Friday, July 22, 2011

Southern France

If I am worth anything later, I am worth something also now, for wheat is wheat, even if people think it is grass in the beginning. - Vincent van Gogh

France has the best clouds I've ever seen. We've had a bit of rain while in the country but when the sun does come out, as it does on our drive to Marseille, the sky is a clean and brilliant cerulean blue with chunky cumulus clouds and wispy cirrus feathers. Isabelle and Greg are taking the family to go visit Isabelle's parents in Nice for a week so we followed behind their appliqued blue VW van that reminds us of the Mystery Machine for half the drive.

After an hour we stopped at a little campground to have a snack of fruit and bread by a river and told each other national secrets. They revealed that in France a person can get a type of a massage known as "California massage" (apparently softer than Swedish) and we divulged that a person can purchase an overpriced and over-engineered dog known as the "French Bulldog". We all had a good laugh over the renaming of French Fries in the Capitol cafeteria after 9/11 and then they sent us off with a little care package of fruits for the road.

We really need to get some speakers for the IPod. Reception is terrible on these drives and while we have embraced some regional music, we also find ourselves listening to really awful American music just because we appreciate being able to sing along or at least understand the words. When Smooth Criminal comes on we actually emit a little cheer.

When we get to Marseille our hearts sink a little bit. The city is jam packed and there are cars and tourists everywhere. Admittedly, we knew we were going into the second largest city in France but I think our systems were still a little shocked and we realized that we were going to have to select our locations more wisely if we aren't up for the urban experience. Jacob is a fearless city driver and pulls up on the sidewalk while I jump out to find the building. The flat we've rented is on the 6th floor of the building and the elevator is so small and rickety that I make a silent vow that if I get out of it alive I will never step into it again (and a half hour later I joyfully haul my bags up the six flights despite the fact I'm wearing heels).

Our landlord lives a few doors down and is very kind and helpful. I feel a mix a embarrassment and horror when I ask him to please show me on his map where the Belsunce area is located (the one area the guidebook says to avoid) and he laughs and says, "You're right in the heart of it!" but assures me his girlfriend never has any problems. After dinner we get out for a walk and things feel perfectly safe - just kind of crowded and dirty and hot.

Today we got up and we were all a little on edge. None of us slept well, our rental is tiny and hot and Vaughn is seriously tapped out on sight-seeing. It occurs to me that we are starting to perceive Barcelona as some sort of promised land and that makes me a little nervous. Despite poor Vaughn's protests (we've promised a quiet day tomorrow), we pack up to get the hell out of Marseille and head for Avignon.

Avignon is in the middle of their month-long Festival d' Avignon where between 35 and 40 theater productions are put on at various venues around the city. Adjacent to the primary festival is the more edgy "Festival Off" that takes place in the street. The streets are peppered with all manner of performers from buskers to performance art to guys on bikes doing potentially neck-breaking tricks. The theaters send out teams of performers who sing, chant and drum as they march up and down the streets handing out fliers publicizing their shows. Avignon would be fun and beautiful on any day but on this particular day it is overflowing with art and it lightens our moods considerably.

After Avignon we set off to Cloitre Saint-Paul, the insane asylum where van Gogh spent a year and did over 100 paintings, including the Wheat Fields painting which was the view from his room. Here we were able to actually go up into his room and look through the window onto the field, although no wheat remains. Although he hasn't done much art lately, there was a time when Vaughn was very into van Gogh and as we were admiring a statue of van Gogh I said to him that I remembered he used to want to be an artist when grew up. To this he replied, "I still plan on being an artist if that professional basketball player thing is not available."

Although it was nearly 6:00 by the time we left Saint-Paul, we made our way over to UNESCO World Heritage site, Pont du Gard. The Roman aqueduct is 31 miles long and dates back to 1 AD. Since it was so late in the day there were only a few small groups remaining and we were able to enjoy the scenery in relative solitude. While we didn't regret any of the day's activities, I think we all felt like we could have just as easily spent the day in the shade by the river. As I sat on the rocks and watched Jacob and Vaughn play in the water, I remembered why we came.

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