Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Aix en Provence : a beautiful experience.

Sept 5th, 1996:  My dad and I were sitting in the admissions office of l'Université d'Aix Marseille, and the lady behind the desk was trying to find me a host family (au pair - where usually a foreigner is welcomed into a French family where they are treated like a family member, which also means that they get to share household responsibilities. It'd also be easier to pick up French). 
We found a certain Mme. LeHyaric...An old lady whose income depended solely on au pairing. When we were at her place, I was introduced to two other foreign girls who very happily welcomed me into the family. Elena was American and Arantza was Spanish...I was given a pretty large room with a queen sized bed, a walk in closet and a view of the park. It had wooden flooring and all the essentials that I'd need.
It was afternoon and time for the Zohar-Asr prayer. My dad and I offered our prayers together in my new room. I asked him to bless it with more prayers while I went out into the lounge and spoke to the others for a while.
Later I went out with my dad and we had lunch together.. I was starting to feel this heaviness in my chest and a lump kept forming in my throat which I kept gulping down. My dad was leaving that evening and the feeling was killing me. Already saying goodbye to my mother was like being torn apart with bare hands. I'd been crying non stop for three days and missed her every time I saw something beautiful.... which was most of the time in Aix en Provence...
After we got back to my new home, my dad hugged me and walked out with tears in his eyes. I felt like such a baby!!! Arantza, who was much older than I and was like an older sister, smiled at me and consoled me. She took me out that night for dinner and we bonded. I was fine after that, but called home (Kuwait) at least twice a day.
In the small community that I belonged to, I was the first to pave the way for many girls to leave home and study in Europe or America. Parents used to freak out just sending their kids to India, but I can only thank my mother, who had the courage to send me so far away after putting all her trust in Allah and inculcating strong values and principles in me.

Faced with a new culture, a new language (and body language),surrounded by beautiful people who were enclosed in their own bubble...

I was sitting outside the room where I was to attend my very first French class, in the Université d'Aix Marseilles in Aix en Provence...the same université which was attended by the following greats.
  • René Cassin – a French jurist, law professor, judge, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize
  • Paul Cézanne – a French artist and Post-Impressionist painter
  • Gaston Defferre – Minister of the Interior of France: 1981–1984
  • Toussaint-Bernard Émeric-David – a French archaeologist and writer on art
  • Christine Lagarde – Minister of the Economy, Industry and Employment of France: 2007–presen
  • J. M. G. Le Clézio – a globetrotting French author, professor, and Nobel laureate
  • François Mignet – a French journalist and historian
  • Frédéric Mistral – a French writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature
  • Philippe Séguin – President of France's Court of Financial Auditors: 2004–2010
  • Adolphe Thiers – 2nd President of the French Republic: 1871–1873 
  • Joseph Pitton de Tournefort – a French botanist, notable as the first to make a clear definition of the concept of genus for plants

I was thinking "How do I communicate?... I wish I'd picked up some French in school"... but what the hell do you pick up when your teacher reads French and it sounds like some south Indian dialect?(no offence to south Indian dialects- I'm sure tulu would sound strange too if spoken in a French accent)...
My first acquaintance was sitting next to me. She was immaculately dressed in a tweed skirt, a white top and an argyle sweater. She had black leggings on and black platforms..She looked very 'Zen'..She couldn't speak English and I of course couldn't speak Japanese... and neither of us could speak French...So we started with the universal 'hello'...A smile...she bowed... " OK .. that's the first step.. now what?"... I introduced my self...placing my hand on my chest" I'm Amberina"... and then she did the same... "Fumi - from Japan." I was intrigued... It didn't take much to intrigue me now... Leaving home to come so far away ... every thing around me was intriguing...

In class, surrounded by people from practically every country...The pixie like Turk, Birgul , Duc , a shy and hard working Vietnamese, A stylish Mi Hyun- Korean, A devout catholic and almost fairy like Brittany from America, Tina, statuesque and graceful from Sweden, Alicia, with a bohemian air from Spain, Constanze , a  very serious but warm hearted and amiable German, Inge Birte with her spiked hair and mature attitude from Netherlands.... I loved this!!! It was amazing to be surrounded with so many different nationalities...Most of them could speak English but it was strictly discouraged...

There, at that moment, I realized how big this world is. After having lived a very cocooned life with my parents in Kuwait, this was a huge change, like a breath of fresh air...I had flown out of the nest.

After class we would usually wander into the courtyard. I'd usually head for the cafeteria and pick up a searing, hot cappuccino and a croissant. Little did I know that this was to become my staple diet for the rest of the year..

