I’m officially finished teaching! It was such a relief to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the last time yesterday. I got some odd presents from my students, including a box with a student’s picture in it, an origami fortune teller with nothing written inside it, and a somewhat creepy watercolor of an elf. A student was nice enough to give me a bouquet of muguet (lily of the valley), which is what you traditionally give to people on May 1 in France to wish them good luck.
Continuing with my travel posting, on Easter my parents and I took the train down to Provence again to visit Arles. I though that Easter would be a slow day and purposefully picked a more touristy place, but I was unprepared for the massive crowd we found in Arles. Apparently, the Feria de Pâques was taking place, a four-day bullfighting festival mostly centered around the Arènes. This was great because far from being dead like I expected, the city was full of music, people, food, and performers.
We first got coffee at a cafe and listened to competing bands playing Spanish music and then made our way to the tourism office. I’d seen Arles when my friend Randall was visiting, so I had a general idea of the city and this time added on even more Vincent van Gogh sites. Of all the towns and cities I’ve visited in France, I think Arles best encapsulates the provençal “je ne sais quoi.” It has the cobblestone streets with colorful window shutters, calissons in every shop window, santons on every corner, and of course the Roman monuments. We couldn’t go in the Arènes or other sites due to it being Easter, but that left plenty of time for quality wandering.
I introduced my parents to the European street kebab for lunch and then we saw almost all of the van Gogh sites in Arles. New for me was Les Alyscamps, a Roman cemetery painted a few times by van Gogh and also by his frenemy, Gaugin. We also took a walk a little out of the center of town to see the mill van Gogh painted in “Le Vieux Moulin” (“The Old Mill”). The old mill isn’t exactly being kept up to tourism standards and was actually in a depressingly bad state, but there seemed to be renovations in process. I wonder if van Gogh would like modern-day Arles. It seems like there would be too many people around now and definitely too many motorbikes ruining the picturesque views. Maybe he would live somewhere like Montana.
We also saw the bridge painted by van Gogh in “Le Pont de Trinquetaille,” although only the part on the right seems the same from the picture. I have no historical reference, but I would bet something happened to the bridge in World War II involving explosives. I know it is not good to make up history, yet my time in Europe has taught me that the Allies and Axis alike were experts at missing military sites and destroying nightclubs, churches, and cultural monuments. Van Gogh’s studio, the Yellow House, was a victim in Arles, although we were able to see where it stood.
The only downside of the day was it rained constantly, forcing the city to cancel a lot of the festivities like the parade. However, we did walk by horses that were getting dressed in some costumes and the bands continued to march around town through the downpour. I really need to get a new umbrella when I get home because mine just gets worse and worse. It’s pretty much half an umbrella now and the slightest gust of wind flips it inside out. I refuse to buy a new one in France, though, as I don’t want a single more thing in my suitcase that is not necessary.
I wasn’t able to convince my parents to try Ricard, a yellow star anise-flavored pastis liquer made in Marseille and favored by Frenchmen over the age of 50 everywhere, but I had a glass when we took shelter from the rain. Its very popular in Provence and started to be produced in the early 1900s when absinthe was banned, basically manufacturing the illegal drink without the wormwood. It’s a little different now and definitely an acquired taste. After more street wandering, we stumbled upon a street juggler in one of the Places. Being that he was about the only act still going in the rain, he had a huge crowd and it was obvious that his nerves were getting to him. Oddly, the more things he dropped the more money people put in his hat. I guess sympathy gets you more reward than admiration, sometimes.
Before getting the train back to Valence, we stopped by the Arènes to see all the bands playing outside before the next bullfight. I’d read that Easter was the only time of the year they killed the bull in the Arles fights, so it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to see. Still, the festivities around it were great and at times the music and large dishes of paella all over town made me feel like I was in Spain instead of France.