By Michele Reed
Photos by Bill Reed
One of the most pleasurable things about living in the south of France is the slower pace of life. Because we have to take the bus everywhere, we are bound by its schedules. Sometimes this means we are hurrying, especially if we have several errands to do and the return bus is looming. But more often it means just the opposite. We’ve finished our errands and the bus doesn’t come for another half hour, an hour or two. That’s when we slow down and smell the roses — literally, if it’s Friday in Beziers, when the flower market is on the Allees Paul Riquet. Every Friday, in all seasons, rain or shine, the flower and plant sellers line the Allees. In January it’s a wonderful little breath of springtime to leisurely walk up and down the pedestrian mall, enjoying the beautiful colors of the flowers, touching a sage plant and smelling its aroma on our fingers or just dreaming about what we will buy for our terrace garden when we are here more than three months at a time.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays it’s the brocante fair, or kind of an upscale flea market. You can find high-end antiques going for hundreds of euros for a table from the Art Deco era, or a 1970s macramé plant hanger for 5 euros right down to bar glasses with French beer and liquor brands on them for 50 cents. Last winter I got a beautiful Art Deco wooden pen holder and ink well, with a leaping stag. This March, more than year later, I found a pair of matching bookends with the exact same stag leaping over identical vegetation. All three now grace the desk in my writing salon.
Wednesdays feature demonstrations of sports and fitness activities, usually for kids but sometimes for seniors. We have enjoyed sitting at the café and seeing little ones try their hands at judo or roller hockey, and laughing at their antics.
Other days will see the Alllees de Bouquin (BOO – ken), or used book fair, or the farmers’ markets, including a “nocturne” on Wednesday evenings. Thursday evenings in summer, the city provides a wine tasting party with music. Whatever the day or time of day, there’s something to enjoy on the Allees. We’ve even seen a medieval fair, complete with demonstrations of medieval weaponry and crafts to live camels (Lou the Camel is the totem animal of Beziers).
And the best part is that after wandering up and down the Allees, we can warm up or cool off, depending on the season, with a nice cup of coffee or cold beer and watch the world go by from the terrace of a sidewalk café. It’s a typical French pleasure. For the price of a coffee, you can spend an hour or two people-watching, reading a book or discussing current events.
One day in March was an especially nice moment of détente. We found the last table at one of our usual cafes, probably only available because it had just one chair. Since we are regulars, Bill didn’t hesitate to go to the stacked up chairs, move the waiters’ extra tray and wiping cloths, and pull a chair over to the table. It was right on the edge of the street, where we could watch everyone go by, and afforded a nice view of the flower market as well. Since we would be going back to the States in a few days, it was a bittersweet experience to sit and watch the flower sellers, and see our French neighbors carrying home flowers, herbs and even some strawberry plants for their “jardins.”
A word about being a regular is in order. We are now regulars at three cafes. The café where we spent our sojourn that day is called Le Petit Ju (The Little While). The owner there knows us and the waitress has our order down pat. She will often wave to us from the doorway and come out with our order on her tray a few moments later.
Our first regular haunt was Café des Arts, right by the Municipal Theatre and the Librarie du Theatre (theater bookstore). We started going there when we first bought our house and didn’t have internet yet. We got into the habit of buying a little internet time by enjoying a coffee, if it was morning, or a draft beer, in the afternoon, at the café. The owner started to recognize us and greet us with a friendly “Bonjour.” As we sat down he would ask us, “Comme l’habitude?” (Your regular order?). It really warmed our hearts when, after our first three months back in the States, we returned to the café, and the staff greeted us enthusiastically, and remembered our usual order. It’s our go-to spot for coffee and a favorite place for the three-course daily special lunch menu.
Our newest place is called Le Bar Cristal, or Crystal Bar. It has a warm place in my heart, because when I was growing up in Amsterdam, N.Y., we had a place called Crystal Bar, which served the best Italian steak sandwiches in town. One chilly late afternoon when the rest of the Allees were in shadow, the west-facing Cristal was still in sunlight. We went there for the warmth. As we sipped our coffee, we were surprised to see that we had a whole new perspective on the town from the Cristal. It is at the other end of the Allees, by the statue of native son Pierre-Paul Riquet, who was the architect of the Canal du Midi which connects the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. He made his native city the terminus of the canal, and grateful Beziers erected a statue in his honor. Cristal also gives a great view of the sports demonstrations, as well as people hurrying home at the end of the work day – a great place for people-watching.
Sipping coffee, watching people — and dogs – and just enjoying the slow pace of life. That’s an unexpected joy of our life in France.
Michele Reed retired after a career spanning four decades in public relations, advertising, journalism and higher education. She now writes travel articles, book reviews, haiku poetry and fiction. Bill Reed retired after four decades in social services with the county of Oswego, and now works at travel photography and photojournalism, along with writing book reviews.