maps and memories

map of where i sketched in aix
I left Aix-en-Provence in a huge rainstorm that seemed to cover most of France, on a TGV that wouldn’t get to Strasbourg until after midnight. I was pretty happy with what I’d sketched, though sad to leave. Here is a map I have put together showing all the locations in Aix of my sketches; if you click on the map you can see it in bigger format. It’s not the first time I’ve drawn a map of Aix, but before I show it to you, I wanted to show you a comparison of some sketches I did about twelve years ago with the same locations as sketched now..

Two sketches of the Fontaine des Neuf Canons, Cours Mirabeau, 2003 and 2015. I liked that blue sketchbook and blue pen at the time (no, it was not my blue period).

Two sketches of the Place de l’Hotel de Ville, the bottom one from February 2003 in a Canson sketchbook in black pen and coloured pencil, the top one from June 2015 in brown ink and watercolour.

Bechard, the place to buy your Calissons d’Aix on the Cours Mirabeau, 2003 and 2015.

What can I say, I was treading old ground. The almost exact same shot of Pub O’Sullivans sketched twelve years apart. I was drinking a Leffe in the 2003 sketch too (I know because I actually sketched it on the next page).

I know I have one of the Cathedral from 2002 too which I must dig out and add to this post. It’s interesting to think that my style might have evolved or improved over the years, I’m still drawn to the same subjects. I had actually forgotten I had sketched these before until I came back and looked at the old book again. But speaking of things I have drawn before, here is a map of Aix that I drew in 2003 in that Canson book (which I had purchased at Papeterie Michel, on the Cours Mirabeau, my favourite art shop in Aix (and I am pleased to say it is still there). It’s a more cartooony style than I use for my maps now but I love it (even though I spelled Parc Jourdan incorrectly, so it would rhyme with ‘Nain’, as in ‘Nain-de-Jardin’, after a story told to me by a guy called Corentin who said that all the Nains-de-Jardin of Aix came to life and partied here at night. I still believe him, too.


Je reviendrai!

not something distant and unfound

aix: place de l'hotel de ville
Day two in Aix, and I awoke to the sound of thunder and rain. A big storm was washing over France, and while the rain stopped the moment I stepped out of my hotel (thanks, rain!), the air was soupy. My head was a bit soupy too after going to O’Sullivan’s the night before, but after a pain-au-chocolat and an escargot (the pastry, not the actual snail) I felt right as, well, rain. I had avoided sketching the clock tower outside the Mairie in the Place de l’Hotel de Ville the day before, mostly because I ran out of time just saying that sentence, but I wanted it to be the first thing I sketched in the morning. It’s the iconic view of Aix, it may even be required for all visiting artists to sketch or paint it at some point. This spot is just around the corner from where my then-future-wife lived when we started dating, so there were lots of happy memories walking up there. The three flags outside the government building incidentally are the French flag (in the middle), the flag of Provence (red and yellow), and the flag of the European Union on the left, which at the time of writing still existed. I’m jesting of course, but all this talk about the Eurozone falling apart brings back more Aix memories. I was living in Aix at the time of the changeover, when we all gave up our Francs and Deutschmarks and Lira to take up the exciting new Euro. It was exciting too; while my bank account had been formally in both Euros and Francs for a while (as it had been when I lived in Belgium a couple of years before), now we could get to use the real thing. The first thing I noticed, prices tended to get rounded up. We all knew the rate between the Franc and the Euro but with new coins, well, makes sense monsieur. Secondly, no fake money. I probably came across a counterfeit Franc at least once a week before January 1st, 2002, but in the first months of the Euro everything was real, or at least nobody knew how to spot the fakes yet. Thirdly, on trips to other Eurozone countries, no more exchanging currency. It was a happy, innocent time. On this trip however, I was having a great time with the Euro being so weak against the Dollar. I came back to the US thinking, man I should have spent more. But my time was short, my bag was small, and so I spent time on sketching.
aix: cathedrale st sauveur

This is the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence. I love to sketch a cathedral, but I hadn’t planned on sketching this one because, my ratioanl went, I had drawn it already, about thirteen years ago. Never mind that I draw things again all the time and quite a lot has changed about my drawing in the past decade or so, I just didn’t fancy it. And then I got there and I’m like, well if you must. I love this building. It is gorgeous inside, dating from the twelfth century, but there were prior churches and maybe even a Roman temple on this site long before. It’s up the hill from the old town of Aix, nearby to where my wife was studying when I met her. There are a lot of visiting American students in Aix, especially around here. I did go to a party not far from here once, at an American frat boy’s apartment, though I had no idea what a frat boy was at the time. There was a lot of drinking, but I studied in England so that was hardly unusual (I thought them relatively sober in fact). For some reason I remember having a conversation with someone about how Robert de Niro is a terrible actor, and the guy who hosted had a map on his wall where every visitor could put a pin in the place where they were from. Fuzzy memories.

