I met my friend Jeanmarie in 1980 in while attending the university in London. We were living next door to each other in a convent of all places. At the Convent of Maria Assumpta, the rent was cheap, you could have your own room, it was much more fun to cause trouble, and it took Jeanmarie and I about 5 minutes to become fast friends. We have managed to see each other almost every year since then. We’ve met in Aspen, in Barbados, in Arizona, at each other’s weddings, and at each other’s homes. For the past 15 years or so, she has come to Wisconsin in July to attend Country Jam, one of our big, summer music festivals. We’ve only missed one or two years, and even though neither of us are country music fans anymore, we still try to make the Jam. It’s tradition, after all.
Tradition was going to have to be broken this year because, of course, I’m closer to the Rhone River than the Chippewa River. And money is tight all around; not enough for either of us to make a long journey to see each other. However, a few weeks ago, Jeanmarie sent me an email that basically said “To hell with it…I’m coming to France in July!” Yippee skippee…. really?
The tiny problem with her visit is I’ve have been inundated with visitors since April and have squeezed every dime out of my savings in order to travel with them. I just couldn’t afford any more sightseeing, tours, hotels or meals out and told her so. Luckily, she was in the same boat and we decided to use my apartment in Aix as a base, use our pooled money to rent a car, and make day trips to nearby treasures, which are plentiful here in Provence.
I began researching things to do in the area and found an extensive list of summer festivals. They included Jazz Festivals, opera festivals, tango festivals, gypsy festivals, wine and craft festivals, a melon festival and…yessireebob…. a country festival! My mouth dropped open as I read the description in the English version:
Well, of course we had to go, mostly because I needed a hot dog! So, two days after she arrived, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we ventured to the tiny village of La Roque d’Antheron, which is apparently much more famous for it’s classical piano festival in August… and we walked into another world. Actually, it was the world we had left on the other side of the ocean.
We meandered past the line-up of American Mustangs,Chevys, and Harleys, sauntered through the market and sorted through the leathers, chaps, garish colored cowboy hats, sterling silver jewelry and mini donuts. We stopped at the beverage truck under the giant American flag to order a beer (of course wine was on the menu but I did not see a single person order it) as we wandered toward the stage. We nodded to the tattooed bikers, dressed in black leather, and skirted the line dancers, adorned in boots, hats and assorted American flag attire. I took the photo of a man in his green John Deere hat, which brought on a long conversation in broken English about his love of country music, various country singers and his 2 trips to Nashville.
We listened to the bluegrass band, a rockabilly band and good old country band, whose lead singer was Australian. It took me awhile to realize he was speaking in English between the songs until he shouted to the crowd, “You havin’ fun yet?!?!?
Complete silence. I thought, man, this must be a tough gig. He tried again.
“Ça va bien?”
A roar went up from the crowd. This guy’s done his research.
When he began the choruses of both“Take Me Home Country Road” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, the crowd sang along enthusiastically. I had to giggle because I’m sure most didn’t know what they were singing. It’s sort of like singing Frère Jacques as a child. You sing it because it’s fun, but you don’t know what the words mean and most likely are pronouncing them in a way that would make a French speaker wince.
We spent the entire afternoon and evening drinking beer, eating hot dogs (still served on a baguette and no pickle relish in sight) hamburgers, and roasted corn, wiping the dust from our eyes kicked up by the energetic dancers, hiding from the sun under the giant Platane trees, and feeling just a little appreciated for being American.
I don’t know where Jeanmarie and I will meet next year, but I am confident that we’ll figure out something. However, I’m not sure if Country Jam is ever going to cut it again. And word has it on the Country Musique circuit here, that there is an even bigger and better festival near Paris in August. I gotta get me a hat!