Over subsequent days, our tour takes us west along the coast of the French Riviera and then north, deep into Provence. We stop in Cassis, a picturesque port town and take a boat ride through the Calanques, narrow inlets cut into the lofty limestone rock bordering the Mediterranean. The boys are fascinated by what they see: the mini-cruise is a paradise in which young imaginations can run wild. They argue about which cliff is best for diving — “this one; no, that one with the tree on top is the coolest” — until they spot waves crashing into the stone remnants of battlements and explain to anyone who’ll listen how such structures were the first line of defense against bygone marauders. Scuba divers below shoreside boulders become Aquamen and the boys compete by voicing ever-eerier visions of underwater caves. Rock climbers relish the Calanques and those we spy become Spidermen in the mind’s eyes of my boys.
The girls simply sit back and scan the scenery, taking it in quietly while futilely brushing blowing hair from their faces and wrapping their fleeces tighter. “It’s chilly on the water, Madame Bohr!” they declare and imagine themselves frolicking here in summer heat.
I overhear an amusing exchange between my father and son travelers as we head back to the harbor. “You’ll never see water this blue,” says the Dad, to which junior promptly replies, “What do you mean? I’m looking at it now!”
Our boat ride etched on our list of trip favorites so far, we head to the pebbly beach next to the bustling town square and I reassure the kids as they carefully pick their way close to the water, “We’ll have plenty of soft white sand once we reach the Atlantic.” The cobalt sea is restless and freezing cold but the students are determined to splash in the Med. The girls wriggle into their bathing suits à la competitors who’ve learned to change out in the open next to athletic fields. They slide on bikinis over their jeans and tees and then wiggle out of and roll down their clothes till they’re off. I’m reminded of my daughter in her soccer days, regularly slipping in and out of her sports bra and uniform without benefit of a changing room. The boys are more timid and less accomplished at changing au naturel and ask me to hold up a towel so they can disrobe (Mr. Always-Prepared has one in his backpack). They seem to forget we’re in France where little if any clothing is de rigueur on the beach.
In Aix-en-Provence, a university town an hour north of Cassis, the girls enjoy the carousel in what will become a string of colorful wooden horseback rides across the Hexagon. The boys continue their quest to sample as many sweets as possible, devouring their second ice creams of the day. The kids are all brave language troopers, even those who are studying Spanish and not French, and take pride in ordering food on their own. They’ve been daring about trying French specialties, including escargots, and have perfected the art of asking for take-away ice cream and crêpes, now sugary staples of their daily diet since they’re incapable of ignoring the ever-present, always beckoning snack stands. One student occasionally errs and states “Je porte” instead of “Je prends,” thereby saying, “I’ll wear” instead of “I’ll have” followed by whatever food he’s ordering. But merchants understand him nonetheless.
The cover of my forthcoming travel memoir features a picture Joe took of me sitting, knees hugged to my chest, on a fountain in Aix when we lived here for most of one summer. I return to the scene just off the Cours Mirabeau, the town’s main boulevard, nostalgia threatening to overtake me as I reflect on how our lives have changed since the photo was snapped three years ago: we moved back to the states, I started a new career teaching French, Joe resumed his career building ships and now I’m bringing students to my beloved France.
Our brief, couple-hour stay in this young, cafe-rich, energy-filled town is over far too quickly and we’re back on the road. How fortunate I am to have stayed awhile in years past and made such picture-perfect places like Aix my home. As I watch my adolescent troupe once again scramble onto the bus, I make a wish that in the future, they’ll be as lucky as I’ve been with lots of opportunities to travel the world.