Robert Cohen

We are all quietly bored by other people’s trips, just as we are by other people’s dreams. The singsong rhythms—interlude, event, interlude, event—can’t be conveyed. Patterns of meaning feel either buried or tacked on; in any case, they lack urgency. So much remains latent, experiential. No retelling can bring it to life. But we go on trying.

We have settled into Provence, or rather we have allowed Provence to settle into us. Arid, cloudless afternoons, breezy nights. Late meals, long walks. Opening the wood shutters on one side of the house, closing them on the other, following the sun. There are subtle changes in fortune. For example, thanks to yet another errant soccer ball, we have finally met the neighbors, the Dragones.  Their name does not do them justice: They are in fact very warm, alert, and solicitous as they chat noisily in French with my wife. I nod and give forth with the occasional knowing “ah oui,” as if nothing has been, could ever be, lost on moi. Their Provençal accent has a little twang to it, we notice, a slight elongation or distortion of the vowels. Ce n’est pas grave, is their basic response to almost every question we raise. It appears to be a regional philosophy of sorts. 

I am trying hard to learn it. Just yesterday my wife, for reasons that remain obscure to us both, left four crisp 200 franc notes on a cafe table in Aix. She is a wonderful, large-hearted woman, and to see her looking so stricken by her own mistake made my chest throb. I knew just what to say to make her feel better, too. Ce n’est pas grave. Unfortunately my attempt came out slightly northernized, more along the lines of How could you do something so fucking stupid? But I suppose, with time, I’ll get a better handle on the language.

To console me about all that money gone she told me I could go ahead and use the disaster for “that damned diary” if I wanted to, but I told her no, of course not, I would never embarrass her that way. I told the same thing to our old friend Adam Zagajewski, the sublime Polish poet, when he called the other day. “You only want to use me for that piece you are writing,” he said. I explained at once how exploiting him that way was the very last thing on my mind, but perhaps my voice lacked conviction: He called back to suggest, cunningly, that we schedule our rendezvous for later today, after I have filed my last entry. So I won’t mention that either, how later today we will go to the sea, to a place near Toulon which Adam and his wife love, and which he assures me will be very nice and uncrowded. 

But that will be later. First I will put on my sandals and walk into Tourves for the morning bread. The dogs will bark as I go by. The women will be dressed, even way out here in the provinces, in tight black clothes, platform shoes. The same young men as always will be sweeping the gutters outside the cafe. I will recognize one from the boule courts, a terrific finesse player, or bowler, or whatever they call them, the guys with the boules. (Actually the Provençal game is called pétanque, a shortened version of pieds tanques, or tied feet, as devised by a particularly cranky arthritic ninety years ago.  Some of the older guys appear to carry this even further, into tied backs and tied arms; they use a magnet on a string to pick up the balls.)  People will eye me curiously. They know I am a stranger. They’ve heard us speak English, fumble for change in the shops; they’ve seen us at the cafe, or at the boule tournament, or the Bastille Day celebration, watching the medieval spectacles, the fire-eaters, the jugglers, the musicians. We’re known to be very watchful people here. Gawkers. Tourists. Why fight it? I came here intending to be skeptical about this place, about the whole Bella France/Italy/Spain sort of sentimentalism, and yet the skeptical approach can be as sentimental as credulity. You see what you see. I have been looking through a double lens, these last five days, not just looking but watching myself look, as diarists do. Now I’ll try to simplify that process by half.  First the walk and the bread. Then the sea. It’s time to close the shutters on this diary. Au revoir.