aix: forum des cardeurs
Do you see that sky? Do you see how dark it is? That’s what happened, all of a sudden, as the storm clouds rolled back in. No rain, just heavy, ominous skies. I decided to skip eating lunch at the Forum des Cardeurs, a long sloping square full of restaurants and old rooftops where I used to eat quite regularly. Sketching before eating I’m afraid; well, Prima Pasta, whose seafood pasta dishes I always enjoyed, have big covers over all the outdoor seating now to make it feel more ‘indoors’, so no nice views to sketch while waiting to eat. I made do with a Quick later on instead (that’s the French fast food place, and nice it is too). Those clouds did look ominous though. While I sketched, two guys in their car got blocked in the square by another car which had decided, in typical southern French fashion (yes, you know what I’m talking about) just park directly in front of the only exit to the square, as if, huh no biggie. These two guys honked their horns patiently, quick toot at first, then a longer one, then a seriously-come-on one, then repeatedly, until when nobody came they just got out, exasperated, and looked at the offending car over and over. No car owner came. Shoulders were shrugged, ladies and gentlemen, shoulders were shrugged. They didn’t think to call anyone to remove the car. Now if this was England, there would have been a lot of swearing, letters would have been written to the Daily Mail, LBC would have been phoned in, the license plate would have been named and shamed and if the owner ever turned up it would have been curtain-twitching at twenty paces. Well the driver did eventually saunter by, a very earnest “oh, désolé“, another shrug, and the two stranded blokes just casually waved it off to say, no problem, you’re here now. And that was it, all very laid back. That little scene pretty much summed up a lot of how I remember people here in Aix. Time just happens, and that’s that. My barber in Aix, who famously never gave me what I wanted but always came up with a better variation on my very unimaginative hairstyle, used to spend half the time cutting my hair and half the time chatting away to people passing by in the street. Time is different here.
aix: bechard calissons, cours mirabeau
That said, time was getting on. I had time enough for one more sketch before getting my bus to the TGV station. I went to the Cours Mirabeau and sketched Bechard, the Calisson makers. Bechard is a lovely sweetshop which specializes in Calissons d’Aix, small almond-shaped sweets made from almonds and dried fruits, similar to marzipan but a bit nicer. This is the traditional Aix candy and yes, I brought some home.
place d'albertas
And then it was goodbye to Aix! Well, au revoir. An all-too-brief trip, but a nice reunion. I don’t know anybody here any more, but I still know the city, and that is enough. Aix-en-Provence was the city that changed the direction of my life, set me on the path I am now on, both personally and artistically. It’s so far away now, but still there, for when I need it. I got on my bus to the TGV, and within seconds the heavens opened with an enormous downpour – perfect timing you might say! It could have been a bit more perfect though – my bus got stuck in absolute standstill traffic on the autoroute, caused by the thunderous storm. Panic set in. Sacre bleu, I thought, I’m going to miss my train to Strasbourg. Traffic wasn’t even crawling, it was just stopped. But thankfully I made it, and the train itself was delayed – more fortuitous traveling. I settled onto the packed TGV, and zoomed north through the impenetrable grey.

Next up: Strasbourg!

Actually no, next up is a map of Aix plus a little post comparing Aix sketches from twelve or thirteen years ago and now…

a night out in aix

aix o sullivans
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.

les bouches à incendie d’aix

Hydrant at Marseille airport

I hadn’t expected to see fire hydrants in Provence, but I left the airport and, there they were. I obviously wasn’t as interested in drawing them when I lived there before. Maybe I thought that was weird. Directing a play in which wolves fought with lightsabres against people holding day-old baguettes, absolutely fine; sketching fire hydrants, get away you loony. I’m sure that is the first thought people have when they see me sketching a hydrant. “Les bouches à incendie“, that is what they are called here. Or ‘bouche d’incendie’. Anyway, I sketched the one above while waiting for my navette (that is the shuttle bus between airport and town) at the Marseille-Provence airport. The one below was started while waiting for my first poulet-frites in ten years, and finished later.

Aix hydrant 2 sm
DSC04448“Poulet-frites”, I hear you say? This was my favourite meal when I lived in Aix. There were a few places I would get them, the best being the little place outside the Super U, but I also liked “Le Regal” as well. Well a decade later Le Regal had moved across the street to a spot outside the post office, significanty upgraded its friterie stand, but still they produce lovely poulet-frites. Poulet-frites is basically a small baguette filled with chicken and the sauce of choice (I love le mayo), then topped off with loads of fresh frites (French Fries to you). Poulet-frites, I love you very much. There is my poulet-frites on the right.
Aix-en-Pce hydrant
Lastly, this one, a semi-naked fire hydrant on the corner of Avenue Victor Hugo (the famous writer / cartoon crimefighting duo) and Boulevard Roi René (the last king of Provence / cafe owner and helper of the Resistance in WWII). Do you remember when I sketched fire hydrants at 2am in Los Angeles? Well I sketched this one at 2am as well. I was having a stroll through the still-balmy streets on my way back to the hotel after a night sketching an old pub I used to know, and this one caught my eye. When I was done sketching, I popped into a late-night convenience store to get a nice cold Fanta Citron to drink. A drunk man in the shop smiled at me and said, “eh, tu es gourmand!” I had been looking at the Mars Bars and though he might have been sarcastic. He then patted my tummy, and said again, “tu es gourmand, monsieur!” Cheeky get, I thought, sure my belly’s getting a bit portly but as I explained to him (because I felt the need to explain), “no no, it’s ok, I live in America.” I said that (in French) as if it somehow justified my paunch, like living in America with all of its fast-food and chocolate-based holidays will somehow contribute to weight gain (in my case it does, along with the desk job and general lack of exercise, but I also lived on poulet-frites and Pepsi-Max when I lived in France so touché). Not that I haven’t been vain about my stomach size in the past; once at the doctor’s office, the nurse asked me to stand on the scales to be weighed and I held in my tummy to make it appear as if I’d lost weight. That didn’t work. But I thought, no, if I’m a gourmand then so be it, I’m going to have that Mars Bar, to hell with you, drunken French stranger and your early-hours waist-size-judging fixation. Then I remembered, it’s ok, Mars Bars are slightly smaller in France than in England, so I have nothing to worry about.

