeau.” It was such fun to go to the market and sample both the fresh foods and rural French personalities. 

Not all experiences were such fun, however. One day while in a department store waiting for sister Georgia, who had gone downstairs to buy something, I waited patiently at the top of the stairs for her return. Suddenly I found a black uniformed security guard eyeing me suspiciously. Before I knew it he was standing beside me in a most aggressive manner. The good man did not speak English but I told him in English I was an American visiting the area for a month, and that I was waiting for my sister who was downstairs. I pointed to the long stairway where she had descended and assured him she would be returning shortly. It was clear he had not understood a word I had said.

But Georgia had found an elevator and appeared from the back of the store making me appear a liar standing at the top of the stairway. Finally, some college French from 55 years ago clicked in: “Monsieur, Je suis Americaine et lors d’une premiere visit a Aix” (Sir, I am an American on my first visit to Aix). One never knows when a college education will keep you out of jail. The detective seemed satisfied and we left the store.

Georgia and I laughed but we realized how quickly one could get into serious trouble in a foreign country, especially when no one knows you and you are limited in language skills. I had no identification other than a debit card and would have been in a fix if taken into custody. I started carrying ID cards identifying me as an American.  

In the meantime, I learned a little more French . . . “Monsieur, je ne suis pas un voleuse” (Sir, I am not a thief). To be continued


posted 05.24.2017

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