Saturday, March 10, 2007

Harley's Blog: 'Strange Student' in Provence: 1960-61

I received an email yesterday from a friend asking about our trip to France, and immediately realized I had omitted her from the blog distribution list. Harley Williams is a Yellowstone connection, a woman of remarkable depth, southern hospitality personality, and best of story tellers (as you shall discover).

So, we thought we’d introduce the opportunity for you to be our next "Guest Blogger". Email us ( or your story or adventure about travels in France (or somewhere else) and we’ll incorporate it into the next Post. How’s that for your 15 minutes of fame? Feel free to include a bio if you’re so inclined, or we’ll do it for you. I’m sure you all have some amusing, sorrowful, skeleton-in-the-closet or rolling-on-the-floor story that merits more than a "comment" box. Let ‘er rip!

But, now, sit back, and listen to Harley Williams.................

Hi, Nancy and Doug,

So much of what you recounted brought back recollections of 1960 in southern France. The area you are in sounds much like Provence of 47 years ago! I was in Aix from the summer of 1960 through the summer of 1961 as a "strange student" at the Aix branch of the University of Aix-Marseilles. All classes in French. Horrors! I had had one year of French at that point. My accent came from Laval University in Quebec, Canada, where I began French with an immersion course. Bad idea--wrong accent. Like Brooklyn talking to Georgia. My next bad idea was choosing a course in Russian novels. Imagine reading "War and Peace" in French. I didn't begin to have the vocabulary to keep up, so I ordered the books on the list in English from Blackwell's (?) in England, read several chapters of each book in French, and the rest in English. Ya do what ya gotta do.

The good choice I made was to take a 12 credit hour (6 per semester) course in Art History, which included incredibly wonderful field trips in a rickety old bus many weekends. We went very far afield, including to Carcassonne, Grasse, Arles, Nimes, etc., etc. The rest of my courses were in French literature, of which I remember practically nothing. We ate lunch and dinner at the student cafeteria for one franc (20 American cents) per meal. In the evening there was often a tasty stew, cooked with wine in a variety of ways. I had been there three months before I discovered it was horse meat.

I well remember setting up my bank account in a very serious interview with the manager of the Societe Generale. (Each transaction was entered into a huge ledger in absolutely beautiful handwriting. There were no calculators or adding machines!) Some things French remain incomprehensible.

I remember puzzling over the separate toilet rooms. At the local Renault dealership, there were two restroom doors side by side, separately labeled for men and women. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the two doors led to the same toilette! I lived with an Algerian French couple who allowed me roughly one gallon of hot water twice per week. We froze to death in September and October during uncommonly cold weather because there was an inviolable rule that the heat is turned on November 1. On that date, the heat went on, despite the 60 degree outdoor temperature. Oh, what a flood of wonderful memories! Somehow, I was charmed by the sheer illogic of it all.

I loved Aix and, remarkably, still do. We went back a few years ago and it is still delightful. The outskirts have grown enormously, but the inner city is rather unspoiled, if you overlook the tourists (not including us, of course.) They have wonderful fountains, sidewalk cafes (including the ones where Picasso and Cezanne hung out,) and markets. I went back to my old bank and they (gasp!) now have computers, having replaced their beautiful old ledgers.

I can certainly empathize with your comments and those of your friends about using your not yet fluent French reminded me of meeting Jim (Harley’s son) in Paris one time. He had graduated from college at midyear because of having taken a semester off to volunteer in Appalachia for Habitat for Humanity. Jon (Harley’s husband) and I gave him a bare bones amount of money as a graduation present so that he could backpack around Europe. Somehow he made it last five months. In April of that spring, Jon was at a training program so my sister Nancy (a different Nancy) and I decided to go to Paris, Giverny, and Normandy, a perfectly logical decision we thought. We flew over and Jim, who had arrived a week or so earlier, met us at our hotel with his enormous backpack, filled with hard back books and little else. He became our instant guide. I cheerfully ignored the fact that I had been to Paris many times (some as a flight attendant for TWA) and that I had some barebones knowledge of French. We had a marvelous time! When we needed directions, Jim was always the one to approach the French person with his gawdawful, mostly forgotten, high school French and a respectful, engaging manner. It was fun watching from a little distance as his French victim would at first look annoyed, then perplexed, and then, finally, a big smile would slowly spread across his (or her) face. This would be followed by a flood of French, shortly thereafter repeated very slowly with vast gesticulations. Somehow they communicated and formed a brief bond, with warm parting handshakes. This happened time after time. Can you picture him? Jim was not exactly a picture of sartorial splendor, I might add.

Feel free to quote anything folks might find interesting. I will continue to follow your adventure with great interest and some serious envy!


P.S. I shipped a car from France to the US. It lost some of its contents enroute. I wish there had been a way to shrink wrap it. Is that possible?


Doug said...

Nancy and I were in a local business here in Moab having some French postcards framed so we could dress up the house. We were talking to Michelle the framer about our trip and she related to us and adventure she remembered from a few years before. She had gone to the beach somewhere in France, and being in France, and not knowing a soul for several thousand miles, she did as the French women do and took off her top. She was tanning her no doubt lovely breasts for no more than ten minutes when she heard, "Michelle, what a surprise. What are you doing here in France?"

Amy said...

Hi Harley-
I am just figuring out how to use this silly blog butI finally think I have it nailed. I wanted to comment on how beautifully written your entry was. You have a way with words and I fully enjoyed your accounts of Aix in the '60s. I can only imagine what a great place it must have been