“"I know nothing with any certainty but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent Van Gogh



I feel that to experience culture shock as an American traveling to Western Europe is a little cowardly. If you join the Peace Corps and are sent to Sub-Saharan Africa or Myanmar then culture shock is an acceptable experience. Western Europe, France in this case, has all the same luxuries, demographics, household appliances etc. that exist in America. The water is potable. They drive on the right side of the road. Basically America with a different language. Not at all.

This is another continent, another land. French culture has been evolving since the Gauls and the Romans, and whatever before that, the Druids I think. Through time, the ways of this place have been preserved with minimal outside influence. What history has birthed is a people of immense pride and a merciless stigma. Food is a celebration, but practice temperance with the cheese. Kiss a stranger on each cheek, and if you say hello to me twice in one day then I will actively ignore you. If you don’t fall in, then by all means leave. The reality of the real France, outside of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, is quite intimidating. And I love it.

France begins in Canada, which I flew through before jumping the Atlantic. In the Montréal Airport the English language was no longer heard. I did see an old American couple violently yelling at each other in English but that was it. It was time to embrace France.

As we flew into Marseille I was glued to the window, unconcerned with the middle and aisle passengers, observing the place where the ocean stopped and Europe began. Technically it was the Mediterranean Sea and we had flown over Spain and Portugal an hour ago but I was asleep. Symbolically that window moment was the threshold to the continent and that is all that matters.

Marseille to Aix-en-Provence is a quick trip and before I knew it I had arrived to meet Jill and her family for lunch. Serge, Jill, Alex, Sergio and Ginny were extremely welcoming while we ate cherries and bread. Their family art show in Aix proper was this week and everyone was involved in the marathon that an art show of this magnitude is. Jill quickly sped me to the old town to wander around for an hour while she met with some clients. Starting at the cathedral I was reminded how old Europe is. The recent 19th century additions sit atop the Gothic vaulted ceilings which rest on Medieval columns atop Roman foundations all centered around a pagan baptismal font that is God knows how old. I went to an art shop to find a drawing board that I needed to paint on. Like an idiot, I decided to attempt speaking french to the cashier who shut me down immediately with a “Non. What do you want?” Turns out drawing boards are not a thing so I was directed to the hardware store.

That afternoon Sergio, who is my age, invited me to come out on his friend’s boat on the Mediterranean. Of course I said yes. On the way to the marina Sergio and Alexander asked me how my French was. I said mal and they laughed. “Get Ready.” I met Paul, Julian and Aoleon (I have no idea how to say or spell his name but he is super nice). Paul’s Yacht had three cabins and two steering wheels, it was amazing. Setting out on the still Sea at dusk we were headed for two small islands where we would anchor up for the night. Some courtesy English was spoken but pretty quickly went to their native tongue as it should. I was listening hard and picking up words like poisson or d’accord. I also heard “cet americain” a lot but I didn’t care. I just drank the wine and laughed when they did. Paul let me steer the boat in the dark. He kept saying “rouge en vert” talking about the distant ship lights. Depending on the color sequence they are going away or coming towards you which is a hazard. I told him I was red-green colorblind which was impossible to translate and I didn’t have my glasses. I kept saying I saw shooting stars but they would roll their eyes. It was just quick seagulls flying past our bow light. The next day we rose early and swam in the sea. Of all the alpine lakes and many coasts and rivers I’ve swam in, the Medd is hands down the best. It is so blue that when you stare into it’s depths and your shadow is cast endlessly to the bottom it’s an azure introspective nightmare. No sharks, you float like a cork, no worries.

Hanging with the boys was the perfect first night in France. It’s ignorant to say, but I was so intrigued that there were these foreign friends laughing and joking just like me and my friends would at home. They spoke in a different language about the same thing: each other’s idiot escapades and girls.

We returned to Aix the next day and it was time to paint. I get an itchy feeling of stir crazy laziness when I haven’t painted for a few days. That afternoon and evening I painted in the olive fields looking out past the pines over Provence. My goal was to capture the sunset on the olive trees. Painting outside is totally different from working from a photograph. There are no edges to the scene, no scale or set colors. The sun moves quickly across the sky and the shadows from the commencement of the painting are non existent and reversed by the time it is done. How do you do it? How will I do it? I don’t know, but that is why I came to France. 

I’m not going to say my first painting was a failure because it wasn’t. However with each new painting I am beginning to feel the power of en plain air. There are new mediums today, modern brushes and easels, but painting outside is primal. The Daguerreotype was invented in 1839. Painting has existed since our times in the caves! All the Midieval tapestries and chapel ceilings were done from what we see or what our minds see. There must be something to that, something lost. 

I have spent the last four days painting within walking distance from the house. I have been exposed much to Aix and Provence, and today I finally was able to see where I was. The hike up the ridge from the house exposes a view looking far out to the plains and and rocky spines of Provence. I had to trespass through the neighbor’s land to get here. It’s not like rural America where getting shot for trespassing is a worry. The risk here is getting caught and yelled at in French which is equally as scary as a bullet. No neighbors or yelling today, I made it to the top of the ridge. The view went on for miles. Certain views allow you to place yourself on the globe. From here I could see Europe, not America.

After a while of scouting through the prickly shrubs and pine trees I found the perfect view of Mt-St-Victoire, Paul Cezanne’s mountain. The late 19th century landscape artist Paul Cezanne is synonymous with Aix-en-Provence and his favorite subject was Mt-St-Victoire. For decades he painted this same rock. It is an isolated mass of limestone. Like the Lonely Mountain of Middle Earth, it’s allegiance is owed. Even if it was not connected to this legendary artist, a passing glimpse of it would turn into a deep gaze. It exudes magic.

The painting flew right off the brush. My hand was making the decisions and not my mind. I thought this Mountain would take two days but three hours in I decided I would finish it before dark. The scene has been captured and the painting is done. I walked back home with a smile on my face, not worried about the trespassing. 

I am heading out from Aix on Wednesday to Arles, the home of Van Gogh. I will be returning to Aix for a workshop in a few weeks. My head is held high leaving and I am exited to return. Many paintings and adventures lay between now and then. Onward!

Painting Les Alyschamps

Painting Les Alyschamps

The Day of Days

The Day of Days