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“Feels like 44,” the radio announced as I drove into a parking garage in Aix-en-Provence recently. That’s 111° Fahrenheit. 

On the pavement outside the garage, a woman of about 50 sat crumpled against a wall. Her black garments looked hot. “My husband is dead,” her little cardboard sign said. I dropped a Euro in her paper cup. If this were a novel, I’d imagine she’d wind up being one of those grey-haired ladies in black who sat on doorsteps at dusk.

“Respectable people,” wrote the novelist Emile Zola, a native son of Aix. “What bastards!”

At lunch in a restaurant gilded like a church, I sat near a lady who wore a lace shawl. Her back was straight as a poker and never touched her chair. Here was a daughter of privilege, my novel would say, a properly equipped middle-class woman whose life was set.

Maybe she thought I was a retired priest, possibly disgraced. 

But later that afternoon as I strolled down the Cours Mirabeau, one of the most beautiful streets in France, I saw the woman in black, not crumpled against a wall but seated in a cafe, shaded by plane trees, sipping a lemonade. She smiled.

It sure felt like 44°.