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If you were going to move to another country where you couldn’t speak the language that well, what is the one non-obvious but absolutely essential thing you need to know?

 

For me it was having my hair cut and dyed for the first time. It was a comic-tragedy with that rare happy-ending with me, the husband, and the hair dresser trying to figure out what I wanted and how to say it in French. The end result was perfect and I love my new hair-dresser, but it was a nerve wracking hour hoping she wasn’t going to dye my hair that horrible shade of purple-red so loved by the old women here.

These are the types of things no one thinks about. You move to another country and say to yourself “I can buy bread and order wine, what more do I need?” Then you come down with a skin rash and have to open a savings account and jolt up in bed one night at 3am thinking “I don’t know the word for savings account in <insert language here>.”

I’m talking about past experiences of course, but as I prepare one of my own students for a future move to England, I am wracking my brain trying to think of things she NEEDS to know or there will be somewhat tragic consequences.

The word for laundry detergent vs the word for fabric softener. Yeah, for a month our clothes were super soft, but no cleaner until the husband looked at the bottle and saw the mistake I’d made on my last purchase

It will be summer soon. All of Europe and some of the US will be descending on Provence. If I could give you some advice before you depart for your vacation, I’d probably scare you away. But today, I’d like to warn you, or at least give you a preview of the trains.

 

Once, I have no doubt that traveling by train was a pleasant experience, possibly easy and comfortable, and in reality, it’s not actually a bad experience today. But romantic? Not so much. The glamor is gone.

Trains are few and far between, and that’s when SNCF is NOT on strike which happens about once a month. The trains themselves are cold, dirty and covered in graffiti inside and out. They do their jobs well enough, and I have no complaints, but be careful of wet marker if you lean against a wall.

The above is one of the few trains I saw on my sojourn Monday and the only one not covered in graffiti – through there is a little on the top you can see.

There’s the train stations themselves. In the small towns of Provence on route between Toulon and Marseille the stations are quaint, abandoned, quiet. When it’s warm out, it’s a pleasant place to eat lunch while you wait for your train.

Looks cute huh?

Until you realize you have a two hour wait because SNCF is on strike and the trains are all delayed and there’s not a toilet for miles.

Some people go in the bushes. I do the potty-dance.

Now, I don’t want to discourage people from taking the local trains (Don’t get it confused with the TGV). The view is often enjoyable and when the trains are on time they are a relaxing way to travel. But I suggest traveling with a cat in your bag to be safe. Go to the bathroom before you leave and drink water sparingly. And that weird old fridge smell on the train is just the air conditioning, I promise.

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I am waiting at the train station. It’s a cloudy day, almost cold if it wasn’t for the humidity. I sit on the odd, concrete stairs that separate the queue from the station building, and take out of my purse a small slice of something wonderful.

 It is my personal belief that all train stations should have a boulangerie somewhere within sight and walking distance. But in my limited knowledge of les gares de Provence I only know of even a smaller number that fill this requirement.

 So I planned ahead. This half-eaten fruit-crumble pastry is from the bakery across the street from my apartment.

I probably shouldn’t be eating it. It’s loaded with calories, but as there’s fruit – blueberries most likely – inside, I try to pretend it’s a healthy breakfast.

 I’ve arrived an hour early for my train. So by the time I’m done waiting in line to buy my ticket, listening to the life stories of two obstinate women trying to get to god-only-knows-where in two months, I have 40 minutes to spend savoring my pastry. (One of them was still arguing at her teller window after I was done paying for my passage)

 First I break my pastry in half, telling myself that I’ll only eat one part now and save the rest for later, or maybe give it to some hungry person. Yeah, right.

 I like to pick off the “crumble parts” first. Those round things that are about the width of my thumb. They are buttery, soft and have the texture of crumbs someone smashed together into a ball, and if that doesn’t sound good to you, you don’t know the guilty pleasure of scraping together the last of a birthday cake or the bottom of a brownie pan – and I pity you.

 After, I eat the butter, browned crust, which leaves me with a soft, fruity cake to munch on, piece by piece. I don’t miss a crumb. I cup one hand under my chin to catch any breakage. I lick my fingers clean. It’s not a sweet cake – only mildly sweet with butter and tart fruit. The crust is all butter and flower and just a little bit flaky. The inside is not cake. On top are the baked berries whose juices have infused the dough. It’s almost paste-like and it would be a pleasure to chew even if I had the worst toothache in the world – it’s that soft.

 I’m in heaven.

 The station is not too crowded this morning. A little strange, given that the day before – a Thursday – it was packed. Do people take trains on Thursdays but not on Fridays here? There’s one guy sitting on the concrete steps a little ways down from me. Another on the chairs across from me. I keep my legs tightly pressed together, to catch crumbs, but also because I’m wearing a very short skirt.

 I begin to eat the next portion of my pastry. And then remember – I should take a photo. The other waiting passengers watch as I pull out my camera and take a photograph of the half-eaten cake that I’ve been savoring for the past 15 minutes.

 It’s hard not to scarf this thing down. Which is why I was scribbling these notes in my journal while I was eating. When it’s over, I press the unforgotten crumbs into my thumb and lick them off. I gather up my box and paper and throw it away.

 I spot a small, golden crumb on my exposed toes and for a moment I consider giving myself one last little taste. But thankfully, my love of food stops at my feet and I’m able to restrain myself.