Aix, part 3…I had dinner by myself at La Pizza, a restaurant my wife and I always enjoyed (but which is a lot less charming than it used to be), and strolled about spotting old places I used to know. The Red Clover, a pub I never could like, is now called something like O’Shannon, and looks just as inviting as its predecessor. Le Manoir, a cheesy knight-themed club, is still there too, but I didn’t go in to see if they still have those hole-in-the-floor toilets. Happy Days, a place I’d never been to but would always prompt me to sing the song in French every time I passed (“Dimanche, Lundi, Heureux Jours…”). The Loch Ness, long gone. Le Sunset was still there and I always enjoyed it there, but they were having a karaoke thing and while it’s my lifelong dream to sing Johnny Halliday’s “Allez les Blues, on est Tous Ensemble” in front of people I decided against it. Le Brigand is still there, down at Place Richelme, and I did stop by there for a pint, siting outside (becasue there are no seats inside now) as in the olden days, everyone just sat about on the steps drinking and talking. I remember one night back in 2002 shortly after the first round of the French elections (when Le Pen’s Front National came second, making it to the play-offs), sat here with lots of other students discussing politics, and football (the World Cup was coming up), and my future wife who I had recently started dating was very impressed at my ability to hold conversations in French and German simultaneously, and getting better at each language the more beer I had.
I would only be able to sketch one pub though, so I went to O’Sullivans, which if any pub could be called my ‘local’ in Aix, this was it. I probably went here more than any other because it was convenient, friendly, and they served Leffe. It hasn’t changed in the slightest. I took a seat by the bar and sketched the tall taps – I recall I had drawn them once before in 2003, but I’ll show you the comparison sketches in a different post (basically sketches in Aix from the early 2000s compared to now. It’s fun). I didn’t converse a lot with people except the barman, but mostly because my French is just pantalons now. Honestly, I do really have a degree in French, but I am struggling to speak it these days. When I was in Strasbourg I was trying to describe something really cool I had seen to some other sketchers, and ended up saying, “Well, there are no words to describe it,” before adding quietly, “…because I don’t know them.” Over the years my French has developed into a kind of Del-Boy-esque patois, where it is more amusing to me to actually get it wrong than right, but I can’t get away with saying “Mange Tout, Mange Tout!” before every meal over in France. My French was not so bad however that people assumed I can’t speak it (which used to happen here), so they would speak normally and quickly to me. I’ve decided I’m a good listener in French, and mastered the art of nodding and saying “D’accord” and “Ah, ouais”. I also had to listen very carefully, because they would say things only once.
One thing that is different now is that people don’t smoke inside French pubs any more. I am very pleased about that (coming from California), but they do smoke outside and it just wafts in anyway. It reminded me of the ‘Zones Fumeurs’ (smoking zones) they would have at the University in Aix when I worked there, which would just be the corridor next to the corridor where you couldn’t smoke. It made no difference because smoke would just waft through, and into the classrooms. I remember being on a train from Arles with a friend and the carriage was supposed to be non-smoking, but someone was there in their seat with their Gauloise, so we asked the conductor. He just shrugged (a Gallic Shrug of course) and said, well this carriage is ‘mixed’. Which makes no sense, but summed everything up. Well now people can’t smoke in pubs, so things are changing, but I was still surprised at the sheer number of smokers walking around the street, and very young smokers too. Coming from California where it seems like hardly anyone smokes any more it was a culture shock; did they not get the memo?
It was a Thursday night, but it was really busy in Aix, there were a lot of people about. Aix was always a popular place to go out and I remember this about it now. In O’Sullivan’s (a nominally Irish-themed pub) it was mostly French people, but just as in my day there were a lot of Americans and several English too. Aix is very popular with visiting American students and I met many while I was there. There was another group seated in the back who were all French and kept breaking into La Marseillaise. that’s nice, like Casablanca, I said to myself. Some wore berets and others had light blue shirts on, so they were probably just young cadets on a night out from their national service. On closer inspection however a couple had Confederate flags draped from their belts, while others wore large heavy chains, and some had a gothic-font phrase on their shirts in English about “Honour, Tradition, Strength” or something to that effect. Hmm, I wondered, but decided not to ask what it meant. The atmosphere in the bar was good, just as it always had been in the past, and the beer was cheap. I realized that I could not remember ever having an evening out by myself in Aix, I always knew a lot of people when I lived here and previous visits back had always been with friends. It felt unusual to be out in Aix by myself! I kept on with the sketch, which took me over two hours total and was drawn in a burgundy pen. It was nice to be back.