Robert Cohen

Whatever your feelings about post-impressionist art, it’s hard to live in this part of France and not think about Cézanne. In fact, it’s hard to live in any part of France and not carry him around with you, as it were: The man’s big bald head, febrile and unsmiling, adorns the 100-franc note.

We take a trip to Aix to see his studio. That’s my agenda anyway. My wife has it in mind to wander the markets, our older son wants sandals, and our younger is out to score the new Harry Potter at the foreign language bookshop. All of which must be gotten out of the way with first.

The traffic, the jammed parking garages that surround the old city, are a shock. In workaday Tourves we are the only foreigners; it’s been easy to forget that tourist season is in full swing around us. We rarely hear our native tongue. (When I ask for a Herald Tribune at the local presse, the proprietor gives me the blankest look imaginable. “C’est un journal?” he asks skeptically.) We’re on our own. No friends nearby, no one coming through; only the four of us tooling through the Var in our borrowed diesel Nissan, listening to that serene chanteur Dr. Dre (“I’ll kill you and those loudass motherfucking barking dogs”) as we make our way. It’s not that we’re isolated, exactly; it’s more a kind of Get Smart-like cone of silence has dropped around us. It was different in Oxfordshire, where we last swapped houses. There the neighbors invited us for dinner, tutored us in the intricate, boring arcana of cricket rules and local beers, and made us feel generally like long-lost cousins who had finally come home. Our neighbors in Tourves, on the other hand, wave bonjour as we go by from behind their locked gates—the French have a passion for gates, for formalities of distance, except on the beaches of course, where all is discarded—as their surprisingly large loudass motherfucking dogs snarl and growl. The discourse we engage in with the people in the shops, or with Pascal, Madame Menet’s handyman, tends toward the practical. We appear to engender curiosity in the locals, at times even some elementary stage of affection, but intimacy, we know from prior experience, is another, longer story.

In Aix, you can’t walk two steps without getting intimate knowledge of some stranger’s physiognomy. Here all at once is the Provence we have not yet seen. Here are the little dogs, fluffy and pampered, just down from Paris. Here are their owners, the women in their skintight black capris, their high heels and plucked eyebrows. Here are the buzzing scooters, the gleaming shops, the Japanese tourists filing calmly from their buses and into one of the immaculate cafes on shady Cours Mirabeau, where the chairs and the food and the vin rosé and the laissez faire service—nothing seems more Southern about the South than the half-hour lag between the end of a meal and the delivery of one’s bill—conspire to make you lean back in a warm, dull trance to watch the passing parade.

As for the markets, they are even more variegated and abundant and beautiful than we’d heard. Because the dollar is strong and we have plenty of Cézannes in our pocket, we buy sunflowers, tomatoes, lavender honey, Tunisian olives flecked with hot peppers, a round goat cheese rolled in herbs before our eyes, and some pain à l’ancienne—all of which, if the last few days is any indication, will wind up smushed together at the bottom of our shopping bag when one or another of us, usually me, trips over its weight. But we are trying to be Southerners ourselves as we travel these old trade routes, so we decide not to care.

Finally it’s time for Cézanne’s studio. No one cares about this either. Which means no one wants to go anymore, not even me. It’s a hot afternoon, and to get there involves a steep hike uphill. But we go. And aren’t sorry. For one thing, the studio has been preserved exactly as the painter left it: Here are his dried palettes, his rickety wood stove, his black bowler and wool coat, his emaciated umbrella. The ceilings are 20 feet high; light streams through the wide windows. It’s like we’re floating in the trees. The town seems irrelevant, far away. The bourgeoisie who mocked him, the local boys who threw rocks as he trudged home from another day at that damn Mont Saint-Victoire, sick, exhausted, mistrustful … he literally put himself above all that. So he paints the same mountain again and again, and even the apples he paints are simple ones, for cooking, not for eating. And sits brooding alone in his garden. 

On the way back to Tourves we drive past it again, Mont Sainte-Victoire. It looks bald, formidable, remote. It looks like it would kill you if you tried to paint it.