It is just over a year since we left Atlanta, Georgia and moved to Aix-en-Provence. It was a change on many levels: from the USA to France, from work to retirement, from house to apartment, from a huge metropolis to a small city of 140,000 people, from family and friends to an unknown environment.

In Atlanta, one of our key activities was the Saturday morning French conversation group at la Madeleine cafe in Dunwoody. When we first heard of this group, it was a casual get-together once a month for people who wanted to practice their French.
As the group gathered momentum, it became not only a weekly event for Americans struggling with a foreign language but also a mecca for French speakers living in the city. Turn up, order a coffee, find a seat and the morning sped by in a blur of conversation, questions and new contacts. For us, it became an anchor event, without which weekends were not the same. How would we manage in a new environment without this wonderful network of French speakers?

One of our first steps upon moving to Aix was to join a group called the Anglo-American Group of Provence. Later we’ll tell you much more about this group, with its huge range of activities, but for us as newcomers, we were thrilled to find out about the conversation group, a mirror image of La Madeleine. Every Thursday and Saturday morning a group of people get together in a cafe and speak English. Not very interesting, you might think, but you’d be mistaken.

The cafe is a tiny building in a side street just off le cours Mirabeau, the main avenue of Aix. It is called Croquemitoufle, which has many associations rather than a specific meaning. Croquer in French means to bite. Food which is crispy or crunchy is described as croquant. You may have heard of a croque-monsieur, a delicious toasted ham and cheese sandwich, or a croque-madame, the same sandwich topped with a fried egg. Croquemitoufle was also the title of a song written in 1958 by Gilbert Bécaud to describe his love for Brigitte Bardot, where it seems to have the sense of curling up cosily at home.

We meet in the back “room”, actually a courtyard area open and hot in summer, closed-in but chilly in the winter. The proprietor is Annie, an unpretentious, down-to-earth lady in late middle age. No charge, but each person who attends is expected to purchase a drink to defray the cost. We meet at 10, and by 11.30 it is time to finish up and pay so that Annie can concentrate on the lunch service.

First of all, it’s a brilliant way to meet French people. Those who come along want to practice their English skills, and are keen to find out about life on the other side of the channel or the Atlantic. No membership, no commitment, so as with La Madeleine, we simply turn up, order a coffee, and enjoy the company.

And what mixed company it is! The “doyenne” is Helen, an American hailing originally from Wisconsin. At the age of twenty she married a Frenchman and moved to France. Finding herself with a baby and a husband often absent for work, she was happy to meet up with a Dutch lady who spoke English. Thus the AAGP group was born. As Helen recently celebrated her 80th birthday, you might appreciate how much she has contributed to the group. She still comes faithfully twice a week, armed with leaflets from the tourist office to keep us up to date with cultural events. Totally bilingual, she offers short lessons and little challenges for speakers of both languages. Armed with a simple school exercise book, she records the names of everyone who joins, and has records going back for years. This is real community history!

Through the conversation group we have met many wonderful people: Robert, retired pharmacist, passionate about literature, politics and philosophy. He regularly shares his magazines, and no sooner do I mention the name of a new author or interesting book than I find a package at my place next time, a gift of the book. After a recent vacation to “son pays”, a term used by the French to designate their region of origin, he brought us back a bottle of olive oil produced from trees in the grounds of the chateau of one of his cousins.

There is Guy, retired cancer surgeon, Suzie who worked for Club Med and lived for years in Mexico. Lisa was an English teacher, Jacqueline has children in London and Hong Kong, Jeanine with her black-rimmed glasses and beret, Marc, a fireman in Marseille, Daniel ex-army officer and school principal, Hélène with a daughter and grandchildren in New Zealand, Paul, whose family were all traditional fishermen around the Mediterranean, Mohammed, recently back from the USA where he and his wife had their dream wedding in Las Vegas. We are English, American, Swedish, Irish, Dutch, Algerian, French…. We speak English or French according to our mood. An hour and a half flies by. In this little backroom of Croquemitoufle, with its rickety metal tables and plastic covers, we could not have wished for a nicer welcome to Aix. It’s a long way from La Madeleine, but what a journey of discovery it has been.

© 2012 Trevor and Valerie White


One thought on “De la Madeleine à Croquemitoufle, or from Atlanta to Aix

  1. I am so happy to see that you have found a way to continue your Saturday tradition and have met such a lovely group of people. We do miss you at La Madeline though, and look forward to seeing you again during your next visit.Groses bises d'Atlanta,Celeste

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