Ah, la sud du France et l’eau azur du la méditerranéen

Conversations with friends will invariably drift into several key areas. Things of a sexual nature. Moments of self-deprecation. Instances steeped in awkwardness. I could go on, but it’s the awkwardness I want to focus on.

I’ve had my shining moments, don’t get me wrong. I need only reminisce about my dating history to knock myself down a few pegs. However, my life has generally been fairly vanilla. I’m renowned for holding on to the awkward social trophy. If someone is going to plant his foot firmly in his mouth, or find the most difficult way to ask a simple question, Adam will fill that role. Gladly. As often as possible.

When it comes to life events, though, I’ve managed to generally dodge that bullet.

Now, however, when conversations turn in that direction, I enjoy sitting back with a handy trump card in my pocket.

Have you ever gone on a romantic Mediterranean vacation with your in-laws and ex-wife? Then you don’t know awkward, my friend!

Ok, alright, I don’t want to insult anyone here. The only reason the vacation worked at all was due to its general lack of awkwardness. The trip had its moments, for damn sure! Overall it was a fantastic, civil, and entirely memorable affair. As I mentioned earlier, my ex and I were determined to remain friends during our separation. While things weren’t always smooth sailing on our travels, we fared better than we should have expected. We even managed to come out the other side with a great vacation under our belts.

So what happened?

Well, we’d planned the vacation months before, while all seemed, if not sunshine and rainbows, at least mild weather and jazz hands. After the dust had settled we took a good look at our options and thought, “fuckit, what have we got to lose?” We could cancel and regret missing out on seeing an incredible part of the world … or forge ahead and possibly regret sharing space with, well, our exes. We were both in the same boat.

Besides, like most foolish humans, we figured we knew better and would triumph where others had floundered foolishly, drowned in the kiddie pool of their own Darwinian hubris. Thankfully we’d be both right and wrong.

Here’s how it all went down…

At this point in the game I’d seen little outside of Southern Ontario. I’d never been forced to muddle my way through a foreign tongue or navigate a truly unfamiliar city. Sure, there are French people in Montréal, but they seem to unconsciously flip to English as soon as an Anglophone enters earshot. The open carry laws of San Antonio were a shock, and the sun-bleached facades of Vegas certainly had their effect, but none are the equal of experiencing a place that’s vastly different from your own life experiences.

When my then in-laws suggested a week-long stay in Aix-en-provence, there was no chance of refusal. I like to think I played it cool, but I’m sure I looked like a little girl being promised a pony.

The first thing Em and I did was to book an extra day, just the two of us, outside of Marseille. Even given the turn of events our lives would take, we wouldn’t regret this. Our initial reasoning was that it would give us a day to experience the real coastal France. Her parents are lovely people, but generally travel a few rungs above the general tourist. There’s nothing wrong with that, at all, but we wanted to start with a different perspective.

From there we would collect her folks at the airport and travel inland to Aix and the splendour of Provence.

BnB’s and Azure Coasts

I have to state that I’ve developed a love affair with AirBnb. We had a great time with our friends and host in Cardiff, and at the time wouldn’t have expected to top that experience. Our time outside of Marseille would surmount expectation and prove to be unforgettable.

Confession time, I’d never seen the a sea before visiting Marseille.

I’ve flown over oceans and seen nautical vistas from the comfort of the sofa, but I’ve never laid eyes on an actual azure coast. As the plane banked on our final approach, I couldn’t stop grinning. Stretching out beyond the clichéd framing of our plane’s wing was the glistening expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. Forgive my prose, but fuck does that look incredible! Had I the option of wiping my memory every time I saw the sea, just to experience it fresh once again … I’d consider it. Dangers of memory alteration be damned! I couldn’t turn away and stared near-dumbfoundedly until the spectacle disappeared from view.

