I boarded the boat Amsterdam to Le Havre, France at New York City port 79. I was introduced to a group of other students from the French department of Southwestern at Memphis. They also had signed on to the junior year abroad program at Aix-en-Provence, France. They had their own chaperone, though, an elderly American French professor with a much younger wife. Aside from frequent bridge playing, their group stayed together as they ate, walked the decks together, and had sporadic drinks together at the several ships bars. They were friendly towards me, but generally kept to their group. I was the lone non-group passenger associated with the French study program on board ship. Of course they had never met anyone from “Idaho, what, oh Iowa?”
When we debarked at Le Havre, we transferred to the Gare de Nord hotel where I de facto became our general de luggages. These students were exactly that, students, with a very limited exposure to the commercial world. Most of them seemed to be from small towns in Texas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Mississippi or Alabama. My background included business and business traveling. I had conquered all sorts of nomadic challenges as well as other encroachments of reality while traveling away from hearth and home.
The luggage transfer was handled in the typical overly complicated French manner. Lots of hand wringing, agitated looks and continual mix-ups with twenty some travelers and over seventy-five bags, boxes, suitcases and backpacks handled by one “harried” porter. I helped him sort things out, but it never occurred to me he had performed his task perfectly to encourage us to increase his tips. He had been overwhelmed by the unexpected intricacies of his job that he paled from all the supposed extra effort. It dawned on me later he was not real pleased with my assistance, but it certainly made me indispensable to my fellow travelers when the next day we clamored on board Le Mistral for the TGV (high speed) train to Marseilles.
The next few days were a collection of wide eyed amazements and “where to goes” as we were placed in local homes, wandered the ancient city, soaked up with pleasure the French atmosphere and generally submerged ourselves in the foreign culture of Southern France. My room was located about a six or seven-minute walk from the University on Rue de Gaston Saporta, and my path took me past Cathedrale St-Sauveur. This church has been in nearly daily use since the 5th century! The building was older than America by over 1,000 years! I was flabbergasted by the enormity of this everyday.
Early the first evening, after a few hours of unpacking, I walked with my new friends down the cobble stoned twisted streets to the Cours Mirabeau, one of the most famous boulevards in all France. We were immediately assaulted by the cacophony of sound from the velocycles (bicycles with non-muffled motors on the front wheel), Vespas and Lambretta motor scooters which were in great profusion along with the automobiles and motorcycles of every vintage. The Cours is about five long blocks with a majestic fountain at its head, dating from 1650 along with smaller fountains and dozens of picturesque shade trees. The traffic flowed slowly down the Cours, but put on speed around the Fountain de la Rotunde toward the Boulevard de Napoleon, which was a much longer and wider extension of the Cours that allowed for more velocity and more raucous acceleration.
The Cours was dotted with cafes and bars on both sides of the truly picturesque boulevard. The buildings lining the Cours were 15th, 16th and 17th century summer palaces. It is the perfect people watching location in all of Aix. We had been cautioned, however, not to sit in the front row of tables in the tobacs or cafes. Only tourists choose the front row, we were admonished. If you want to be a real Aixois, you sat in the back row and watched the tourists sitting in the front row watching the passing humanity.
Later that first week, I walked down the Boulevard with the Director of the American Institute, Mr. Maza, which is how we always referred to him. He was originally from Connecticut and had lived in Paris and Aix for a number of years. He greeted several people as we dodged through the crowded sidewalk. I struggled to keep up with the language.
When we approached Le Deux Garcons, the café on the Cours which was known to have hosted Zola, Hemingway, Cezanne, Buffet, Picasso, and other French men of note, I noticed a small table of older men. One of the men called out to Mr. Maza by name and motioned us over. As I approached the table, I noticed a man who looked a lot like the pictures I had seen of Pablo Picasso.
As Mr. Maza and I stood by, I noticed they were all talking heatedly about some subject which I finally figured out was a recent property tax hike. Mr. Maza and I pulled up the little café chairs and he immediately joined in. Mr. Maza introduced me in both French and English as a newly arrived estidiant de America. They all said Allo in turn, and a few offered me their hand. Mr. Maza introduced Picasso as Pablo Picasso as if he were just another townie. Picasso glanced up with his piercing black eyes and slightly nodded his large head.
Our lattes, cafes and brioches arrived in a few moments. The others were about finished. I observed Picasso closely but tried not to be too obvious. He spoke heatedly and was interrupted as he spoke just like his tablemates. He was not treated with any more deference than the others.
After a few moments Picasso glared at me and said, “Passez moi de sucre, s’il vous plait, Americain.” I was surprised. I was shocked. By the time I could move, somebody reached out and handed him the sugar bowl. He looked me in the eye and said with a faint smile “Merci, Americain.” I didn’t know what to say.
Mr. Maza and I got up to leave and as we said our au revoirs, a bientots and good byes, the waiter brought a check to the table. I watched Mr. Maza and the others offer a few francs. Picasso had grabbed the check and with a flourish signed the back and the front of it along with the date. They piled their few francs on top of the bill and everyone scraped back from the table.
I noticed the pile of francs did not match the bill amount but said nothing. We all went our various ways. Mr. Maza chuckled and said “You just saw the truest test of fame in all of France.”
“Oh, you mean Picasso having coffee with his friends and they didn’t bow and scrape to him?” I offered.
“Oh no,” he grinned “Did you notice how the bill was paid? Picasso loves to invite friends to have coffee or eat with him. When the bill comes he autographs it. He lets everyone else pay the tip. All the cafes know his tactics. His autograph on the bill is worth many, many times more than the bill! This way he eats and treats his friends for free and makes the café owner happy, too!”
We continued walking slowly down the Cours while I continued my French education.