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I guess from the video, the calanque boat doesn't look like much, but I enjoyed it utterly. Yes, it's a little hokey. I have no idea what the boat narrator was saying over the loudspeaker because of the noise of the water, motor, and passengers, through which my poor ear could only catch the odd French word. Perhaps he was describing geology, or anthropology. Probably I missed a lot of valuable information, but I lost the ability to care. As pretty and strange as the calanques may be, I just wanted to be out on the water. I was thinking about how many monumentous things had happened on this sea, about the clear blue water and the puffy clouds and that kind of Mediterranean sun, and about Melville's Ishmael:

:"Let the most absent- minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries - stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region."

And it was a great ride. I had thought it would be just bland putt-putting around at a "safe" tourist speed, but the boat went rapidly between calanques, there were whitecaps, and quite suddenly we started getting pretty heavily sprayed. At that point Gary, who has been a sailor and notices such things, pointed out toward where we were speeding and said, "It's going to get worse" and then went sensibly inside. I scoffed, but he was right, and a minute later I was completely drenched. But happily so! The sun was hot, with all the motion of the boat you got dry pretty quickly, and there was something lovely about licking a bit of salt off one's arm.


We went to Cassis by bus from Aix--2 buses actually, we had to change in Aubagne. The direct bus began running in July (we ran into a lot of this in Provence--things like more direct bus routes and special trains starting July 1, which is I guess when the French begin seriously vacationing). The TI in Aix wasn't too good about noticing things like this, so read the fine print on stuff they give you. We had about a 45 minute wait in Aubagne, during which we had coffee and got to know the 2 folks with whom we went to Cassis, Jan and Jim (Jan was on our conference panel), a bit better.

I've never been very good about reporting on restaurants. For most of my life, until I moved to southern Louisiana where people live to eat (vs. eating to live) food was more or less like putting gas in the car: one needs to eat periodically. Outside of a few favorite things (most of it comfort food), I didn't much care what kind of gas went in my car. That's changed, but I still don't remember things I ate so much as things I saw or heard. I can remember the few things that made huge impressions, but often can't remember the name of the place that cooked them. But here's a meal I went out of my way to find, have, and remember: moules at Bonaparte in Cassis, chased down by something crisp and white. I don't know why it got stuck in my head to go to Cassis, get on a boat, then go eat mussels and drink white wine, but it did, and I turned anticipating all of it over and over in my head to the point where.... you know, it could have been a big letdown. It wasn't.

Digression: Ever since Kurt Vonnegut died, I've been trying to do something he advised: notice when you are happy, stop and mark it. And in noticing I've also been parsing kinds of happiness, here of the travel genre. There's happiness of the stumbled-upon variety. That's the best kind, I think: you meet someone interesting or strange or especially kind, or blunder into a church you hadn't read about that moves you, or turn a corner in a museum and some picture makes you gasp or draws you in more slowly and rearranges your sense of the world for a few minutes. Or you and your fellow passengers of several assorted languages and nationalities on a silly calanque boat get drenched with seawater and point and laugh at one another in the universal language. Then there's the happiness planned for and predicted and cultivated, and that can just come crashing down pretty quickly, because it's overwrought, or be mildly disappointing, as if the desire overstepped the reality. I was afraid I had done that with Cassis.

But then there's a kind of happiness that's rare and eerie. It's staged and planned for, but it's almost as if one wills it into being--but the will seems to come from the environment itself. When this happens it's as if the world lines up its pretty molecules to be the stage set for what I imagined. I'm not explaining this well, but there's a sense where everything locks into place and shimmers ever so slightly and the world seems to exhale and say "Ah, here we are, we've been waiting for you to arrive." This sounds really egocentric, but it never feels that way. It feels as if someone has arranged a wonderful, extravagant gift and welcomed us in by flinging open a big door, and it is deeply humbling to be the recipient of this generosity. This isn't a spiritual thing--or if it is, it has its feet firmly on the earth. It is utterly earthly. In a way it's also like a dream: you are after all the one dreaming it, yet it dreams you, so you are paradoxically simultaneously in control and not.

I can recall the moments I've felt this way with complete precision: for example, in Corniglia years back, Gary was making bruschetta with everything fresh as can be, some of it we pulled right off plants growing right there in the garden, and I was out in the yard wringing out and hanging up laundry on a line. The yard overlooked the cliffs and the sea, and we were drinking Ligurian wine, and Gary kept bringing out these delicious little bits of bread with olive oil, basil, tomatoes, garlic, fresh mozzarella. I had a sunburn. I remember how everything looked, tasted, smelled, felt, almost to the point where I can still count the socks on the clothesline. Clear, sea air. The laundry was dripping on my sunburn, and everything just lined up: "Hello, here you are, we have been waiting for you to eat bruschetta and hang up laundry and have a sunburn and drink wine in this outrageously beautiful place, at this time, and here you are. Welcome." And it is impossible to be anywhere else but there, in that time and place, unthinkable even to think beyond here and now, when this happens.

Oh, probably this is a brain tumor or something talking, but back to Cassis, where the eerie happiness opened up again.

Our lunch at Bonaparte was everything I wished for: not too fussy, small, friendly staff, people all piled in at long tables crammed in but with the fourth wall removed fand a few cafe tables spilling out into the street, all of us eating scrumptuous seafood. Whitewashed walls, a little careless. This is EXACTLY what I had imagined, and the food tasted EXACTLY how I'd been dreaming--but better: briny, sweet mussels, a sauce that complemented but did not disguise them, with the featured wine of the month that was crisp and clean and perfect with moules, I should have written it down but--this will never happen again, all the planets lining up this way. At the end of the meal, I was about to order some Cassis liquer, just so I could have Cassis in Cassis, but the owner brought out a shot of brandy for us, then grabbed me by the elbow and escorted me over to a yellowing New York Times review from the 90s posted on the wall, where the tradition of the owner, Jean Marie, giving his guests a digestif was described. Not wanting to dump a sweet liquer on top of a bunch of wine and a shot of brandy (I did after all have to concentrate on buses) I decided to go buy a bottle of Cassis and give it to my colleague Jim for his birthday.

The return bus was confusing, since there were 2 stops at either end of a road marked, and parts of the signs saying which route or bus number stopped where seemed to be missing. We tried to help a very nice French couple trying to get back to Marseille, and in doing so I went to the other end of the road where a bus was parked with a driver inside. He told me it was not the bus for Aubagne. 5 minutes later, he turned on his sign (AUBAGNE) and drove to our end of the block, where he was now the bus for Aubagne. Go figure. Was he being precise, or nasty? We laughed about that for awhile.

While we were waiting in Aubagne for the bus back to Aix, a woman walking toward the station tripped suddenly over a curb and fell face-first onto the pavement. Her glasses shattered and cut her face, and there was an alarming thud of head hitting concrete. Gary and Jim both rushed over to help her, and a kind, lovely young woman sat with her and placed a call for her to someone to come and get her. She was badly shaken, blood on her face. Later on the bus the kind woman said she felt sure she would be okay. A cautionary tale? As quickly as the world aligns for you, it can pull your feet right out from under you and break your face on the pavement? La femme qui est tombée. I thought about her all the way back.

This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 27, 2007 9:59 PM.

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