Would it be long gander at the magnificent fountain, spontaneously arising from the center of the approaching roundabout, or a quick peek at the map stuffed between my thigh and the seat of the car? Torn between options - I chose the fountain. That decision ultimately had me circling in a traffic whirlpool, attracting puzzled looks from fellow travelers and locals alike. Too bad. Concern evaporated along with the spray of a few errant drops on my face as I made my first tour of La Rotonde, the entrance fountain to Aix (pronounced “ex”) en Provence.
Once off the wheel, I was eager to know more of this Town of a Thousand Fountains. In reality, Aix is punctuated with 40 bubbling baths, each murmuring its own recitation of history. They whisper of Roman settlements, brutal battles, religious crusades, the devastating Black Plague, the reverberation of German boots as soldiers marched through town during World War II and the crack of gunshots as they settled in for the duration. These ancient fountains have swallowed countless secrets of a sometimes dark and violent past.
And here, upon these eternal springs, I would build a future.
It quickly became clear that just enough French to get by – which was not enough for managing day to day. My expectation of fluency within six months? Didn’t happen. Alas, my shoulders began to take up residence around my ears, moving slightly forward to create a shelter around my tightening heart.
Un-spilled tears found their soul mates in the bubbling basins around town as I explored the cobbled streets. While the fountains chattered away in staccato passages, I realized that theirs was the only language I could understand. They murmured encouragement as I passed. They gargled daily reminders of my Buddhist underpinnings, wordlessly illustrating each moment falling into the next. No grasping. No judgment.
The fountains of Aix, from the ornate to the ordinary, were my first friends as I navigated this new world.
A native southern Californian, the scarcity of water is nothing new. The same is true in Provence, a region that enjoys an average of 300 days a year of golden sunshine. The romans were onto something when they discovered the hot springs of Aix en Provence, (originally Aquae Sextiae – named for the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus) in 123 B.C. They created a settlement here (their first in France) that would last for almost 300 years. A popular spa town since its discovery, the underground springs of thermal waters were given an abundant additional slosh when the Verdon canal and the Zola dam were built in the 19th century...
...to be continued...