Thursday, July 09, 2009

Arles (Pt. XVIII)

Note to readers: This is the eighteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XVII here.

Arles, on the Rhone
It was a short train ride down from Avignon to Arles, a sleepy little town judging by the lack of bustle in the train station. I was one of only a handful of people to detrain. I made a snap judgment to leave for Barcelona on the morrow. So, I went to the ticket counter to make my reservations.

The attendant spoke only French. I spoke none. We struggled to communicate for a moment or two, until a woman, pushing her infant son in a stroller intervened. She was fluent in French and English. From her accent I knew she was American. She acted as translator. I soon held reservations for the next-day train to Barcelona.

Madeleine (kind American ex-patriot) now lived in France where she and her French husband were starting a cooking school. Madeleine and her friend, Emmanuel, the Jewish folk singer, walked me to a nearby hotel where I booked a room, then followed them to Madeleine’s home. There I met Erick (who spoke no English) and beautiful Veronique, Madeleine’s friend.  Erick was a chef, trained in the high art of French cuisine. I was treated to a wonderful meal of pasta, tomato salad, bread, cheese, and chocolate. It was a magical travel moment: I broke bread in the home of friendly strangers in a foreign land. We humans surely do have our virtues.
Emmanuel, Erick, Madeliene, and Veronique
I thanked them profusely, and then set out to see Arles.

Greeks first established Arles some 600 years before Christ as a little settlement at the confluence of two forks of what men would later call the Rhone River. It was an important point, geographically. They called it Theline. But within 50 years, local nativist sentiments stirred Gauls into kicking out Greek foreigners and grabbing the place for themselves. The Gauls called it Arelate, the name it's had ever since (in one form or another).

Gauls ran the place for quite a while: four hundred years or so. But then the Roman Legions came up from the south. Little dark men in their iron-willed ranks proved too much for undisciplined Gauls.  With the Legions came the canal to the Mediterranean and the infrastructure. It's still there today.

Roman footprint in Arles
Soon enough Arles got into the Roman political game. Warlike Julius, fresh from Gallic conquests, political ambitions thwarted in Rome, encamped on the Rubicon, there to ponder his next move. His quandary, one for the Ages: stand down and submit to the established order at the price of his own greatness, or ford the river and assert that the glory of a man must not be constrained by the concept of a greater good?

When he made the crossing, Arles faced a decision: join Julius in rebellion or support Pompey and the established Roman power structure.

Standing on Roman shoulders
Arles picked Julius. When victory came, Julius rewarded Arles with the possessions of rival Massalia (Marseilles), which had backed Pompey. Lesson: if you pick a horse, pick the right horse.

Recall the day...
Vincent came here back in his day, painting sunflowers and landscapes as syphilis destroyed his sanity. He was in Arles when the demon that haunted him compelled him to cut his ear off.

I wandered around the streets, just drinking it all in. I spent a romantic evening in southern France, communing with historical ghosts, walking the streets. I ended up totally lost until I chanced upon a merchant closing shop very late. He eyed me with apprehension as I approached.

"Arles?" I asked, pointing in the direction I believed to be correct.

He smiled. "Arles," he said, pointing in the exact opposite direction.

"Merci," I said, then turned and walked back the way I had come, under the streetlights in the Provençal night.

To be continued...

1 comment:

Madeleine Vedel said...

Lovely! but one correction -- t'is Erick, not Henri. Glad you are well, and yes, I do remember you. Things have changed for me since then -- I've a blog as well, An American in Avignon on blogspot -- easy to google.
Take care! - Madeleine