The fruit and vegetable man showed me a little box of raspberries and slipped it in with my shopping.
“Un petit cadeau [a little gift],” he said with a quick smile – turning back to the till to finish tallying up.
It’s nothing special for Monsieur C to give away his raspberries.
But the first time he gave me raspberries I felt like he had picked me up and plonked me down into sunlight.
Bam. You, madam, are a customer. Welcome to the neighbourhood.
In the 365 or so days since we first arrived, there have been many more moments of sunshine in Monsieur C’s fruit and vegetable shack across the road.
He has offered recipe advice, explications of unfamiliar fruit and vegetables, revelations of local history and warnings he deems necessary: “Careful! Those kiwi in the Zespri box are from Italy!”
And always a little box of raspberries.
“Un petit cadeau.”
One day around Christmas-time an elderly customer cheekily reached across me to help himself to a raspberry perched on the top of my shopping bag.
“You didn’t pay for these now, did you?” he asked, pausing as he was about to pop the raspberry into his mouth, provoking astonished laughter from everyone in the shop (helping yourself to someone else’s food is a very un-French thing to do).
They are such trivial moments, no doubt long forgotten by everyone but me.
Yet when you are a stranger living in a foreign place, distant from the spaghetti of connections that bind you to so many people in your own beloved community, the smallest connections, the kind that happen 10, 20, 30 times a day at home, become curiously more significant.
A burst of laughter, a touch on your arm, an offer of help, a small gift – each is a jewel to be stored and treasured.
After a year of living in Provence, we are no longer travelling light – there are connections all around us.
However I still remember some of those earliest moments of kindness and I’d like to share them with you to celebrate 365 days since we arrived in Provence.
This gorgeous woman welcomed us.
Her job was to make sure the house was presentable and hand over the keys.
What she did was prepare us an afternoon tea in the sunshine with soft drink and bonbons for the boys and madeleines and rosé for the grown-ups. She waited a long, long time because we were very late.
She kissed all five of us and laughed when our boys struggled out of her grip – knowing that they couldn’t resist her for long.
From the first day, she took a heartfelt interest in how we were getting on – and did everything she could to help us settle in and find our feet. We all fell in love with her in five minutes flat and now we get to call her a friend.
We were very lucky to have met her.
“Hello!” she called, daintily skipping between the stones. “You are from Noo Zay-londah?”
“Oh j’adore Noo Zay-londah!”
Her smile just about blew my head off. Sunshine.
Turned out, her son had done a school exchange in the Hawkes’ Bay and she had recently been there with her family to pick him up. New Zealand was kind to him, and her and the rest of the family when they visited. Thank you for that, my hospitable compatriots because for the rest of her life, this gorgeous woman will have a soft spot for New Zealanders.
We had coffee, we chatted and she invited me to lunch. It turned out we had more in common than a connection with my country.
I will never forget her chasing after me in a rocky driveway in those entirely impractical but very fetching high-heeled sneakers. What a lovely thing to do.
This man offered his help.
When I first came to Aix-en-Provence all alone to look at houses to rent, I spend many hours sitting in his café, Nino’s, on the Cours Mirabeau, scanning the real estate ads, checking emails and writing.
One day, I was in his café reflecting on my good luck at finding the perfect house after only four days – a beautiful old farmhouse, three hectares of gardens, orchards and woodland, a swimming pool and spa, room for visitors, not too far from the town and within our budget. Suddenly I panicked. Was it too good to be true? Was I being scammed? Who were these real estate agents anyway but a couple of strangers I had met by Le Rotonde!?
To my astonishment, the agents happened to walk up to the café and this man kissed them like old friends.
After they had moved on with a friendly wave in my direction, I asked my host what he knew of them. He assured me that I was in safe hands and called over one of his staff members, who vouched for them in rapid-fire speech with words that included “my mother”, “selling her house” and “you can have confidence”.
He was right. The agents were impec, the deal was done and the house was perfect.
Four months later I took Sabbatical Man to lunch at Nino’s and Jean-Michel instantly recognised me and warmly welcomed Sabbatical Man.
“Vous-êtes bien installé?” he asked [“Have you settled in OK?”].
Then he offered his help: information, advice, contacts – anything at all. He would be very happy to help.
He meant it. You ask anyone who lives here: if a French person offers you help or invites you to stay or says “you must come for dinner”, it is not a hollow offer.
We never needed his help but whenever I wander into his café and order my café allongé or salade provençale, I always feel perfectly at home.
This man invited us to a party.
We had only been in the country a week or two when an email arrived from a complete stranger inviting us to Chasse au Tresor – an easter egg treasure hunt.
To be honest, we didn’t want to go. We were still exhausted from all the mad build-up to leaving New Zealand and weren’t ready for a social life outside of the family.
Luckily we went anyway.
We headed south and took a right at the hooker (his country lane has no signpost but it does have a prostitute) and trudged up his drive to be welcomed into our first Provençal style party.
There were a bunch of people from all over: France, Holland, Switzerland, the Bahamas, Canada, Spain – some of whom have become very dear to us.
That impec real estate agent was there and it turned out he was the one who had passed on our contact details because he knew that it would be a great opportunity to meet a lot of very nice people.
There were many bottles of rosé, perfectly prepared little hors d’oeuvres in individual little cups, sausisse on the barbecue, fresh baguettes delivered by the baker on his way home from work. There were many languages spoken, many laughs and far too much chocolate for the children.
I don’t think I had ever invited strangers to a party at my house before meeting this man – but I have now and I am happy to say he is no longer a stranger to us. We like him more than we would ever let on.
We thought she was a French teacher.
She thought she was the French ambassador, Aix-en-Provence tourism bureau, Department of Social Welfare and Social Secretary all rolled into one.
She arrived not just with the textbooks but local newspapers, pamphlets and maps.
“Do you have a doctor? Do you know what number to call for the pompiers [fire service]. Do you know where to find the after-hours chemist? Do you want to play tennis? Do you want to join a French conversation group? Do you want to visit a chocolate factory next Wednesday?”
And so it continued until our brains were full.
There followed a brief French lesson.
We had our first kerfuffle about payment that day.
“But you’ve been here the whole morning!” we said.
“Pffft!” she said, hand waving furiously at the dirty cash being held out toward her. “Zzzzbt.”
Nowadays we know her a lot better and have been caught up in her mad social net. She brings sunshine into our lives and that of everyone she knows.
A few weeks ago I had an email from her: “Hey, a New Zealand family has arrived in town and they’re a bit lost. We need to do something.”
Yes of course we did.
Wouldn’t you agree that the world needs more of the Divine Mme D?
This woman laughed out loud.
When you’re finding your way in a second language your jokes can easily fall flat.
People simply look simply puzzled and a bit sympathetic.
The first time I met this woman at the butchershop up the road she cracked up, took the piss out of my accent, taught me the Provençal word for chatterbox and made me feel right at home.
She doesn’t have to be as nice as she is.
Every time I walk in there, her face lights up and she makes me feel like I’m the customer she’s been hoping for all day long.
“Coucou!” she called from the back of the shop one day, a couple of months after I met her. “I recognised you by your voice!”
And it’s not just her – when I asked to take her photo for this blog, her colleagues were horrified at the favouritism.
“Je vais rigoler à vos blagues la prochaine fois [I’m going to laugh at your jokes the next time],” roared one butcher. Another pretended to sulk.
I have never left Eguilles Viandes without being wished a good day and more often an excellent one.
I am still a foreigner in France, we are still strangers to almost everyone in Provence but there is one tiny corner of this place that is very familiar to us and feels rather like home.