The architecture here is 12th to 17th century...The fountain in the center of the yard was eyes stopped to admire it...the stone work, the curves.. I was told by an older student later that Aix is known as the city of fountains..I love fountains.... I got my very own one now in my apartment...but this one has to be plugged in and its about the size of a bowl... Someday I'll have a huge one in front of my house, carved in stone just like the ones I saw in Aix.

But what really blew my mind was the fact that Paul Cezanne studied in this université, (He was forced to study law because his father was a lawyer. But being of a free spirit, and having a mind of his own, he discontinued  it and took up his passion - painting.) lived in this city, walked these streets. I had an attachment to Paul Cezanne thanx to my moms love for Art. When I was little, she'd lent me a little book with paintings to go through and asked me to pick one and reproduce it with my water colours. I remember I'd chosen one by Cezanne titled 'Apples, pears and peaches'

A month later, the université organized a trip to his atelier (studio/workshop). I was thrilled... more ecstatic, really.
I cannot forget that day. We were to meet in front of the université entrance and a van was to take us there. It dropped us off at a little distance from Cezanne's workshop. Amongst a spread of olive trees, as we kept walking, his atelier came into view...I wanted to run in (partly because it was freezing and partly because I was just too damn excited to walk into a space once occupied and breathed in by one of my favourite painters.)
The ambiance inside was romantic (at least to me). Dim sunlight filtered in through the clouds into the room, through the window...I started to rub my palms together to feel warm again, moving about in slow motion as a guide talked to us. I was eyeing one of Cezanne's well known painting 'The bathers', when the gentle patter of soft drizzle against the window beckoned to me....and when I looked through it, I was transported to a higher level of  thought and consciousness...A sort of gradual metamorphoses started to take place in my mind. For me, time actually stopped. I felt like there was no such thing as time any more.... no past, no future...only NOW...only this moment... and I felt like in this moment Cezanne would walk into his atelier at any second and resume the painting of the sculpture of a little boy. And what really caused time to stop, you might ask?.. It was the view. Framed by the window, was the Montagne St. Victoire. I had gone hiking there the previous week with a group of buddies...completely oblivious to the fact that this mountain was a source of both repose and torment to a great artist....And now as I stood drinking in it's beauty, for some bizarre reason (as time had ceased to exist for me) I felt as though while I was up there hiking and complaining how much my feet hurt, Cezanne was painting one of his numerous paintings of Mt. Sainte Victoire. I felt like I was a speck in one of his paintings, a brush stroke, a pixel that formed a masterpiece.

Mt. Sainte Victoire - Paul Cezanne.

Upon returning to the université, I was both exhilarated and depressed. Exhilarated, because I was now on a higher level of consciousness. Depressed, because I'd no one to share it with. I missed my mom at this point. She would totally understand me...
While walking into the courtyard with my hands jammed into my manteau's pockets, I heard someone playing the piano...I have always wanted to play the piano...I have a very good ear for music, but never had the chance to learn under a teacher...I wandered into a hall, following the music and found the source. It was Fumi. I could hardly see her behind the piano. She was so petite. Her tiny hands ran across the keys like magic.Every note she hit was like a word and the music was starting to form sentences. It was her own composition and she was telling the world how lost she felt here. Or maybe she was also going through what I just went through - A gradual change; and her way of expressing it was through music. I sat on the bench not far from her. By now we had become good friends. She must have felt my presence and she stopped. I wished she hadn't. She flashed her shy smile which failed to reach her eyes. I smiled back. I wished I could do something to uplift our moods, so I started playing 'chopsticks' on the piano. Fumi burst out laughing 'coz I was messing it up.

I heard someone else laugh then...I looked around and saw an attractive face. She almost looked Indian."Wow, you guys are so talented... I wish I could play the piano" she said in French with an American accent and introduced herself as Maria. She was Mexican but lived in LA. Extremely shy, Maria is also one of the few people I know who can love unconditionally.
We talked some more and decided to take a walk on Cours Mirabeau, an avenue bustling with happy people in terrace cafés, a path lined by trees on both sides, embellished by bubbling fountains of warm and cold water. We were engulfed with a feeling of joie de vivre. It's an infectious feeling. We walked for about half an hour and stopped near the famous 'Cafe Deux Garcons' - a cafe that has the names of Cezanne and Emile Zola (brilliant writer) attached to it. We decided to stop for a hot chocolate and chill at the famous hang out of these two great minds. That same feeling engulfed me once again.. I felt as though Cezanne and Zola were walking down in the opposite lane of book shops and would enter 'les deux garcons' any minute. I shared this view with Fumi and Maria, and they looked at me like I'd lost it. Maybe I had.
It's amazing what Art can do to you.... and it's best to keep ones feeling to ones self. If I was the highly sensitive, crazy one, Maria had the loving and caring heart, like a warm Tuscan day, and Fumi had the calm and quiet mind like cool, still waters (for now at least).