Incidentally, I learned the French name for fire hydrants because I came across the French version of Gabi Campanario’s book “The Art of Urban Sketching” while in a bookshop in Strasbourg. Below, I talk in French about why I love sketching them so much (click to see plus grand, and I guarantee you, my French is nowhere near that good…)


Next up: sketching a totally French bar called “O’Sullivan’s”!

going back to aix

cours mirabeau

On my CV, it says that I spent a year in Provence. Technically, it was more like nine months, but ‘nine months in Provence’ sounds more like a gestation period than a reference to a famous book (and a dull TV series). Between the 2001 and 2002 I lived in Aix-en-Provence, the ancient Provencal capital, teaching at the university, eating poulet-frites, losing at the French language. Most importantly, it was during that year in Aix that I met my lovely wife. We visited a few more times in the following years, visiting old friends and old favourite places, but I hadn’t returned to Aix since moving to America ten years ago. So you can imagine my excitement as my navette from the airport pulled into town, Mont St. Victoire looming in the distance. This was only to be an overnighter, just a couple of days to check out the old place, see what has changed, explore shops I used to love, eat some of my favourite food – and SKETCH! One of the other things I must mention about my time in Aix: it was here that I rediscovered drawing.

DSC04481The first thing I sketched was one of the old moss-covered fountains on Cours Mirabeau, above. This is the main historic thoroughfare of Aix, dividing the old town from the slightly less old but still historic Quartier Mazarin. The fountain sketched above is called the Fontaine des Neuf Canons, which dates from 1691. I stood on the less busy side of the Cours, which was actually part of an ancient road running from Arles to Italy. The fountains are important; Aix gets its name from the Latin for ‘waters’, and was founded by the Romans in 122 BC as ‘Aquae Sextiae’, after the thermal springs named for the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus. All of that information leads us into the next sketch, which was made in Cours Sextius itself. Below is the fountain at the junction of Cours Sextius and Rue Van Loo (presumably a reference to another water spring). Now, I’ll provide the map of the town when I make the final Aix-sketches post, but Cours Sextius is a busy tree-lined road that runs up the eastern edge of the old town. I stood outside what was once upon a time the Bistrot Aixois (or Bistrot d’Aix), which as I recall was one of my least favourite places for a night out in Aix when I lived there. Now, it was all boarded up, oh what a shame. This view however, this will be so typical and familiar to any of you who have spent time in Aix.

cours sextius
While Aix hasn’t changed much, I was impressed with what changes there were. The old closed-down Casino at the Rotonde has now made way for a beautiful and aesthetically sound new shopping district, with the tourist office relocating to a fancy building next door, while the old tourist office building has been knocked down in favour of, well, an Apple store. Little has changed in the old town itself however, and I wandered up the long and narrow Rue des Cordeliers, which is where my wife lived when I met her. This leads up to the Place de l’Hotel de Ville, Aix’s famously photogenic square, but I wasn’t going to sketch the big clock tower just yet (I did it next day). Instead I stood and sketched Chat Rêveur, a shop I always loved in Aix. It always had lots of funny cat-themed items (I remember years ago buying a wooden cat-shaped coat-hanger, I think it was for my sister). Well it didn’t seem to have so much of that now, mostly general cards and souvenir stuff, but I was so glad it was still there that I sketched it, albeit without the full colour it deserves. It’s a beautiful shop front. The cat theme is relevant though because this square was always where we would see the ‘dog people’, who would tend to gather in the square being a bit scruffy and letting their dogs run all over the place. Sometimes they would play hand-drums (the people, not the dogs). I knew one such drummer actually, Corentin, he was a lovely bloke but he wasn’t a dog person (no dog), though he did like to climb trees if I remember correctly. Well on this evening, there were no dog people, no drums, no old friends dans les arbres.
chat reveur

The shop closed up while I was sketching, and as the warm evening drew in I wandered through old Aix, a head full of memories. Stay tuned for more sketches, stories and aix-periences to come…