Our trip had started in Britain. We saw where William Conquered, where Jack Ripped, and the balcony where Diana kissed her prince. Then, on to France.
When in Aix-en-Provence on Reformation Sunday, my late husband Jay, a retired pastor, wanted to attend the service at the L’Englise Reforme’.
The centuries-old church stood nestled among the shops and bistros of the City Centre’s maze of lanes, and a hand-lettered sign on the door said 10:00 a.m., followed by “Jules Ferry”. We assumed Monsieur Ferry was the pastor. Since it was already 9:45 the locked door surprised us, but a passerby informed us that Daylight Saving Time happens in France too and on this last Sunday in October, the time changed back. An hour later the door remained locked. A lovely young woman and her eight-year-old son joined us. Jay spoke some French and attempted a conversation.
“Espanol,” she said, and told us she was from Cuba.
Her son was learning English in school and she was learning from him, so we communicated as best we could in English. Her name was Mayda and her husband was French. The boy’s name was Javier. Mayda said she understood a little French, but still didn’t speak it well. She told us she enjoyed the Protestant service, even when she didn’t understand the words. “I feel it here,” she said, placing her hand over her heart.
An elderly gentleman, leaning heavily on his cane, hobbled up the brick lane. His white hair blew in the breeze, and his woolen jacket seemed too warm for the perfect day. He read the sign, then explained it in a Provence dialect Jay had trouble following. Jules Ferry was a boulevard, not a person, and a combined Reformation Sunday service was being held at the church located there. After we exchanged names, Monsieur Georges Henri offered to drive us.
The five of us piled into his minuscule Renault Twingo, with Jay in the passenger seat. Mayda, Javier and I squeezed in the back. We began doubting the wisdom of accepting his generous offer when it became apparent he wasn’t exactly sure how to start the car. He had just bought it the day before. Eventually he found a gear and the car roared to life. The motor revved up to about sixty, the car only twenty-five. The car soon caught up. Aix-en-Provence has roundabouts and we circled them without slowing. Jay occasionally grabbed the wheel to prevent sideswiping anything in harm’s way.
“Whee!” the driver said, before breaking into song.
“I-yi-yi”, Javier said.
“Ooh-la-la,” Mayda said.
“What’s the French word for ‘careful’?” Jay wanted to know.
Me, I just held on. Tight.
We arrived intact, and Georges acknowledged Jay’s help with a high-five. Because the bulletin was in French, a kind lady seated next to Jay felt compelled to turn to the correct hymnal page for him, as if the numerals too were foreign.
After the service, we stepped out into bright Provencal sunshine expecting maybe coffee and cookies. Instead there were three long tables, each covered with a white linen tablecloth and topped with crystal stemware and bottle after bottle of wine. One table each for reds, whites, and blushes. Aproned women circulated with heaping trays of hors d’oerves. We gratefully accepted a glass of courage for the thrill-ride to our car.
Back in his lemon-colored Twingo, Monsieur Henri’s unfettered exuberance returned. “Whee,” he shouted again and again, raising both hands in the air, followed by outbursts of what sounded like French war songs. He understood we were all visitors and detoured up a hill.
Panoram!,” he said. It was indeed a panoramic view of the sparkling city below, and one we would never have found on our own. He said he had one more thing to show us, and parked in front of a residential building. We all got out, and Mayda tried handing him the cane he left behind, but he waved it away and climbed the stairs to the third-floor.
Our host was an artist and some of the works covering his walls were portraits of his wife. We learned she had died three weeks earlier and he had been her caregiver. What a privilege to have joined him in his new yellow car that celebrated his return to life.
Back home we enlightened our pastor on the French version of coffee fellowship, but though agreeing it might spur attendance, he never followed through. C’est la vie. Though I didn’t understand a single word in the Aix-en-Provence church, it remains a highlight of the trip. Long after I’ve forgotten most of France, I’ll remember four adults, aided by an eight-year-old boy, overcoming a language barrier and connecting. We sought a simple church service, but found true Christian fellowship.