The sea would, however, pale in comparison to our incredible hosts. After some fumbled French and broken English – wholly from me as Em is bilingual and entirely fluent in both French and English – we managed to meet Pascale, one half of our host family. While winding through the hilly coast, Pascale began to introduce us to the region she called home; L’estaque. The region lies firmly on the French coast, but shares anthropological connections with Italy and many of their neighbours along the sea. Because of this, many of the locals appear more southern and Italian than French, sharing much of their architectural stylings, as well. Pascale had travelled the world extensively, but found herself always drawn back to her home just outside of Marseille. She and her partner Michel had combined their families and set up a welcoming home along the sea. AirBnb became a means of socialisation for Pascale and the family… a way to fill their home after all but the youngest of their children moved away from home.

And what a home! Nestled in the winding streets of the hills leading from the coast, Pascale and Michel had created a cozy villa with all of the comforts of home. The house was graced with a small garden, complete with olive tree, beautiful flowers, and stone oven, all overlooking a stunning sea view. The garden led in to a traditional, but modern, kitchen and lounge combo. It was one of those places which you encounter in life that immediately makes you feel welcome and at home.

Had they offered in that instant for me to stay, je serais un francophone maintenant. Mais, je ne suis pas. C’est la vie.

All that said, we got ourselves settled before hitting the town. … only to quickly discover why afternoon siestas are such a staple of life in warmer climes.

L-estaque is a picturesque area full of cute shoppes, cafés, and parlours. However, it’s decidedly less touristy that nearby Marseille. As such, it’s a slower way of life, which is quite refreshing. It also doesn’t cater to tourists, which is perhaps not the most welcome when you’re looking to stretch your legs and get refreshed after the Ryanair experience.

Suffice to say, we met some lovely folks, managed to scrounge a very French lunch of pastry and coffee, and find our way back to Pascale’s … absolutely drenched from the Mediterranean sun.

I almost forgot to mention…

Prior to our arrival, Pascale and Michel had been host to a young family on a prolonged roadtrip from the Czech Republic. Lenka and Robert were travelling with their infant son and had only intended to stay for one night in L’estaque. We met them briefly when we arrived and were assured that the room hadn’t been double-booked. Their car was being packed and they’d likely be off within the hour.

Unfortunately, we’d later discover, their car wouldn’t start and they’d be stuck with very few options. Our hosts, being the generous people that they were, went above and beyond, creating extra space in their home to allow Lenka and Robert to stay while their car was repaired.

This decision would end up having a huge impact on our trip and is perhaps the reason why I’m going to stretch this trip into 2 posts, rather than just the one I’d intended.

In the meantime, to the sea!

Seeing our states, Michel offered us a lift with his family down to a local beach. This was exactly the experience we’d hoping to stumble on to when we booked in L’estaque, so we didn’t hesitate for an instant.

Michel extolled more information about the area as he wove along coastal roads towards the sheltered cove and harbour of our destination. Once out of the car, we’d then have to wind our way down stone stairs and pathways as we made our way to the water’s edge.

I remember little of what was said on the way, save for having my attention pulled in a thousand different directions at once.

It was almost a relief to reach the sand where I could simply focus on the vista in front of me. The beaches themselves were certainly created for locals. They were still beautiful and picturesque, but lacked the gloss and safety considerations of tourist locales. Children leapt from rocks into the waves. The swimming area was only lightly demarked by floating buoys a few hundred feet out. Beyond that sat a short breakwater before the expanse of the sea stretched in every direction.

No lifeguards.

No Coast Guard in sight (although I’m sure they weren’t far off).

It was idyllic.

We spent a short while there, alternating between swimming in the shockingly chilly water, laying in the sand, and chatting with our companions. It was a much-welcomed respite after a hectic morning, and a perfect way to kick off a vacation.

Re-learning how to dine

Our return would precede one of the best experiences I’d had while travelling. Pascale and Michel offered to prepare a meal for all of the guests, using local ingredients and their own family recipes.

I’d made a decision while we were on the beach. I’m a quiet guy. Usually. I tend to sit back, observe, and leave others to lead the social side of things. I’ve never entirely enjoyed that role. I also didn’t want to be entirely dependant on Em.