A week later while walking out of the university, on a notice/advertisement board, I saw an ad. of someone who needed Hindi lessons. I found this quite bizarre. I jotted down the number and decided to call after I went home. At home, after a dinner (again) of overcooked(burnt on the outside) and undercooked (still slimy and runny on the inside) omelette (I know, it really was gross) made by the my old land lady, I sneaked a couple of flavoured yoghurt into my room and ate that, so I wouldn't die of starvation. I dialled the number I'd copied down on my forearm and spoke to Sylvain. He sounded like a nice guy. He spoke  English with a heavy French accent. My French was not yet that good, so we had decided that I'd teach him Hindi, provided he gave me extra help with French i.e. conversing. We decided to meet the next day at an appointed time. Sylvain turned out to be an extremely interesting guy, with vivid blue eyes and longish chestnut hair, tall and gangly, with a hippy-ish air about him. I knew we'd hit it off the minute I saw him. Sylvain turned out to be someone completely in love with India. He was a dedicated yogi and would meditate everyday. His eyes were impossible to look into (that had really freaked me out coz I believe in maintaining eye contact with whoever I'm talking to.)  due to the yoga and meditation techniques he followed religiously. He'd go to India every summer and stay in Benaras with his guru for a couple of months.
I started off with my very first Hindi lesson. अ, आ, इ, ई, उ, ऊ...(my high school Hindi teacher - Mrs Raj Johri would be so proud  of me even though she didn't like me). He said then that he already knew the vowels..and asked me to start off with consonants.. So I started off with क, ख, ग, घ...,and eventually about a month later, he was able to write words... Sylvain introduced me to 'Gaston Lagaffe', who remains till date, my favourite comic character. I have a little Gaston figurine that I have given my son now. He calls him 'Gusgus'.

Another experience I can never forget was when I had gone for a Flamenco performance by  the celebrated Spanish danseuse, actress and choreographer, Cristina Hoyos. It was Arantza who made the plans and I was so glad I went. It was the first time I'd be watching a live flamenco performance, and I'd always loved this form of dance, which can only be defined as full of raw passion, grace and rhythm... and at a certain point, it's almost a spiritual experience.
WE found our seats in the hall and started to chatter excitedly, when suddenly the lights went out and everyone went silent. (If this was India, it'd get noisier and a riot would start :P).
On the stage, a single, soft beam of  gold light fell upon a man dressed entirely in black, sitting on a cube like stool, his wild curls falling on his beautiful, olive skinned face. Keeping his head low, he started to sing in a heavy, husky, rustic voice. It was of course in Spanish. There was no music to accompany him and none was needed I believe,  for his voice was so pure, so sincere, so heart piercing... that for the life of me, I couldn't stop my tears from falling. He sang for a good 10 minutes, and the only thing I could think of was Kerbala.
He then started to add a beat to his tune by drumming on the base of his seat with his hands... and very softly, two more beams of light appeared on stage and there were two beautiful flamenco dancers  who started to move sensuously to the beat of the rhythm created by the singer, their hands, creating mass hypnosis. Only when the guitar started, did Cristina Hoyos enter and completely took over... This experience completely moved me... and again, I wished my mother was sitting next to me, for I'd have loved to share this experience with her.
There are so many more incidents I'd love to put up here, but this is already gotten very long..
Though I'm in touch with Maria online, and have just found Sylvain online too, I have lost touch with Arantza and Fumi. I hope where ever Arantza is, that she is married to the love of her life and where ever Fumi is, I hope she is well, still playing the piano and composing happy notes. I think of her on cool, breezy days, because the  black Zen bell she'd gifted to me for my birthday still hangs in my balcony. Whenever it tinkles, I think of our silent conversations and send her positive thoughts.
As for Cezanne, He has always been an inspiration..If he wasn't good at realism, he was the best at capturing moods and temperatures in any given ambiance.
I sure hope I'll be able to return to Aix en Provence one day... a heavenly little place I know like the back of my hand.

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This work by Ambereena Razvi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

1 comment:

  1. wonderful writing... while reading your blog, memories from the past started popping in mind... i was taken back to the time when i was living in France...i had forgottn how beautiful aix-en-provence France est belle :)