I’ve heard my friends describe those moments in life when they decided to step out of their comfort zones. Those moments have changed them and made for incredible memories. This was going to be mine.

Returning to the villa, Em disappeared off to the room for a spell. I grabbed my phone, opening Google translate, and headed for the kitchen. Pascale and I immediately hit it off. I was quickly given tasks and, I think at least, she was impressed that I was willing to dive right in. Before long, we were joking back and forth in broken French/English, getting the other guests involved, and having a right good time.

There are few moments that will stick in my head as clearly as what followed … the look on Em’s face as she descended the stairs to find me conversing in ‘French’, having shed my usual quiet demeanour was absolutely priceless. Few things manage to make that girl speechless. I’m happy to have been responsible for at least a few minutes of one of them.

I can’t recall everything that we prepared, but it was a spread fit for a crowd twice our size. Breads were cut. Tampanade was prepared. Salads were mixed. The entrées alone were what one would expect from a 4-star dining experience. Luckily, we’d be dining like Southerners that night.

Michel impressed us all as he taught his son to concoct perhaps the most elabourate mimosas I’ve ever seen. His history as a chemistry professor certainly came through in that moment. I will be last to complain. Had I been paying a little more attention, perhaps I could have recreated them. The only thing I’m convinced of is that at least 3 types of run went into the mix.

And dine we did

I don’t think we managed to make it to the table until at least 9:30pm. By then, the table was decked with drinks, ratatouille, and numerous entrées. Michel had fed out the outdoor oven, which was now glowing with coals as flames danced out of it’s maw. While we shared tales and anecdotes, he set about grilling no less than 4 different meats over the open flame. I can’t tell you what we talked about, nor what we ate.

We made a sizeable dent in what was laid before us, that’s for sure! When the mimosas ran out, Pascale dipped into their wine stores … and we would continue to dip throughout the night. Please don’t ask how many bottles we went through. Please don’t ask about the intricacies of French wine. Hazy. The answer to everything is ‘hazy’.

We also discovered that Robert, Lenka’s husband, was actually fluent in English, despite my earlier assumptions. I think the wine may have allowed him to drop his defences, much in the way it had for me.

The meal stretched will through into the wee hours and was an experience I’ve been told is a signature of the south of France.

Never before had I experienced such hospitality and camaraderie. Never have I had so much to drink and eat and not lived to regret it in the morning.

That’s the amazing thing about the south of France … you’ll spend hours eating and drinking, but the heat and amount of food will combine to nullify the effects of all but the most villainous of hangovers.

When the morning came …

I was truly sad to bid farewell to our hosts and friends. They were the sort of people you meet in life who manage to stand head and shoulders above the crowds. Should I have the opportunity to visit again, I certainly won’t hesitate.

In the meantime, there was much more to see in France, and many more trips in my future before treading familiar ground again.

How about some takeaways?

If you’re a seasoned traveller, you can likely skip this part. Feel free to continue reading, either way.

First off, definitely visit the South of France. Put it on your list. I don’t care if your grasp of French is rudimentary at best, it’s an experience like no other.

Second, step out of your comfort zone. I’ve travelled a reasonable amount since. Speaking as a natural introvert, I’ve never regretted stepping beyond my comfort. In fact, I’ve discovered that I only truly feel like myself when I’m thrown into the unknown and have to fend for myself. Safety nets are fun, but you’ll discover so much about yourself when you learn to sever those bonds.

Walk away from the ‘tourist’ whenever you can. Don’t be afraid to be a tourist when you need to, but you’ll get much more out of your time being a traveller than sticking to the hotels and resorts for the masses. Airbnb is your friend and will provide what you want, providing you’re willing to take the time to look. Try to avoid making stupid decisions, like walking into the ghettos of Rio … but 9 times out of 10, it’s never a bad idea to pick a direction and simply start exploring.

A little research goes a long way and really does make the difference between a nice vacation and a memorable experience.